Getting inside the head of an elite chess player probably isn’t a task for the timid. To those who are close to chess, the game is much more than 32 pieces on 64 squares. It’s more than knowing the rules of how the pawn, rook or bishop can move, more than memorizing opening plays; more than snatching an opponent’s pieces off the board. It’s the chess life.
While millions of people across the planet play chess, only a select few master the game enough to earn the title of grandmaster. And most of those people are from countries other than the United States.
So the fact that a Santa Fe son became a chess grand master in 2007 is something the city should still be proud of. GM Jesse Kraai, 41, left New Mexico about four years ago to find a home in California. This weekend, he returns to celebrate the holidays with his mother and to count the region as another stop on a tour promoting his new self-published book Lisa: A Chess Novel.
Beyond just offering a book signing, Kraai plans to conduct a time-honored tradition among the masters, called a simultaneous exhibition.
That means he'll play up to 30 matches at once, boxed-in by opponents and moving rapidly from one game to the next for as long as it takes to end them all.
"It's kind of fun because I will inevitably make a mistake. Some people will have a chance to beat me and that is exciting," he tells SFR. "I don't have really any time to think. I have to play it kind of instantly, then I go to the next table and they have time to think about their move while I play. Anybody moving that fast is going to make mistakes."
That kind of demonstration isn't as stressful for the high-level player as tournaments or individual matches that could whittle away at his rating that currently sits above 2500. In fact, his prediction that some opponents could win isn't off-base.
He's won all the games in his last two events, but lost a blindfolded match against the New Orleans junior chess champion, he admits.
"It was really humiliating," he says. "I forgot where something was and I lost instantly."
Kraai was living in a house with three other grandmasters in Berkeley, Calif., when he started writing the novel, a window into a 13-year-old girl who discovers an interconnection with the game.
"Before she had only seen what everybody does, that each piece only knows a geometric movement," he writes in the book.
"Now she saw that each piece really only acquires meaning as part of an evolving conversation, that the individualism of each piece is clothed within larger moving patterns."
Kraai's main character is prescribed medication used to treat Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism not uncommon among chess greats. At the Grandmaster House, for example, each resident "was enjoying some stage of autism," he wrote in a blog post for the United States Chess Federation in 2009.
Kraai says he's writing from the subjective perspective of someone who's experienced social uncertainty and "wierd skills" absent such a diagnosis.
"I don't feel that doctors have figured autism out," he says, "but many chess players do have a gift where they can do mental maniupulation that most people have a hard time doing...that word can mean so much."
The condition is viewed as a disability by some, but in other cases it can better be construed as a gift: a mindset that allows for problem solving that others can't wrap their brains around.
"The Grandmaster House was a beautiful thing while it existed. It was a good time in my life," Kraai says. "It wasn't just that we were able to study together and talk about chess, but they were a group of people who had all grown up inside the game and we kind of knew the social context from which everyone came. It's kind of a weird rarified world and it was people who understood me and I understood them."
That’s why writing the novel was also important to Kraai.
"I'm trying to give a lense for people who don't know anything about chess to see the world we live in and what is different about the game and what is beautiful about the game and what draws people to it," he explains. "I didn't want to write a book just for chess players. Obviously the people I'm talking to are in the chess world, but I'm not writing an instructional manual."
That's not to say you don't have a chance to get schooled. Santa Fe Rooks chess club organizer Jim Johnston says 11 people are already signed up for the simul, although there is room for up to 40 players. He expects near that many to show up.
"It's very unusual to get to play against a grand master, especially in New Mexico," Johnston says, adding later "it's tough. It's kind of like a lesson. You think 'I might not win this game, but I'll probably learn something.'"
PLAY THE GM 2 pm Saturday, Dec. 21 La Tienda at Eldorado 7 Caliente Road, 310-3828
Book reading followed by 2:45pm simul, $15 to play the game.