Paul Hoffman’s “King’s Gambit”

by admin on October 19, 2007

A couple weeks ago, I finally had the chance to read Paul Hoffman’s new book, King’s Gambit. Ironically, I was playing in a chess tournament at the time, and had a lot of time to kill between rounds. I don’t think it helped me win any games, but it was a fun book to read anyway!

Here’s what I wrote about the book in my review for www.amazon.com:

Paul Hoffman’s new book, King’s Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, can be enjoyed by everyone, whether they are avid chess players or not. Hoffman is a gifted story-teller with a knack for bringing to life the personalities of real pepole, especially quirky real people. (See his previous best-selling book, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.) Fortunately, the chess world is amply supplied with quirky people!

Hoffman, like many chess players, learned the game as a child from his father. Through his teenage years he played often in tournaments and became a strong amateur player, but in college he let go of his interest in chess. A quarter century later, now a successful editor going through a sort of midlife crisis, he took the game up as a welcome distraction from his problems. But soon chess became an obsession. This book is a fascinating chronicle of the places that his obsession took him.

One of those places was back into his own childhood, as he began to re-evaluate his relationship with his late father. Hoffman’s view of the chess world is none too flattering–it is a world full of insecure, selfish people and con men–but it helps him to realize that his father was a bird of the same feather. It’s almost as if his father, by introducing Hoffman to the chess world, was unwittingly giving him the keys to his own inner fortress.

While the chess-as-psychotherapy part of the book is interesting, I feel that King’s Gambit really hits its stride when Hoffman starts writing about other players. Don’t miss the story of his trip to the 2004 world championship, which was held (of all places) in Libya–the erstwhile bogeyman of American politics, before Iraq usurped that role. The Libyan authorities are not quite sure what to do with the American journalist who has suddenly popped up in their country. Suffice it to say that Hoffman narrowly escapes deportation to Siberia. But there is an unexpected silver lining to his ordeal. During the course of the trip Hoffman forms a close bond with the Canadian champion, Pascal Charbonneau, who comes off as the book’s one shining example of a normal, well-adjusted, down-to-earth grandmaster (thereby disproving once and for all the notion that you have to be crazy to be a world-class chss player!)

Another wonderfully entertaining chapter, “Anatomy of a Hustler,” takes a hard look at the con-man culture in chess, and discovers a personality type that I never knew existed. Hoffman calls them the Grobsters. The Grob opening, you see, is the Bart Simpson of chess openings. It’s ugly and crude, it violates the precepts of civilized chess behavior–and it has a unique knack for pulling down the pants of opponents who don’t take it seriously enough. It is, in short, the ideal opening for a chess hustler to use: first he looks like a complete rube, and then, before you know it, he’s taken your money. Grobsters, Hoffman concludes, are wise guys who just can’t be bothered to play by society’s rules. They are always looking for the swindle, the quick fix, the easy money. I’ll be watching out for Grobsters from now on!

There’s no question that chess players will enjoy this book. Even though I have been a chess lover my whole life, I still found myself constantly learning new things from Hoffman about chess lore and history. I give this book a hearty thumbs up, and hope it will win some new fans over to one of mankind’s most ancient, beautiful, mysterious (but, in spite of the title, not really that dangerous) games.

What do you think about Hoffman’s book? Will people who don’t play chess buy it? Does Hoffman overemphasize some of the dysfunctional aspects of chess players? Is he too hard on Grobsters?

Actually, I’m not sure that the psychology of the King’s Gambit (which Hoffman plays, and which I do too) is all that different from the psychology of the Grob. The f-pawn, after all, is only one file over from the g-pawn…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina J. October 19, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Hahaha, one file can make all the difference in the world! I play the Bird, wait a second.. Actually, I recently went through a phase of looking at all the weirdest openings, Larsen, the Orangutang and Grob included, before finally settling on Bird. It’s kind of weird, though, could I be part Grobster-player? Hmm, maybe we all are – a little bit? That’s something to ponder!

I’m going to have to get this book, it sounds similar to the book “The Immortal Game” by David Shenk, which also attempts to explain chess throughout history, and how chess affects the player.

Jesus, I just have so many chess books to read now that I wish I had begun ordering them years ago so I wouldn’t have so much catching up to do!

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Carina J. October 19, 2007 at 12:09 pm

I’ve just concluded that 8 years of playing traditional, rigid chess has turned me into a temporary Grobster player. Hopefully, when I regain my chessbalance, I will make the Grob my core and the solid approach my shell. I think you might get results with that!

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