Chess and New Books Print E-mail
Jennifer's Blog
By Jennifer Shahade   
September 4, 2007
Before I get into some exciting new chess themed books, I have a heads-up. The website look and feel will be changed in the near future. Chess Life Online won't be the homepage, so if you're used to going there for news, be sure to bookmark it once the site has changed.

The two authors I'm focusing on, Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer prize winning writer and recent author of  The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and Paul Hoffman of King's Gambit , make chess accessible in a way that few writers have. King's Gambit deals with a wide range of chess personalities, from Paul's best friend in the chess world, GM Pascal Charbonneau to Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov. I should disclose that Paul Hoffman is a good friend and I plan to attend his reading on September 25 at 7pm at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble (You should come too!). My brother and I are also characters in the book, and my first hour of "reading" the book involved me checking the index for every reference to Shahade. The following story about Greg shows off Paul's subtle humor and how well he gets to know his subjects. (I'm also including this to embarrass Greg.)

Greg's approach was less disciplined. he routinely went to bed at four in the morning and rose only minutes before the 1:30 PM round. He too, possessed a PC with two million chess games stored on it, but the database apparently received less use than his sister's. Instead he pressed the computer into service to play online poker and kung-fu chess, at which he was the number one player in the world. Greg also kept himself busy with a Sony PlayStation, A TV season's worth of The Simpsons on DVD and a Dance Dance Revolution Pad, all of which he'd hauled out to the West Coast from New York....

I happened to occupy the hotel room next to Greg's and on the night before the final round, when he could have been preparing for one of his toughest opponents---fifteen-year-old Hikaru Nakamura...I awoke at 4:00 AM to the sound of Bart Simpson's voice and Greg laughing loudly.

"How's the Nakamura preparation going?" I shouted through the wall.

"Not well,"said Greg, "I haven't started yet."

The above segment is great because it could not be written about anyone else in the universe except for Greg, although anyone who knows Greg as the commissioner of the U.S. Chess League also knows that he can be very detail-oriented and disciplined. (you will soon see a very serious CLO article by Greg titled, "Why the Swiss System is Terrible.")

The fictional Yiddish Policeman's Union emerged from a fascinating concept. After an unsuccessful attempt to occupy Israel in 1948, the Jews settled in Sitka Alaska, for a set period of 60 years. In Yiddish Policeman's Union, they are about to be kicked out due to "Reversion." Yiddish is flourishing in Sitka, nobody speaks Hebrew and chess is much loved. The book begins: "Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid calling himself Emanuel Lasker." As Paul Hoffman also points out in his blog, these two sentences are a tour de force of an opening, the literary equivalent of playing e4, d4 and f4 all at once.

Father figures

Chabon and Hoffman's books both prominently feature father son dynamics in chess.

Landsman, the alcoholic detective protagonist of the Yiddish Policeman's Union, learned to hate chess from his father. His father was talented at chess, but he seemed to be unhappy when he played. When teaching his son, his overly serious and punitive approach to chess turned Landsman off. Chabon writes:

Even then he (Landsman's father) displayed the mournful, agonized style of play that helped ruin the game for Landsman as a child. 'Your father played chess," Hertz Shemets once said, "like a man with a toothache, a hemorrhoid, and gas." He sighed, he moaned...The blunders of his opponents were each a separate cramp in the abdomen. His own moves, however daring, however startling and original and strong, struck him like successive pieces of terrible news..."

In Yiddish Policeman, Landsman's passion for chess is ignited through the case of Mendel Shpilman. He must decipher a crucial clue, the position on the chess board at the murder scene. At first he assumed that it was a chess game, but then he realizes the position was so odd it must be a chess problem.

In his acknowledgments, Chabon refers readers interested in the exact position of the problem in the book to Vladimir Nabakov's autobiography, Speak, Memory.

White to Move and Mate in Two

I love chess problems myself, but this does not rank among the most elegant demonstrations of zugzwang....It does contribute to the plot (read the book for how it does this.) It's inclusion is also a shout out to the great author of Lolita, whose prose, extravagantly lyrical, must have influenced Chabon. Click here for the solution.

That Landsman recreated his relationship to chess through a Nabakov problem is filled with significance. Focusing on beauty in problems is a great way to attract less competitive people (or people uncomfortable with their competitive urges) to chess.

After finishing Yiddish Policeman, I immediately googled the book to search for reviews, most of which were glowing. The main criticism I found was that the ambitious, thrilling concept and the beautiful writing weren't always matched by the sometimes forced plot. But perhaps Chabon had the last laugh there. Like a book of chess problems with the beginning and endings cut off, what's memorable in Chabon's book is a series of shiny sentences and scenes filled with emotional truth.

It's not a surprise that Paul Hoffman's King's Gambit deals with father issues, because it is subtitled, "A Son, A Father and the World's Most Dangerous Game." Paul's father was an editor and writer as well as a brilliant and charming figure. Filled with admiration for his father, it was painful for Paul to realize as a young adult that his dad lied routinely, not only when it was convenient but also when he was too uncomfortable to confront something directly. In one hilarious and painful example , Paul's father is unable to tell his son that he does not want him to be a lawyer. Instead, he makes up stories about lawyer friends whose lives were unhappy, and even pens a partial manuscript How Not to Raise Your Child to be A Lawyer, leaving it for Paul to find. After this glaring incident, Paul begins to unravel many of his father's previous lies and manipulations. He also understands why he was so enamored of playing chess, especially with his dad.

I realize now that I was drawn to chess because there can be no doubt about the result--there is no room for deception. Nothing is clearer than checkmate... Because my father was my main opponent when I was young, the unambiguousness of the result was important to me, although at the time I didn't know why.

Things you may have missed

Howard Goldowsky's new book, Engaging Pieces: Interviews and Prose for the Chess Fan is also worth noting. Much of the material in the book was previously published on, but some of it was new or I had missed. The most surprising section is his short stories that revolve around chess--they mostly deal with lust, women and chess.

I'm a few years late on the following amazing chess scene from "the greatest TV show ever", The Wire, a fictional show about the drug trade and the police force in Baltimore. One of my friends looked at me with jealousy when I told him back in 2006 that I never saw the Wire: "I'd give up a year of my life to have never seen the Wire." I've spent the last six months savoring the show, rather than gulping it down in one ill-advised marathon weekend.

One of the things that hooked me was the first season's lead character D'Angelo, and a scene from the third episode about chess.

The Wire chess scene scores a 10/10 from me ( and we all know how bad chess scenes can be), because it stretches on long enough so that it actually teach or at least refresh viewers on the rules, meanwhile revealing hidden desires of the characters.

D. finds two of his drug dealers, Bodie and Little Man, sitting on crates playing checkers in the middle of a drug infested slum. He is outraged that they are playing checkers with a chess set, and so he teaches them the rules starting with "the kingpin" who "aint got no hustle" and the queen, who is the "go get shit done piece...the queen ain't no bitch. She got all the moves."

D. compares pawns to "soldiers" or street-level drug dealers. Bodie, whose heart is sealed up with ambition, asks how a pawn becomes a king. Disappointed to learn that the "the king stay the king", Bodie comes back to the question later, hoping for another answer:

"So if I make it to the end, I'm top dog?"

D. responds: " No, it don't work like that. Pawns in the game....they get capped quick, they be out the game early."

"Unless," Bodie says, refusing to let go of the pawn to king theory, "they're some smart ass pawns."

Nabakov solution- 1.Bc2! and Black is in zugzwang. An important "try" instead of Bc2 is b8=N when the obvious d6+ is mated by Nd7. However, Black can stave off mate with c5 or c2.