SPORTSMEN AND GAMESMEN by John Dizikes

SPORTSMEN AND GAMESMEN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Regret not the Astrodome: it's the ""logical result"" of 150 years of American sporting history, Dizikes avers--and after a slow passage through Jacksonian byways, he clicks with one after another audacious, intellectually naunced set-piece chapter. Each centers on a pivotal figure--starting with Jackson himself, ""the English sportsman of the past,"" and Colonel William Johnson, ""the gamesman of the future"": the entrepeneur, strategist, and poker-faced gambler. The Americanization of American sports will of course be the theme, coupled with the countrification of the city, and exemplified above all by horse racing: the American track was dirt, not turf; it was a uniform oval, the better for everyone to see, to feel at home, to feel equal; the size of the crowd was part of the event (""To be counted was to count""); and part of its attraction was its disorderliness and dishonesty: like American city life, it resisted reform. Dizikes' central section deals with overt American challenges to Britain, circa 1850--in yachting, boxing, horse racing, and, most surprisingly, in chess. Here the protagonist is New Orleans prodigy Paul Morphy, who after trouncing Europe's champions (save for the leading Britisher, who refused to play him), returned home and, at 22, virtually gave up the game. Erik Erikson has posited an unresolved oedipal conflict (that recalcitrant Englishman); Dizikes' conjectures are richer and subtler. Subsequent chapters focus on the origins of trotting as an American sport (with detours through Whittier and Currier & Ives); on P.T. Barnum, the great hoaxer; and on poker's unprecedented popularity in the US--on account of the risk-taking and bluffing. To this, Dizikes counterpoises chess, with its mastery of strategy. And, he concludes, both reflect ""the deepest aspiration of the American sporting mind: the desire to make play scientific."" Hence--with far more development than can be indicated here--the totally controlled environment of the Astrodome. Though one can demur at given points, the projection as a whole is original and engrossing.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1980
ISBN: 0826214479
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin