The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff

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The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It's sheer joy to join Tennessee Greenbecker on the page - he'd be hell in real life. An exceptional book and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 204 Date: April 2020
Publisher: The Conrad Press

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I suppose the odd fleeting sense of loneliness is a price all truly successful people must pay for our gifts. I tell myself that I do so willingly.

Tennessee Greenbecker. Isn't that a name to conjure with? There are hints that it might not have been the name he was given at birth, but many of us have moved on, so far as names go, from the one we were originally saddled with. Greenbecker's life is one of constant reinvention. He tells us that he's the foremost chess player never to have been world champion, and it does seem that he has some considerable talent as far as chess goes. He's determined that he's going to fulfil what he sees as his destiny. He just needs to do some study to be able to beat the current players ranked at numbers one and two in the world. Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will not stand in his way.

The obstacles in his way are relatively minor. He's relying on his brother, Gabriel, to come up with the money to fund the challenge. A bedsit would be useful, although sleeping in a bed is not always comfortable when you've got used to park benches. Gabriel's not always been enthusiastic about helping Tennessee, but Tennessee's willing to overlook this, sure that Gabriel is making considerable sums of money from his association with Tennessee. He knows that he's the one with the true talent - Gabriel is simply the architect who lives in a million-pound house.

There's the matter of his health too. He has problems urinating and when he can it's streaked with blood, but this is only a state plot to put him off his game, as are so many things. He ignored the hospital letter which mentioned 'stage 4', preferring to believe that he has a Churchillian constitution. Just another one of my many blessings. He certainly has no reason to curb his drinking (he sees himself as a social drinker) or his smoking and he's certainly not going to do anything about his obsession with fire.

Don't worry if you're not a chess player: this is a character-driven novel rather one that relies on plot. You're going to get to know Tennessee Greenbecker better than he knows himself. He's a keen observer, but his judgement of events is faulty and invariably skewed in his own favour. That's the way that he expects life to work out: All it takes is for him to see things my way and everything will be resolved.

This isn't a quick read: I found myself rereading passages just for the pleasure of it: ... cousins we only knew well enough to be sure we did not like, or for the shock value: I have never felt more complete as a man or as a chess player. The moments after the game were of the purest ecstasy and joy I will most likely ever experience, my mother's death aside.

There are moments of clear insight: All gambits contain a dilemma. A trade-off. You offer up something in return for something else or The only way not to lose was not to play. There's an excellent analysis of the state of chess and how the top players have fared - many of the names you'll recognise, others are fictional - but there's a total lack of self-awareness. He's a homeless man who places himself above Dickens, but below Churchill.

But - Tennessee Greenbecker has stayed in my mind for days and The Greenbecker Gambit is a book to which I'm sure I'll return. The writing is superb. The characterisation is excellent. I'd like to thank the publisher for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals, you might enjoy Mafia State by Luke Harding or How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball.

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Tony Bassett said:

This is an engrossing tale about a once-promising chess player whose exasperating approach to life generates endless amusement.

Tennessee Greenbecker is a delusional heavy drinker and pyromaniac who survives mainly on cash hand-outs from his long-suffering younger brother.

But he is nonetheless a fascinating anti-hero who creates hilarity through his brushes with authority, calamitous experiences and his insistence on trying to interpret every mishap as a success as he struggles with life on the London streets.

A single firm conviction keeps him going. Tennessee, who travels everywhere with cans of drink, his precious chess game dossier and a pack of firelighters, has been cheated out of his rightful prize as world chess champion. He is determined to set this right.

This novel should be required reading for chess fans, mental health professionals and lovers of dark humour. It is less likely to appeal to fire brigade top brass, conspiracy theory deniers and “Guy Fawkes Was Innocent” campaigners.

Despite knowing little about chess, I enjoyed this account of Tennessee’s trials and tribulations. It was well crafted, contained good descriptive passages and some inspired writing. I thoroughly recommend it.

Adrian Walker said:

The Greenbecker Gambit is a tragicomic tale of an exasperating chess master who has become homeless, and who suffers from delusions, paranoia, alcoholism and, to complicate his life even further, pyromania. The author is a strong, experienced club and congress chess player who brings great insight to the tale, not only of the chess aspects, but also of the socioeconomic and political milieu of contemporary Britain, as well as of the mental health issues which seem to have a higher incidence among gifted chess players, especially those who were child prodigies.

The main character, Tennessee Greenbecker, apart from his own special idiosyncrasies, exhibits many of the very real problems found in the life stories of Morphy, Alekhine and Tal, to name just a few chess geniuses who struggled with mental health issues. The last two were also dipsomaniacs, and Alekhine was often desperately short of funds, living off friends and sofa-surfing. But Greenbecker has the distinction of being the only chess playing pyromaniac I have come across! His obsession with fire is illuminating (!) and he knows a tremendous amount about the history of London blazes, from Boadicea's incursion in the 1st century, to "how many times St Paul's had been reduced to dust" , " the Hadrianic fire through to London's burning bridges, Crystal Palace and the Blitz". He sees fire as a cleansing force for renewal; if he had a coat of arms it would feature a Phoenix.

I enjoyed the book, which is well written, adroitly building tension with a very convincing climactic moment when Greenbecker tries to storm the stage at the London based World Championship match between Carlsen and Caruana. The author clearly knows, and loves, London well, and the descriptive writing as his protagonist moves around the city is charming and nostalgic. The book would be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates good story telling, good characterization and has empathy for those eccentric souls who live on the margins of polite, conventional society; it would only take a few disasters to shift many of us from our comfortable, middle class lives into the sort of confusion and chaos which Greenbecker has to cope with every day of his life.