Yo, Hallman

by admin on June 1, 2008

A couple weeks ago I finished reading The Chess Artist by J.C. Hallman, which was an anniversary present from my wife. We were in a bookstore about a week before our anniversary, and she said, “Pick out any book you want, and I’ll buy it for you.” I found Hallman’s book (originally $25.95) marked down to $6.95, which means that it is being “remaindered” and will probably go out of print soon. It was published in 2003, and somehow snuck past me.

My one-sentence review of The Chess Artist would be “Starts out with a bang but fizzles out.” As a person who has written a book myself, I can see the trap that Hallman fell into. He had an idea that really sounded good on paper, with strong characters and a good story line, and he probably got a contract on that basis. But the deeper he got into the project, the more the characters and the story line started looking like smoke and mirrors. After a while the author started to become disenchanted with his own subject. And so the book just limps to a conclusion, without fulfilling its early promise.

But there are some really good things about The Chess Artist, too — it’s not all dreary by any means. Here are some more particulars.

The “Chess Artist” of the title is Glenn Umstead, one of the strongest black players in America, whom Hallman meets because the two of them work at the same casino in Atlantic City. Hallman, a complete neophyte at chess, is completely overawed by Umstead’s ability and his personality, and starts following him around and soaking up his chess wisdom. For most of the book, the partnership really clicks, Hallman playing the role of Boswell to Umstead’s Samuel Johnson, or Sancho Panza to Umstead’s Don Quixote.

Umstead doesn’t seem to mind having a journalist hovering around him. He says, “Yo, Hallman,” a lot. Hallman seems a little bit star-struck, and perhaps doesn’t do enough to explain to the reader exactly where Umstead is on the chess-player pecking order. Maurice Ashley, the first black grandmaster, gets only a one-sentence mention in the book, when Umstead says he’s disappointed that Ashley got to the GM title first. Hallman leaves the reader with the impression that it was a close race; in fact, Umstead is nowhere near Ashley’s level. He’s exactly like me — a guy who reached his rating peak (2254) in the late 1990s, and has now slid down into the lower expert regions. I think that, as a journalist, Hallman owed the reader a somewhat more objective view of the person he was writing about.

What really makes the book unique and interesting, for chess fans and non-fans alike, is the quixotic journey that Hallman and Umstead go on. For some reason, Hallman takes it into his head to go to Kalmykia, the homeland of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and not much else, to see the grand Chess City that Ilyumzhinov built there for the chess olympiad. Of course it is no surprise to discover that Ilyumzhinov’s empire built on chess is the ultimate smoke-and-mirrors production. But it’s easy to say that from a distance. It is quite another thing to actually go to the place and take a close-up look, really close up, at the cracked mirrors and the peeling walls.

Hallman somehow persuades Umstead to accompany him on this crazy pilgrimage to the House That Kirsan Built. I think Hallman starts out half-believing in Ilyumzhinov’s mad facade, and Umstead, in classic Quixote fashion, is completely clueless. Somewhere in this story could be the makings of an absolutely wonderful farce, some kind of mash-up of Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels, with Sancho and the knight errant traveling to Gulliver’s Laputa and meeting up with the king of the castle in the sky.

It doesn’t quite work, though. Hallman just can’t deliver the goods, though it’s not completely his fault. He and Umstead get only one brief, (Correction posted on 6/5/08; see comment thread for more details.) formal interview with Ilyumzhinov. The interview does go into somewhat bizarre territory — Ilyumzhinov talks about how he wants to make chess into a religion — but it doesn’t bring us much closer to understanding what makes him tick. Also, Hallman goes to Kalmykia with the stated goal of finding out more about the suspicious death (murder?) of one of Ilyumzhinov’s political opponents. He ends up finding out not one single iota of information. No big surprise, really. None of the people he talks to are quite sure who this American journalist is, and there is every reason for them to suspect he is a plant. But I’m just warning the reader — you won’t find any great investigative journalism here. Mostly you get Hallman wandering around the steppes not knowing where he is.

For Umstead, too, the journey ends in disillusionment. He had visions of playing great Russian masters and impressing them with his talent. Instead, he ends up playing a lot of speed chess, one match after another, against Kalmykia’s best seven-year-old player, and losing. Granted that this is not any ordinary seven-year-old, but still… Losing to a seven-year-old, not just once by a lucky fluke but over and over again, is a pretty big comedown for the American master. (Correction posted 6/5/08: Umstead did play a seven-year-old, but the person he kept losing matches to was a teenager. I was confused. See comment thread for more details.) Eventually Umstead just kind of crawls into a shell and wants to go home. Hallman insists on staying longer, hoping to find out anything about the murder, until even his hosts start hinting that it’s time for them to go. The whole trip ends up as a downer. A joke with no punch line, a tale with no climax.

As I said earlier, somewhere in this whole fiasco Hallman starts being disillusioned by chess itself. For me as a chess player, Hallman’s big mistake was that he decided early on that he wasn’t going to try playing serious chess himself. This actually makes a little bit of sense to me as a writer. In journalism school I learned about writing with a “beginner’s mind,” which is desirable because as a beginner you can ask the same sorts of questions that your readers will ask. You also avoid getting too wrapped up in your subject; you can keep a little bit of distance from it, and see it more objectively.

But the choice not to engage chess on its own terms ends up being disastrous for Hallman’s book, because he fundamentally misses out on the soul of chess. He never understands what attracts chess players to the game; he never understands its beauty. He writes a book called The Chess Artist, and yet he has no clue what chess artistry is! Instead he is seduced by the glittering trappings of chess — the bravado of the Chess Artist, the amazing castle in the air built by the Chess King. Once he realizes that these things are only on the surface, he loses faith that chess has any substance at all.

Very sad.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve in TN June 2, 2008 at 4:42 am

I think what you call “fizzled out” is instead a comparison/mirror of how organized chess in the form of FIDE has lost its way in Kirsan’s Chess City and how Umstead has lost his way after his failure to triumph in what should have been his greatest game.

The Chess Artist was not just Umstead! You failed to mention Baagi. For all of Umstead’s unfulfilled potential, Baagi and her family are realizing theirs and Baagi is still a current story!

I read Hallman’s book last year and was captivated by the adventure and stories of people I had watched on ICC and elsewhere.

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admin June 2, 2008 at 8:02 am

You’re right, Steve. I had forgotten about Baagi. But even this fact reflects a mistaken or unlucky choice by the author. He wrote only a couple chapters about Baagi, so she ends up as a relatively minor character. Instead Hallman hitched his wagon to Umstead, who ended up disappointing him. It might have been a better book with Baagi as a central figure and Umstead as a supporting character. Certainly it would have been a different one.

On the other hand, a writer has to write about what really happened. Perhaps Hallman chose the wrong protagonist, perhaps he was a little bit naive, but at least he was honest about it. Sometimes we do make mistakes in life, and sometimes we do invest a lot in people or in causes that ultimately let us down. So the book is an authentic document of that kind of experience, but it was a different experience from what I as a reader had been hoping for.

P.S. When you say “what should have been his (Umstead’s) greatest game,” are you referring to Simpson-Umstead from the book? Just wondering if there’s something else I should know about.

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Carina June 2, 2008 at 10:55 am

Fantasy authors sometimes seem to have that problem, too: an enchanting (literally ;) ) subject sounds better described on the back of the book than in the actual pages of it, lol. I’ve sadly had to give up on several first books in series (The Wheel of Time, The Deathgate Cycle, The Briar King, The Ill-made Mute, The War of Souls, all Terry Pratchett’s and R. A. Salvatore’s work ) because what I wanted in them simply wasn’t found. Others I’ve discussed the books with, and had them recommended by, loved them, though. Very weird. I think it depends on what you come for in the book and your expectations. From the title, it’s not wrong to expect a book dealing with something essential in the game of chess itself, and I’d buy that book for the title alone if I had seen it (I won’t anymore, lol), so I can understand disappointment that the author isn’t even seriously invested in the game himself. He must have written it for other reasons, just like my discarded fantasy authors write books for other reasons than I care about (like tv-entertainment). I still keep trying out new series in search of the few, rare authors that are totally committed to delivering what I want from my books. :D

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Soapstone June 2, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Ah, Dana, you beat me to it.

I, too, had planned to pan The Chess Artist, but worried that my negativity was becoming too prevalent in my book reviews since I panned The Eight, but contrasted that I liked Zugzwang. I had planned to read Hoffman’s King’s Gambit and review it in another dual book review. King’s Gambit sounds closer to the book that I expected from The Chess Artist, namely the starving-artistry-cum-madness that is stereotypical for some great chess players.

I’ll go ahead and post my short review at my blog, written before I read yours. Not nearly as detailed, but I’m glad that my conclusions were not too eccentric, at least with respect to yours.

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J.C. Hallman June 4, 2008 at 7:52 pm

As the author of The Chess Artist, I was relieved to see at least one reader come to my defense here (and Baagi’s). A couple more points might be made as well.

The character that Glenn loses to in Kalmykia repeatedly is not the seven year-old. Such a character exists, but the character referred to is around sixteen, and already rated about 2300, something the reviewer should have at least noticed. It makes a difference…and errors like this undermine the conclusions of any reviewer.

As well, the reviewer suggests that we met Ilyumzhinov only once. Actually, there are several meetings described, including (in addition to the formal interview) going along on a day-long trip to the far reaches of the province. In any event, the several pages I devoted to Ilyumzhinov’s speechifying about his theory of chess is far more comprehensive than you will find in most such treatmeants.

As well, the reviwer takes license with characterizing the goals of the journey. The purpose is not to investigate the murder, but merely the idea that a character like Glenn, who is chess is micro, will be interesting in the context of Kalmykis, which is chess in macro. The purpose is to profile the world of chess, warts and all. The reviewer fails to mention the many times I laud the beauty of chess, and prefers to focus on those spots where I admit its warts. A profile must be three-dimensional if it is to be of any value at all. The reviewer would seem to prefer propaganda.

Finally, the reviewer underestimates Glenn as a chess player. As noted in the book, Glenn is considered a “New York master,” that is, a master who achieved his ranking in the more difficult arena of New York chess. This makes him stronger than your average master, and, alas, a much stronger player than the reviewer. If the reviewer were to question this, he need only inquire to the author’s website to arrange a match via the ICC to settle the matter. Perhaps such a match could have the stakes of a retraction?

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admin June 5, 2008 at 8:54 am

I’m delighted to hear from the author himself. As someone who has written a book, I know about the blood, sweat and tears that go into writing a book and also the disappointment of reading a critical review. I would never want to demean in any way Hallman’s work in writing the book, and you will notice that I said several postive things about it.

However, a reviewer’s job is also to “tell it like it is” — in other words, to report honestly on the reading experience. None of Hallman’s comments really affect my main criticisms of the book. He was unlucky enough to pick a main character who let him down; he lost enthusiasm for the game itself; and in my opinion (which is of course highly debatable!) one reason was that he let himself get too fascinated by the glitz surrounding the game rather than the game itself.

I’m glad to find out that I was mistaken about which player was repeatedly beating Glenn in Kalmykia. I was evidently confused as to who was who.

Hallman’s comment about “New York masters” is pretty funny, and clearly shows a bit of an East Coast bias! I am sure that all of my California readers will be up in arms over this one! I just want to say that the Elo rating system is the most objective method of rating players that has ever been devised, and I have never seen any conclusive evidence that any part of the country is overrated or underrated. I think it’s unlikely, because at the master level players travel around the country quite a bit. So if the New York players were truly underrated, they would make up the rating points fast when they played elsewhere in the country.

So if you accept the USCF rating system as an objective standard, Glenn’s rating trajectory is almost exactly identical to my own, just as I said. He peaked in 1997 at a rating of 2254. I peaked in 1995 at a rating of 2257. I’m sure that we both want to get back to our previous levels! But anyway, I don’t see any significant difference between us.

The whole business of whether certain parts of the country are overrated or underrated could very easily lead to a flame war. If people want to do that, flame on! But I’ve spoken my piece and I will stay out of the conversation from here on.

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Carina June 5, 2008 at 10:42 pm

I think I’ll have to buy the book myself now to form my own opinion. :D

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J.C. Hallman June 6, 2008 at 9:05 am

Yo! I’m from Southern California. I don’t have an “east coast bias,” yet the New York Master phenomenon is something that was explained to me as I researched the book–and which is depicted in the book as well. Since both you and Glenn peaked at about the same level at about the same time, wouldn’t the match I suggested be one way of measuring the validity of the statement? I still have not received any reply to the challenge offered above–your readers can come to their own conclusions about that.

I am glad you were willing to post corrections to your review. In light of that, I’ll offer one more. You claim that I make no effort to communicate the soul of chess–peculiar for a book called The Chess Artist. I would agree, if that were the case. A couple quotes from the book itself should suffice to make it clear that the soulfulness of the game makes up a good chunk of the investigation:

On watching a speed chess game in a NY chess shop: “No extra inning, no hurry-up offense, no photo finish, no river card showdown quite imitates the intoxication of watching two players in an exchange that measures the extent of their wits and the intelligence of their fingers.”

And, on watching the conclusion of a pivotal game near the end of the book: “Like an idea of God, chess would not fully succumb to the petty influence of organized veneration. Its purity would occasionally resurface, like statues crying or bleeding in odd corners of the world, a school, a monastery, a throne room, a prison. Its grand metaphor was something beyond war or simple melee, but it was also beyond that which language was able to describe, and it was malleable, immune, and immortal.”

If anything, it seems, I might be accused of including too much soulfulness.

Curious readers can check out more of my writing on chess (in Chess Life) through jchallman.com.

Regardless, the challenge stands–if you’re up for it. Who knows, it might be fun.

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Carina June 6, 2008 at 11:27 am

Is this the chess version of kids taking it to the schoolyard to settle matters? :lol:

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admin June 6, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Yo, Carina and J.C.!

Not interested in the challenge — sorry! I don’t play on ICC; it’s not my game. However, I will be very happy to play Glenn in a USCF tournament if I should ever get the chance. I think it will be even more enjoyable because I will know some of his story.

I still think the people who told you about “New York masters” were probably from New York themselves. If New York masters were better than similarly rated masters from elsewhere in the country, why have the New York Knights never won the U.S. Chess League? Why did they lose to the San Francisco Mechanics in 2006, and the Boston Blitz in 2007? Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

The quotes you cite are great, but I think the readers need to form their own impressions after reading the book as a whole. Who knows, maybe my so-called negative review will end up helping your book sales! Wouldn’t that be a trip?

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Carina June 7, 2008 at 5:22 am

Yo, Dana! I challenge you too.

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J.C. Hallman June 7, 2008 at 6:42 am

Well, it may be a little spurious to cite a 2007 result to argue against an observation made in 2003–but I don’t think the observation is entirely without merit. It’s probably fair to say (and I’ve noticed this in other games as well–I used to be fairly strong at pocket billiards, probably around master strength) that you’re generally going to find stronger players in cities.

Thanks for allowing that readers should form their own opinions on the book. I wrote it to celebrate the game, to paint an honest portrait, and I hope the fact that it’s still around, generating a response, means that to some extent it succeeded.

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Andres D. Hortillosa June 7, 2008 at 8:08 am

To think that a match result will settle the issue is absurd. It is but one data point. It does not and cannot prove a conclusion but it will be for sure fun to watch.

So for the interest of fun, I accept the challenge. And as added comfort, I never got over 2200 as Dana did so Glenn, by your account, should have an easy time.

Dana does not have an ICC account but I do. However, I can only play on evenings after 9 pm, central time.

My handle on ICC is adh2050. A three-game match at G60 or G20 is acceptable.

Otherwise, a match with Carina will be even more fun.

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Carina June 7, 2008 at 9:38 am

Yo Andres, are you sure you can accept another man’s challenge? Seems to spoil the whole honour thing, unless Dana elected you as his Champion.

My handle at ICC is Czharina!

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J.C. Hallman June 7, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Carina,

If I can have a champion, then Dana can have one too. It’s only fair.

Andres, Glenn is “guchess” on the ICC. I am “jchallman”. You may have to haggle with him about the time control, but he’s willing to play. He’s there a good bit, but you can send him a message to set up a time, if you like.

As to absurd data points–we need all we can get, and if it’s enjoyable besides, then all the better.

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admin June 7, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Yo ho ho, everybody!

I am delighted to have either Andres or Carina as my champion! Let me know what happens!

Not to belabor the point or anything, but… I certainly would agree that New York has more strong players than any other city in America. But the issue was whether a player in New York would be better than a *similarly rated* player elsewhere in the country, and that I do not believe — at least if we’re talking about players at the master level and with established ratings.

By the way, I should also say that I hope to get a chance to play Baagi in a tournament some day, too. I did play once against another strong Mongolian woman, Batchimeg Tuvshintugs (known as Chimi, I believe), and lost to her in a very exciting game. I was burning with curiosity about how Chimi learned the game and what brought her to America, but I didn’t talk with her because she seemed so quiet and so shy; I didn’t even know if she spoke English. So reading about her compatriot, Baagi, satisfied my curiosity a little bit.

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Andres D. Hortillosa June 7, 2008 at 9:35 pm

I think we should ask JC to make the arrangement such as when, number of rounds and time control. I prefer a match of three games at least. I am not averse to playing a 5-game match.

I have to agree with Dana. There are more opportunities to play against strong players in New York but it does necessarily follow that players with the same ratings are not equal in strength.

If this reasoning holds true, can we say then that a 2700 player in China is somewhat weaker when compared to another 2700 player in Russia or vice versa?

Isn’t that the point of the rating system after all? The rating expresses your relative strength against other players.

I, however, disagree with Dana on his assertion that he had already reached his peak. If you quit playing now either by choice or death (God forbid), then you indeed have reached your peak because there is no other way to prove the contrary.

For some of us, we hope that our peak is yet to be attained. The notion that one’s peak has been reached is built around the assumption that one has acquired all the chess knowledge there is to acquire in order to reach a certain level in rating.

It is correct to say that a certain grandmaster has reached his peak early and is on a decline. Proof of the peak is the grandmaster title. Proof of the decline is their poor showing against other grandmasters.

For almost all players, however, we have barely acquired the necessary knowledge to even reach master level strength or in your case IM strength so to speak of you having reached the peak is premature.

There remains a vast amount of knowledge still waiting for you and I to acquire and apply in our game. We are not fully equipped with the knowledge to even peek at the peak.

For players who possess chess titles the knowledge acquisition portion of their chess development came very rapidly usually while very young.

While we were busy obtaining graduate and post-graduate degrees, they were busy working on their chess. Essentially, a grandmaster title is equivalent to a Ph.D. but minus the money.

With regards to the match, I am available most week nights and we can do one game a week.

Will JC arrange the match? We can ask Dana to give it coverage and some analysis on this blog. I will also write about it on my MonRoi blog.

It might even make my chessville.com column.

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J.C. Hallman June 8, 2008 at 6:33 am

I’m happy to arrange a match. Can you pass along some times that might be good for you? Glenn, I think, is working the graveyard shift these days, meaning 4AM-12PM is bad. Early evening is probably best. I’ll call Glenn today.

Re: the rating discussion above. This is another thing I attempted (at least) to address in The Chess Artist, with the peculiar instance of Claude Bloodgood shooting up over 2700 because he was playing tournaments inside a prison. (The long and short of it is this: when new players earn their rating against high-ranked players, their initial ranking is necessarily higher…so a kind of inflation happens.) Dana makes the point above that master level players “travel the country quite a bit.” But what if they don’t? Certainly the rating system needs a certain level of cross-fertilization (indeed, I believe the Elo-system is based on the idea that players have an equal chance of playing any other player), but that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should to prevent inflation. The kind of inflation you see on the ICC is just a faster version of that in the OTB-world.

As to the NY issue, the question seems to be this: are the NY players higher rated because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, or because they’re all playing each other, and the ratings go up? Our match may shed a tiny bit of light on that.

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admin June 8, 2008 at 12:17 pm

I see two separate issues. One is whether there are more good players in New York — the answer is clearly yes. The second is whether a New York 2200 or 2250 player is better than, say, a Tennessee 2200 or 2250 player, just because he has faced tougher competition. To that I say no. The USCF rating system is designed to provide an objective measurement of strength, and to an amazing degree it succeeds. That’s why the Bloodgood case was such a shock — it was just about the first time anyone could remember a player “beating the system” to such an extent. It only worked because Bloodgood and his opponents were so isolated from mainstream chess tournaments, literally behind bars.

Even if a New York player never left New York, if he played in New York tournaments he would be exposed to players who had played elsewhere … and just like a disease, they would pass their rating points on to him. So he wouldn’t be able to stay underrated forever.

The Elo rating system does not, of course, guarantee objectivity all by itself. The system has to be maintained by an organization that is willing to police it, and there have to be some safeguards against cheaters. I trust the USCF system because it has a long track record. I don’t trust ICC ratings as much, for several reasons. The games are played under less controlled conditions, there are opportunities to artificially raise or lower your rating by playing against computers,
and finally — most of the games are speed games, which intrinsically are more variable and less serious.

But for a really bad rating system, go to Yahoo Games! I very briefly played there several years ago, but there I saw ratings like 8000, clearly indicating that people had found ways to cheat. Yahoo probably just didn’t care about the integrity of their ratings.

Responding to Andy’s comment, I totally agree that there is always something new to learn! My talk of ratings peaks is definitely defeatist, which is why I added that both Glenn and I would surely like to get our ratings back up to where they were in our glory days (and even higher). It mystifies me a bit why my rating has gone down, but it’s not just me — whenever I look at ratings of people who’ve been around a while, I see the same pattern of a peak and a gradual decline. I don’t know whether it’s age, or the aggressive efforts by the USCF in the 1990s to stop ratings inflation.

I’m certainly doing my best to turn my decline around! But at the same time, with age also comes a realization that there are other things more important than ratings, even within the chess world. Really, the goal should be to understand the game better and at a deeper level, and if you can really succeed at that, the rating will eventually reflect it. (Although it may not ever do so fully, because of the constraints of jobs and relationships and real life… In my case, I think that getting married definitely arrested my chess development, but I wouldn’t change that for the world!)

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Carina June 8, 2008 at 1:42 pm

About aging, I like the Wayne Dyer quote “Don’t let an old person into your body”. I suspect that people without realizing it trigger degeneration of the mind and body, simply by expecting it to happen, by counting the years. I made an entry in a private journal a few days ago, and was shocked to realize it dates 6 years back now. There’s a gap between me when I started it and me now. When I was 15, I didn’t refer to any years as having been my teenage years. Now, I’ve got a chapter called just that, and it’s closed. It’s.. unnerving. I’m sure people than me by a generation or two will think age concerns at this age are silly, but I’m getting a whiff of what it’s like to wish yourself younger. There’s such an isolated block of years that qualify as adult life, where I was somewhat like I am now, only richer in time. Ofcourse I’ve spent the time growing and learning important things, the pillars of my current and future convictions, which sort of makes up for not having it available to me anymore. It’s irnoic though, than by the time you learn things, time has passed which prevents the knowledge from being useful to your past. It can only be applied to the present and what’s left of the future. :lol:

Well, since I don’t plan to deal with paranoia of aging for the rest of my life, and since reality is shaped by how you perceive it, I’ve decided to work on throwing out my conditioned thoughts about age, such as “I’ll turn 22 next year”. It’s like a prophecy that doesn’t predict the future, but creates it. What does the life and body of someone who sincerely feels and thinks themselves younger every day look like as they go through life? I think it looks exactly the way they imagine it.

“But at the same time, with age also comes a realization that there are other things more important than ratings, even within the chess world. Really, the goal should be to understand the game better and at a deeper level, and if you can really succeed at that, the rating will eventually reflect it. ”

I like this final point about understanding being more important than anything else. It’s one of those themes that runs so deeply that it lurks in all kinds of other areas of life, too. :)

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Andres D. Hortillosa June 8, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Well said.

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J.C. Hallman June 9, 2008 at 6:56 am

I’m still working on getting this match arranged, but the philosophical turn of this conversation, which I applaud, made me wonder how it all got started. Dana’s original comment on “The Chess Artist” was this:

“Hallman seems a little bit star-struck, and perhaps doesn’t do enough to explain to the reader exactly where Umstead is on the chess-player pecking order. Maurice Ashley, the first black grandmaster, gets only a one-sentence mention in the book, when Umstead says he’s disappointed that Ashley got to the GM title first. Hallman leaves the reader with the impression that it was a close race; in fact, Umstead is nowhere near Ashley’s level. He’s exactly like me — a guy who reached his rating peak (2254) in the late 1990s, and has now slid down into the lower expert regions. I think that, as a journalist, Hallman owed the reader a somewhat more objective view of the person he was writing about.”

Yet, what’s in the actual book? This, on p. 32:

“Glenn’s rating on the ICC had reached as high as 2561, which, if it were an over-the-board rating, would be world-class. But his rating tended to fluctuate, and Internet ratings tended to be inflated. He was a strong player, but not world-class.”

Is this not objective?

When Glenn peaked at master strength, he was one of only 40 black men in the history of the world who had reached quite so high. That number has climbed dramatically since then. (Interestingly, the rapper Wu-Tang was interviewed by the NY Times chess correspondent for his chess efforts just yesterday.) But even that isn’t why I used Glenn as a character. I used him because with Glenn as a guide I could visit the entire world of chess — from Washington Square park, to grandmaster games, to blindfold exhibitions, to simuls. I attempted to make clear in the book that Glenn was interesting for this reason — and not for his rating. And the philosophical twist to our rating discussion tends to suggest that ratings are not a particularly accurate measure of seriousness of interest anyway. This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

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Carina June 9, 2008 at 8:04 am

In the art world (the literal one with paintings), there’s no rating system to take the attention of the artists, and I’m pretty grateful for that, because noone’s called “patzers”, in general there just isn’t an aggressive hierachy like there is in chess. In various art communities, people encourage and give feedback to the work of “non-high rated” artists incessantly, and today I’m grateful to the people who did the same for me when I didn’t have anything special to show off, because it inspired me to get better. Compare that with chess games, where players will hardly bother to look at games by lowerrated players, much less follow them at ICC and give constructive cirticism, lol.There’s the atmosphere that the number determines whether it’s worthwhile for you to prioritize the game in your life or not. Why should the rating ever threaten the status the game should have as an enjoyable hobby that’s worth pursueing just because it helps you better yourself in the process, even if you’ll never be above “patzer” level? Very weird. :)

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Andres D. Hortillosa June 9, 2008 at 8:52 am

Is Glenn now in Las Vegas? My time zone is central and the hours after 9 pm should fit well into his schedule. I am looking forward to this experiment. This is an interesting side story.

I have not read the book but the discussion here has tickled my interest.

The philosophical musings on peak and decline in ratings have a healing effect on me. So please allow me to engage in self-promotion. I returned to graduate school in 1996 for an MS in Computer Science degree. It felt like I did not sleep for two years. It also began my steady decline in ratings. Absolutely no new chess knowledge was acquired during this time. Any hint of chess skills left as well. I only played to give my brain cells a break from the punishing ordeal of Software Engineering. My ratings floored at 2000. I thought it was cool being a lifetime Expert and regularly losing to lower-rated players became a habit.

I quickly returned to active chess after completing the program. While the chess knowledge quickly returned, the skills painfully lagged behind. I discovered that there is a delineating divide between the two. However, numerous quick loses to junior and upcoming players obliterated my chess confidence. I used to eagerly anticipate opportunities to play higher rated players in the Colorado scene. In the early 90s, I had a good record against local masters. I even played the Smith-Morra gambit in some of these meetings and won. I qualified in 1995 to play in the closed championship (all masters) for winning the Colorado Chess Tour that year but lost the spot because of an untimely deployment to Korea.

I actually subdued Senior Master Mulyar once (now an IM) as black sacrificing a knight on g3. I bested Michael Ginat, in our only encounter, who was state champion multiple times. I have a good record against another Senior Master (James McCarty) and won in the white side of an Alekhine’s, a player known to hardly lose even against equals.

The return to chess was abruptly halted when the Army sent me to the University of Colorado for another graduate program (MBA) in 1999. The cycle repeated. I graduated and got married in 2001. Caissa formally became a scorned mistress. But as with Dana, I would not trade married life for anything in the world. In 2003, our daughter was born. You can only imagine what happens to chess when you become a father. In 2005, my wife, who was then an Army Captain deployed to Iraq for a full year. Even with a live-in nanny, the chores involving a two-year old were insurmountable even with two advance degrees.

My retirement from the Army in 2006 is a new beginning for me as far as chess is concerned. However, I feel like I am drinking from a wellspring this time around. I am beginning to uncover new things in chess. I am excited about the possibilities.

This is why talks about early peak and talks about the impossibility of chess improvement in mid-life either irritate or fascinate me. They pose a beckoning challenge to me. I believe there is a story still unfolding in my chess life. I invite you to tune in as it concludes in the next two years.
I am in the process of unlearning bad chess habits and absorbing good ones. I am also resetting my foundational chess knowledge. In a sense, I am a new player. My faculties seem sharp as ever if not even sharper. Unless there is a gene specifically for chess that shuts off after reaching a certain numerical age (I say that because philosophically only the physical part of us is indisputably affected by age) then I should be able to raise my rating as it can only go but up.

Meanwhile, let us get the match and the fun going.

Dana, you should reconsider joining ICC or some online account (Chessbase) so we can do some training matches.

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admin June 9, 2008 at 9:16 am

Carina, Well said! Although… Is the art world truly so blind to status? I’m not close to the art world as I am to the chess world, but I have the impression that if an artist gets talked about by the right people and gets into the right galleries, then all of a sudden people will take that person’s work much more seriously. In some ways I wonder if the situation in the chess world is perhaps a little better, because at least it’s open and above-board. If you beat good people and get your IM or GM norms, people take you seriously. In the art world, how do you get into that prestigious gallery? The road map is not so clear.

Not that I really want to defend this hyper-ratings-consciousness of chess players. This gets back to J.C.’s latest comment. To some extent my criticism was based on ratings snobbery.

Even so, J.C., I still stand by my comments. I still think that you are too star-struck early on, and that you build up Glenn’s prowess to a point where we have unrealistic expectations of him. Perhaps you did this because you yourself had unrealistic expectations. Nevertheless, it contributes to the reader’s feeling of disappointment in the end.

I mentioned Glenn’s rating because I was a little shocked when I went to the USCF website (after finishing the book) and looked up Glenn’s rating history and saw that it was so close to mine. My gut reaction was, “If only J.C. had told me this at the beginning, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised at Glenn’s struggles.” In fact, if it had been clear at the beginning that Glenn was in this twilight-zone category of struggling players that I would call “maxpert” — the people like me, who have gotten their ratings to master levels but now are mired in the expert zone — it might have added something to the story.

For instance, you could have drawn a clearer parallel between Glenn’s experience and your meeting with the academics, who first built you up as this scholar with a new theory on Kalmyk chess history and then shot you down. Glenn also got built up and shot down. And actually, I think that two of the people who did the building up were you and Glenn! This might have been an interesting and different way of telling the story. It calls to mind the old line from Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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Carina June 9, 2008 at 10:44 am

“Carina, Well said! Although… Is the art world truly so blind to status? I’m not close to the art world as I am to the chess world, but I have the impression that if an artist gets talked about by the right people and gets into the right galleries, then all of a sudden people will take that person’s work much more seriously. In some ways I wonder if the situation in the chess world is perhaps a little better, because at least it’s open and above-board. If you beat good people and get your IM or GM norms, people take you seriously. In the art world, how do you get into that prestigious gallery? The road map is not so clear.”

Haha, I actually have no idea about that. To me, the art world is the down-to-earth communities made by amateur and professional artists alike, places like deviantart.com where everybody display their work. The world of physical galleries with canvas-art, I have no clue about. Perhaps a result of being part of the computer generation and digital art? I think you’re right about elitism and such in galleries, though, I’ve heard talk about that in Denmark. Apparently, a selected group of established, older people decide how things are run in this part of the art world. I don’t really care about it, since I don’t plan on making a switch to acrylics on canvas like required. I’ll leave that to the artists wishing to live off this work. ;)

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Steve in TN June 9, 2008 at 12:33 pm

I think the journey is being missed by staring at the road signs. To obsess on how strong is strong as it relates to Umstead’s playing ability misses the story of the adventure both to Kalmykia and of the author’s exploration of the chess he encountered.

There are myriad stories within the story if the reader deigns to enjoy them. As I said before, I enjoyed the book greatly and it enriched my chess and overall experience.

To each his own.

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J.C. Hallman June 9, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Thanks, Steve. That’s certainly the important macro point to make. Dana, you’re right that I build Glenn up at the start–I admit in the book that I’m his fan–and he does get humbled through the course of the book. To me, this is emblematic (not to say symbolic) of a pretty consistent narrative in the chess world. Chess players (Morphy, Fischer, Kamsky) are often leaving it behind, disillusioned or disappointed. My relationship with Glenn was meant to echo that truth, and I guess I should not be surprised that it does not work for all readers.

In any event, our experimental match can proceed! Glenn is not at all happy about G15 (he prefers blitz), but, Andres, if the date works for you, we can do Friday, June 20, at 9 PM. (8 PM your time, and my time, incidentally.) For the record, Glenn lives in Atlantic City.

As to Carina’s comment–I agree with you and Dana’s reply both. The art world doesn’t have ratings, and that helps. The art must be judged on its own sake. It’s very true that with chess players (and chess books) the rating of the player (or author) is the first thing you learn, and many premature judgments are formed. That’s another reason why this experiment is interesting–if the rating system is flawed, then this is even more of a problem. Yet I agree with Dana, too, that status is a problem everywhere, art, fashion, chess, you name it. Chess is unique in that it has that rating. I’m not sure if it’s still in The Chess Artist (I cut more than 300 pages), but I once wrote that a chess player’s rating was as important in this regard as a face. I stole the line from a poet (who said “your car is your face”), but it is of course important to remember that neither beauty nor skill are skin deep.

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Mariano Sana June 21, 2008 at 12:16 pm

My wife gave me The Chess Artist as my birthday gift in the summer of 2003. We lived in West Philadelphia at the time, and she actually got me the book after meeting JC Hallman at the dog park. Hallman and I became friends. (Let’s call this a disclosure in case bias is suspected).

I loved the book. Started to read it and couldn’t stop. Dana, you explain why the book didn’t measure up to your expectations and why you found the story sad or disappointing. But there are plenty of major literary pieces about sadness, disappointment, human frustration, betrayal, defeat, etc. etc. What you interpret as a failure of the book (Hallman got disappointed) I find it to be one of the central points that the book makes. The Chess Artist is not about sunny optimism and the triumph of art, but I don’t think that has anything to do with its value and quality.

Hallman is not a journalist. He is a writer, trained at a major school. He does not need to give us a perfectly objective assessment of Glenn Umstead’s chessplaying ability. He may have gotten, at the beginning, blinded by him because of Glenn’s demeanor, because he didn’t know much about chess when he met him, and because Glenn is a much better player than him. But do what? Whether he got it right or not it is entirely besides the story. I think you are right on the rating system, and I told Hallman that I agreed with you and that one and that I found the ICC match thing silly, but I think Hallman’s assessment of Glenn’s ability, however flawed, is essential to the story that he narrated, and so is the process of growing disappointment, or at least I thought so when I read it. (He brought up this himself in his latest post, didn’t he?)

It’s obvious that you love chess, but not every book about chess (or where chess is central to the subject matter–The Chess Artist is not an objective treatise on chess) has to be objective and laudatory (I find that the two things go together in the mind of many chess lovers) to be good.

I love chess too, but I have been through ups and downs in my feelings for and appretiation of the game, and The Chess Artist fit me perfectly. I did not start the book with any specific expectations and I did not find it unfair or offensive that the book was not an ode to chess as art, or anything else. I have to say that I probably found it much more objective than you did. For example, I thought that descriptions of some top players in far from praising terms were quite accurate, and so was Hallman’s assessment of chess culture, e.g. the value of a beat-up board, the translation of the hierarchy of titles into proper etiquette to address strong players, the importance of the number of diagrams given to a published game as an indicator of the status of a player, the speculation that goes around any open tournament, the vivid description of blitz games for money, and so on. I think that because the book is essentialy realistic, and because the real world of chess is far from glamorous, it has received its share of negative reviews from chess journalists and bloggers, while non-chess reviewers have been much more positive toward it.

Finally, I didn’t feel disappointed and I didn’t feel particularly negative feelings while reading the book. (And I read the book before becoming Hallman’s friend!) The Baagi character offers hope, but I don’t think you can measure its effect by the number of pages or chapters devoted to her. And the very last paragraphs of the book offer a beautiful finale, that reveal that Hallman has been actually caught by the bug. He loves chess too, and years after that book he keeps hovering around ICC, even though he has diverted toward other projects… And this is true love because he has seen chess’ darkest aspects, magnified by the realization that the real Glenn was quite different from the god-like figure he initially met.

Oh well, I wrote too much. Thanks for opening your blog for others to post their thoughts. The bottomline: readers will probably benefit from reading the book and making up their own minds. Did you say it’s less than 6 bucks now?

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Andres D. Hortillosa June 21, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Mariano is right that the match idea is downright silly. I took up the challenge for fun and to be a part of this intriguing story. JC Hallman promised to give me a signed copy of the book if I won the match.

I played Glenn twice in both colors yesterday and was soundly crushed. But we already knew that regardless of the outcome neither point would be proved right or wrong.

I played him once to a draw and saw his tenacity and fighting spirit.. He is a strong master. I knew him before knowing JC. Alas, the circle is complete. It is a small world indeed. JC chatted with me on ICC while waiting for Glenn to log in and he brought up the fact that we both know one person – Mariano.

Now I get to say that I had played the chess artist.

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Jesse Kraai July 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm

Just want to say that I thought certain sections were very well written – in stark contrast to the spawn of popular books on chess culture.

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