A journey into the psyche of champion chess players, accompanied by a personal quest for understanding of a talented but difficult parent.
Introduced to chess by his father when he was only five, Hoffman (Wings of Madness, 2003, etc.) 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. There’s a bit of chess history and mythology, a brief explanation of the rules and of some opening moves and a side trip into human-vs.-computer competition, but this is primarily a narrative driven by personality. In 2004, Hoffman accompanied grandmasters Joel Lautier and Pascal Charbonneau to international competitions in Moscow and Libya respectively to observe how these men prepared for matches and how they handled winning and losing. A year later, he journeyed to Athens to interview another grandmaster, Nigel Short. The Libyan trip with Lautier, 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. Woven together with these forays into the minds of chess professionals are Hoffman’s reminiscences about his father, an extremely manipulative and competitive man, envious of his teenage son’s accomplishments, who once suggested that chess was really a way of working out homo-patricidal impulses.
The portrait of his father is decidedly unpleasant, and Hoffman himself has some jarringly boastful moments, but 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.