Sunday, September 28, 2008

King's Gambit

A Son, A Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game

At the highest levels chess is a brutal punishing sport, a black-hole that can swallow up lives. It's truth, it's beauty, it's the universe in 64 squares. Hence the billions of chess books about how to improve your game, though King's Gambit is not one of them. It focuses on the human side of chess -- the odd personalities, the strange behaviour, the game's narcotic fascination.

The author lunches with Garry Kasparov, visits Nigel Short at home, sits in on lessons given by Bruce Pandolfini, and travels to Libya for a tournament with his friend, the Canadian champion Pascal Charbonneau.

The book also exposes the sordid underbelly of chess, the scams and swindles, the shabby tricks and dirty politics. Nigel Short is quoted as saying, "Those who were brought up under [the Soviet] system all have the same warped outlook: 'You fuck with my wife--I kill you. I fuck with your wife--you keep quiet if you know what's good for you.'"

Running counterpoint to the author's explorations in the world of chess is the story of his own life, in particular his relationship with his father, a prodigiously talented person who taught literature at New York's New School, was once hired to write the entire issue of a leading women's magazine, and hustled at billiards and ping pong. Yes, ping pong! Unfortunately he was also a pathological liar.

The dust jacket quotes praise from Jared Diamond, Oliver Sachs, and Simon Winchester. When I read books this good, I wonder why I bother with fiction.

Author's Website