Book reviews: "The Code," "Chess Bitch"

While writing, I’ve been seeking inspiration by reading some books I’ve long had on my wish list, trying to get a sense of what does and does not work as I move from the world of 700 words to the world of 70,000.

I got plenty from these two books.

The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL by Ross Bernstein (Amazon)

Great topic, isn’t it? Everyone who knows a little bit about hockey knows the existence of “unwritten rules,” but few fully understand them. Why not investigate and write them down?

This book doesn’t quite deliver because the author gets too close to the subject. He doesn’t seem willing to explore the areas in which the rules are unclear or disputed, and he doesn’t want to ask tough questions of his sources. The result is less of an honest examination of hockey’s physicality and more of an ode to the “enforcer” — the guy who deals out the big hits and drops the gloves.

Most hockey fans know that enforcers are rarely brutes off the ice. Paradoxically, they tend to be well-educated, charitable guys who do their jobs and shrug it off. That’s worth stating in print, but it doesn’t put their art above question. The endless fawning over the enforcer’s art ended up turning me against it — I came out of it less convinced that fighting is a necessary part of the game.

One related flaw: The book is organizationally all over the place. Each chapter diverges from its stated topic and return to the central theme: “Enforcers are great.”

This Amazon review nails it: “Most quotes read like this: ‘Blah blah positive comment about fighting in hockey. Blah blah some anecdote about respect. Blah blah one time I did this, and here’s why I beat this guy’s face. Blah blah that’s what the code means to me.’ That’s great, and I get the point. But do we need 119 quotes that all sound alike.”

Flaws aside, this is still a fun read because Bernstein gets so many great stories. My favorite: Two buddies are compelled by the code to drop the gloves. One gets a decisive upper hand. The guy getting the worst of it pipes up:

“Loser buys the pizza.”
Response: “Well, I guess you’re buying.”
“Yeah, but winner buys the beer, asshole!”

This book must have done pretty well for Bernstein, because he’s writing something similar: The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. Baseball’s rules are considerably dumber than hockey’s, but you have to love the cover photo of Nolan Ryan pummeling Robin Ventura.

Hockey’s code deserves a thorough examination, but at least Bernstein got a few good stories out of it.

Which is the opposite of this book …

Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport by Jennifer Shahade (Amazon)

The cover and title are misleading. This isn’t a book about the steamy, sordid stuff that happens in the chess world, like some Led Zeppelin bio heavy on the groupie exploits. It was published before the “Anna Kournikova of chess” was at the epicenter of a possible love triangle that turned into a nightclub brawl.

What we get instead is a thoughtful look at the history and sociology of women in chess, examining how different cultures and philosophies have created different approaches to gender and competition.

Sure, that sounds like a grad school class most of you would rather avoid. But even if you’re less inclined to masters-level discussion of gender roles, you’ll be interested in this question: Why do so few women appear in the ranks of the world’s top chess players?

Chess isn’t a physical activity, though Shahade digs up an old Sports Illustrated cover with a female chess player on the cover. It’s not about speed, size or strength. There’s no physical reason why men should be better at chess than women. So why are they?

Women are usually conditioned to approach competition differently than men do. Anson Dorrance, the dean of women’s soccer coaching, discovered this trait early in his career and learned how to adapt to it. Shahade gives an illuminating examination into this issue, wondering if this is something that can be or should be overcome.

She also finds herself on both sides of the issue of women using their looks to market themselves. She’s not completely comfortable with it, despite her come-hither look on the cover. But she’s not quite comfortable judging others who have no objections.

If you’re looking for tales of wild partner-swapping in luxurious hotels, you won’t find them here. If you’re not up for some intellectual exploration, you’ll find this a little tough to read, though Shahade’s writing is far livelier than the typical academic gibberish. But if you’re at all interested in culture, gender and competition, enjoy.

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