December 2009

Lee Bob Black


King's Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman

About a quarter of King’s Gambit is a conventional memoir. The rest explores the chess world generally, and its convoluted underside specifically. For example, the book’s first chapter, “The Insanity Defense,” surveys how psychosis and suicide seem disproportionately associated with the game. And that’s just a primer. The more you read, the darker the tales of chess woe go.

Here’s a taste of Paul Hoffman’s arousing mix of personal memoir and poignant comments on competitiveness, from the third chapter:

I have never gotten along with alpha males and am unsure about the line between acceptable competitiveness and nasty aggression. I had difficulty in gym glass not because I was inept but because sports seemed too brutal for me. When is the urge to win not just about performing optimally and more about breaking your adversary, physically or psychically? Assuming your opponent is not a jerk, is it immoral to want to destroy him? To me this kind of attitude, which is common in chess, detracts from the nobility of the game. Chess is said to be a safe way to sublimate aggressive impulses. But is it harmless just because the aggression isn’t physical?

The book’s cast of characters include many who are at the top the game and/or the business of chess. There is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Buddhist business tycoon who is both the president of Kalmykia (a Russian republic) and the World Chess Federation (which is more commonly referred to as FIDE, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs). There is Bruce Pandolfini, a chess teacher. There are the author’s friends, chess professionals Irina Mead and Pascal Charbonneau. The book also prominently features two Russians -- Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov -- who I soon gave up trying to distinguish (through no fault of the author).

Paul Hoffman gets into their heads and analyzes their emotional responses to the game. Writing about observing the pre-game preparation of Joël Lautier, a French grandmaster, Hoffman honestly tells us why he does this: “I wanted to understand whether my responses to the game made me a freak or whether other players had the same experiences.” 

The book is a compendium of wacky anecdotes from the colorful history of chess, and glimpses into its future. How some Americans have taught themselves Russian to learn more about the game. How hundreds of years ago all chess pieces were male, but then one piece had a sex change and became the strongest killer on the board -- the queen. How software and websites, such as those maintained by ChessBase, have revolutionized yet not ruined the game. How FIDE has introduced random drug tests at tournaments in the hope that chess might become an official Olympic sport. How some Russian players employ parapsychologists to hypnotize their opponents.

Accompanying the rich and sticky anecdotes are Hoffman’s personal insights into everything from the table manners of chess players to their trash talking during tournaments. There are also the indulgent yet thrilling adventures he gets entangled in while writing the book. For instance, in Moscow he goes drinking with two chess acquaintances and ends up at a nightclub located under an intelligence agency affiliated with the KGB. He ponders, “What if I had been in Washington, D.C., and two men I barely knew offered to take me down a concealed passageway to an opium den under the Central Intelligence Agency?”  This experience is only trumped by his horrifying and Kafkaesque trip to an international chess championship in Tripoli, in 2004, just months after the US government ended the ban on Americans traveling to Libya (though the Mediterranean country was still on the USA’s list of states that supported terrorism).

The author’s son and father provide the book’s personal backdrops. (Besides a few asides and one enormous late-in-life realization about how his mother’s anxiety was not the author’s fault, King’s Gambit is conspicuously devoid of mother-son stories. The book is, after all, subtitled, A Son, A Father and the World's Most Dangerous Game.)

Hoffman’s three-hundred pound father was a writer of celebrity profiles and a teacher of “high” literature. He also flirted with Communism. Whereas the author’s insights about his own son are optimistic and heartwarming, his analysis of his relationship with his father is riddled with unanswered questions, glaring illusions, and realizations that his father was not just an indirect speaker, but also a consummate deceiver. The following excerpt relates to an incident where, the night before a teenage Paul Hoffman takes the Law School Admission Test, he finds a How Not to Raise Your Child to Be a Lawyer manuscript that his father was supposedly working on and inadvertently left open on his desk: 

[My father’s] sabotage worked -- I never became a lawyer -- but it also destroyed our relationship. From that moment on, I was never comfortable around him again. He lived just six more years, and I periodically asked him about dozens of stories that I now believed were false. Not once did he concede that he ever lied to me.

Here’s another teaser about Hoffman’s relationship with his dad:

[A]fter my father’s death, I opened the envelope on which he had provocatively written “IF YOU DARE OPEN THIS ENVELOPE, MY HAND WILL GROW OUT OF THE GRAVE AND CHOKE YOU!” and found copies of a dozen letters ...

I’ll refrain form commenting on Hoffman’s self-proclaimed Freudian relationship with his dad, as analyzed in the chapter, “I Stuck It to Him Real Good, Way Up Him.”  

The book has plenty for chess buffs, including a backstory of playing chess in NYC’s Washington Square Park and the necessary scrutinizing of Deep Blue (the IBM computer that beat Kasparov in 1997) and the renowned “Match of the Century” (in which American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky played out a Cold War battle with chess pieces instead of nukes).

However, the book is devoid of any diagrams that might illuminate what the hell is happening on the chessboard to novices like me who know only the technicalities and none of the nuances let alone beauty of the game. I spoke with the author about this, and he shared that this was partially a marketing decision. Those already ensconced in the chess world, he told me, wouldn’t need such diagrams, and others might be dissuaded from buying the memoir if it looked too textbookish.

I enjoyed the weirdo names for various chess moves, such as the Nimzo-Indian, the Accelerated Dragon, the Najdorf Sicilian, and my favorites -- the Beck’s Beer Variation and the Anemic Parsnip. Likewise I enjoyed skilling up on some of the lingo. A woodshifter/woodpusher is a chess hack. A sac is when one sacrifices a chess piece. A postmortem is post-game analysis. A Grobster is a player (or a hustling dad) who wants immediate results and can’t be bothered playing by the rules. However, it’s left up to the reader to figure out exactly what masters and grandmasters and seconds and norms are. And what does an individual’s chess score really represent? We aren’t told. Sure, if you win then you get a higher ranking or more points, but how exactly? Additionally -- and this will be my last rebuke -- why include so many literal step-by-step descriptions of chess games?

Okay, one more criticism. I consider myself an uncompetitive person. I’m often blissfully ambivalent about who wins practically any game -- even if I’m “competing” or if “my” country is. Thus, the book’s heavy emphasis on winning and losing is somewhat lost upon me. The importance upon which a large portion of our culture, not just chessheads (as I call them), places on winning is clear. To me however, stories that hinge on this are somewhat inaccessible. So when Hoffman ratcheted up tension via blow-by-blow accounts of chess games, my eyes glazed over a bit.

Go figure, actual chess in a chess memoir; hmmph! 

Still, to suggest that chess is mostly about winning would be to miss the point. To that end, chess metaphors and analogies -- usually by those profiled -- abound in King’s Gambit. They range from idealistic to grandiose to hilariously bonkers. Chess is -- apparently -- a dance, a cultural equalizer, the human mind’s highest calling. Depending on who’s talking, it’s also a way to combat religious superstition, or a way to get closer to the spiritual world. There are even claims that chess is civilization and science and philosophy and religion. I began wondering: What can’t chess be compared to? What isn’t chess?

The strongest and most unsettling chess metaphors in King’s Gambit are those of war and fighting, and they’re the most rife. Chess is not just a “slugfest,” it’s a “war game that rewards ruthlessness, not cooperation.” You can dispatch a “foot soldier on a kamikaze mission.” You “destroy” your “enemy.” To play in the highest echelons of chess, you “must have the determination to win at any cost.” The British grandmaster Nigel Short sadistically boasts, “I like positions where I can torture [my opponent] slowly. Slowly is important.” 

Some of those profiled in the book go beyond romanticizing chess. For instance, here’s a quote from Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, FIDE President:

Half a billion people know how to play chess. My goal is to double that number. If a billion people played chess, I believe there would be no more conflicts or wars. If people think before they act, they won’t turn to violence.

Yet I began wondering: Might chess increase your bloodlust? If it can help people learn to concentrate and think ahead, might it make better warmongers?

Segue back to Libya. I won’t spoil the chapters devoted to the author’s trip to Tripoli in 2004, but I’ll give you a taste of the tension: The week before the chess championship, the White House accused Colonel Gaddafi of plotting to assassinate a Saudi Prince, the Libyan agents who shadowed and regularly interrogated Hoffman called themselves “information offices,” and, yes, Hoffman was ready and willing to play chess with Gaddafi or his son.

A particularly compelling chapter in King’s Gambit is the one about women and chess, “Female Counterplay.” 

In our society, we approve if a boy plays chess. We see it as a sign of intelligence. But we consider it weird if a boy is obsessed with chess, if he spends the bulk of his waking hours playing and studying the game. “Now if a girl does that,” Jennifer [Shahade] said, “it’s not just weird, it’s downright unacceptable to most parents. Women are usually discouraged from pursuing chess and other intellectual activities that require time-consuming devotion.”

Thankfully the chapter goes beyond merely rehashing biological determinism or social conditioning to “explain” why men have historically dominated the game. Poignantly, the chapter touches upon Jennifer Shahade’s view, perhaps first expressed in her book Chess Bitch, that gender stereotypes are often inverted in the world of chess -- that to play “like a girl” means to play aggressively. Indeed, in another part of King’s Gambit, Hoffman recounts playing a simul (that’s an exhibition game in which one player, usually a master or grandmaster, plays multiple chess games simultaneously with a number of other players) against Antoaneta Stefanova, the women’s world champion at the time, and being “unnerved by the sudden aggression of someone [i.e. Stefanova] who moments before I had found so attractive.”  

As a kid, Hoffman was the quintessential outsider. Scorned by his elementary school classmates as “the atheist” who omitted two key words of the pledge of allegiance, he struggled to fit in either at his hometown in Connecticut where he lived with his mother -- “I was too different to be normal” -- or when he visited his father in the Village -- “I was too normal to be different.” I laughed out loud reading about how he believed that his dad took him to antiwar rallies “in the hope that [he’d] be arrested,” and how at peacenik summer camps the future author “became very good at drawing mushroom clouds” and learned about sunscreen after gardening in the nude.

The author explores chess via a standard arc. In the childhood years, chess is a “sanctuary,” an “intellectual joy.” Chess becomes “philosophical” and “solipsistic.”  In his twenties, he becomes “disillusioned” with the “dishonesty and psychic aggression” of the game, and stops playing. Then in his forties, various personal crises bring him “back to chess,” and it dawns on him that he was drawn to the game because there’s “no room for deception.” King’s Gambit ends with Paul Hoffman entertaining childlike dreams of becoming a chess grandmaster (whatever a grandmaster actually is). However this time, he wants to peer into the ”abyss of chess and [glimpse] the game’s deeper beauty” and “achieve a small degree of immortality.” 

King's Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World's Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman
ISBN: 1401300979
448 Pages