Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pg. 99: Paul Hoffman's "King's Gambit"

The latest feature at the Page 99 Test: Paul Hoffman's King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game.

About the book, from the author's website:
As a child, Paul Hoffman lost himself in chess. The award-winning author of the international bestseller The Man Who Loved Only Numbers played to escape the dissolution of his parents' marriage, happily passing weekends with his brilliant bohemian father in New York's Greenwich Village, the epicenter of American chess. But he soon learned that such single-minded focus came at a steep price, as the pressure of competition drove him to the edge of madness.

As an adolescent, Hoffman loved the artistic purity of the game — and the euphoria he felt after a hard-fought victory — but he was disturbed by the ugly brutality and deceptive impulses that tournament chess invariably brought out in his opponents and in himself. Plagued by strange dreams in which attractive women moved like knights and sinister men like bishops, he finally gave up the game entirely in college, for the next twenty-five years.

In King's Gambit, Hoffman interweaves gripping tales from the history of the game and revealing portraits of contemporary chess geniuses into the emotionally charged story of his own recent attempt to get back into tournament chess as an adult — this time without losing his mind or his humanity. All the while, he grapples with the bizarre, confusing legacy of his own father, who haunts Hoffman's game and life.

In this insider's look at the obsessive subculture of championship chess, the critically acclaimed author applies the techniques that garnered his earlier work such lavish praise — the novelistic storytelling and the keen insights — to his own life and the eccentric, often mysterious lives of the chess pros he knew and has come to know. Intimate, surprising, and often humorous, it's both Hoffman's most personal work and his most compelling.

Among the early praise for King's Gambit:
"If you enjoy playing chess, this will be the most fascinating, best-written book that you have ever read. If you have no interest in chess, then get ready to enjoy a fascinating, fast-moving story with unforgettable characters many of whom just happen to be chess players."
—Jared Diamond

"Hoffman's masterful, exhaustive tale of chess, its soaring triumphs and crushing discontents is filled with enough international intrigue and warped, shady characters to pass for the latest James Bond sequel. Along with the stereotypical lunatic Russian grandmasters ('the normally even-keeled Russian asked that his chair be X-rayed and dismantled to make sure [Bobby] Fischer hadn't implanted a harmful radiation emitter inside it'), chess-crazed Bulgarians, Canadians, Libyans and the occasional American plow through the contemporary chess world in search of victory. In clear, thoughtful prose, Hoffman (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers ) describes the players ("[Short] doesn't glare at his adversary, slam down the rooks, twist the knights into the board, rock back and forth, tap his feet or pace the tournament hall snorting like a feral animal") and the game.... Hoffman has achieved something singular: a winning, book about the 'royal game' that will satisfy the general reader, kibitzer and grandmaster alike."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Introduced to chess by his father when he was only five, Hoffman found a refuge in the game during an adolescence marked by family stress. Returning to the game decades later in a period of personal and professional crisis, he found himself fascinated not just by chess itself, but by the inner life of its players. Among the questions he seeks to answer are why chess is so addictive, how the champions handle victory and defeat and why the game is played primarily by men.... [A trip in 2004 to the World Chess Championship in Libya], which included nerve-shattering encounters with a police-state bureaucracy, reveals the author's expertise as a storyteller as well as his own high-amateur competence at the chessboard... Those who relished Stefan Fatsis's portrayal of Scrabble junkies (Word Freak, 2001) will find this another fascinating glimpse into a competitive game world filled with quirky and brilliant addicts."

Read an excerpt from King's Gambit, and learn more about the book at Paul Hoffman's website and blog.

Paul Hoffman was president of Encyclopaedia Britannica and editor in chief of Discover magazine, and is the author of Wings of Madness and The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. King's Gambit is his eleventh book.

The Page 99 Test: King's Gambit.

--Marshal Zeringue