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The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game
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The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game

by J. C. Hallman

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In the tiny Russian province of Kalmykia, obsession with chess has reached new heights. Its leader, a charismatic and eccentric millionaire/ex--car salesman named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is a former chess prodigy and the most recent president of FIDE, the world's controlling chess body. Despite credible allegations of his involvement in drug running, embezzlement, and


In the tiny Russian province of Kalmykia, obsession with chess has reached new heights. Its leader, a charismatic and eccentric millionaire/ex--car salesman named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is a former chess prodigy and the most recent president of FIDE, the world's controlling chess body. Despite credible allegations of his involvement in drug running, embezzlement, and murder, the impoverished Kalmykian people have rallied around their leader's obsession---chess is played on Kalmykian prime-time television and is compulsory in Kalmykian schools. In addition, Kalmyk women have been known to alter their traditional costumes of pillbox hats and satin gowns to include chessboard-patterned sashes.

The Chess Artist is both an intellectual journey and first-rate travel writing dedicated to the love of chess and all of its related oddities, writer and chess enthusiast J. C. Hallman explores the obsessive hold chess exerts on its followers by examining the history and evolution of the game and the people who dedicate their lives to it. Together with his friend Glenn Umstead, an African-American chessmaster who is arguably as chess obsessed as Ilyumzhinov, Hallman tours New York City's legendary chess district, crashes a Princeton Math Department game party, challenges a convicted murderer to a chess match in prison, and travels to Kalmykia, where they are confronted with members of the Russian intelligence service, beautiful translators who may be spies, seven-year-old chess prodigies, and the sad blight of a land struggling toward capitalism.

In the tradition of The Professor and the Madman, Longitude, and The Orchid Thief, Hallman transforms an obsessive quest for obscure things into a compulsively readable and entertaining weaving of travelogue, journalism, and chess history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a quirky, thoroughly enjoyable travelogue on the often surreal world of competitive chess---with stops at big-city tournaments, a chess-mad Asian satrapy, and a prison. J. C. Hallman does a nimble job of weaving chess folklore with his own observations about the different kinds of obsession over the game.” —Andy Soltis, grandmaster, chess journalist and author of Karl Marx Plays Chess

“Hallman is a talented writer whose vivid prose and keen journalistic eye offer chess culture the compliment of intelligent impressionistic portraiture, full of powerful, haunting images of the 'demonic gods' of the chess Olympus and the chess underworld.” —Cathy Forbes, chess journalist and author of Meet the Masters and The Polgar Sisters

“The whole history of chess is here, from the Crusades through the Internet, and its byzantine, mad, and fascinating story---rendered by J. C. Hallman with deft clarity and an unrelenting display of wit---culminates in a broken-down Russian republic where even warlords play the game. If Dostoevsky had written a book about chess being a form of religious fanaticism, The Chess Artist certainly would have been it.” —Tom Grimes, author of City of God

“J. C. Hallman has written an important book about the place of chess in contemporary society. In elegant and accessible prose, he covers the history of chess, the Russian obsession with the game, and the competitive perils of professional players. This book should be read by anyone who has ever pushed a pawn forward. A crucial addition to the literature of chess.” —Chris Offutt, author of No Heroes

Publishers Weekly
During a postcollege stint as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City, freelance writer Hallman discovered the chess community that thrives in dealer lounges. There he met 39-year-old chess master Glenn Umstead, who performed exhibitions while blindfolded and had "hoped to become the world's first black grandmaster." The two became friends and embarked on an exploration of the chess subculture, a grand tour that took them from Princeton to prisons, from windowless rooms to the "giant electronic chess room" of the Internet Chess Club (ICC). At his first tournament, in Philadelphia, Hallman found "watered-down machismo and bent personalities." He visits the chess-obsessed characters of Manhattan's Washington Square Park: "In winter chess players could be found in the park dressed in huge down jackets, the only problem presented by the cold being the difficulty of moving pieces while so encumbered." He interviews Claude Bloodgood, a high-ranking chess player serving a life sentence for murdering his mother who once reputedly tried to use chess to escape from prison (he denies it). Much of the book is devoted to a fascinating visit to Kalmykia, an impoverished Russian province, whose president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is "a not entirely unsympathetic supervillain with a kooky plan to dominate the chess world," evident in his 1998 construction of Chess City with its centerpiece, the Chess Palace, a five- story glass pavilion. Interweaving art and literary references along with the game's 1,200-year history, Hallman summarizes the many meanings and metaphors of chess in the final chapter: "Chess had come to represent intimacy, economics, politics, theories bleeding from rhetoric to outrageous science." Chess enthusiasts will enjoy this delightful tour. (Sept. 22) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt

The Chess Artist

Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game

By J. C. Hallman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 J. C. Hallman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5223-5


Developing Your Pieces: [??]

The Pawns are poor men. Their move is straight, except when they take anything: so also the poor man does well so long as he keeps from ambition.

— Innocent Morality, John of Waleys, thirteenth century

My chief intention is to recommend myself to the Public, by a Novelty no one has thought of or perhaps ever understood well; I mean how to play the Pawns: They are the very Life of this Game; They alone form the Attack and the Defense; on their good or bad situation depends the Gain or Loss of the Party.

François-André Danican Philidor, 1749

The official rules of chess are not called rules. They're called laws. Article 5.6 of The Official Laws of Chess (Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986) describes the moves of the pawn. (a) is simple: "The pawn may only move forward." (b) is slightly more difficult:

Except when making a capture, it advances from its original square either one or two vacant squares along the file on which it is placed, and on subsequent moves, it advances one vacant square along the file. When capturing, it advances one square along either of the diagonals on which it stands.

So begins the difficulty of the game.

The history of chess can be loosely understood through the history of pawns. In the beginning, almost everything moved like a pawn. The most common chess-origin myths claim the game was invented as a tool for instruction in war, an effigy of battle. The actual origin is lost, but the war-game myth and metaphor is apt enough to have influenced its evolution: Early piece movements were limited just as the movement of men and animals in early combat was limited, and as war technology advanced so did chess pieces. The pawn captures on the diagonal, it has been suggested, because foot soldiers kill by thrusting their swords sideways.

When chess arrived in Christendom around the year 1000 it struck Europeans as intriguing but slow. The game had hopped the information divide between Europe and Arabia, but not much instructional literature came with it. Still, Arabian chess — shatranj — flourished on the new continent.

Arabia had played the game differently, however. Arabian players rushed their first few moves to what was called a battle array — ta'biya. Each player would make a dozen or more moves without considering their opponent's moves too closely. In modern chess, this would be unthinkable. The Arabians blitzed to their pet arrays, and the game of slow, alternating moves didn't properly begin until a capture was made. Europe didn't know of this, and they played the slower game from the outset. The difference of opening style was apparent even as late as 1865, when Vincenz Grimm, a Hungarian chess player, visited Syria:

For the first time that I played with an Arab and invited him to commence the game, he made with incredible rapidity 10 or 12 moves one after the other without in the least troubling himself about my play. When I asked in astonishment, "When does my turn come?" he rejoined in just as much astonishment, "Why are you not moving?"

Arabian chess produced and analyzed a broad range of ta'biyat and gave them colorful names — The Torrent, The Strongly Built, The Slave's Banner — a contrast to the modern practice of naming openings after players. But even the great Muslim masters, beginning with as-Suli, expressed doubt over playing so quickly through the opening. As-Suli had tapped into the subtle art of deep strategic play. But the Muslim game was steeped in tradition, and his suggestion that it was careless to rush to ta'biyat went unheeded. The reluctance to evolve would contribute to the death of shatranj. Now, it's chess's lost civilization.

In Europe, they did not know of ta'biyat. But without even playing cards to compete with, chess was popular even though it was slow. Still, it was not long before the adventurous Christians began to experiment with the pieces. The pawns, perhaps as early as the thirteenth-century, acquired the option of moving two squares on their initial move instead of one. The game was accelerated. The double move created the incongruous situation that a pawn, moving two squares instead of one, might skip past a square that was controlled or attacked by an opposing pawn. Quite wrong. Thus was born a new law, en passant, in passing, the right to capture a pawn that moves two squares on the square that it skips. The law reads nearly as gibberish. Initiated in the fifteenth century and not universally accepted until as late as 1880, the en passant law demonstrates the unruliness of chess, its heinous incomprehensible baggage, and its habit of defying simple translation into language.

The Arabic word for pawn had been baidaq — foot soldier. This was directly translated into a number of European languages, and continued to evolve from there: Latin, pedinus; Italian, pedona; Spanish, peon; English, pawn. The names of the pieces and their movements weren't the only changes the Europeans made to the game. The writers of the moralities were quick to recognize the allegorical potential of chess, not simply as metaphor for battlefield melee, but for abstract conflicts as well. Depicting chess accurately in literature took a backseat to using it to score philosophical points. In Les Eschez amoureux, a fourteenth-century morality in which a woman plays a game of chess with the devil, the conflict is moral and religious with a theme of temptation. Here, the pawns represent not foot soldiers but opposing character traits: The lady's pawns are charity, humility, loyalty, love of God, etc., and the devil plays with inconstancy, slander, perjury, blasphemy, and fiction. The moralities helped to change the understanding of chess's main metaphor — the allusion grew to a vision of the chess array as representative of the nation-state. The Game and Playe of Chesse of Jacobus de Cessolis, copied so frequently that it rivaled the Bible, explained the pieces and pawns as representing society's economic stratum, the board a miniature Babylon. Each pawn now stood for a different element of human infrastructure: labourers of the erthe, physicyens and cirugiens, tauerners and hostelers, drapers and makers of cloth, etc. Chess would eventually bow to this more symbolic vision of the game, a number of countries changing the name of the pawn from foot soldier to the corresponding word for "peasant"; Danish, bonde; Hungarian, paraszt; Czechoslovakian, sedlák. Hermann Hesse would take this a step further in naming the main character of his 1946 Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Glass Bead Game, Joseph Knecht. The Glass Bead Game first seems based on the Asian game go, which is played with small stones, but then chess references start popping up and one realizes that "knecht" is a North German word for peasant and pawn. Joseph Knecht rises from nothing to be a master of the glass bead game. He is a promoted pawn.

Pawn promotion was the final frontier for pawn laws. A pawn may "promote" to a higher value piece if it manages to inch all the way across the board. On arrival at the final rank, it is transformed, like a battlefield promotion. Pawn promotion altered the game dramatically after more European tinkering accelerated the moves of the queen (firzan) and bishop (aufin). Around 1500, both became what are now called "line pieces," able to traverse the entire length of the board in a single move. This indirectly empowered pawns. When the queen became the most powerful piece on the board, chess realists — those who held that chess should be a microcosm of melee — were pitted against those who preferred the speedy, aesthetically pleasing improvements to the game. The questions raged. Eight pawns representing eight queens-in-waiting initiated early sex-change debates. The lawyers in Italy's Lombard universities sat down to nagging questions — if a player contracted to mate his opponent with his d-pawn, could he then promote that pawn, give mate, and claim victory? The decision was well known enough to be later invoked in a legal case that involved an actual bishop promoted to archbishop.

The realists lost: Multiple queens was permissible by the seventeenth century. The character of the chess endgame was forever changed. Now, after all the pieces had been exchanged, the game degenerated from an attempt to give exciting mate to a race for a decisive pawn promotion. An early pawn advantage meant a replacement queen thirty or forty moves later. Still, Europeans, charmed and hypnotized by their new powerful pieces, tended to undervalue pawns. Recorded games between 1500 and 1700 reveal overzealousness with pieces, a fetish with the "tactical" exchanges that gave one side or the other an immediate advantage. If Arabians had been in love with their battle arrays, then five hundred years later the Christians were in love with their pieces. And just as as- Suli, the Arab champ, offered advice to the shatranj community on a subtlety he sensed in the game, so did François Philidor, a French chess player and composer, offer the chess world the advice on pawns given at the front of this chapter, a quotation that is usually given incomplete and translated differently as, "Pawns are the soul of chess."

Philidor's remark on pawns and his general understanding of chess would go unappreciated in his lifetime. Others would pick up the mantle of his work much later and trace his inspiration back to sources even closer to 1500, the convenient date for the birth of modern European chess. An advanced understanding of pawns laid the groundwork for William Steinitz, the first recognized world champion, whose teachings would eventually evolve into "positional" play, where deep strategy aimed to exploit small weaknesses twenty or more moves further along in a game. Steinitz, like many before him, stressed occupation of the center with pawns, but also emphasized attention to pawn structure, with separate teachings for connected pawns, isolated pawns, doubled pawns, and pawn majorities. Steinitz looked for tiny advantages that could translate into favorable endgames, where the promotion of a pawn was the goal.

Pawn chains and pawn storms have come since; the modern Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense is named for a generous assessment of black's pawn skeleton, like reading heroes into the stars. Pawn moves were among the first in chess to evolve, among the last to gain universal acceptance. And of all the suggestions to change the game since — new files, new pieces that move in alien ways — none involve the pawns.


Mutant Message from Forever

The love of the game has, on occasion, bordered on fanatical mysticism.

Dr. Anton M. Somalai, 1980

There may be an analogy in totalitarian states, or states which are autocratically led even if they are democracies, but in a real democracy there should be no particular resemblance to chess.

Lord Callaghan

In 1857, an English Journalist named Frederick Edge found himself in New York around the time of the first American Chess Congress. Edge was not a chess player, but nevertheless he was appointed one of four secretaries to the event. In its course he found himself fascinated by the characters of the chess world and by the United States's twenty-year-old chess sensation, Paul Morphy. Edge had previously written a book about slavery and would go on to write a book about a famous U.S. naval battle, but from 1857-59 he became obsessed with chess and Morphy both.

The first concrete chess reference in the New World went back only as far as 1734, though chesslike games among Native Americans have been cited as proof of the migration across the Bearing Strait. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were both avid chess players, and a chess book written by the latter became the first chess book printed in Russia, in 1791. Paul Morphy was a Creole born in Lousiana in 1837. He was a competitive chess player at the age of eight, and among the nation's best by thirteen. He was the first to realize simultaneously the complete potential of pieces in the form of tactical play and the subtle strategy of positional play. He grew to be a small, frail man who could pass for a woman. He wanted to be a lawyer — rumor claimed he could recite most of the Civil Code of Louisiana — but he could not practice until he turned twenty-one. He called his passion for chess a "chess fever." In 1857, he traveled to New York for the Chess Congress.

"Who that was present on that evening," Edge would later write, exaltingly, "does not remember Paul Morphy's first appearance at the New York Chess Club?"

In 1858, Morphy decided to travel to Europe, where the best chess players resided. He announced that he would go to England. Already returned to London, Edge recognized the opportunity — he would handle Morphy. Even before the young American arrived, Edge latched onto him, making himself a known quantity in English chess circles by claiming he was Morphy's public relations manager.

Morphy arrived in London just as he turned twenty-one. He dominated everyone he played. The British press claimed he looked like Abraham Lincoln. Edge represented Morphy in match negotiations and served as a consultant for the events Morphy would participate in. The two men pursued Howard Staunton for an informal world championship match, but talks disintegrated with Edge engaging in the kind of nasty politics — unreasonable demands and public slander — that has since become common in the game. Morphy and Edge traveled together to Paris for matches and a now famous eight-board blindfold display, the celebration of which caused a riot. Morphy was notoriously lazy, and Edge returned letters for him and recorded scores of his games that otherwise would have been lost. When Morphy became ill and wanted to go home, Edge wrote to the clubs of Europe pleading with them to request that Morphy stay on. Edge sent a certificate of health to Morphy's family in Louisiana. But they were not convinced. Morphy's brother-in-law came to Paris, and Morphy and Edge were separated after six months together.

Morphy returned home to a hero's welcome. The United States suffered from a sense of national inferiority to Europe, and Morphy was the first American to have achieved world supremacy in anything. James Russell Lowell, one of the Fireside Poets, called Morphy's chess exploits a "new clause to the Declaration of American Independence." Two months after Morphy's return, Edge wrote him a plaintive letter: "I have been a lover, a brother, a mother to you; I have made you an idol, a god ..." Edge completed a book about their travels in 1859. But Morphy gave up chess. He returned to New Orleans and began a descent into madness. He never practiced law and was tormented by feelings of persecution. In 1863, Morphy wrote of the game, "It is, to be sure, a most exhilarating sport, but it is only a sport; and it is not to be wondered at that such as have been passionately addicted to the charming pastime, should one day ask themselves whether sober reason does not advise its utter dereliction." He traveled once more to Paris, but played chess only privately. He became a recluse, wandering the streets of New Orleans. He was cared for by his mother and sister until he died of a stroke at age forty-seven.

"Without [Edge's] nagging," the Oxford Companion to Chess later suggested of the two men's relationship, "many Morphy games would have been forgotten. On the other hand, Morphy himself was not grateful to someone who was an irritation and yet indispensable. Perhaps the interplay between them had a bearing on Morphy's later mental problems."

* * *

Glenn and I were studying two-movers when the pilot announced that we were nine thousand meters over Newfoundland, approaching cruising altitude. The plane was yet tilted slightly up, a Lufthansa flying crib crammed with technology and communications equipment: pop-down monitors, flight data and trajectory graphics transmitted through the cabin, phones capable of retrieving E-mail. We sailed through the sky as perverse testimony to modernity. We intended to fly faster than history.

To say that Glenn and I both studied two-movers isn't quite correct. Glenn held his problem book up before him — a compilation of more than five thousand practical chess positions — chose one that caught his eye for reasons I would never understand, stared at it, and then passed the heavy tome to me and waited in the plane's engine pulse silence until I solved it. This could take a minute or two. Usually, I was distracted by the question of whether Glenn had already solved the problem or was solving it now, without looking, racing me to the finish. Sometimes I would actually divine the composition's answer — the initial move, its gush of logic, the subsequent artful checkmate — but more often I would hazard a guess, pronouncing the name of the piece and the algebraic notation of the square I intended it to occupy.



Excerpted from The Chess Artist by J. C. Hallman. Copyright © 2003 J. C. Hallman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies.

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