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Chess as a Mirror of a Father’s Flaws Print E-mail
By Jon Jacobs   
September 20, 2007
ImageKing’s Gambit (2007) by Paul Hoffman, Hyperion, 448 pages, List price: $24.95. Available on uscfsales.com with a member discount.

Is playing serious chess bad for your mental health?

Long a staple of various discussion boards, that question has finally hit the mainstream. It’s a recurring theme of King’s Gambit, a newly published survey of the contemporary chess world by renowned science editor Paul Hoffman.

King’s Gambit deftly interweaves Hoffman’s personal history—especially a troubled relationship with a brilliant father who the author finally judged to be a pathological liar—with first-hand reports from important chess events and in-depth portraits of chess personalities, from Nigel Short to Bruce Pandolfini. He personally covers the 2004 FIDE World Championship in Tripoli, a U.S. Championship, an Aeroflot Open in Moscow, and various Kasparov matches and exhibitions. Other events, notably the 2000 match in which Kramnik wrested the crown from Kasparov in London, he presents through interviews with various participants.

King’s Gambit joins an emerging genre of works that aim to bring the game and its many colorful characters to the attention of a wider public. Hoffman’s tone is more deeply personal than J.C. Hallman’s The Chess Artist, Michael Weinreb’s The Kings of New York, or Jennifer Shahade’s Chess Bitch. The peaks and valleys of modern chess culture become the terrain on which he confronts his own insecurities about competition, aggression and personal integrity.

“When is the urge to win not just about performing optimally and more about breaking your adversary, physically or psychically?” Hoffman asks. “... The idea of ‘healthy competition’ may be a myth when it comes to chess. Can you really play a friend, go for each other’s jugular, and be buddies afterward?”

This clash between friendship and competition crops up repeatedly, from the then-teenaged author’s victory in an informal game with an aged GM Nicholas Rossolimo on page three, to recent encounters with WGM Jennifer Shahade and GM Antoaneta Stefanova.

Hoffman is at his most poignant when struggling to come to terms with his long-deceased father. James Hoffman, a jackhammer intellectual with a taste for life’s seedy side, competed relentlessly with his son even when the boy was in elementary school. He also made regular use of his gift for storytelling to deceive people close to him, including Paul.

Although the elder Hoffman was only a casual chess player, Paul perceives a common thread between his lying and that of Claude Bloodgood, the chess-playing con artist who spent his final 30 years in prison after murdering his mother in 1968. Lying is a path to quick gratification. That can mean hustling money instead of earning it. In the case of James Hoffman, it meant regularly getting his son to fulfill his wishes by concocting stories that left the boy with no decent alternative.

The author even coins a chess-related term for individuals who habitually lie to achieve instant results: “Grobsters.” The word derives from Grob’s Opening, 1. g4. Adherents like Claude Bloodgood know it’s unsound, but play it anyway in hopes of a quick kill, Hoffman says.

But Grob players aren’t the game’s only con men, according to Hoffman. “Deception is everywhere in the world of chess,” he concludes—from cheating and collusion to entire fictitious tournaments. Even the nature of play itself is said to encourage a scheming, trappy mindset and its flip side, paranoia.

“The irony is that chess, which seems so pure in the abstract, is a magnet for deceptive people,” he writes. “I moved away from the game not because I lost interest in what was happening on the board but because I could not tolerate the dishonesty and psychic aggression all around me in the tournament hall.”

So it’s no surprise to see Hoffman attach great import to the many well-worn tales of chess players who went crazy or died by their own hand. His opening chapter, “The Insanity Defense,” is devoted solely to that subject. The author displays a stunning lack of perspective there. Acclaimed poets routinely commit suicide; musicians often die young, tormented, drug-addicted; professional and collegiate athletes engage in self-destructive behavior so frequently and so publicly that I hardly need cite examples. Yet Hoffman is hardly alone in citing individual chess players’ misfortunes to imply that chess either engenders or attracts abnormality—without a scintilla of meaningful evidence. Anecdotes without statistics on outcomes of comparable endeavors don’t count as evidence, even in journalism, where the standard of evidence is relatively low.

At times, King’s Gambit leans toward similarly one-sided diagnoses of chess as both dangerously competitive and shot through with deception. (Does the extent of deception in organized chess even come close to what we read daily in the headlines about baseball, cycling, or track?)

In the end, Hoffman makes his peace with the game that he fled as a young man and rediscovered, initially with much ambivalence, some 20 years later. Playing serious chess means repeatedly facing the stress of competition, the dread of losing and the terrible behaviors of others. Arrayed against these demons, and overcoming them, are the game’s rejuvenating, spiritual benefits: the intense absorption and escape from the mundane; the euphoria of victory; and most of all, the beauty of creation—the quest, in Hoffman’s words, “to work magic with the chess pieces,” and thereby “achieve a small degree of immortality.” .