Let me start by saying Paul Hoffman’s new book, King’s Gambit, is well-written, entertaining, thoughtful and overall gets an enthusiastic two thumbs up from me. I’m going to criticize it in the rest of the review, but I want to be very clear up front that I’m enjoying it immensely and think you should buy it. What I really want to discuss are two ideas that have been bouncing around in my head lately, both of which are central to Paul 's book. Or at least central to my thoughts about Paul's book, and that's what counts, right? The first is the inescapable snobbery of the chess world—the way that your voice is only as authentic as your rating is high-- and the second is the degree to which chess journalism (in particular) is fighting a losing battle.
The most recent issue of New In Chess Magazine has a letter from a reader, David Wright of Sacramento, who takes Jonathan Rowson to task for his condescending review of Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning. While Rowson makes it clear that he essentially likes the book, his main point is that Josh can’t really be so good at learning or he would have made GM. David Wright’s point is that this attitude is more ungenerous than it is correct, and I think I agree. But it's also par for the course in the chess world: the belief that the higher your rating is, the more you have a right to an opinion. If you’re not at least a master, or in Josh’s case a grandmaster, then your experience is inauthentic and doesn’t really count. And you certainly shouldn’t have the arrogance to write a best-selling book.
I mention this NIC exchange because I had the exactly same reaction as Rowson on reading parts of King’s Gambit. Paul talks a fair amount of smack about his own experiences playing: about beating Rossilimo, being up a pawn against Stefanova (in a simul), giving Seirawan a run for his money (ditto), and almost winning the first blitz game he plays against Jenn Shahade (and notice that she didn’t really win in the end—he lost on time). My initial reaction was to condemn this as arrogant, to feel that Paul shouldn’t be bragging about how he’s outplayed all these world-class talents. But it’s not (in fact) arrogant, and it’s me who’s being snobbish and unfair. The man writes the book; the man gets to talk about his own experiences. Fair enough. And the more I thought about my own reaction, the more I started thinking that this particular snobbery is endemic to the chess world—just because we can instantly and accurately slot people into a rating hierarchy, we do. If you’ve ever been accosted by a stranger at a tournament who demands to know-- even before you’re introduced-- what your rating is, then you understand what I'm talking about.
And this brings me to my next point—journalistic distortion. Let me start by saying that in my experience it’s very difficult to write accurately and entertainingly about chess. I started covering tournaments for Chess Life and Chess Life Online about a year and a half ago, and I quickly found myself running out of things to say. The problem is that no one really cares about non-GMs, their games, their relationship to chess, their thoughts on opening theory, or their lives. But GMs, as a class, are not the most self-reflective people in the world. They don’t often say interesting, provocative, or quotable things, which creates a big problem in chess journalism and often leaves reporters grasping at straws.
Which brings me to my all time favorite example of grasping—the frequently cited statement in which Alex Shabalov claims to use 50-90% of his clock time in any given tournament game thinking about sex. This statement first appeared in an interview Jenn Shahade did with him in Curacao for Chess Life. She reprinted the statement in Chess Bitch, and it was (of course) widely quoted in the reviews of this book. Paul picks it up again in King’s Gambit. On the one hand, I understand—the statement is provocative, titillating, made by a top player, and useful in making a certain kind of argument. But Jenn and Paul choose to ignore an important fact: it’s very obviously a complete joke. I could offer support for this assertion—the setting of the interview (a tropical island in which alcohol is served in unlimited quantities for free), the observable fact that Alex calculates a great deal in his games and generally looks like he’s working hard at the board, etc-- but do I really need to? Is it even possible to think he’s serious? I feel like Jenn and Paul both know perfectly well that he’s kidding but simply can’t bring themselves to pass up such an great quoting opportunity. And that’s fine with me, just as long as they don't use quotes like these to make a serious argument about gender differences.
A small example of the same thing happened to me in Michael Weinreb’s Kings of New York, a book describing the accomplishments of some of my former students. While in general I’m a fan of Kings, I couldn’t help but stiffen while reading some of the descriptions of me. In a nutshell, I’m the dynamic but spiritually lost character who finds her true calling in teaching. And while this isn’t wholly inaccurate, I had to laugh occasionally-- in particular at a description of me teaching while wearing a sexy leather skirt. It’s a minor complaint, but I don’t own a leather skirt. And so I'm left feeling that the description is more about making my character cool and non-geeky than it is about me.
Let’s jump back to King’s Gambit. Recently in her blog, Susan Polgar mentions receiving the book, adding that she hasn’t yet had time to read it. An “anonymous blog reader” (why do they all sound suspiciously like the same person?) remarks that Hoffman’s book isn’t very nice to Susan and Paul Truong, and he's right. In chapter seven, “Female Counterplay,” Hoffman describes the 2004 Women’s Olympic team training sessions with Kasparov; Paul obviously took excellent notes because he’s able to reproduce much of the conversation exactly, and it’s fascinating reading. By far the funniest part is the desription of the software program advocated by trainer Michael Khordarkovsky: it claims to be able to advise women on the most suitable choice of opening for different stages of their menstrual cycle. Of course, this assertion begs a huge number of questions: Have there actually been any studies about how the menstrual cycle affects chess? What hard evidence exists about the relationship between established menstrual-related cognitive changes and chess openings? Who developed the program? Why?? Don’t Khordarkovsky, Truong, or Polgar feel like it’s inappropriate to invade women’s personal privacy, especially in the context of asking about “weakness”? If not, shouldn’t they?
(On a personal note to Mr. Khordarkovsky, two further questions of my own:
1. What if I don’t know more than one opening?
2. Could your program also bring me two Advil and some Kleenex, stroke my hair, and reassure me that I’m not fat and won’t die childless and alone?)
Of course, Hoffman has a field day mocking the idea and (if we’re being honest here) mocking Polgar/Truong in general. Paul writes with obvious incredulity about a Chess Cafe interview in which Truong details his childhood adventures as a Vietnamese chess champion and boat refugee. And in general, he comes across as reasonable, open-minded, rational, and convincing.
But then Hoffman throws in one last story, and it’s here that he loses me. In this final anecdote, he quotes Truong claiming to be a member of an exclusive hot pepper-eating club (“If normal people like us (meaning you—EV) tried the hot sauce,” Hoffman describes Truong saying, “we’d probably die.”) I’m sure the story as Hoffman relates it is factually correct, and it certainly works thematically with the rest of the chapter, contributing to the overall picture of Paul as a compulsive liar and show-off (or imaginative and entertaining story-teller, depending on how you see things).
But I also think it crosses a certain line of fairness. Myself, when I think back on all the stupid, arrogant, obnoxious, and sometimes totally untrue things I’ve said in casual conversation (let’s not even mention the thousands of examples I am happily incapable of remembering), I can only be happy that no one’s been taking notes. The bottom line is that you can make anyone look like a complete asshole by quoting casual remarks and adding a few ungenerous adverbs. And while I’m not saying Hoffman is right or wrong about Truong, I sure am glad he’s not writing about me.
Having said that, it's a great read, as is Kings of New York and Chess Bitch. Go order them all.
later note: I should add --because I think it's easy to get the wrong idea from this blog entry--that I personally have a fairly positive take on Polgar, Truong, and Khordarkovsky. By which I mean that I like them on a personal level, and I think they all do good things for chess. The above stuff seems like a choice of tactics to me, and while I quite possibly don't agree with all their actions, I don't feel like I can make too much of a judgment, not hvaing been there and all.