June 11, 2012 23:06

The perfect detective story

The Sherlockian on Sardinia

I am spending many an evening of my summer holiday on the beautiful island Sardinia, Italy, re-reading detective stories I devoured as a teenager (Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, mostly) and not thinking a lot about chess.

Because I didn't have internet access for some days, I even missed the rapid climax of the Word Championship match in Moscow – this hadn't happened to me since 1986. But whilst missing out on the exciting grand finale, I often felt, especially during some of G.K. Chesterton's ingenious stories, that a detective story is somewhat like a chess study, in which everything fits together as if by magic.

Surely this is not a very spectacular insight, and I'm sure it has been made before. But it took a rather more recent detective story, Graham Moore's The Sherlockian (2010), to grasp the true meaning of this not just for chess studies, but for chess in general.

In The Sherlockian, set in modern-day America and England, the most prominent expert in Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories, a man called Alex Cale, gets brutally and mysteriously murdered just before revealing the long lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Cleverly filled with clues and quotes from the original Holmes stories, The Sherlockian has a fascinating and crucial twist: it contains a second murder mystery, in which the great Conan Doyle himself is trying to solve an equally brutal murder of two young girls in early 20th century London, together with his good friend (and Dracula author) Bram Stoker!

The story's protagonist, Harold Winter, a promising Conan Doyle expert himself, is trying to solve the murder of his respected colleague, but feels utterly lost in the forest of red herrings, sidetracks and real clues. In the second story-line, Arthur Conan Doyle, too, feels out of control, contrary to his normal experience when writing his Homes stories:

Was this how it felt to be one of his readers? To be lost in the middle of the story, without the slightest of notions as to where you were headed? Arthur felt horrible. He felt as if he had no control of events as they unfolded. (...)

That's when I suddenly did think very concretely about chess: this is exactly how it feels to play a game of chess – at least for me. As if you have no control of events as they unfold – and indeed, this often feels quite horrible. And it gets worse:

What trust [Arthur's] readers must put in him, to submit themselves to this unnerving confusion, while holding out hope that Arthut would see them through to a satisfying conclusion. But what if there were no solution on the final page? Or what if the solution was balderdash? Or what if the whole thing didn't work?

Actually, my most frequent thought during a game of chess, especially a tactical one, is "What if the whole thing doesn't work?" There is no way of knowing, is there? Yes, after the game there is, all right: with the help of computers, it's possible these days to come close to a 'final solution' after all. But during the game, one really does feel like Arthur Conan Doyle in Moore's novel. That's why  paying a game of chess is not like reading a well-composed detective story – it's like solving a real murder case.

But while playing chess may feel like this – like chaos, basically – analysing it is a completely different story. In chess analysis, the annotator can (and in my view: should) really try to act like a detective writer, like a murder story author dazzling his readers with mysteries (bad and dubious moves) and then, by sheer logic and 'deduction', solving them (attaching question and exclamation marks and adding evaluations with evidence) in the final showdown.

In the end, each game of chess, however badly played, can be transformed into a beautiful and coherent detective story, with proper suspense, solution and satisfaction for all. As Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and many others have shown, even the most insignificant plot can be transformed into something great.

Perhaps this can be a consolation to us all: we may not be playing for the World Championship title, but there's no reason why the story of our own petty like games could not be as exciting as those played by the greatest players on the planet.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Harish Srinivasan's picture

"In chess analysis, the annotator can (and in my view: should) really try to act like a detective writer"

Precisely the reason why I really enjoy GM Shipov's analysis. An example of his analysis on Gelfand's move ...Qf6? of game 8 was "will the glutton be able to come out".

Latest articles