Game of Kings

A specialist in other people's obsessions writes about one of his own--chess

King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game

By Paul Hoffman; Hyperion; 2007; 433 pp., US $24.95; ISBN-10: 1401300979; ISBN-13: 978-1401300975

The world of chess is filled with colorful and obstinate men and women who have dedicated much of their lives to a pursuit few outsiders can appreciate. Paul Hoffman has a predilection both for the game and for dedication itself, having described an outstanding case of it in his biography of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (Hyperion, 1998). Now he brings these interests together in a wide-ranging tour: King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game.

Hoffman writes in an enjoyable, fast-­moving style, focusing on storytelling, with brief excursions into more serious philosophical topics, all designed to lead the reader seamlessly from episode to episode. The author's credentials as a tournament player and acquaintance of several of the world's strongest players are impeccable, and his preparation is impressive. He spent years collecting material for first-hand accounts of top events, including a World's Championship in Libya, a prestigious international tournament in Moscow, and a women's training session in New York City. He quotes a wide range of players, from former world champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov on down. These sections bring the world of chess and its many characters to life. They are the highlights of the book.

Hoffman can be a bit light at times. His stories, though always entertaining, do on occasion stretch the reader's credulity. I have a bit of trouble imagining grandmaster Bent Larsen mouthing off to a young Paul Hoffman while playing scores of amateurs simultaneously. Some of the diversions into more technical topics, such as the engineering details of computer chess, are superficial and not properly researched. We are told, for instance, that IBM's chess machine, Deep Blue, had 256 processors, that it looked at 3 million positions per second, that chess programs are ”very materialistic,” and that Kasparov's loss in game six of his 1997 match against Deep Blue can be attributed to his ”suicidally choosing a known inferior and passive line”—all inaccurate, and all in a span of three pages. Also, some of the digressions into the author's own life are a bit long-winded.

However, these are minor flaws, and they should not detract much from a pleasant and interesting reading experience.

About the Author

VASIK RAJLICH is the pro­grammer of Rybka, currently the highest-rated computer-chess ­program in the world. He was ­profiled in our 2007 Dream Jobs report [February]. This month the former inter­national chess ­master reviews King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman.

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