Every year, I discover more and more, that I'm the same as everyone else. Which is kind of great, because it means that life is not so mysterious. You just do what other people do. Say please. Floss. When you're making scrambled eggs, stir them really fast so they don't get crusty. Find a few good people and try to hang on to them. Don't lose all your pieces.
— Sasha Chapin, All the Wrong Moves, pg. 70

You know how some people hate movie trailers? Like, they'd rather watch movies without seeing the trailer first because it'll usually spoil some things about the plot. I'm the same way with books.

I like starting a book without knowing too much about it; pretty much for the same reason as those trailer-haters. I enjoy figuring out the story as I read it so I can make my own judgments first. It's far more engaging, especially with fiction novels.

The "to-read" list on my iPhone is compiled from multiple sources (the internet, friend's recommendations, Oprah, etc.) and it's getting pretty long. As a consequence, the time between adding a book and actually reading it is usually enough time to forget why I added it in the first place. I just trust that past Joe added it for a good reason. Usually works out for future Joe (who becomes present Joe at the time of reading)

That's exactly what happened with All The Wrong Moves by Sasha Chapin. I forgot what it was about. I pictured it being some dramatic tale about a chess player that went crazy or something like 100 years ago. It wasn't that at all. It was much better and far funnier than I expected.

Just for Laughs

All The Wrong Moves is all about chess, kinda. Sasha Chapin is obsessed, but also repulsed, by the main subject of his memoir. And just like all good toxic relationships, he ends up with some wild stories from his time spent playing this game.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Chapin's sharp wit shines through on each page. Most of the humour stems from Chapin's acute perspective on life and how it's often stranger than fiction. When you view things through the right lens.

In terms of subject matter, Chapin toes a fine line between funny, self-deprecating cynicism and profound observations about the human experience. Like describing his personal preference between an aggressive or defensive play style:

I was like a child who couldn't draw a house with crayons deciding whether to be more like Jackson Pollock or Francis Bacon.
— Chapin, pg. 63

And then, in the same breath (or whatever the written version of breathing is), Chapin will expound on the mystery of determinism:

But it's so hard to tell, from the inside of a life, whether we can control our fate, or whether consciousness is merely the ability to observe ourselves obeying our irrevocable course, as if we were all self-aware pinballs
— Chapin, pg. 100

This self-aware pinball found the writing to be absolutely hilarious. Chapin embeds humour into every subject in the book. At a rapid fire pace too—I would audibly laugh several times in between two page turns. His timing and rhythm reminded me of stand-up comedy.

I love how Chapin portrays chess as a character in his memoir. It was such an integral part of his life for so long that it felt like a person. But it wasn't his friend. Chess was essentially the antagonist of All the Wrong Moves.

All the Wrong Moves Book Cover

It lures him in with its abstract beauty and illustrious history. Chess also feels like a world separate from our own—it occupies a higher plane within our minds. Chess can feel like an escape from the viscerality of life.

Yet the world of chess is its own special form of hell for Chapin. He becomes consumed by his drive to conquer the game, to understand its inner workings and secret rhythms better than his opponents. This obsession takes him around the world; he sacrifices relationships, sleep, and his own health.

Specifically, he wants to beat someone with an ELO rating above 2000 at a tournament in Los Angeles. Mostly because it's a nice round number.

All The Wrong Moves is all about chess, but it's also not. Chess could be substituted by almost anything in this story, because Chapin isn't writing about it, he's writing about his relationship with it.

I learned a lot of things from reading All the Wrong Moves, or at least it expanded my views on many important things (Funny how a book can do that). Obsession, conformance, following your passions, and dealing with the gradual realization that you aren't that special. At least from any reasonably zoomed out perspective. We all know your mom thinks you're special.

Leaning In

Chapin fully admits, from the start, that his obsession with chess was unhealthy. It was absolutely not good for him and his well-being. From sleepless nights playing online chess with strangers, to the anxiety and stress he dealt with during tournaments, Chapin wasn't in control of this hobby. Chess was in control.

What I found interesting was how self-aware Chapin was. Trying to resist the urge to play was futile, and he accepted that.

He explains how chess entered his life in high school, when he joined the chess club. Despite some brief breaks from it, Chapin was consumed by the game for most of his 20s.

Was this unrelenting pursuit of chess mastery Chapin's choice? It doesn't sound like it:

Frankly, I didn't feel like I was doing much until chess came along. [...] it felt like a possession---like a spirit had slipped a long finger up through my spine, making me a marionette, pausing only briefly to ask, "you weren't doing anything with this, were you?"
— Chapin, pg. 4

This fact, that Chapin never really had a choice about devoting himself to this game—it feels like the central point he was trying to address in this memoir.

I really appreciate how Chapin leaned in to his obsession. He fueled his passion for chess for years until he could feel satisfied. Maybe not satisfied with the outcome, but satisfied with the effort he put in.

So much of our lives are determined by what we're exposed to---the ebbs and flows of life around us. These are the tides that can push us out to sea. The question is whether you choose to sink, or learn how to swim.

Ultimately, we hold on to the belief that we control what we want to pursue in life. What we want to give ourselves to and become passionate about; the mountains we choose to climb. But maybe which mountain we choose isn't that important. It's about deciding to climb.

Nature analogies aside—chess playing could be seen as one of the least useful skills to devote time to. It's just a game after all. It's a great example of how applying yourself will change you, no matter what the application is. Chapin believes that no matter how it works out, you'll be a better person at the end of the day.

Life often contains the discovery that your place in humanity isn't quite what you thought it was. You find out that you weren't meant to be the lover of the thing you first loved. But it's not so bad. If you're lucky, you end up loving something else. When failure removes you from the wrong path, as wrenching as that feels, you ought to be grateful. You're a little closer to where you should be, even if you don't know where that is yet.
— Chapin, pg. 121