Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paul Hoffman's "The King's Gambit" Book Review.

As a beginner learning about chess, I've been reading accounts aimed at a non-playing as well as insider audience. This follows my recent (blog and Amazon US) reviews of J.C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist"-- about his trip to chess-driven Kalmykia, his encounters with chess culture, and his friendship with a man who aspires to become the first African American grandmaster-- and David Shenk's topical history of "The Immortal Game." I'd begin with Shenk's combination of chronological survey and intellectual overview, and then move on to Hallman's pioneering and wide-ranging appreciation of the uses and abuses of this pursuit.

Then, I'd pick up Hoffman. The subtitle, "A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game," appears confusing until the last chapter. Hoffman does treat (on and mostly off) his relationship with his father, an amateur who wrote about the game as part of his own journalism, but only at the end does the author reveal how his own son, Alex, has established his own connection with his father, Paul, through chess. This makes a poignant if attenuated comparison, as the writer's own marriage, like that of his parents, has crumbled-- as he wrote "The King's Gambit." Hoffman, suffering medical problems after giving up what would seem dream jobs as editor first at "Discover" magazine and then running Encyclopedia Britannica, searches the world of chess-- largely at the tournament level-- to explore the perceived danger for its top-ranked players.

As a play-by-play sort of "color" commentator of the game, Hoffman excels as he narrates how his own games work. Playing champions on- and off-line, explaining mindgames as well as endgames, or taking on a "simul" with Kasparov, he shows you how the strategies work along with the tactics. He describes only "en passant" the basics of the game, and so reading Shenk's introductory work and Hallman's speculative chapters about the development of the pieces would be recommended prior to Hoffman's treatment. He's fascinated by openings, and while this out of the three books is the only one without diagrams and with little notation, you will figure out these moves, eventually.

Unlike Hallman or Shenk, Hoffman does not concentrate on a more evocative sense of the game by extended metaphor or sustained speculation. I found fewer exemplary passages in Hoffman to show his stylistic range. He's not a lesser writer, but his own editorial background may make his drier, wryer approach better suited for a reader wanting a slightly more advanced study of how contests unfold in terms of strategy and psychology, rather than the intellectual or cultural explorations favored by Hallman and Shenk.

"I wanted to get a sense of how the minds of champions worked and whether their minds differed from mine. I wanted to witness how chess professionals handled the emotional highs and lows of victory and defeat. I wanted to talk to others who were as excited and bewitched by the game as I was. I wanted to figure out why chess was so addictive." (30)
He investigates the realm of women players, sexism, bogus Freudianism, and street hustlers. Befriending Jennifer Shahade and Pascal Charbonneau, respectively U.S. and Canadian champions, he learns how they deal with grace or its lack under pressure. He goes to Moscow, endures Libya, and wonders if insanity will be brought on by too much immersion.

He mingles, as do Hallman and Shenk, his own anecdotes. Like Shenk, he relegates some of his best material to his endnotes. Hoffman divulges lots of tales and debunks many myths in these annotations. He moves from personal reflections to chess stories easily, if rather (too?) broadly; for example, he places within the depiction of professional Joel Lautier his own memories of his father's Red sympathies, shifts to his teenaged years at Quaker summer camp to prepare a c.v. that would keep him out of Vietnam, and relates his own college cramming of Marx while on Dexedrine at Harvard-- before bringing the chapter back briefly to a debate over drug testing in the sport.

Dealing with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, FIDE president and ruler of semi-autonomous Kalmykia in the former Soviet Union, Hoffman combines scrutiny with compassion.
"Versailles bankrupted a country and fomented a revolution. Ilyumzhinov may well do the same, in Kalmykia and FIDE. What will endure, he knows, are the exquisite chess games that he facilitated. They will survive as long as earthlings are still pushing pawns and moving knights. In his disturbingly elite royalist calculus, the creation of immortal beauty apparently outweighs any human suffering he may have caused." (313)

Discussing British champion and rival to Kasparov, Nigel Short, Hoffman considers-- in a rare use of metaphor-- how Short advanced so well in chess but remains at heart a child in his temperament:
"I had a fanciful notion that the development of specialized skills and character traits in early childhood is like a country fair in which you are allotted a fixed number of tickets to spend on the various concessions. This particular fair is of short duration and happens only once a lifetime. Nigel took the chess roller-coaster a dozen times, and rode the honesty ride twice, and so he had insufficient tickets left to take the Train Beyond Adolescence more than a stop or two. I myself missed the athletic concession, and I should have ridden-- damn it-- the chess coaster three or four times." (335)

He finishes with a middle-aged leap back onto the coaster. The book ends with him seeing Pascal compete for the grandmaster's rating. Hoffman realizes he longs for the same dream's fulfillment. Not for the money, but
"for the unadulterated pleasures of peering further into the abyss of chess and glimpsing the game's deeper beauty. I want to work magic with the chess pieces the way Morphy and Fischer did. I want to launch daring, unexpected attacks the way Jennifer and Pascal do. I want to achieve a small degree of immortality by the ingenious manner in which I coordinate my knights." (384)

It occurred to me, reading Hoffman's commentaries as he played his matches, how it may resemble football. Vaguely! The Johnsonian definition he cites of "a nice and abstruse game, in which two sets of puppets are moved in opposition to each other" aligns more closely with such defense-offense pairings, if football had no downs and the ball was handed back each play.

What I will mention as my main disappointment: five sections for which a recent precedent in print remains uncredited: 1) Hoffman plays with the "Kalmyk high muckety-muck" himself. 2) He recounts the tale of a notorious Virginia prisoner, the high-ranking Bloodgood. 3) He goes to a strange, bleak, and suspect Third World land for a tournament amidst sinister overseers. 4) He hangs around as a "second" with a master. 5) He wonders as a journalist if he should have some sympathy, as he interviews Kalmyk leader and FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, with dissident Larisa Yudina's fate. She was found murdered after she prepared an exposé of the ruler's funding for Chess City.

"The Chess Artist" preceded Hoffman; Hallman made these same five "moves" years before Hoffman. Yet he never mentions Hallman's "The Chess Artist." (This was published in 2003. Shenk's book's copyrighted as 2006; Hoffman's as 2007.)

Not sure if it'd be some sort of etiquette to acknowledge Hallman, at least as an aside in Hoffman's own ambling annotations. I scoured them repeatedly. I find it hard to believe that Hoffman did not draw upon "The Chess Artist." I find this omission very strange in both Shenk & Hoffman, so this is one reason I have reminded readers of "The Chess Artist." It's a necessary and enjoyable companion to these other two works, all three accessible for the general reader as well as the insider.

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