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Hoffman's Gambit Print E-mail
By Howard Goldowsky   
October 1, 2007
Paul Hoffman. Photo: Courtesy of Hyperion
Howard Goldowsky: In your previous two books, you’ve written about Paul Erdös and Alberto Santos-Dumont, two people who have had the kind of obsessive and eccentric personality that typically fascinates you as a journalist. How does King’s Gambit, a personal memoir, complement these writing interests?

Paul Hoffman: Yes, those two books were about brilliant, socially maladroit men who were single-mindedly devoted to their professions. Genius, madness, obsession—these are themes in all my writing. I’m drawn to people who totally (perhaps even unhealthily) immerse themselves in whatever it is that they do. Chess players can be that way. Writers like me can be that way. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers and Wings of Madness were about arcane subcultures—mathematics and early aviation, respectively. King’s Gambit is about another subculture: tournament chess. This book, though, is my most personal work, because I am not an outsider to chess.

HG: In what ways did writing about chess, a topic that emotionally tugs at your heart, affect your ability to write in parallel about your emotionally charged relationship with your father, a cheat and a hustler? You had matured as a writer and as a chess player within your father’s shadow.

PH: My father was the one who taught me chess, when I was five, to distract me as I lay in bed from the discomfort of bee stings. Later, I lost myself in chess when my parents’ marriage collapsed. So once I chose to write about my own fascination with the game, it was only natural for me to include my father, too.

HG: A small but important theme running through King’s Gambit is the question about whether or not liars, cheats, and eccentrics, such as your father, are drawn to chess in disproportionate numbers. Does chess act as a therapeutic refuge for liars and cheats, a place where they can force themselves to be honest?

PH: In general, professional players hate that chess and insanity (or, more charitably, eccentricity) have long been connected in the popular imagination. But grandmasters who are honest with themselves—Genna Sosonko and Nigel Short, for example—accept this and have written about it. The connection is not surprising: chess playing requires no social skills, and the game can be very solipsistic considering all the studying required to get to the highest levels. I have no idea whether there is more psychopathology involved in chess than in other solitary pursuits (like being a concert pianist, a painter, or a novelist). Most of the eccentric personalities in chess are not only harmless, they are delightful, and their quirky presence adds color—and comic relief—to the tense tournament hall. My goal in King’s Gambit is to get across the wonderful passions that chess invokes. 

I don’t think that all or most chess players are cheats. Far from it. But my particular story is that I became absorbed in chess to avoid facing uncomfortable truths about my father. I thought the game was a pure, black-and-white sanctuary from the deception in the rest of my life. I didn’t expect to find any cheats whatsoever in the game. Of course, I was naïve. I became disillusioned with chess once I discovered that it was played by some of the most deceptive people I had ever met.

HG: Throughout the King’s Gambit narrative, you provide a detailed summary of many important events from the past thirty-five years of chess history. This type of detail is compelling for the chess fan, but how do you hope to draw in the lay fan?

PH: My book, I hope, has an engaging storyline, which revolves around my own immersion in the game and the way my complicated relationship with my brilliant, charismatic con man of a father was played out through chess. People like to read about subcultures that they know little about; and it is the writer’s job to cut through the jargon and rituals of these subcultures to bring them alive. 

I’m flattered that Jared Diamond wrote, of King’s Gambit: “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.”

HG: As a competitive chess player you’re familiar with the chess subculture, you have personal connections, and you possess the technical competence that other, more mainstream journalists might not have; however, there are also difficulties for a writer in your position. In King’s Gambit, you profile a number of chess players, all whom you’re friendly with: Jennifer Shahade, Irina Krush, Pascal Charbonneau, and Joel Lautier. In what ways did your journalism put a strain on your chess friendships, and what sorts of difficulties did you have writing about your friends?

PH: It is a fascinating question. I didn’t know any of the players you mentioned before I started writing about the game. I got to know Jennifer when I profiled her for Smithsonian, and I became friends with Pascal during our long and frightening week at the 2004 World Championship in Tripoli, where he tried to set and evade traps on the chessboard and I tried to evade traps set by Libyan intelligence agents. The kind of profile writing I do requires me to embed myself in my subjects’ lives, because I want to describe what they’re really like, and what they do, in novelistic detail. 

The chess book is the first time I became friends with my subjects. I was open to this, of course, because I was not just a journalist writing about chess but someone to whom the game meant a lot. And I had been disenchanted with some of the combative people I had met in the chess world whose competitive nature was in overdrive long after they had left the chessboard. As I wrote in King’s Gambit, to justify my own interest in chess, “I wanted to find strong players, chess role models if you will, whom I admired not only for how they guided their cavalry and clerics but also for how they conducted their lives.” Thankfully, I found them.

The difficulty, of course, was that I didn’t want my new friends ever to censor themselves or not confide in me because they feared what they said would end up in my book. They told me some very personal things that Paul the journalist would have loved to put in King’s Gambit, but that would have been a violation of our friendship. I remember joking with Pascal, after I had turned in the manuscript, that it was now safe for him to rob a bank, because it was too late for me to write about it. 

HG: The general attitude of King’s Gambit regarding the future of professional chess seems to be one of pessimism. Why is that?

PH: Well, professional chess has never been easy. Chess politics, too, have always been rough, and sponsorship dollars have been there only sporadically. So my attitude toward the future is one of realism informed by the bleak past. On the other hand, the huge growth in scholastic chess is a good thing. If more and more people are exposed to the game and like it, that could increase the fan base and attract corporate sponsorship.

But the reason to take up chess is not to make money—it’s to have fun and stretch your mind immeasurably. I’m as excited as ever about the power of the game to bring unsurpassed joy into the lives of individuals (as long as they keep their chess obsession in check!). My book ends on a high note about my own ecstatic happiness after managing to pull it all together in a rapid game and beat a master who had once defeated Bobby Fischer.

HG: You led the team that redesigned Chess Life magazine in 2006. Why did you not include any narrative about this revision? Given your background as a magazine editor (for Scientific American and Discover) and your love for chess, it would seem like the intersection of these two disciplines would be something you would want to write about at great length.

PH: I enjoyed my work with Chess Life, and am pleased that the USCF leadership gave me a chance to help improve the magazine. But writing about my philosophy of magazine editing would take King’s Gambit far away from my main storyline, which focuses on the passions that chess stirs up in both world-class players and amateurs like me.

HG: What’s next for Paul Hoffman’s chess and his writing?

PH: At the moment, I’m enjoying blogging, at thepHtest.com; for an old print guy, the freedom of a blog is liberating. I’m working on turning my last book, Wings of Madness, into a feature film, and am looking forward to meeting chess fans at book signings. As for my chess, I need to give up the King’s Gambit and play something real for a change.    

An excerpt from King’s Gambit

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 first learned chess, at the age of five, I would have agreed with Johnson’s naïve definition. But when I plunged into the New York City chess scene as a teenager and witnessed passionate eruptions at the chessboard, I understood that the game was not an innocent recreation but rather a unique amalgam of art, science, and blood sport. 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 both champions and amateurs like me. 

Defeat in chess is always painful.  William the Conqueror reportedly smashed a chessboard over the Prince of France. Pascal Charbonneau, the two-time 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 by grabbing his king, climbing up on the chess table, extending his arm horizontally, and dropping the king so that it bombed the board.   

When I was a spectator at Foxwoods once, 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 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 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—7½ 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.”

You do not have to be losing to succumb to the tension of the game. The pursuit of victory can also disturb your equilibrium.  In March 2005, Pascal Charbonneau was playing a game in France against Petar Drenchev of Bulgaria. For more than a year the twenty-year-old Canadian international master had been in a slump, starting off strongly in tournaments and then faltering whenever he was close to earning the title of grandmaster. This game, he hoped, would be different.  Pascal had White, which meant that he had the advantage of moving first.  As he and Drenchev shook hands—the ritual that begins all chess encounters—and sat down at the board, Pascal sized up the twenty-seven-year-old Bulgarian.  “I recall thinking,” he told me later, “he’s a sly little man. I’d better watch it.” 

The beginning of a chess game is an elaborate dance, with each player contriving to steer the game into a situation that’s more familiar to him than to his opponent. White grabs Black’s arms and says, “Let’s tango!” 

Black pulls away and says, “No, how about a waltz?” 

“Too slow,” White says. “What about the foxtrot?” 

“Too old,” counters Black. “I’ve forgotten the moves. How about something modern—like crunk?” Finally one of the players imposes his will on the other. 

Pascal is known on the chess circuit as a wild, fast dancer but against Drenchev he initially feigned interest in a slow waltz, the so-called Closed Sicilian, because he wanted to avoid the Bulgarian’s favorite Najdorf Sicilian. But on his fourth move the Canadian champion picked up the pace and started to transform the closed game into a wide-open frenetic mutual king hunt called the Dragon Sicilian—a not unwelcome development for Drenchev, who also liked the Dragon.  (The opening is called the Sicilian because Black’s first move was originally favored by players on the island of Sicily, and it is a Dragon Sicilian because the chess masters who chose the name apparently convinced themselves, maybe after a few cocktails, that the Black pawn formation, which  certainly had the potential to scorch the enemy, had the shape of a fabulous serpent as well.) 

World-class players generally follow certain standard sequences of opening moves—like the Rossolimo Variation—until one of them forgets what has been previously played or purposefully varies with an intended improvement. In this encounter the two combatants quickly deviated from established play although the position they reached had themes familiar to anyone who knew the Dragon.  White responded with the so-called Yugoslav Attack and was pursuing Black’s monarch on the kingside, bombarding him with pawns and pieces, and Black was counterattacking on the queenside.  The Black side of the Dragon is not for the timid; because Black moves second, he is often one tempo behind in the race for the king. To mix things up, Black sometimes employs a double-edged maneuver called an exchange sacrifice—giving up a rook for a knight. The rook is generally a much stronger piece than the knight, but Black initiates the trade in order to strip White’s king of a protective wall of pawns. Black is going for broke when he willingly parts with the powerful rook. He accepts a weaker army in return for an acceleration of his attack. If he doesn’t quickly checkmate White’s king, or restore the material balance by capturing a couple of loose pawns, the rook’s absence will eventually defeat him.

Pascal spent eight minutes on his fourteenth move trying to make sense of what would happen if Drenchev offered the exchange sacrifice. Caissa, the muse of chess, was kind that day, and the Canadian had an inspiration seconds into his long think. He saw that he could respond with an unexpected sacrifice—or “sac” in chess lingo—of his own. He could boldly refuse to execute the offered rook, thereby giving up his own knight and effectively pardoning the rook for capturing it, and simply press ahead with his own all-out assault on Drenchev’s king. Pascal concluded that his attack would be so fast that he’d succeed in checkmating Drenchev long before his opponent could profit from the extra knight. To ignore the gift rook was a deliciously devilish idea, but there was an unfortunate problem: it was all fantasy unless the Bulgarian actually decided to sac the exchange. Pascal made a bishop move typical of the Dragon in the hope of enticing the sac, and then he sat back quietly, calmly, drawing on whatever acting ability he had to conceal his enthusiasm and deviousness. Two moves and less than half a minute later, Drenchev fell into the trap and grabbed the knight.    

When Pascal refrained from immediately making the “obvious” rook capture, Drenchev looked uncomfortable. The Bulgarian knew from the hesitation that something was up. Pascal in fact was checking his analysis one last time before electing to spare the rook, and the longer he thought—albeit this happened in seconds not minutes—the more Drenchev squirmed. 

For Pascal’s part, he could not fully enjoy the success of his swindle because he was feeling increasingly queasy. “I had eaten a ton for breakfast,” he told me later. “I was completely stuffed.” He said that he didn’t get much sleep because his girlfriend kept him up late playing Internet poker.  And then he pointedly added: “My position in the game was much too exciting.” 

As Pascal studied the chessboard, he became so nauseated that he had to stop thinking and just proceed as planned.  He got up from the table. He knew he couldn’t make it to the restroom, so he rushed out a side door of the tournament hall and, with no one watching, vomited in the grass. Then he headed to the washroom, cleaned his face, and returned to the game. Fortunately his analysis was airtight. Drenchev also saw that checkmate was inevitable, and testily resigned after only five more moves. The hour-long, twenty-two-move encounter was an exquisite miniature in a competition in which the games typically lasted four hours and at least forty moves.  Drenchev dismissed the loss as a cheap trick and insisted he would have had the better position if he played differently at certain junctures. Pascal replayed the game on a chessboard in his mind. He tried the Bulgarian’s suggested improvements and saw immediately that they would fail but kept the refutations to himself. “He was angry,” Pascal told me.  “I didn’t want to antagonize him further.” 

Excerpted from King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman (Hyperion, September 2007). (C) 2007 Paul Hoffman. Visit the author's website and blog: www.thepHtest.com."

Here is the above referenced game, annotated by Charbonneau (these notes are not part of the book):


Sicilian Dragon, Yugoslav Attack (B77)
Pascal Charbonneau (FIDE 2490)
Petar Drenchev ( FIDE 2404)
FRA-chT2 0405 France (9.1), 03.13.2005

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3

I noticed that my opponent was not a diehard Dragon player, but a player who agreed to transpose to the Dragon against a Closed Sicilian set up. I decided that was an interesting choice.

2. ... Nc6 3. Nf3 g6 4. d4 cxd4 5. Nxd4 Bg7 6. Be3 Nf6 7. Bc4 0-0 8. Bb3 d6 9. f3 Bd7 10. Qd2

Now we can easily transpose to a normal Dragon after ... Rc8 0-0­-0.

10. ... Na5

This move used to be played in various positions. The obvious advantage is that the bishop on b3 can be directly taken (instead of trying to exchange it with Na5-c4). The disadvantage is that the knight on e5 is effective as a defensive piece as well. Moreover, the capture on b3 is often well met with the simple cxb3, after which this is a hard structure for Black to crack.

11. h4

It is possible to play 11. 0-0-0 as well, of course.

11. ... Rc8 12. h5!?

This was an interesting psychological moment, and an instance where I felt I really “tricked” my opponent into making a mistake. This move sets a devilish trap, which I saw quickly.

I was not sure whether I should go for it or play 12. 0-0-0, when we'd transpose after Nc4 to the normal Yugoslav where Black allows 13. h5. However, I also felt that the immediate 12. h5!? was very interesting, because I am able to get in Bh6 without trouble (compared to the Kasparov variation with 12. 0-0-0 Nc4 13. Bxc4 Rxc4 14. h5 Nxh5 15. g4 Nf6 16. Bh6 when there is 16. ... Nxe4 and immense complications).

I played the move quickly (I took about seven to eight minutes), hoping my opponent would think I underestimated an Exchange sac a few moves later.  

12. ... Nxh5 13. g4 Nf6 14. Bh6

This is the point; Black is in difficulty here. I think the combination of ... Na5 with early castling and letting White play h4-h5 is not correct. 

14. ... Bxh6?

He falls for it ...

15. Qxh6 Rxc3 16. g5!

This is quite an unusual position, and amusingly, it would not work if the white king were on c1. It is extremely important that the bishop on b3 can’t be taken with check. Black is already defenseless here.  

16. ... Re3+ 17. Kf1 Nh5 18. Rxh5 gxh5 19. g6

This is the idea. Black cannot escape. 

19. ... hxg6 20. Qxg6+ Kh8 21. Qxh5+ Kg7 22. Qg5+, Black resigned.

Black calls it a day because 22. ... Kh7 23. Kf2 with Rh1 and mate to follow.

For more on Pascal Charbonneau, see our Montreal International feature in this issue.