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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2007
What is this book?
This book is actually four separate works interwoven together.
1. It is a brief history of top flight chess and its champions. It hits the usual topics: Are chess players nuts? Do they have psycholoical problems? Is competitiveness in chess over the top leading to bad behavior?
2. It is a personal story of the author's own experience playing chess. The best part. He really captures the feelings well.
3. It is the personal recollection of the author's difficult childhood with his father. His dad seems to be a real "character" - and time hasn't helped soften his flaws and shortcomings - only sharpen them.
4. The author manages to gain access to several top flight players who share their observations and insights about the chess in general and the current chess scene specifically. The highlight of this part is when Hoffman serves as the second for GM Paul Charbonneau who competed at the world knockout championship in Tripoli, Libya. Charbonneau should be credited for opening up and sharing a lot of private thoughts and moments. He along with GM Joel Lautier come across best in the work. This is the second best part of the work.

Who is this book for?
1. It is NOT for beginners looking to learn chess.
2. It is NOT for competitive players who are seeking to improve their play.
3. It is not a serious history being more superficial and gossipy, but to his credit, Hoffman credits and annotates his sources for anyone who seeks more information.
4. The book is best suited for those who are fans of chess, knows how to play, play semi-seriously and are seeking to understand their own obsession. He really captures that obsessive compulsive feeling - the dread, fear, anticipation, and elation. It is as if you got to hang out with a top level GM and tag along with his entourage and see what happens behind the scenes.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2007
What? A chess book without any diagrams or games? Unthinkable? This is a different kind of animal, so to speak. It's more about the personalities and the psychology of chess players. There's a lot here that you won't find in other chess books: bloated egos, petulance, outright cheating, and the like. Some of the best-known chess masters can seem almost schizophrenic--polite, considerate, fun to be with some of the time, and extraordinarily boorish, unpleasant, and mean-spirited at other times: Kasparov, for example.

The book is not consistently good, but the truly excellent parts make everything worthwhile. I had three favorite long parts. The first is about Charles Bloodgood, leading expert on the eccentric Grob opening. On tracking Bloodworth down, Hoffman finds that Bloodgood is serving life imprisonment in Virginia for murdering his mother when she objected to his forging her name on a check. Bloodgood's FIDE rating places him among the elite in the US. Without much else to do in prison he played 4-5 games a day against other inmates, and each victory nudged his rating a bit higher. He was also playing 1200 correspondence games a year as well at times. This seems reminiscent of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, where a criminally insane man was one of the main contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The second fascinating part is where Hoffman accompanies a friend who is playing in a major chess tournament in Libya: "Gadhafi's Gambit and Mr Paul" is the name of the chapter. The description seems like something out of Kafka--it has a very surreal quality to it. Hoffman never seems to know from one moment to the next whether he will be honored or shot as a spy (he is accused of being a CIA agent).

The third great part of the book is about Kalmykia (in the former USSR) under the not-so-benevolent presidency of Ilyumzhinov, who is also the head of FIDE. The two presidencies go sort of hand-in-hand. Vast sums of money from a poor country are spent on a bizarre chess village: to furnish the cottages for a tournament's visiting players, TVs, refrigerators, etc, are confiscated from the Kalmyk populace.

The Kings of New York is an interesting recent chess book about high-school chess teams. The problem was that the author didn't know that much about chess, which I think hurt the storytelling. Here, Hoffman is very knowledgable, and frequently plays in tournaments. So his book is about chess players told by an insider, not an outsider. It's a great change of pace from most chess books, and a worthwhile read.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2007
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 people, especially quirky real people. (See his previous bestselling book, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.) Fortunately, the world of chess 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 again 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 people. Don't miss the story of his trip to the 2004 world championships, 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 chess 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.

Dana Mackenzie

Author of "The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be"
and Lecturer at [...]
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2007
Paul Hoffman's "King's Gambit" is a book that is hard to put down once you've started it. He weaves tales of his difficult childhood, his encounters with grandmasters in the chess world, and his own introspections into a non-linear tapestry that (while easy to follow) grips the reader in an elegant restraint, and does not let go until the last page. Indeed, I had difficulty letting go even after the book was over; I wanted more.

As a former editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Discover magazine, Hoffman writes with a fluid, lucid style that squeezes a great deal of meaning from simple phrasing and word-choice. The book starts with a bang, as at the end of the first chapter he courageously reveals a secret about himself that provides the impetus for writing the book. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that this revelation is the book's true gambit, as the reader could easily put the book down at this point and dismiss Hoffman as a reprobate. However, Hoffman's own blunt horror at his actions gives the reader a glimmer that there really is something about chess that will drive men (and women) to act amorally. He then spends the rest of the book discovering a great deal about the myriad of personalities in the chess world, but moreover, about himself.

Very highly recommended for chess players and non-chess players alike, and especially for those who struggle everyday to understand themselves and their own choices in life.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2007
To play most of the gambits that are "in the book," it's a good idea to go ahead and capture the pawn. Readers with an interest in chess and other games should definitely take the pawn and read Hoffman's book. He covers a lot of chesslore, and provides special attention to the image of the chess player as an obsessive, even insane, genius. The allusions to literary character's such as Nabokov's Luzhain are balanced with profiles of some of the real tragic heroes of chess such as Paul Morphy. Hoffman has interesting insights into the psychology of competition and the blatant -- not latent! -- aggression in this game. One central theme of the book is his own exploration of chess psychology. He references Freudian readings in a playful, albeit not entirely skeptical, way, but he is most interesting when he offers observations from his own experiences with top players such as Nigel Short, Gary Kasparov, and Jennifer Shahade. His conclusions about the game's dangers aren't fully satisfying, but he does suggest practical ways to practice good sportsmanship, while still maintaining a competitive edge. These principles are useful for learning to play chess as well as other games.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2012
This book is good in parts and a bit hokey in others - your overall impression will depend upon your tolerance for auto-biographical self-indulgence and apparently mine is lower than other people's.

There's some good background material for anyone wanting to understand better the obsessive element of chess e.g. after hours of exhausting high pressure playing, Grand Masters are described still avidly crowding around boards for post-game discussions or even further blitz games and Hoffman's very good at showing how you probably wouldn't want to spend too much social time with some of the best players who seem to have lost in life skills what they have gained in chess knowledge.

The historical information is culled from various sources and Hoffman does a decent job pulling it all together.

The single most annoying (albeit minor feature) of the book is the author's apparently constant need to keep informing the reader that he went to Harvard - it's just one example of a more generally precious tone that sometimes detracts from the book's overall impact.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Chess journeyman and grandmaster wannabe Paul Hoffman offers his own penetrating glimpse into the subculture of competitive chess. Through this analysis, he reflects on his relationships - past and present - with his domineering father, his mother, his wife and his son.

Pro's
* Entertaining glimpses and portraits of some of the game's top players, such as Kasparov, Karpov, Seirawan, Short, etc.
* George Plimpton-like fantasies of what it is like playing in tournaments or practice games against high-level opponents
* He captures the quirky world of elite chess, the latter composed to a large degree of misfits and eccentric social cripples
* Profiles the top women in the game and speculates on how gender differences impact their development in the sport

Cons
* For all but the chess cognoscenti, the references to openings and board maneuvers may be baffling
* The meandering on family history may be distracting to some
* The book starts out strong and seems to lose some momentum in the middle- and end-game, especially during a tedious recounting of a chess trip to Libya.

On balance, this is a good book which will likely be fascinating to chess players and interesting to others who share some passion for the world of 64-squares.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
As a beginner learning about chess, I've been reading accounts aimed at a non-playing as well as insider audience. This follows my recent Amazon reviews of J.C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist"-- about his trip to chess-driven Kalmykia, his encounters with chess culture, and his friendship with a man who aspires to become the first African American grandmaster--and David Shenk's topical history of "The Immortal Game." I'd begin with Shenk's combination of chronological survey and intellectual overview, and then move on to Hallman's pioneering and wide-ranging appreciation of the uses and abuses of this pursuit.

Then, I'd pick up Hoffman. The subtitle, "A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game," appears confusing until the last chapter. Hoffman does treat (on and mostly off) his relationship with his father, an amateur who wrote about the game as part of his own journalism, but only at the end does the author reveal how his own son, Alex, has established his own connection with his father, Paul, through chess. This makes a poignant if attenuated comparison, as the writer's own marriage, like that of his parents, has crumbled-- as he wrote "The King's Gambit." Hoffman, suffering medical problems after giving up what would seem dream jobs as editor first at "Discover" magazine and then running Encyclopedia Britannica, searches the world of chess-- largely at the tournament level-- to explore the perceived danger for its top-ranked players.

As a play-by-play sort of "color" commentator of the game, Hoffman excels as he narrates how his own games work. Playing champions on- and off-line, explaining mindgames as well as endgames, or taking on a "simul" with Kasparov, he shows you how the strategies work along with the tactics. He describes only "en passant" the basics of the game, and so reading Shenk's introductory work and Hallman's speculative chapters about the development of the pieces would be recommended prior to Hoffman's treatment. He's fascinated by openings, and while this out of the three books is the only one without diagrams and with little notation, you will figure out these moves, eventually.

Unlike Hallman or Shenk, Hoffman does not concentrate on a more evocative sense of the game by extended metaphor or sustained speculation. I found fewer exemplary passages in Hoffman to show his stylistic range. He's not a lesser writer, but his own editorial background may make his drier, wryer approach better suited for a reader wanting a slightly more advanced study of how contests unfold in terms of strategy and psychology, rather than the intellectual or cultural explorations favored by Hallman and Shenk.

"I wanted to get a sense of how the minds of champions worked and whether their minds differed from mine. I wanted to witness how chess professionals handled the emotional highs and lows of victory and defeat. I wanted to talk to others who were as excited and bewitched by the game as I was. I wanted to figure out why chess was so addictive." (30) He investigates the realm of women players, sexism, bogus Freudianism, and street hustlers. Befriending Jennifer Shahade and Pascal Charbonneau, respectively U.S. and Canadian champions, he learns how they deal with grace or its lack under pressure. He goes to Moscow, endures Libya, and wonders if insanity will be brought on by too much immersion.

He mingles, as do Hallman and Shenk, his own anecdotes. Like Shenk, he relegates some of his best material to his endnotes. Hoffman divulges lots of tales and debunks many myths in these annotations. He moves from personal reflections to chess stories easily, if rather (too?) broadly; for example, he places within the depiction of professional Joel Lautier his own memories of his father's Red sympathies, shifts to his teenaged years at Quaker summer camp to prepare a c.v. that would keep him out of Vietnam, and relates his own college cramming of Marx while on Dexedrine at Harvard-- before bringing the chapter back briefly to a debate over drug testing in the sport.

Dealing with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, FIDE president and ruler of semi-autonomous Kalmykia in the former Soviet Union, Hoffman combines scrutiny with compassion. "Versailles bankrupted a country and fomented a revolution. Ilyumzhinov may well do the same, in Kalmykia and FIDE. What will endure, he knows, are the exquisite chess games that he facilitated. They will survive as long as earthlings are still pushing pawns and moving knights. In his disturbingly elite royalist calculus, the creation of immortal beauty apparently outweighs any human suffering he may have caused." (313)

Discussing British champion and rival to Kasparov, Nigel Short, Hoffman considers-- in a rare use of metaphor-- how Short advanced so well in chess but remains at heart a child in his temperament: "I had a fanciful notion that the development of specialized skills and character traits in early childhood is like a country fair in which you are allotted a fixed number of tickets to spend on the various concessions. This particular fair is of short duration and happens only once a lifetime. Nigel took the chess roller-coaster a dozen times, and rode the honesty ride twice, and so he had insufficient tickets left to take the Train Beyond Adolescence more than a stop or two. I myself missed the athletic concession, and I should have ridden-- damn it-- the chess coaster three or four times." (335)

He finishes with a middle-aged leap back onto the coaster. The book ends with him seeing Pascal compete for the grandmaster's rating. Hoffman realizes he longs for the same dream's fulfillment. Not for the money, but "for the unadulterated pleasures of peering further into the abyss of chess and glimpsing the game's deeper beauty. I want to work magic with the chess pieces the way Morphy and Fischer did. I want to launch daring, unexpected attacks the way Jennifer and Pascal do. I want to achieve a small degree of immortality by the ingenious manner in which I coordinate my knights." (384)

It occurred to me, reading Hoffman's commentaries as he played his matches, how it may resemble football. Vaguely! The Johnsonian definition he cites of "a nice and abstruse game, in which two sets of puppets are moved in opposition to each other" aligns more closely with such defense-offense pairings, if football had no downs and the ball was handed back each play.

What I will mention as my main disappointment: five sections for which a recent precedent in print remains uncredited: 1) Hoffman plays with the "Kalmyk high muckety-muck" himself. 2) He recounts the tale of a notorious Virginia prisoner, the high-ranking Bloodgood. 3) He goes to a strange, bleak, and suspect Third World land for a tournament amidst sinister overseers. 4) He hangs around as a "second" with a master. 5) He even wonders as a journalist if he should have some sympathy, as he interviews Kalmyk leader and FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, with dissident Larisa Yudina's fate. She was found murdered after she prepared an exposé of the ruler's funding for Chess City.

"The Chess Artist" preceded Hoffman; Hallman made these same five "moves" years before Hoffman. Yet he never mentions Hallman's "The Chess Artist." (This was published in 2003. Shenk's book's copyrighted as 2006; Hoffman's as 2007.)

Not sure if it'd be some sort of etiquette to acknowledge Hallman, at least as an aside in Hoffman's own ambling annotations. I scoured them repeatedly. I find it hard to believe that Hoffman did not draw upon "The Chess Artist." I find this omission very strange in both Shenk & Hoffman, so this is one reason I have reminded readers of "The Chess Artist." It's a necessary and enjoyable companion to these other two works, all three accessible for the general reader as well as the insider.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2007
We're experiencing something of a golden age of chess books, not just
"technical" ones covering openings and such, but also writing for the
general public. This recent entry by Hoffman seeks to capture the
extremes of emotion experienced by chessplayers, from hobbyists to
world champions. The writing is among the best, even better than that
of Weinreb or Shenk, and he has an advantage over them in being a
chess insider (both as a journalist and as a decent amateur player).
Hoffman uses simple words to make sentences that flow like expensive
champagne. Characters come alive, and the action is gripping and
immediate. There isn't too much structure - we are simply led by
chapters from one character to the next, or one event to another,
sometimes crossing time and space, covering a miscellany of personal
experiences. The research is also impressive and honestly done. Very
enjoyable, and easy to read. I was able to zip through this during one
long cross country flight (well, connecting through Dallas/Ft. Worth).
If I have to criticize anything, it is the inclusion of the author's
angst-ridden relationship with his father. Personally I would feel
guilt and shame to besmirch my father's name so unsparingly and
publicly. The elder Hoffman was no saint, to be sure, but his sins
should have been interred with his bones, not held up for all the world
to see. (Especially since he is dead, and cannot rise to his own
defense.) This detracted from my connecting with this author, and I
would have preferred to read more about other chess personalities
instead.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2010
Ok, I'll admit it. I only bought this book because it was on sale for a ridiculously low price. I had seen it at the book stores but wasnt ready to put down $29.99 for a book from a author I wasnt sure of. Had I known then what I know now I would have already bought the book and had it read for its a fine book. I hesitate to use the word great because, lets face it, few chess books of this nature are great. Although the story centers mostly around the relationship the author has with his father he also passes on lots of interesting information concerning other players and gives the reader some insight into the world of top level chess. If your expecting to find games to review you will dissapointed. Its not that type of book. Instead you'll be introduced to players as real people and the struggles they have to compete at such a high level. There is no movie in the making or a mini series for tv. Once again, its not that type of book, but it really is a fine read.
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