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Review: "King's Gambit," by Paul Hoffman (Newsday)

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KING’S GAMBIT: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, by Paul Hoffman. Hyperion, 400 pp., $24.95.

By Emily Gordon

Chess brings out grandeur and brutality in its human players. Paul Hoffman, who’s been deeply involved in the game since he was a child, is an intimate observer of — as David Remnick put it in a recent interview with grandmaster Garry Kasparov — “the absolute, singular concentration of a life bent over 64 squares.” 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.

Hoffman (who ranks as a Class A chess player) is the former editor in chief of Discover magazine and president of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, as well as the author of two well-received nonfiction books about an eccentric mathematician and an early pioneer of flight. Hoffman clearly likes to gets his facts right — this is a sturdy volume of carefully explained (and footnoted) details and digressions — but it’s chess that really grips his psyche. Its rules, characters and histories occupy his head, a labyrinth of positions and personalities.

Is that a form of madness? Throughout the book, Hoffman asks it directly. “Chess was an insane game,” he writes. “When I lost, I was unhappy. And yet it was necessary to play and risk defeat if I was ever going to win and relish victory.” In essay-like chapters, Hoffman ranges over this and the other 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. Hoffman illuminates his account with many well-chosen quotes from the literature of chess, fiction and nonfiction, although, curiously, he skims over Walter Tevis’ peerless novel “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Chess is truly a great subject: There’s nothing sedentary about the players of this seated game. Hoffman — who once played Kasparov himself — 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.’”

This is not just a book about chess, however, and the danger referred to in the title is not just in the chance of losing a game or a tournament. Hoffman is preoccupied with plenty of chessmen, but the central character here turns out to be his father. James Hoffman was a B-grade journalist who wrote salacious, punning stories for gossip magazines and forged layers of deception in his own life that Hoffman is still trying to figure out. After he and Paul’s mother (who is not much discussed here) divorced, he moved to a downtown Manhattan bachelor pad. When Hoffman started coming in from Westport, Conn., to see him, he began to play in an American chess mecca: Washington Square Park and the chess clubs and stores that surrounded it at the time.

This childhood and adolescent relationship wounds and provokes Hoffman the writer and adult, and he seems to return to it almost fresh each time, as though he’s only just sitting down at the board against a baffling opponent. Hoffman struggles to believe in and promote a valiant image of his father, but must constantly question him; his father undermines his son in turn. Still, some of his father’s parental crimes (“dragging” him to Quaker meeting as a child so that someday he can stay out of a draft on religious pacifist grounds, for example, or “imposing” “experimental New Age braces”) can surely be seen as loving, if not always especially considerate. Since Hoffman’s father died in 1982, he can’t speak to these stories.

One of the qualities Hoffman admires in his father — his giddy, carefree way with language — eludes him during these psychological meditations, which can have an austerely formal quality. At times, he seems to be attempting an impossible project. It might be possible to write a thorough oral history of chess, or of Hoffman’s father’s career, of Hoffman’s own games, or of his chess-world friends; the latter was what made “Word Freak” so engaging on the equally obsessive subject of Scrabble.

But when you add further categories, like Hoffman’s marriage, a nearly debilitating and mysterious illness, and his ambivalence about his father, complete documentation becomes futile. “Chess players live in an alternative world of what might have been,” he writes early in this book, and like Mary Gordon’s “The Shadow Man,” this is a search for an inadequate, elusive parent that can never be completed.

On the other hand, whenever Hoffman gets carried away with a story that gets him, and us, outside his history and head — as when he gets into situations filled with international intrigue and peril, like being interrogated by the police while trying to play in Libya — his prose is vigorous and very funny. His unselfconscious portraits of neurotic or outrageous characters are as effective as good fiction, and his chapter about women chess players — especially the section about top player Jennifer Shahade — is one of the book’s liveliest and best.

Obsession is often unquenchable, parents frustrating, love and the mind prone to failure, the sweetest dreams unrealizable. Hoffman is a noble character here, all the more noble because he’s so self-effacing, and he’s careful in his writing not to show off too much. He has some things to show off about, and he deserves a victorious break from replaying so many real and metaphorical games, whose results are unalterable.

Published October 7, 2007

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