King's Gambit and the story-teller Paul Hoffman

by ChessBase
10/8/2007 – A new chess book is creating a buzz, and not just in the chess world. King's Gambit was written by award-winning author Paul Hoffman, who has had a life-long love affair with the royal game. The book is receiving international attention and good reviews in newspapers and magazines. Having known Paul for some time now we asked him for excerpts, which we duly received. Reviews and sampler.

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Paul Hoffman:

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

Paul Hoffman is an award-winning, best-selling author whose books explore the fuzzy line between genius, obsession, and madness. In his latest book, King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, Paul trains his pen and wit on the chess world.

Paul Hoffman's book has been greeted with strong reviews by large-circulation magazines. Entertainment Weekly awarded the book an A minus: "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."

And People Magazine gave King's Gambit three and half out of four stars: "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."

In Newsday Emily Gordon writes: "Chess brings out grandeur and brutality in its human players. Hoffman's memoir, "King's Gambit," a chronicle of his and others' lives spent at that level of concentration, is as jagged, passionate and methodical as the game itself. In essay-like chapters, Hoffman ranges over the great subjects of chess: chess as war strategy, the challenge of computers, the domination of Russians, the emergence of women players, chess-world politics, and so on. Chess is truly a great subject: There's nothing sedentary about the players of this seated game. Hoffman seems to have met most of them, and he has a terrific ear for dialogue. He shows us that chess rivals can be close as lovers: "After he downed another vodka, Karpov looked a bit wistful. 'I know Kasparov as well as I know anyone,' he told me. 'I know his smell. I can read him by that.' Indeed, the two men had sat face-to-face for a total of perhaps 750 hours, their foreheads sometimes only millimeters apart as they leaned in over the chessboard. 'I recognize the smell when he is excited and I know it when he is scared. We may be enemies, but we are intimate enemies.'""

We have known Paul for many years now, as an old friend who to our delight actually lives in Woodstock – the Woodstock – and who turns up at many chess events in the USA. We treasure his company especially as a raconteur, someone who is able to enthrall an audience with stories from his latest research.

A typical example was a dinner, held after a Kasparov vs Computer match in New York, where a group of organisers and players gathered to unwind after a particularly exciting game. At some stage the conversation turned to Paul's latest book, Wings of Madness, and he started telling us about Alberto Santos-Dumont (you may be forgiven for never having heard the name before), an early pioneer of aviation, who was born in Brazil but spent most of his life in France, where he designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible balloons, attempting to win a prize for a controlled flight rounding the Eiffel Tower (he succeeded in 1901). Even Kasparov's exploits against the computer took back seat to Paul's gripping hour-long narrative. Probably everybody at that meal now owns the book which Paul subsequently released.

A few excerpts from King's Gambit

We asked Paul for a few excerpts from King's Gambit. He sent us three, which provide an unguarded look at three grandmasters: Garry Kasparov, the late Aleksander Wojtkiewicz, and Pascal Charbonneau.

On Garry Kasparov:

I first met Garry Kasparov through Bruce Pandolfini in November 2000, when Bruce was the master of ceremonies at a Manhattan charity event in which the Russian played twenty-one games simultaneously against amateurs. Kasparov had been dethroned as world champion two weeks earlier by his protégé Vladimir Kramnik, and this was the first time he had played in public since. Kasparov grimaced and grumbled when a boy offered him a draw in a position in which the boy stood much worse. Pandolfini tactfully warned the crowd that, if any draw offers were to be made, the champion would make them.

After nearly two hours, Kasparov had disposed of everyone except Nelson Farber, an attorney in his late thirties. Farber had managed to frustrate Kasparov's efforts to pull off one of his trademark flashy attacks. At one point, the Russian stared, squinting, at the ceiling for several minutes, shaking his head disapprovingly. Farber sat there stoically, only to subsequently blunder in a position that looked dead even; when he finally acknowledged defeat, Kasparov broke into a wide grin and pumped his hand.

Pandolfini and I went to dinner with Kasparov afterward, and I asked him whether Farber could have drawn the game if he hadn't made the error. "Of course," Kasparov replied, as if I had asked the world's dumbest question. "For a moment before he blundered, I thought of offering him a draw. But I didn't like the way he looked. He was too smug and self-confident. I wanted to crush him."

Later, I contacted Farber and told him that Kasparov hadn't offered him a draw because he looked too confident. "Confident?" Farber said. "That's ridiculous. I was scared shitless. It was a Walter Mitty moment with everyone crowded around the board and Kasparov staring off into space for ages. I thought etiquette required me to move instantly but here he was taking a lot of time. There was a moment when we exchanged smiles. My smile was 'I'm happy to be here, amazed I lasted this long.' His smile was 'I'm going to kill you.'"

On Aleksander Wojtkiewicz:

In a chess world full of oversized characters, Aleksander Wojtkiewicz was still a standout. He was equal part hustler and naïf, and the stories about him were endless and amusing. Like the time he wondered unknowingly into a gay bar with a male friend and a woman. At some point the woman had a nose bleed and Wojt got the attention of the place when he anxiously and loudly asked the bartender for Vaseline, an old Polish remedy for her affliction. There was also the time that he was staying with friends in Chicago, disappeared for a weekend without telling them, and returned with no explanation, as if he had just stepped out to buy a paper, except that he was now on crutches.

On Pascal Charbonneau:

At fourteen, Pascal Charbonneau personally experienced cheating for the first time at chess. In the last round of an open tournament, he faced an international master, and the two of them were in contention for $1,500 Canadian for the best performance of a player rated under 2400. "In the middle of the game the guy took out this peculiar little bottle that had a strong herbal smell," Pascal recalled. "I didn't know whether it was a drug or what. He looked nervous and started drinking it and he got pissed off when I smiled." They reached a position in time pressure where Pascal had no winning chances and his opponent was a bit better. "He repeated the position three times," Pascal said, "and I stopped the clock and claimed a draw by three-fold repetition. He said, 'No, no, it's not a draw.'" Pascal proposed calling the arbiter who'd review the score sheets to see if the same position had indeed occurred three times but his opponent objected. "He had tears in his eyes," Pascal recalled. "He was agitated and said, 'How can you do this? We should have made a deal and split the money.'" By drawing and scoring only 1/2 point each, they allowed another player to leapfrog them and win the $1,500. "He didn't propose a deal before the game—I'll give you $600 if you lose—because he thought he was going to beat me," Pascal said.

Afterward, the master challenged him to speed chess at $5 a game. Pascal refused, and the master tried to entice him by offering him time odds of five minutes to two. Still he turned him down. "My father was so offended," Pascal said, "that he got out his wallet and was ready to back me. I had to restrain him. Now that I'm older, I understand the guy's behavior, even though I don't approve. The money meant a lot to him, and many chess professionals like him were just scraping by."


Paul Hoffman's book is available at Amazon at a special introductory price of 34% off. You may also be interesed in his other two books, which we are currently reading with great enjoyment.

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