Grandmaster Andy Soltis Says Accept “Gambit”

New York Post

I have always enjoyed the books and Chess Life column of grandmaster Andy Soltis. He can marshal words and turns of phrase as skillfully as he can marshal pawns and knights. And so his review of King’s Gambit in Sunday’s New York Post meant a lot to me. (I’m also tickled that the review appeared in the Post, whose headlines I’ve enjoyed for years). Under the headline ACCEPT ‘GAMBIT’ AS A GOOD READ, Soltis writes:

“Paul Hoffman, an accomplished author and magazine editor, was being interviewed for the job of publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 2000 when the quirky new owner asked him just two questions. One was: What is the shortest possible checkmate?

“Hoffman, then 43, hadn’t played chess in 25 years. But he knew the Fool’s Mate (1 g4 e5 2 f3 Qh4), and this knowledge earned an impressive new addition to his résumé – one that turned out to be such a bizarre, stressful experience that he began playing tournament chess again for relief.

“His midlife crisis became a re-immersion in chess, including hanging out at a Moscow tournament with a world class player, Joel Lautier; investigating the bizarre subculture of “Grobsters” (1 g4 players) and Washington Square Park hustlers; and playing spectator at a world championship tournament in Moammar Khadafy’s Libya.

“He also tried to understand his con-man dad, who introduced him to the game and how he first became obsessed with it after his parents marriage collapsed.

“The result is King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father and the World’s Most Dangerous Game published this month by Hyperion…. Of the several general-interest books with a chess theme that appeared this year, this is the one to buy.”

6 Responses to “Grandmaster Andy Soltis Says Accept “Gambit””

  1. Daniel Lucas Says:

    I recently spoke to Soltis’ wife, who also works at the Post. I mentioned my favorite Post headline, “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.” She told me the editor who came up with that many years ago still worked just a few desks away from her.

  2. Dale Rigby Says:

    While I respect the writing and the thinking of Andy Soltis as much as I respect the elegant profiling and the research and the impulse and the guiding persona behind Paul Hoffman’s often wonderful King’s Gambit, I gotta say that his “review” is more like a blurb. Which is surely fine, all the power to any and all efforts to find a foothold in the marketplace for what Soltis deems a “general interest” look at the game we love. But, of course, the book brings up issues rich enough to warrant more than blurbs. The conversation has only begun with the summary-review posted by Steve Goldberg on Goldberg is troubled by the book’s scaffolding use of “madness is rampant in championship chess.” I don’t know if I’m yet troubled, but I am, having just finished King’s Gambit and needing time to think, downright curious about that choice of trope. Was it a choice driven by understandable marketing decisions, a trumpeting for the “general audience” of the (tired?) trope of “the world’s most dangerous game”? How (and I may be wrong) can King’s Gambit not cite Cockburn’s scurrilous Chess and the Dance of Death, with which it shares nothing when it comes to soul (thankfully!) but, arguably, explores the same, dare I say at the risk of sounding like an egghead, socially-constructed theme? I’ve more questions, as I found the book fascinating (though I would amend Soltis to say that those of us who wonder what we write about when we write about chess will also want to read other “general interest” recent works like The Kings of New York and, even The Immortal Game), so I’ll just leave with one question: how come Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, about a game I have only the congenital gamesplayer fascination with, was able to stretch the board across a wider and more bittersweet cultural canvas than The King’s Gambit? Sorry for the ramble. Somebody somtime (that rightwinger Krauthammer?) said that “more books have been written about chess than all other games put together.” Blessed be Hoffman for entering the fray of that occasional genre beyond the technical into what Kraut called something like those “that questions the value of the enterprise itself.”

  3. paulhoffman Says:

    That’s so cool, Daniel. My dad used to write saucy tabloid headlines and was a master of the world’s worst puns. I remember a headline about the Fondas’ drinking problems: “Absinthe Makes the Fondas Grow Heartier.”

  4. Adam Says:

    I don’t think “marketing” decisions were involved in how Paul approached “King’s Gambit.” If he had his commercial self-interest in mind, he wouldn’t have decided to write his last three books on chess, early aviation, and mathematics, respectively. Cockburn’s book was a shallow, theoretical book spouting a lot of Freudian nonsense. Hoffman’s work, although it is informed by chess history and historical anecdotes, is a very close look at the emotional up and downs of chess playing. Cockburn did not spend time with any player; Hoffman has spent hundreds of hours with Garry Kasparov, Joel Lautier, Nigel Short, Pascal Charbonneau, Jennifer Shahade, and Irina Krush. King’s Gambit serves up revealing portraits of these players, euphoric in victory and deflated in defeat.

  5. Dale Rigby Says:

    Thanks for the response, but I don’t think you quite captured what I was saying on several fronts. First, I agree with all your dismissals of Cockburn, whom I called “scurrilous”. I explicitly praised the raison d’etre of Paul’s work as having nothing whatsoever in common with the shallow and mercenary spirit of Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death. Secondly, with regard to “marketing,” such decisions are rarely in the hands of even an author as skilled and successful as Paul Hoffman. Dat’s the job of the suits, right? And I wondered about their (conscious?) decision and Paul’s (far less conscious?) to buy into the trope of the psychopathology of chess. That’s all. Especially given the USE of the “personal” in a work that Paul expressedly tells Harold Goldowsky in an previous interview is NOT a “memoir” (HG: In a sense you’re almost writing a profile of yourself.” PH: Not quite. It’s going to be framed a little bit by my own experiences, but it’s by no means a biography or a memoir or anything like that”–Chess Cafe 2003 and in Engaging Pieces 2007).
    Immersion journalist Paul is right. However rich his work, it is not a memoir (see the Duke of Deception for a memoir about a prevaricating poseur of a father). But then I read in the most recent Chess Life an interview where Howard Goldowsky’s very first question somehow limns King’s Gambit as a “personal memoir;” and Jon Jacobs contends the book is “more deeply personal than…Jennifer Shahade’s Chess Bitch (sic?).” Just thinking out loud, food for thought about how we write about chess for a “lay” audience. For instance, what if the ENTIRE first chapter had been framed by that troubling game we only get on page 29-30? Now that’s a move, were he a writer, that Anand might have made!

  6. Jon Jacobs Says:

    Dale, note the title on my Chess Life review of KG. One needn’t dig deep into Freudian esoterica to posit that many things we do amount to subconsciously working out emotional knots that arose from our early relationships with either of our parents. In KG, Paul made no bones about painting his father as a habitual and very calculating deceiver, who lied to attain specific goals and usually got away with it. The father also compulsively competed with his son (Paul), risking permanent damage to the boy’s ego (which thankfully didn’t happen). So can it be a surprise that the major conflicts Paul felt over chess, which he expresses in the book, revolve around both deception (he exaggerates its extent and significance in organized chess, it seemed to me) and over-competition?

    I for one have never found it undermined friendship or intimacy to defeat, or be defeated by, a close friend. And aside from having to run to the bathroom often during my first few months of playing in tournaments (I was 13 at the time), I never felt any great emotional strain before, during, or after competing. Losing doesn’t tear me apart; it’s an inevitable aspect of chess, and of life. So rather than these being near-universal reactions as a casual reader of KG might assume, it felt to me like the author’s sensitivity to deception and hyper-competition in chess were more a product of his personal upbringing. Which is just one of many good reasons I called KG a deeply personal book.

    Now I’ll let slip a personal revelation of my own: I was so turned off by the first chapter that I formed a highly negative initial impression of the whole book (along the lines sketched by other people on this thread). After that I had to force myself to read the rest of it; and as I saw the author gradually evolve away from the rather mindless anti-chess propaganda of the first chapter, my own conception of the book and how I would review it evolved as well. I have much more to say on this topic, but this probably isn’t the time or place; it is a dialogue I will perhaps have with Paul somewhere down the line.

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