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King's Gambit (Paul Hoffman)

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The Bottom Line

(December 2007) 'King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game' by Paul Hoffman; Hyperion; September 2007; 448 pages. • '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. All the while, he grapples with the bizarre, confusing legacy of his own father, who haunts Hoffman's game and life.' [from the book flap] • Not an instructional book; contains no chess games or chess positions.
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Pros
  • Even close observers of the contemporary chess scene will find much that is new here.
  • Extremely well written; flows like a first class chess game between world class players.
  • The author is a grandmaster story teller. The chess stories are well chosen and well structured.
  • Many anecdotes are from personal experience, rubbing shoulders with the world's best players.
Cons
  • The stories are peppered (not riddled) with factual errors; compiling a list would make a good game.
  • Entirely too much 'airing dirty laundry in public', e.g. details of relationship with family.
  • Portions read like 'Autobiography of a Class-A Player', which is out-of-step with the rest.

Description

  • Twelve chapters weave a handful of relevant stories about the author with hundreds of stories about chess.
  • The chess stories are mainly about contemporary topics, plus some chess history where useful.
  • A dozen or so chess players are discussed in depth, dozens of others are described in passing.
  • Full chapters on e.g. Bruce Pandolfini, hustlers, women in chess, the 2004 Tripoli World Championship.
  • Example chapter: 'Ch.4 Russian Domination', outlines the rise of chess interest in the USSR;
  • -> Plus: Kasparov vs. Karpov (1984-5), vs. IBM (1997), vs. Deep Fritz (2003), vs. Putin (2005-7);
  • -> Plus: modern opening preparation, Kasparov - Radjabov incident (2003), Kramnik - Topalov (2006)
  • 'Annotations' (34 pages of notes; would be even more useful linked back to the text)
  • 'Source Notes' (6 pages; not comprehensive)
  • 'Index' (8 pages; 'Annotations' not covered)

Guide Review - King's Gambit (Paul Hoffman)

Paul Hoffman is a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, a former president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a bestselling author of books for the general public. A keen chess player as an adolescent, he followed the same path as many young players, abandoning the game in college and returning to it in middle age. • Subtitled 'the World's Most Dangerous Game', the book is indeed about chess, not Russian roulette. Why dangerous? Because 'the pressures of competition drove him to the brink of madness'. A good chunk of the narrative is a memoir about the author's relationship with his now-deceased father. An objective onlooker might conclude that any madness was handed down from the old man rather than picked up from chess. • A good friend once told us that he liked chess, but didn't like chess players. Hoffman might agree. His chess friends, like Pascal Charbonneau and Irina Krush, are treated sympathetically; his chess acquaintances, like Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, are treated respectfully, although their quirks are brought to light; many of the others are treated like candidates for the psychiatrist's couch: Botvinnik was 'robotic', Bogoljubow a 'bombastic drunkard', Ilyumzhinov is reduced to a two-dimensional caricature. • If you can get past those problems of balance, we guarantee that, chess player or not, you will like this book. The chess stories, many from personal observation, are well recounted and entertaining. The chess personalities come to life through the author's words, as though he were talking to you over dinner. The footnotes ('Annotations') are a gold mine of chess trivia. • 'King's Gambit' is one of the best general interest books ever written about chess. Recommended.
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