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King's Gambit

by Paul Hoffman

Hardcover, 433 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $24.95 |


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King's Gambit
Paul Hoffman

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Book Summary

The author provides an insider's account of the fiercely competitive world of professional chess, describing his own experiences as a troubled child prodigy, marked by his parents' divorce, who spent his weekends in the chess epicenter of Greenwich Village.

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Excerpt: King's Gambit



Copyright © 2007 Paul Hoffman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-0097-5

Chapter One


"All I want to do, ever, is play chess." -bobby fischer

"No chess grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness." -victor korchnoi

After my parents separated in 1968, when i was twelve, I lived a kind of double life. Until I went to college, I usually spent weekdays with my mother in Westport, Connecticut, a quiet, Cheeveresque suburb an hour's train ride from New York City, and weekends with my father in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. My classmates in Westport were jealous of my regular trips to the city. Their dads were doctors and lawyers and advertising executives who came home every evening for dinner. My father was a James Joyce devotee who wrote celebrity profiles under female pseudonyms for movie magazines and never ate a single meal in his apartment. He was also a poker player, a billiards and Ping-Pong hustler, a three-card monte shill, and an erudite part-time literature professor at the New School for Social Research, whose specialty was what he proudly called "the grotesque and perverse" in twentieth-century American and Anglo-Irish fiction. He ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Village Den, Joe's Dinette, the White Horse and Cedar Taverns, and other watering holes that were central to bohemian culture in the late 1960s, and he took me along. A few of my dad's friends smoked dope in front of their children and swapped wives. My high school buddies in Connecticut who didn't know me well imagined that I was rocking out at the Bottom Line and getting high at poetry readings, but in truth I never saw a single band, did drugs, or heard Patti Smith speak verse. Instead I spent my weekends playing chess.

Although I had learned how to move the pieces when I was five, I only became fully immersed in the game when my parents' marriage was falling apart: chess offered a tidy black-and-white sanctuary from the turmoil in the rest of my life. The Village was a chess mecca, with its many chess cafés and clubs, and my father lived only a ten-minute walk from its epicenter, Washington Square Park. My dad accompanied me to these places and, when he wasn't watching me play, passed the time reading novels and preparing his New School lectures. In the southwest corner of the park stood nineteen stone chess tables; these were occupied by all breeds of chess addict, from complete beginners who set their queen up on the wrong square to world-class players eager to demonstrate their command of double-rook endings and the Nimzo-Indian Defense. In those days the park didn't have a curfew, and people played chess at all hours. Cops on horseback gathered near the tables, and on slow nights, when they weren't breaking up couples having sex or escorting acid freaks to St. Vincent's Hospital, they'd look down from their high mounts and critique the moves on the boards-a time-honored tradition in chess known as kibitzing. When it was cold or raining, the park habitués retreated to three smoky chess parlors on Thompson and Sullivan, where they rented boards for pennies an hour to continue their games.

One autumn evening in the early 1970s, my dad and I ended up in the chess shop owned by Nicholas Rossolimo, a Russian émigré who had been the champion of France in 1948 and had gone on in the 1950s to compete successfully in the United States. Rossolimo was a grandmaster-an exalted ranking in chess that is exceeded only by the title of world champion. There were just ninety grandmasters in 1970, one-third of whom lived in the Soviet Union. Being a grandmaster in America was rare enough, but even within this exclusive club Rossolimo had the special distinction of being immortalized in the chess literature for the "Rossolimo Variation," a particular sequence of moves characterized by an early light-squared bishop sortie by White.

Very few grandmasters are able to earn a living on the tournament circuit, though, and by 1970, when Rossolimo turned sixty, his championship days were long behind him. He drove a yellow cab, gave the occasional chess lesson, and babysat the woodpushers in his small chess salon. Rossolimo was also an old-school romantic whose pursuit of beauty at the chessboard sometimes blinded him to the impending brutality of his opponent's provocations. He was like the dreamy architecture student who sprains his ankle in a huge pothole in the sidewalk because his gaze is fixed on the gargoyles and cornices above.

On the evening of our visit, my father and I were greeted by the smell of garlic. Rossolimo was steaming a large pot of mussels on a hot plate balanced atop a wooden chessboard. My father and I stepped over a broken bottle in the entranceway and took our places at another board. Rossolimo was happy to see us-we were the only people there. He motioned to our board with an expansive gesture and urged us to play. My father declined, explaining that I was too good. Rossolimo laughed.

We watched him uncork a bottle of white, pour three glasses, and place one in front of each of us. I was fourteen or fifteen, and no one had ever offered me this much wine before. Had he failed to notice, I wondered, that I was conspicuously underage? Perhaps serving liquor to minors was a European custom. My father, who avoided alcohol because it aggravated his stomach ulcers, pretended to drink. Rossolimo gulped down half of his glass. I raised mine, clinked it against my father's, and sampled it cautiously. I announced that the wine was great. My father looked uneasy, but I knew he wouldn't spoil our bonding moment with the grandmaster by objecting to my drinking.

Rossolimo told my father that I was a fine boy and he proposed playing me a game. My dad was afraid he was going to charge us, but Rossolimo waived his customary fee and told us we were his friends and drinking companions. He turned off the hot plate and scooped the mussels into a wooden salad bowl. They were shriveled and overcooked but he didn't seem to notice.

I raised my glass to Rossolimo's and offered a toast to the generosity of our host and the quality of the wine. My father watched helplessly as I took another sip. In fact, it tasted terrible, and I considered dumping a little out of my glass under the chess table so that it would look as if I'd consumed more than a tablespoon.

Rossolimo told me to take White and challenged me to show how good I was. After two moves apiece I found that we had stumbled into the precise position in which I could employ the Rossolimo Variation against him. Charmed by my youthful cheekiness in making him face his own patented weapon, the grandmaster complimented me on copying the best.

As is typical in many lines of the Rossolimo Variation, I exchanged the light-squared bishop for a knight in a way that forced him to double his pawns, creating a structural weakness in which one of his foot soldiers blocked a comrade. Doubled pawns are not necessarily a great hindrance; if, however, the combat continues for many moves to the stage known as the endgame, in which most of the pieces have been exchanged, the immobility of the rear pawn can prove decisive-it's like being a pawn down. Rossolimo didn't seem perturbed. Mostly, he seemed to be moving reflexively as he entertained my father with a long boozy rant about Sartre and Nabokov. I was antsy because all of his chattering was making it hard to concentrate. I thought for a while whenever it was my turn to move-five minutes here, ten minutes there-but he always rattled me by responding instantly. Did he not need to think because he had seen this all before and had an ingenious grandmasterly plan to turn the game in his favor? Or was he truly being careless and was the endgame, in which the doubled pawns would put him at an increasing disadvantage, sneaking up on him? The latter proved to be the case.

When Rossolimo finally paused in his monologue about literature to look at the board, he immediately saw that he had a losing position: because of his formal, Soviet-style chess schooling, he knew the fine points of this kind of endgame infinitely better than I did. Rather than face the ignominy of a protracted defeat, he abruptly picked up his king and dropped it, crown first, into the bowl of garlicky broth. Mussel juice splattered across the table. Then he pushed the chess pieces into a heap in the center of the board before I had a chance to enjoy the final position. Glancing at his watch, he stood up, berated us for staying past the closing time, and ushered us out the door.

I was certainly pleased that I had defeated a chess legend, but I wasn't impudent about it. I don't think I even said a word to my dad. I knew that heavy drinking had impaired Rossolimo's play. I had never been close to drunk myself; indeed I had never taken more than the few sips of wine that I'd had that evening. But I had understood how disorienting alcohol could be from movies like Dumbo, in which the little elephant goes on a long hallucinatory bender, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a favorite of my mother's because it made her marriage seem comparatively happy.

Even though I knew that Rossolimo had effectively defeated himself, my father made sure that I knew: he informed me that Rossolimo had consumed five bottles of wine during the course of the evening. I argued that that was impossible, that he'd have been lying on the floor, that he'd had only two. My dad claimed that I had been too engrossed in the chessboard to notice what was happening. I found it unsettling that the game, which had started promisingly as a pleasant encounter over drinks, had degenerated into Rossolimo's kicking us out and my father's diminishing my victory.

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 was small, I would have agreed with Johnson's naïve definition. But as I plunged further into the New York chess scene as a teenager and encountered the likes of Rossolimo, I understood that the game was not an innocent recreation but rather a unique amalgam of art, science, and blood sport. I learned that passionate eruptions were common at the chessboard and hardly confined to alcoholic veterans. 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 champions and amateurs alike.

Defeat in chess is always painful. Rossolimo was a saint compared to other wounded losers. William the Conqueror reportedly smashed a chessboard over the Prince of France. Pascal Charbonneau, the 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 with a theatricality that surpassed Rossolimo's. He grabbed his king, climbed up on the chess table, extended his arm horizontally, and dropped the king so that it bombed the board.

When I was a spectator in 2003 at the annual chess tournament at the Foxwoods Casino, where 630 players were battling for a prize fund of $93,500, 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 for 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, the thirteenth world champion, 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-7.5 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 champion 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.)