By David Taylor
The title of this extraordinarily rich verbal collage is paradoxical. Rightly, it hints at the exceptional breadth, wit and nuanced scholarship of Ray’s writing – in a field where monochromatic and emotionally jejune statements such as ‘White retains a slight edge’ tend to hold sway. However, within a panoply of erudite reference, profound analysis and quixotic juxtaposition, Ray’s prose is always distinctively… Ray’s prose. ‘Le style, c’est l’homme’ applies especially well to GrandMaster Keene: chess players too have distinctive styles, can also be expressive and reflective of their personalities. This collection of essays often gives insights into Ray the player, but simultaneously it reveals the amateur (in its true sense) eclecticism and restless curiosity of its author.
For me, the unifying thread is found in Ray’s fascination with all manner of pioneering – whether in chess, in art, in science, in travel, in ideas, in historical journeys or in literature. There is a love of experimentation and of imaginative leaps which makes Ray Keene irresistibly drawn towards attempts to synthesise the apparently irreconcilable. There is also, it seems to me, an intense dislike of mediocrity or mundanity, as well as a passion for excellence.
‘Le style, c’est l’homme’
All this adds up to a range of interests which has appeal way beyond the chess-playing monomaniac. If you are someone who has a horror of anything that strays from the mechanistically calculating analysis of infinite opening variations, or the cold-blooded dissection of myriad rook and pawn endings – regarding such extravaganzas as tantamount to chess anathema – then this is not the book for you. It is a book for and by someone who is never more at home than when discussing Roman poetry, Islamic culture or the Soviet chess hegemony (to name but three of the very many predilections of the author) – preferably over a good meal or glass of wine.
There have been very many books about chess – many by Ray himself – as well as many which are encyclopaedically comprehensive and virtually unreadable: the influence of chess computing programmes has undoubtedly affected the game in many ways, some actually beneficial, but it has also led to much mind-numbingly turgid prose, preceded by such formulae as ‘here the engine suggests…’
So, to those to whom chess remains a wonderfully and uniquely enchanting blend of art, mathematics and science, with limitless metaphorical connotations for life itself, Ray Keene offers the perfect antidote to chess-writing tedium. The section headings themselves contain unexpected and tempting delights, from ‘How Jewish pioneers discovered a new beauty of chess’ to my own favourite, as one educated in the Greco-Roman classics, ‘Two questions posed by Borges’, where Ray entertainingly and with a typically original take revisits two questions which have for centuries intrigued readers and scholars of Virgil.
Provocative, challenging, colourful, spicy, here is a menu of delights: a meze table or tapas board where piquant flavours jostle for attention. It even looks as good as it tastes, with elegant chess diagrams a most pleasing feature. You will not necessarily like or agree with everything, but you will leave the book with your mind buzzing with the sheer verve and ebullience of this vivid evocation of the game of life.