Sarah's Chess Journal

         my journal, blog, web log, blog.....about

         The History and The Culture of Chess

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
May 2007


On Tuesday, April 24, 2007, I read a  review in USA Today on a book entitled, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The book sounded interesting enough, but except for one tiny reference that I overlooked, nothing in the review gave me any associations with chess. Coincidentally, Lawrence Totaro also read a review of the same book on the same day in the N.Y. Times and informed me of the chess connection.

The New York Times informed us, among other things -

Since the collapse of his marriage, Landsman has been living in the seedy Hotel Zamenhof, where, one night, “somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.” One of the few clues in the room is a chessboard with a mystifying configuration of pieces.

Landsman’s investigation into Lasker’s death will plunge him into a re-evaluation of his own tortured familial history and his relationship with Bina, who, unexpectedly, has become his new supervisor at work. It will cause him to re-examine his feelings about police work and larger, more existential issues. And it will threaten to throw him into a spiral of suicidal despair.

Working with his half-Tlingit partner, Berko, Landsman soon discovers that Lasker is an alias for a troubled heroin addict named Mendel Shpilman, the only son of a powerful rabbi, known for his gangland ties. As a child and as a young man, Mendel was not only a chess genius, beating the best and brightest of his elders, but also a brilliant student, rumored to possess magical healing powers. There were even whispers that Mendel might be “the righteous man of this generation” — the Messiah, perhaps, arrived to redeem the world.

The Boston Globe review


The Chess References

Page 4
On the bedside table Lasker kept a chessboard  It looks like he had a game going, a messy-looking middle game with Black’s king under attack at the center of the board and White having the advantage of a couple of pieces. It’s a cheap set, the board a square of card that folds down the middle, the pieces hollow; with plastic nubs where they extruded.

Page 305
There are five books stacked on the nightstand by the old man’s bed. A Yiddish translation of chandler. A French biography of Marcel Duchamp. A paperback attack on the wily agents of the Third Russian Republic that was popular in the U.S. the year before. A Peterson field guide to marine mammals. And something called Kampf, in the original German, by Emanuel Lasker. (Kampf or Struggle, published in 1907, was one of two philosophical books by Lasker, the other being Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar or The Philosophy of the Unattainable, published in 1919).

Page 398
But as Landsman stares at the chessboard, staring at a chessboard, for the first time in his life, feels good. It feels pleasurable, in fact. Standing there moving the pieces in his mind, seems to slow or at least to dislodge the needle inking over the black spot in his brain. He focuses on the promotion at b8. What if you change that pawn to a bishop, a rook, a queen, a knight? 

A knight, he decides. And then Black has to move the pawn at d7-but to where?  He settles in to play it out, not because of some forlorn hope that it might lead him to the killer, but because he really needs, all of a sudden, to play the game out.


   I'm not sure whether the chess association is critical to the story or simply incidental, but the occurrences of chess in modern novels are rare enough to make this story unique and noteworthy in that respect.





The book can be purchased at Amazon

       Author Michael Chabon



Archives by Title



The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy

chess - general

Chesslinks Worldwide

chess - history

Mark Week's History on the Web
Chess Journalists of America
Chess History Newsgroup
Hebrew Chess
Chess Tourn. & Match History
Super Tournaments of the Past
La grande storia degli scacchi
Bobby Fischer
Bill Wall's Chess Pages
[ comments ]