Among all sports, it’s undoubtedly chess that has spawned the most number of books. Quite understandable, since it’s the thinking game, with competitors glued to a table with a board, and these days, additionally, a computer besides a clock.
Muscle memory is internalized, not out on display on a field, ring or court, with thousands of cheering spectators reveling in the bursts of athleticism.
As a sport ruled by quiet intellect and imagination, “the game of kings” and “king of games” necessarily lends itself to documentation between covers, with its long-evolving history, lessons and biographies.
Since Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Champion and “the father of modern chess,” authored The Modern Chess Instructor in 1889, hundreds of other players and adepts have churned out countless books — instructive, analytical, or biographical. As well as fiction based on the game.
The 1983 American novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit, became a bestseller when it was adapted for the 2020 Netflix miniseries.
Only recently, articles appeared on the Net to cite books that explained how and why the queen became more powerful than the king on the chessboard. Both The Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom and Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown dwelled on this evolution.
The queen had entered the game as a medieval addition only by 997 AD, replacing a piece that represented the male vizier. It wasn’t present at all when the game was first played in India and the crescent countries. But it wasn’t until late in the 14th century that the power of the queen’s moves was amplified — from only one step diagonally in any direction (less power than today’s king). It also happened with the bishop at about the same time.
Apart from the usual books on chess openings that one had to plow through, I recall enjoying most George Steiner’s Fields of Force: Fischer and Spassky at Reykjavik, an eyewitness account that collected the British arch-critic’s New Yorker coverage of the controversial cultural clash of 1972.
Steiner wrote rather peevishly: “Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise.”
What may have recently supplanted Steiner’s book as regards the topic was David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time.
Other collectible titles should include Life & Games of Mikhail Tal (1976), an autobiography by the “magician from Riga” deemed to be the greatest attacking World Champion of them all; Chess Fundamentals by José Raúl Capablanca (1921); Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and his My 60 Memorable Games; and Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, Parts 1 to 5.
The beautiful game
Next to chess, the sport that has produced the most literature must be football. Of course, it keeps expanding with biographies of famous players. But such is the drawing power of ”the beautiful game” that it has attracted such notable authors to add to its annals.
In his book, Eduardo Galeano wrote: Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’
None can be more notable than Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist and novelist billed as “global soccer’s pre-eminent man of letters.” His El fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in Sun and Shadow) — “a history of the sport, as well as an outlet for the author’s own experiences with the sport and his political polemics” — has been hailed as “one of the greatest books about football ever written.”
“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’
“And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Among the best books on football are The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt, a 922-page tome for the ultimate football nerd; Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson; Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns; Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos; Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner; and The Glory Game by Hunter Davies.
Fists of fury
Maybe almost at a par with football’s hold on literature is boxing. A significant title is Norman Mailer’s The Fight, his 1975 non-fiction book on the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 — where he “describes the dynamics of the fight in detail, comparing it to a chess match and to a piece of art.”
In the narrative, Ali takes control of the fight in the chapter titled “The Executioner’s Song,” which Mailer had used as the title of an early poem, and reused for his 1979 novel.
Other outstanding books are The Sweet Science by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling and Sparring with Hemingway and Other Legends of the Fight Game by Budd Schulberg.
Basketball would be the next sport to have the most number of book titles. In fact, with the increasing number of superstar biographies, it might already have caught up with boxing.
NBA superstar James LeBron’s own book, I Promise, published in August 2020, was an instant No. 1 New York Times bestseller, and gained an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.
The best I’ve read happens to be Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (1995). And I yearn for a copy of his Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (2013). He’s authored half a dozen other titles.
Also enjoyable was Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball by Rafe Bartholomew (2010), not just because I happened to be one of his interviewees when he came over as a Fulbright scholar.
Books on LeBron James have outnumbered those on Michael Jordan and any other baller. But there’s also a vitriolic subset on the subject, and I’m happy to have a copy of Gonzo journalist Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James (2011).
To his own credit, LeBron’s own book, I Promise, published in August 2020, was an instant No. 1 New York Times bestseller, and gained an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.
We have read stories to build empathy and make the world a better place. We shared the 'I Promise' book from Nursery to Year 6, to turn our empathy resolutions into 'Eldon promises'. @KingJames @EmpathyLabUK @TeresaCremin @_Reading_Rocks_ #EmpathyDay #TesAwards2021 @tes pic.twitter.com/9iCJVhEdTz— Eldon Primary School (@eldon_primary) June 11, 2021
Of course there must be hundreds of titles on the martial arts, many others on baseball and American football, biographies on tennis stars and other sportsmen, even a few on cricket. But to my mind, chess, football, boxing and basketball rule the roost when it comes to sports literature.
With the Olympics basketball qualifiers, Euro Cup 2000, Copa America, Wimbledon tennis championship and the NBA Playoffs outhustling one another in spectator draws in recent weeks, we can be sure that it’ll all lead to more sports books.
Personally, I found rewarding the Euro Cup match over a week ago, between Spain and Switzerland, which ended with the fateful agony of a penalty shootout. Spain’s Mikel Oyarzabal won it at 3-1.
Oyarzabal! The name brought me back to the mid-‘60s when Oyarzabal was the top pelotari at Manila’s Jai Alai — my favorite as against the No. 2 Azcoitia of the burly frame and powerful bomba.
Oyarzabal was slight and wiry, but was the Spider-Man of the fronton, scaling up the side wall with incredible grace and hang time, and regularly outpointing everyone else in the Senior Division with his speed and anticipation, acrobatic defense and masterful offensive winners.
He was always llamado, but I still made a lot of money betting on him. He remains the unforgettable Oya of my teenhood that was spent frequently at the Basque temple of the cestas on Taft Avenue. In the wee hours of Manila time, he was resurrected live on screen in a stadium at St. Petersburg.
I should’ve written a book on the original, along with Iñaki, Filipino, Murua, Gallego, Larrucea, Garmendia, Ocariz and all the other pelotaris of that golden age.
But for now, we’ll just have to wait to see if Novak Djokovic joins record holders Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slam singles championships each if he wins at Wimbledon, and who among Argentina and Brazil at the Maracana, and England and Italy at Wembley, wind up as football champions, as determined yesterday.