Monday, June 15, 2009

Freak Show

Here are two book reviews. I hope people don't get offended by my broad-brushes with the word “freak”. Taking a cue from Mr. Fatsis, I consider these personalities freakishly accomplished.

King's Gambit by Paul Hoffman
In my review of The Chess Artist, I ended up panning the book mostly because I felt robbed at the end by the author's disillusionment and estrangement from his friend and chess itself. After reading King's Gambit, I would say that Paul Hoffman's book is the one I had been seeking.

King's Gambit explores the lofty aeries to the depths of abyss experienced by those chess artists that commit the best part of their lives to the game. The heights include interviews with Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. The depths include analyses of the usual suspects: Morphy, Fischer, Bloodgood. Not only did Paul Hoffman interview FIDE President Kirsan Ilzhuminov, but he also played a tense King's Gambit against him which ended in an agreed draw. The author's friendship with Pascal Charbonneau allows us to vicariously live the triumphs and tragedies near the top, including the penultimate aspiration chessplayers can have aside from becoming world champion: becoming an International Grandmaster.

One of the most amusing parts was reading about Charbonneau's terrible study habits. The most dramatic part was the intimation of threats of bodily harm in Libya.

Paul Hoffman himself is quite a character with an amazing resume including: graduating summa cum laude from Harvard College, steering Encyclopaedia Britannica, steering Discover magazine, and being color commentator for ESPN on the man vs. machine match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Fritz. When I found out he was also the man behind the pseudonym Dr. Crypton, whose puzzles I had played with as a teenager reading Science Digest, I had a "No way!" moment. Ridiculously ubiquitous.

The inclusion of his complicated relationship with his father points up the subconsciously patricidal psychology of chess illuminated by Ernest Jones' analysis of Paul Morphy. I felt disappointment that the author's marriage fell apart, but perhaps feel privileged that he confided this with me as the reader of his memoir. I hope that his own experiences are a cautionary tale on how to maintain his relationship with his son. As with Chess Artist, I sensed an estrangement between the author and chess, backed up from what I see in the USCF databases, but Hoffman recently defended his legitimacy as a continuing chess player by pointing out his participation in an unrated 2007 city team league. Whereas there is still disillusionment at the end of the book, there are still relationships to fall back on in the larger scheme of the author's rich life. Since the book was autobiographical in scope, the larger context of accomplishment makes the disillusionment less jarring. This time, I didn’t feel robbed.

Word Freak by Andrew Fatsis
Word Freak is an entertaining and thorough treatment on the history of Scrabble and the colorful (read dysfunctional) personalities that inhabit its upper echelons. Again, the story follows the author's own efforts to find some level of accomplishment in the game while hanging out with amazingly skilled anagrammers. Many of the chapters are entitled simply with a four digit number which was his rating during that time. Ups and downs and self-loathing are all too familiar.

I was most amused when he described the craving for more legitimacy for Scrabble as a socially important pastime relative to chess which has its own inferiority complexes, usually craving the legitimacy of golf and tennis. The question "Why can't tournament Scrabble be as legitimate as tournament chess" makes me laugh when I think about chess' current sad state of governance. The doubters' refrain "It's just a game" hounds the Scrabble players who like chess players seem to be hopelessly behind the house in terms of life spent in questionable pursuit. Books like these help to document and legitimize the common effort of a chosen - or stigmatized - few.

Being a book about Scrabble, the words themselves became a star subject. Having spent some time memorizing a few 7-letter bingoes myself, I appreciated it when Fatsis worked words like ETESIAN (an annually occuring wind) and SENARII (Greek or Latin verses consisting of six metrical feet) into the everyday vignettes. One gets the impression that the English language is one massive fusty museum with entire wings of forgotten words that only get visited by the pedantic Scrabblers in search of their next bingo or clever word hook. The sheer mental exertion required to cram hundreds of thousands of obscure word patterns into a mind is reminiscent of the herculean task of cramming chess openings and tactical patterns into these fallible brains. The sieve and the sand. A visit to a lexicographer who seemed to possess the keys to the entire English language in his modest ascetic apartment came off as positively surreal.

In both of these books, the authors are fairly proficient practitioners of the games, nearly experts. They feel the inferiority complex of hanging with the masters without being able to really hang with the masters. I think this is the sweet spot of writing for an amateur audience. They are both skilled writers who can describe in beautiful detail the promised land from a lofty vantage point, but like Moses, they themselves are not allowed to enter. Author and reader commiserate in the bittersweet wistfulness of mediocrity. I highly recommend both King's Gambit and Word Freak as clear and luxurious picture windows on these freakish worlds within our world.


Eric Shoemaker said...

When you coming back to chess, I'm running out of people to beat on! LOL. Eric

qxpch said...

Good reviews! When I criticized "The Chess Artist" on my blog it lead to a very long thread, as the author defended himself and then for some reason thought that a match between me and Glenn Umstead would settle everything! However, I think you are right that both "King's Gambit" and "Word Freak" are satisfying to the reader in precisely the way that "The Chess Artist" is not.

Soapstone said...

@Eric: Wow, you're on quite a streak these days! For various reasons, it looks like I'm going to be away from chess for a while, so I'll conveniently avoid the Shoemaker Express.

@qxpch: I was hoping someone might actually care about the reviews I wrote. Thanks for commenting. It was through your blog roll that I found thepHtest. That Paul Hoffman is everywhere. Good to see you're getting increased exposure too.

Eric Shoemaker said...

Hi Ernie, well some of us miss you there at the club, therefore I'm hoping for a speedy and uncomplicated recovery! I hope to hear news of Hong Express in the near future!