Thursday, September 20, 2007

Paul Hoffman's "King's Gambit"

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.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his eleventh and most recent book, King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, and reported the following:
On page 99 of King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, I discuss the early termination of the 1984-85 match for the World Chess Championship. This was the most contentious and bitterest chess match in the history of the game. After five grueling months of play without a clear victor, the match was cut short on the ground that continuing it any longer might endanger the bodies and psyches of the two players. The failing physical and mental health of these cerebral gladiators captures the theme of King's Gambit. Chess may look like a gentleman's game, but at the championship level it is often a blood sport, with each player intent on totally destroying the other.

King's Gambit is part memoir (the story of my childhood weekends in Greenwich Village with a brilliant, bohemian, Ping-Pong-hustling dad and my escape into chess to avoid facing unpleasant truths about him) and part an insider's look at the obsessive subculture of tournament chess and the crazy behavior that the game brings out in professionals and amateurs alike.

Defeat in chess is always painful. The Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal once signaled his resignation by grabbing his king, climbing up on the chess table, extending his arm horizontally, and dropping the king so that it bombed the board.

When a defeated player gets violent, his wrath is often directed not at spectators or his opponent but at himself. One contemporary Russian grandmaster has been known to pick up the pointiest chess piece, usually the bishop or a knight with a particularly jagged mane, and stab his own head until it bleeds. Then he rushes out of the tournament hall only to return for the next round as if nothing untoward has happened. At one event, this grandmaster was among the tournament leaders who were playing on an elevated stage. When he lost a key game, he bloodied his face and then, in an extreme masochistic flourish, dove off the three-foot-high stage, belly-flopping onto the hard floor.
Read an excerpt from King's Gambit, and learn more about the book at Paul Hoffman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue