This month, our contributors read “Grandmaster” by David Klass as our monthly selection. In anticipation of tomorrow’s Book Club Day, we’re featuring our interview with Klass, a seasoned novelist and screenwriter. David answered our many questions about chess, father-son relationships in YA, and the appeal of a beta-male protagonist.
David Klass: The novel is a bit autobiographical, but I was never a grandmaster or even a master. I was a competitive tournament player in my early teens, and I won some local and regional tournaments. When I began to contend in larger tournaments I didn’t like the increasing pressure. I couldn’t sleep all through major tournaments. Also, I knew I had to start studying chess openings seriously to continue to improve, and I didn’t enjoy that. So I gave up the game for thirty years. When my son and daughter started playing in scholastic tournaments I returned to that nearly forgotten world, and was surprised to find how much I remembered. But I was I felt some of the old pressure return when my kids played.
TLR: We really enjoyed the light romance in the story. Thanks for not making it predictable and for adding a little bit of diversity to the characters. What prompted you to make one of Daniel’s possible love interests Asian?
DK: I didn’t plan to make Liu Asian – she just popped into the story and wrote herself a big and fun part. When I write screenplays for Hollywood I outline extensively beforehand so I know exactly what characters will appear and what they will do. But when I write novels I try to let the story tell itself and stay out of the way as much as possible. I did know that this story needed a fun romance to balance the chess side, and then Liu appeared and really stirred things up in a good way. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Daniel teases Liu that his father told him it’s impossible to meet a nice girl at a chess tournament.
TLR: We also appreciated that Daniel is an everyman “beta male” character; so many YA books are about guys like his teammates (and their fathers). How did you go about crafting his personality and popularity status? Why was it important for him NOT to be a big man on campus type?
DK: I have written many books about star athletes and I wanted to write one about just a good guy who’s trying his best under difficult circumstances. Also, since Daniel’s father is going to turn out to be great at something, I wanted the contrast that Daniel himself is merely good at a lot of things. For me, this novel is really about the moment when a young man sees his father shine at something for the first time.
TLR: Talk about the father-son dynamics: a lot of us feel like meaningful parent-child relationships are missing or glossed over in many YA books, but not yours!
DK: For some reason that I’ve never completely understood, all my novels turn into father-son novels whether I plan them that way or not. I was very lucky to have the nicest father in the world, but I went through a period in my early teens when I was embarrassed by the fact that he was very intellectual and not more athletic. I was growing up in a tough town in New Jersey, and other fathers could throw a perfect spiral or say cruel or profane or vicious things that I thought were cool and daring. Years later, I realized what a jerk I’d been, and what a gentle and kind man my father was. I use my own memories of my changing view of my father in my writing. I miss him very much.
Freshman Daniel Pratzer gets a chance to prove himself when the chess team invites him and his father to a weekend-long parent-child tournament. Daniel, thinking that his father is a novice, can’t understand why his teammates want so badly for them to participate. Then he finds out the truth: as a teen, his father was one of the most promising young players in America, but the pressures of the game pushed him too far, and he had to give up chess to save his own life and sanity. Now, thirty years later, Mr. Pratzer returns to the game to face down an old competitor and the same dark demons that lurk in the corners of a mind stretched by the demands of the game. Daniel was looking for acceptance—but the secrets he uncovers about his father will force him to make some surprising moves himself, in Grandmaster by David Klass.
TLR: How does playing chess as an adult compare to when you were a teen?
I mostly play my computer – at full strength – and lose. I also enjoy playing through the games of great players, and I think I’ve now replayed virtually every game of Paul Morphy’s career. I find his chess brilliance stunning, and I wonder how he’d do against Magnus Carlsen – the current World Champion. Many experts think Morphy wouldn’t stand a chance against today’s world-class players, but I’m not so sure. If you gave Morphy a month to catch up with current opening theory, I think he’d destroy anyone around today. Bobby Fischer said much the same thing.
As for playing games myself, I only do it rarely. Sometimes a friend will challenge me and I’ll play a friendly game, and I find my old skills come back quickly. Once a year my family goes to Washington Square Park and I let my kids play the chess hustlers for five dollars a game. After my kids lose they always insist that I sit down and play a hustler myself. So far I’ve always won, and it gives my kids a big kick to see that their dad has still got it.
TLR: What is your advice for someone prompted to learn chess because of your book? Can an adult learn to play too, or is it like so many things — the younger you start the better you are?
DK: Adults can certainly learn to play, and the computer has made it much easier to get a basic knowledge of the openings. The best thing to do is to join a school chess club or a town club and at first just have fun and don’t worry too much about winning and losing and rating points. I think my advice for someone wanting to devote a little more time to the game would be what Morris tells Daniel in the book – choose two openings for white and two for black that are a little bit unconventional but perfectly sound and study them. Try to get your opponent to play your game, and stay away from opening lines that your opponents may have studied for years.
TLR: Do you have any other (or upcoming) books that would appeal to YA fans?
DK: I am writing a very fun book now about a high school soccer team at a school nicknamed “Muscles High” for its pervasive jock culture and emphasis on winning. The team decides to challenge that jock culture, and to just have fun. It’s very different from any other sports book I’ve ever written.
TLR: Do you read YA yourself? If so, what are some of your favorite titles or authors?
DK: My kids suggest books they’ve liked that I should read, and I still read to them at night before they go to sleep. Favorites include “Alabama Moon” by Watt Key, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “Artemis Fowl” by Eoin Colfer. I’m reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” to them now, and it’s going over well.