King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game

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As a child, Paul Hoffman lost himself in chess. The award-winning author of the international bestseller The Man Who Loved Only Numbers played to escape the dissolution of his parents' marriage, happily passing weekends with his brilliant bohemian father in New York's Greenwich Village, the epicenter of American chess. But he soon learned that such single-minded focus came at a steep price, as the pressure of competition drove him to the edge of madness.

As an adolescent, Hoffman loved the artistic purity of the game—and the euphoria he felt after a hard-fought victory—but he was disturbed by the ugly brutality and deceptive impulses that tournament chess invariably brought out in his opponents and in himself. Plagued by strange dreams in which attractive women moved like knights and sinister men like bishops, he finally gave up the game entirely in college, for the next twenty-five years.

In King's Gambit, Hoffman interweaves gripping tales from the history of the game and revealing portraits of contemporary chess geniuses into the emotionally charged story of his own recent attempt to get back into tournament chess as an adult—this time without losing his mind or his humanity. All the while, he grapples with the bizarre, confusing legacy of his own father, who haunts Hoffman's game and life.

In this insider's look at the obsessive subculture of championship chess, the critically acclaimed author applies the techniques that garnered his earlier work such lavish praise—the novelistic storytelling and the keen insights—to his own life and the eccentric, often mysterious lives of the chess pros he knew and has come to know. Intimate, surprising, and often humorous, it's both Hoffman's most personal work and his most compelling.

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"If you enjoy playing chess, this will be the most fascinating, best-written book that you have ever read. If you have no interest in chess, then get ready to enjoy a fascinating, fast-moving story with unforgettable characters many of whom just happen to be chess players." —Jared Diamond

"The first chapter of Hoffman's chess-obsessed book includes the phrase 'an early light-squared bishop sortie by White.' If these words send you running for the relative simplicity of a Parcheesi board, fear not. Hoffman, the former editor-in-chief of Discover, weaves a layman-friendly work about family (specifically his father, a chess-playing pathological liar) and the neurotic personalities who are consumed by bishops, rooks, and Sicilian openings. Whether pondering why top female players are so scarce or detailing his tense journey to a Libyan tournament (where he is suspected of being a CIA agent). Hoffman traps readers from his opening moves." —Entertainment Weekly, A-

"Of the several general-interest books with a chess theme that appeared this year, this is the one to buy." —Grandmaster Andy Soltis, New York Post

"Chess has long been known as the game of kings, but according to journalist and former Encyclopaedia Britannica president Paul Hoffman, it also attracts models, madmen, and malcontents. Take Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of chess's international governing body, who rules the semi-autonomous Russian province of Kalmykia and believes the game has extraterrestrial origins. The author's thorough study of the sport is rife with backstabbing, suicide and adultery. The sum is a story readers will find fascinating, even if the closest they've ever come to playing the game in checkers." —People, three and a half out of four stars

"Hoffman's masterful, exhaustive tale of chess, its soaring triumphs and crushing discontents is filled with enough international intrigue and warped, shady characters to pass for the latest James Bond sequel. Along with the stereotypical lunatic Russian grandmasters ('the normally even-keeled Russian asked that his chair be X-rayed and dismantled to make sure [Bobby] Fischer hadn't implanted a harmful radiation emitter inside it'), chess-crazed Bulgarians, Canadians, Libyans and the occasional American plow through the contemporary chess world in search of victory. In clear, thoughtful prose, Hoffman (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers ) describes the players-("[Short] doesn't glare at his adversary, slam down the rooks, twist the knights into the board, rock back and forth, tap his feet or pace the tournament hall snorting like a feral animal") and the game.... Hoffman has achieved something singular: a winning, book about the 'royal game' that will satisfy the general reader, kibitzer and grandmaster alike." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Introduced to chess by his father when he was only five, Hoffman found a refuge in the game during an adolescence marked by family stress. Returning to the game decades later in a period of personal and professional crisis, he found himself fascinated not just by chess itself, but by the inner life of its players. Among the questions he seeks to answer are why chess is so addictive, how the champions handle victory and defeat and why the game is played primarily by men.... [A trip in 2004 to the World Chess Championship in Libya], which included nerve-shattering encounters with a police-state bureaucracy, reveals the author's expertise as a storyteller as well as his own high-amateur competence at the chessboard... Those who relished Stefan Fatsis's portrayal of Scrabble junkies (Word Freak, 2001) will find this another fascinating glimpse into a competitive game world filled with quirky and brilliant addicts." —Kirkus

A Quick Q & A with Myself

What drew you to chess?

When I was five years old, I fell in a pile of old leaves in the woods and was stung by a swarm of yellow jackets. To keep my mind off the pain, my dad got me a chess set and taught me how to play.

What for you were the rewards of chess?

The game is incredible. It is the perfect combination of an art—you are creating beautiful patterns of pieces and pawns—and a sport. The game is all within your control; there's no luck involved. And so it is deeply satisfying, when you win a hard-fought game. You feel euphoric and supremely competent.

We think of chess as requiring great intelligence, but we also associate the game with insanity and obsession. Is this association fair?

I'm afraid it is. Every chess club, it seems, has at least one resident who left his wife or job to play the game all day. The only two Americans to reach the pinnacle of chess, Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, suffered from paranoia. Morphy withdrew from tournament chess at the peak of his career, in 1859, and spent the next two decades worrying that relatives and friends wanted to kill him. Fischer, whose mother was Jewish, believed there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to destroy him, and he praised 9/11 because of the number of Jews who were killed in the World Trade Center. He reportedly had the fillings in his teeth removed because he feared that they were antennas that were capable of receiving radio messages beamed by his enemies.

Does chess drive people mad?

I explore this at length in King's Gambit. But I think the reverse is quite likely—that chess keeps mad people sane; that it gives certain socially maladroit people a self-contained world in which they can shine and feel good about themselves. Morphy and Fischer's behavior became truly bizarre only after they retired from the game. Their fate should not stop anyone from playing chess anymore than Van Gogh's hacking off his ear should deter people from becoming painters or Mark McGuire's alleged steroid use should discourage children from playing baseball.

Why do you call chess "a dangerous game"?

Because it is easy to become so obsessed with the game that you forget about the rest of the world. Chess is this bottomless pit—there are more conceivable chess games than there are atoms in the universe—and so it is impossible to ever completely master the game. Even Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player ever (and a man who is not given to modesty), once confessed to me that there are things he doesn't understand about the game that keep him up late at night. You can get so involved in studying chess long into the night—like a classical musician practicing his instrument for hours—that you forget other people exist. It can be very solipsistic.

Even worse, chess seems to bring out not only the artist but also the beast in those who play the game for a living. I've seen too many chess professionals come to despise their opponents and want to break them. They are like boxers. Chess is a blood sport.

Was chess "dangerous" for you?

Certainly I became much too obsessed with the game. My self-esteem was too tied up in whether I won or lost. And I lost sleep staying up late studying historic games of the chess giants of yesteryear. Chess took over my waking and sleeping life: I had disturbing dreams in which attractive women moved like knights and sinister men like bishops. By college I had to give up the game because it was driving me mad.

I had gotten too immersed in chess because it was an escape from things I didn't want to deal with in my family life—the dissolution of my parents' marriage, and truths about my father that I was unprepared to face.

Why is the book called King's Gambit?

King's Gambit is the name of a particular sequence of opening moves that I favored in my games. It is an opening in which you intrepidly and recklessly attack the other guy's king from the very first move. It is a crazy, romantic opening that was popular in the 19th century but has now been all but abandoned at the professional level as too risky. I like the King's Gambit because I'm so timid and risk-adverse in the rest of my life.

Your subtitle is "A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game." We've talked about the "dangerous game." Now tell me about the other part of the subtitle.

My book is a memoir, a father-son story. My father was a brilliant, charismatic Greenwich Village character: an English professor; a speed reader with a photographic memory who consumed three novels a day; an expert on "the perverse and grotesque" in contemporary American fiction; a tabloid journalist who wrote trashy celebrity profiles under female pseudonyms; a pool, poker and Scrabble shark; an anti-war activist and recovering Communist. But he was also a pathological liar and con man—a fact that I did not allow myself to realize until late in college. Chess was one bond we shared, through good times and bad times, but it, too, broke when his attitude about the game became increasingly disturbing.

My book, though, is more than a memoir. It is an intimate look at the subculture of tournament chess, at the crazy passions and behavior that the game brings out in professionals and amateurs alike. Other books have told the history of chess; mine is an insider's take—chess confidential, if you will—and I tell tales out of school.

I understand that you recently took up chess again, after twenty-five years away from the chessboard?

Yes. I needed to return to the game that had occupied me in my youth. I needed to see whether I could play chess as adult without losing my sanity or my humanity.

Were you able to play chess and remain a whole person?

Eventually, after some serious missteps—like the time I mistakenly thought my adversary was mocking me and, to get back at him, I actually cheated. This was my one ethical lapse ever at the chessboard. My opponent was just a child. I became totally disgusted with myself because for me chess had once served as this pure refuge from the vicissitudes and pettiness of everyday life.

If chess brought out the beast in you, why did you stick with it as an adult?

Well, it brought out the beast in me just this one time. I needed to immerse myself in the game again so that I could understand my father and make sense of a painful and confusing chapter in my life that had always haunted me.

Also, I was disgusted by some of the chess players I met, or read about, in my youth—ruthlessly aggressive men who couldn't confine their competitiveness to the chessboard. I wanted to justify my childhood love of the game by seeing if I could find strong players whom I admired not only for how they guided their knights and bishops but also for how they conducted their lives.

Why is the publication date September 11? Are you trying to make some sort of statement?

No, not at all. The next World Chess Championship starts the following day, in Mexico City, and will last through September. The top players often self-destruct, and the championships spiral into chaos. Last year it was front-page news when the challenger suggested that the champion was cheating on the toilet, by employing a computer to help him find his moves. In another championship, one of the players hired a "parapsychologist" to sit in the front row of the audience and hex his opponent; the hexed player responded by hiring two saffron-robed mystics, Didi and Dada, who were under indictment for attempted murder, to meditate distractedly in the tournament hall.

Anything could happen in Mexico City.

Did the book involve any special research?

Yes, I needed to spend time in Russia, the country where chess is revered as a high art form and everybody plays it. And I went to Tripoli—in 2004, before the U.S. had diplomatic relations with Libya—to watch the World Chess Championship; the chess was great but I had a harrowing time there and was detained because the Libyan authorities feared that I was CIA.

Excerpt from the Book

After my parents separated in 1968, when I was twelve, I lived a kind of double life. Until I went to college, I usually spent weekdays with my mother in Westport, Connecticut, a quiet, Cheeveresque suburb an hour's train ride from New York City, and weekends with my father in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. My classmates in Westport were jealous of my regular trips to the city. Their dads were doctors and lawyers and advertising executives who came home every evening for dinner. My father was a James Joyce devotee who wrote celebrity profiles under female pseudonyms for movie magazines and never ate a single meal in his apartment. He was also a poker player, a billiards and Ping-Pong hustler, a three-card monte shill, and an erudite part-time literature professor at the New School for Social Research, whose specialty was what he proudly called "the grotesque and perverse" in twentieth-century American and Anglo-Irish fiction. He ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Village Den, Joe's Dinette, the White Horse and Cedar Taverns, and other watering holes that were central to bohemian culture in the late 1960s, and he took me along. A few of my dad's friends smoked dope in front of their children and swapped wives. My high school buddies in Connecticut who didn't know me well imagined that I was rocking out at the Bottom Line and getting high at poetry readings, but in truth I never saw a single band, did drugs, or heard Patti Smith speak verse. Instead I spent my weekends playing chess.

Although I had learned how to move the pieces when I was five, I only became fully immersed in the game when my parents' marriage was falling apart: chess offered a tidy black-and-white sanctuary from the turmoil in the rest of my life. The Village was a chess mecca, with its many chess cafés and clubs, and my father lived only a ten-minute walk from its epicenter, Washington Square Park. My dad accompanied me to these places and, when he wasn't watching me play, passed the time reading novels and preparing his New School lectures. In the southwest corner of the park stood nineteen stone chess tables; these were occupied by all breeds of chess addict, from complete beginners who set their queen up on the wrong square to world-class players eager to demonstrate their command of double-rook endings and the Nimzo-Indian Defense. In those days the park didn't have a curfew, and people played chess at all hours. Cops on horseback gathered near the tables, and on slow nights, when they weren't breaking up couples having sex or escorting acid freaks to St. Vincent's Hospital, they'd look down from their high mounts and critique the moves on the boards—a time-honored tradition in chess known as kibitzing. When it was cold or raining, the park habitués retreated to three smoky chess parlors on Thompson and Sullivan, where they rented boards for pennies an hour to continue their games.

One autumn evening in the early 1970s, my dad and I ended up in the chess shop owned by Nicholas Rossolimo, a Russian émigré who had been the champion of France in 1948 and had gone on in the 1950s to compete successfully in the United States. Rossolimo was a grandmaster—an exalted ranking in chess that is exceeded only by the title of world champion. There were just ninety grandmasters in 1970, one-third of whom lived in the Soviet Union. Being a grandmaster in America was rare enough, but even within this exclusive club Rossolimo had the special distinction of being immortalized in the chess literature for the "Rossolimo Variation," a particular sequence of moves characterized by an early light-squared bishop sortie by White.

Very few grandmasters are able to earn a living on the tournament circuit, though, and by 1970, when Rossolimo turned sixty, his championship days were long behind him. He drove a yellow cab, gave the occasional chess lesson, and babysat the woodpushers in his small chess salon. Rossolimo was also an old-school romantic whose pursuit of beauty at the chessboard sometimes blinded him to the impending brutality of his opponent's provocations. He was like the dreamy architecture student who sprains his ankle in a huge pothole in the sidewalk because his gaze is fixed on the gargoyles and cornices above.

On the evening of our visit, my father and I were greeted by the smell of garlic. Rossolimo was steaming a large pot of mussels on a hot plate balanced atop a wooden chessboard. My father and I stepped over a broken bottle in the entranceway and took our places at another board. Rossolimo was happy to see us—we were the only people there. He motioned to our board with an expansive gesture and urged us to play. My father declined, explaining that I was too good. Rossolimo laughed.

We watched him uncork a bottle of white, pour three glasses, and place one in front of each of us. I was fourteen or fifteen, and no one had ever offered me this much wine before. Had he failed to notice, I wondered, that I was conspicuously underage? Perhaps serving liquor to minors was a European custom. My father, who avoided alcohol because it aggravated his stomach ulcers, pretended to drink. Rossolimo gulped down half of his glass. I raised mine, clinked it against my father's, and sampled it cautiously. I announced that the wine was great. My father looked uneasy, but I knew he wouldn't spoil our bonding moment with the grandmaster by objecting to my drinking.

Rossolimo told my father that I was a fine boy and he proposed playing me a game. My dad was afraid he was going to charge us, but Rossolimo waived his customary fee and told us we were his friends and drinking companions. He turned off the hot plate and scooped the mussels into a wooden salad bowl. They were shriveled and overcooked but he didn't seem to notice.

I raised my glass to Rossolimo's and offered a toast to the generosity of our host and the quality of the wine. My father watched helplessly as I took another sip. In fact, it tasted terrible, and I considered dumping a little out of my glass under the chess table so that it would look as if I'd consumed more than a tablespoon.

Rossolimo told me to take White and challenged me to show how good I was. After two moves apiece I found that we had stumbled into the precise position in which I could employ the Rossolimo Variation against him. Charmed by my youthful cheekiness in making him face his own patented weapon, the grandmaster complimented me on copying the best.

As is typical in many lines of the Rossolimo Variation, I exchanged the light-squared bishop for a knight in a way that forced him to double his pawns, creating a structural weakness in which one of his foot soldiers blocked a comrade. Doubled pawns are not necessarily a great hindrance; if, however, the combat continues for many moves to the stage known as the endgame, in which most of the pieces have been exchanged, the immobility of the rear pawn can prove decisive—it's like being a pawn down. Rossolimo didn't seem perturbed. Mostly, he seemed to be moving reflexively as he entertained my father with a long boozy rant about Sartre and Nabokov. I was antsy because all of his chattering was making it hard to concentrate. I thought for a while whenever it was my turn to move—five minutes here, ten minutes there—but he always rattled me by responding instantly. Did he not need to think because he had seen this all before and had an ingenious grandmasterly plan to turn the game in his favor? Or was he truly being careless and was the endgame, in which the doubled pawns would put him at an increasing disadvantage, sneaking up on him? The latter proved to be the case.

When Rossolimo finally paused in his monologue about literature to look at the board, he immediately saw that he had a losing position: because of his formal, Soviet-style chess schooling, he knew the fine points of this kind of endgame infinitely better than I did. Rather than face the ignominy of a protracted defeat, he abruptly picked up his king and dropped it, crown first, into the bowl of garlicky broth. Mussel juice splattered across the table. Then he pushed the chess pieces into a heap in the center of the board before I had a chance to enjoy the final position. Glancing at his watch, he stood up, berated us for staying past the closing time, and ushered us out the door.

I was certainly pleased that I had defeated a chess legend, but I wasn't impudent about it. I don't think I even said a word to my dad. I knew that heavy drinking had impaired Rossolimo's play. I had never been close to drunk myself; indeed I had never taken more than the few sips of wine that I'd had that evening. But I had understood how disorienting alcohol could be from movies like Dumbo, in which the little elephant goes on a long hallucinatory bender, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a favorite of my mother's because it made her marriage seem comparatively happy.

Even though I knew that Rossolimo had effectively defeated himself, my father made sure that I knew: he informed me that Rossolimo had consumed five bottles of wine during the course of the evening. I argued that that was impossible, that he'd have been lying on the floor, that he'd had only two. My dad claimed that I had been too engrossed in the chessboard to notice what was happening. I found it unsettling that the game, which had started promisingly as a pleasant encounter over drinks, had degenerated into Rossolimo's kicking us out and my father's diminishing my victory. (In 1975, Rossolimo's body was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his Greenwich Village apartment building. He had apparently been drinking, lost his footing, and fatally banged his head.)

In the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined chess as "a nice and abstruse game, in which two sets of puppets are moved in opposition to each other." Had I known the words abstruse and opposition when I was small, I would have agreed with Johnson's naive definition. But as I plunged further into the New York chess scene as a teenager and encountered the likes of Rossolimo, I understood that the game was not an innocent recreation but rather a unique amalgam of art, science, and blood sport. I learned that passionate eruptions were common at the chessboard and hardly confined to alcoholic veterans. One of the mysteries of this ancient game is how mere puppets moving in opposition to each other have the capacity to stir up bizarre behavior in champions and amateurs alike.

Defeat in chess is always painful. Rossolimo was a saint compared to other wounded losers. William the Conqueror reportedly smashed a chessboard over the Prince of France. Pascal Charbonneau, the champion of Canada and my closest friend in the chess world, told me how a childhood contemporary broke all the furniture in a hotel room at a tournament and retired from chess. The Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal once signaled his resignation with a theatricality that surpassed Rossolimo's. He grabbed his king, climbed up on the chess table, extended his arm horizontally, and dropped the king so that it bombed the board.

When I was a spectator in 2003 at the annual chess tournament at the Foxwoods Casino, where 630 players were battling for a prize fund of $93,500, I was nearly struck by a chess clock that an irate loser hurled in my direction. I'm sure I wasn't the intended target, but I had to duck, and the clock smashed into the wall behind my head and broke into pieces.

When a player gets violent, his wrath is often directed not at spectators or his opponent but at himself. One contemporary Russian grandmaster has been known to pick up the pointiest chess piece, usually the bishop or a knight with a particularly jagged mane, and stab his own head until it bleeds. Then he rushes out of the tournament hall only to return for the next round as if nothing untoward has happened. At one event, this grandmaster was among the tournament leaders who were playing on an elevated stage. When he lost a key game, he bloodied his face and then, in an extreme masochistic flourish, dove off the three-foot-high stage, belly-flopping onto the hard floor.

Such behavior is exceptional, but even stable personalities have trouble accepting defeat. Garry Kasparov, the thirteenth world champion, frequently storms off like a bull, shoving aside spectators who are in his path. Pascal can be withdrawn and sullen for hours. When I lose, I repeatedly remind myself that chess is only a game. Yet even that reminder doesn't stop me from replaying in my head not only the moves of the game where I went astray, but also all the other things in my life that have gone wrong.

Chess is apparently as hard on the body as it is on the mind. Researchers at Temple University found that a chess master expends as much energy at the board as a football player or a boxer and that blood pressure and breathing rates rise considerably during a game. "Chess is very unhealthy," explained Nigel Short, the top British player of the twentieth century, when I visited him in the Athens apartment he shares with his Greek wife. Short was speaking from more than three decades of experience. During his world title bout with Kasparov in 1993, Short ate normally yet lost ten pounds—7.5 percent of his body weight—in just the first three games. "What could be more unnatural," Short said, "than sitting still for four or five hours while your heart is racing sometimes at 140 beats per minute? There's no outlet for all the stress. You can't punch the guy, kick a ball, or run laps." Illness during games is not uncommon. Even Kasparov himself, arguably the best player in the history of chess, has broken out with fever blisters in the heat of battle.

Most of the world's top players have strenuous exercise routines to balance their sedentary chess playing. Bobby Fischer worked out regularly long before it was fashionable, and Kasparov pumped iron, swam, and rowed as part of his chess training. "Your body has to be in top condition," Fischer said. "Your chess deteriorates as your body does. You can't separate mind from body."