Sunday, September 16, 2007

King's Gambit, writing, Polgar, rating snobbery, Rowson, fear

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.

10 comments: said...

Liz, I appreciate your review because it is thoughtful and adds to the discourse. I am very interested in the inner emotional lives of chess professionals and amateurs—the euphoric highs and the deep, depressed lows—as they play chess games. Obviously, I have the most access to my own feelings. Of course, I was happy that I beat Rossolimo, but I knew, and point out in my book, that he was completely drunk. I was pleased that I was a pawn up against Stefanova, although I knew, and point out, that it was not because I did anything special but because she blundered outright. When playing Jen, my principal reaction was one of pleasure that I didn’t embarrass myself by playing horribly. I was aware of the unusual circumstances of the game: that I was interviewing her for an article, and for whatever reason she might not have been trying, at least not initially, to wipe me off the board. And, yes, I am extremely happy with my simul game against Seirawan. My larger point is that many players (me included) are very excited when they win, or think they are winning, or think they were winnng, and that’s part of their enjoyment of the game. To tone down how good I felt about these encounters would undermine my point. The emotional highs, unfortunately, are often less extreme than the emotional lows. The pain of losing—especially when I think I have done something really stupid and effectively defeated myself—can feel like (in the words of Nigel Short) I’ve put my head into a cement mixer.

I understand what you’re saying about journalistic distortion, but the Shabalov remarks were relegated to the endnotes in which I was explicitly allowing myself “the guilty pleasure of sharing legendary yarns.” In other words, I was telegraphing the fact that in the endnotes I was going to include a lot of fun stuff without spoiling the fun by casting a critical eye.

--Paul Hoffman

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Paul, I think your point is correct and in fact is actually the point I'm trying to make: that my first reaction is essentially incorrect, essentially a manifestation of inner snobbery. I'm interested enough to write about it because I feel like it's an unacknowledged general belief in the chess world: the idea that lower rated players are less justified in writing about their experiences, or that they're inherently less interesting.

Ron Young said...

I thought the Shaba quote was that he was thinking about "girls" that % of the time. I hope my memory is right or I'll regret that contribution to Ms. magazine I put down in his name.

As for whether he was joking, who can say? In real life, there are no emoticons.

Anonymous said...

Liz, let me start by saying that you definitely have normal arms -- skinny, but certainly normal. (This, for those who don't know, is a reference to a post I made at the BCC Web blog.) Anyway, as an amateur chess journalist, I don't feel that it is difficult to write about chess or difficult to write about non-GM-level chess players. The only interview (out of twelve) with a GM in my book, Engaging Pieces, is with Nakamura. The eleven others are with journalists (like Paul Hoffman, Mig Greengard, Michael Weinreb, Jen Shahade, David Shenk), ratings expert Mark Glickman, inspiring amateur Michael de la Maza, TV celebrity Joe Block, Greg Shahade in his role as USCL President, etc. Not one of the interviews was done in awe of a player's ability. The fiction in the book also treated chess from an original perspective. The subtleties of an en passant capture were encorporated as a metaphor into the plot of one short story, and the subtleties of Steinitz's maxims were incorporated as a metaphor into another story; still another story treated chess as a sport, capturing the competitiveness of the class sections and improving class players. It's really not hard to write about chess. Like any other writing, in order to make it interesting the writer must dig deep within his soul to inspire the reader. I think the biggest problem with chess writing is that there just aren't enough good writers writing about chess. Paul Hoffman happens to be one of them. King's Gambit has it's flaws, some of them you've pointed out; for the most part, however, the book is the epitome of chess journalism, and is an instant classic. Most GMs can barely write in English (have you noticed how horrible the punctuation is in NIC?), let alone write well in English. I don't think that chess is difficult to write about -- in fact, if anything, it's very easy to write about given the emotional highs and lows of the game -- the problem is that there are very few good chess writers. What passes for 'chess writing' these days is horrible.

Howard Goldowsky

Anonymous said...


Personally, I thought your quiz was a riot (I made a high score, too), but I respect your high standards and accept your decision to retract it.

With respect to Shaba's quote: even if we stipulate that he was joking, the fact that it was funny means that it struck a kernel of truth. Indeed, the fact is we men (I cannot speak for women) spend a staggeringly high amount of time thinking about sex. Sometimes I wonder how much further I could have gotten in life if, between the ages of 14 and 45, I had taken something to ease the testosterone poisoning.

But maybe it's not so simple as that. It is also true that many acts of creativity, courage, and noble sacrifice, etc. were perpetrated "to impress the babes." (You can clean up the language, but then it won't be so accurate.) Suddenly I am reminded of a lovely page of prose from John Barth's "The End of the Road." At the end of the passage, he imagines trying to explain human civilization to an extraterrestrial visitor: "On our planet, Sir, men and women copulate. Moreover, we enjoy copulating. But for various reasons, we cannot do it wherever, whenever, and with whomever we choose. Hence, all the running around that you see. Hence, the world!" He's right, isn't he?

Anonymous said...

My recollection is that Barth's novel was intended to expose the folly of such reductionist or one-dimensional thinking. But of course you yourself (Anonymous) have already grasped the two sides of this issue. Modulo that, yes, he's right. I played football, joined the Navy, went to grad school, and busted my hump in the business because I figured it would help me score with the chicks (and now, *the* chick). But don't tell her I called her that.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

wow, you anonymous guys are really well-read. i remember reading some john barth a while ago, but only that a circus performer and a bear and possibly an old hotel were involved.

ron's right, he said girls. also, ron's impressively funny, don't you think?

i've thought about this mistake a lot for the last couple days and really can't decide if i should be:

a) thoroughly ashamed of myself for taking people to task for misinterpreting a remark that i actually misquote,

b) finding it funny that i did so


c) feeling totally indifferent since the difference of meaning between the words girls and sex in this context is probably nil.

i go back and forth so much.

don't get me wrong, anonymous, i'm not saying thinking about girls is a bad use of time, i'm just saying I doubt it's terribly productive in terms of chess in the short term.

and paul-- when reading i totally missed your dislaimer about the footnote. (maybe because it itself is in a footnote?! :))
and i don't think it's a huge problem that you include the quote since it is
a) a funny story and
b) in this case not being used to make a point.
so i probably have greater reservations about jenn's use of the remark, although i should make it very clear that i think chess bitch is an absolutely incredible book.

Howard-- Do you really think you can throw the arm insults around and then act all chattynicelike as if it's nothing to me? I want you to know I'm expecting a formal recant on the Boylston Blog, complete with wildly positive, nearly fawning descriptions of my upper arms. Only then can we be friends.


Howard Goldowsky said...


Don't women think skinny arms look sexy? Many men do, including myself, so in a way I was complimenting you. To me, my comment was nothing more than an attempt to describe what I saw in something more than generic prose. This being said, there are many problems with the wording. Here it is again, lest we forget.

For your more salacious readers who like to read about strong female chess players, Liz Vicary appeared even skinnier in person than she does in her pictures. A significant length of her forearm could fit within the diameter of a half-dollar coin.

Technically, this description is probably innacurate. The description is also about your forearm, not your upper arm (athough those are skinny too). Your forearm is probably wider in diameter than a half-dollar. This was just poor journalistic hyperbole on my part (i.e. bad chess writing!) I also should probably not have used the phrase "salacious readers." The readers are not salacious; but some of them may think salacious thoughts. (More bad writing!)

So here's a formal recant of these two innacuracies. I will not recant my opinion that your arms (both forearms and upper arms) are skinny, however. They are also well toned, appear to be the recipient of good nutrition and exercise, and maneuver chess pieces with deathly accuracy. At the risk of sounding innapropriate and flirtatious, I would not hesitate to fawn over them.

I think it's a little late to recant these original comments at the BCC blog (nobody will ever go back to the comments of that post again). There is a greater chance people will read this post here. With utmost respect, I hope you accept my apologies.



Elizabeth Vicary said...

Howard-- Wow, thanks. How could I not accept such an apology?

And Dave-- I think now it's time to stop calling me "50 cent."

katar said...

Liz, i have a stock answer for the "what is your rating?" question. "I'm rated PG13 for stylized violence." Sometimes i add, "And brief nudity." hehe

-patrick in L.A.