Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Chess Artist: Book Review

My good friend the Jollyblogger challenged me to a game of chess a few months back. He really showed strength in the game. Needless to say, I did not win. Later he used chess as an illustration in a blog posting talking about how the evangelicals in the 80's tried to play an end game at the beginning. I have tried to get my arms around chess beyond the moves of the game and up till now have failed. The Jollyblogger used chess as an illustration helped me find a clue as to how to go to the next level in the game. The Jollyblogger next mentioned in passing the movie, "Finding Bobby Fischer". So the past few months I have been investigating chess. I watched "Finding Bobby Fischer" and read the book "The Chess Artist" by J. C. Hallman. Both the movie and the book addressed the human elements of chess and focused less on the rules of the game. I'm from the Ozarks and the best way to learn something is to find a story teller. While I've tried to go to the next level in chess several times, I really think this book has helped me at least understand where the next level is at.

WARNING: There are some off color things in the book so, parents be warned before you assign this to your high schooler to read. I would say for the most part it is not a book about off color topics, but there are some paragraphs that are not appropriate.

The book is about two friends. Glen is Hallman's friend from his job. Glen is obsessed with chess and is a master. They spend their break hours playing chess. The story of their friendship is about a tension between the two and about the commonality between the two and about the mutual respect they have. Hallman's tension with Glen reminds me of childhood friendships. I'm not sure if Hallman is more honest than the rest of us about his friendship with Glen or if his friendship is a little more turbulent than most grownup relationships. There are dozens of other friendships in the book, most built on an interest in the game of chess. Glen has instant friendships with other chess players. Many of his friendships are via the internet at the Internet Chess Club (ICC) website. By the way, I've played less than a dozen games there since I started reading the book. Glen plays a Mongolian chess master on the ICC site and later plays her in person. Both Glen and Hallman make friends at tournaments. They get to know people, strangely enough through competition. I for one like to avoid competition, but once I get into it I often go too far. But maybe there is something to be said about finding mutual respect between two people because they have tested one another's strengths.

The history of the game is interestingly woven through the book. Hallman talks quite a bit about Arabic word origins in such a way that it makes me wonder his linguistic background. Having studied Arabic myself, I was amazed to find out that Checkmate may have come from the Arabic Shek Mat, King dead. He also talks about the history of the game from a developmental of the game. Hallman has a chapter on each piece; pawn, bishop, etc... Interesting.

This is a travel, boondoggle book. Hallman and Glen take a trip to a chess tournament, an art museum, a prison, and to a small republic in Russia. Hallman goes to lengths to persuade hosts that he is a writer. He often feels guilty about trying to get people to let him investigate chess in their atmosphere. I love travel books, not reviews of hotels and site seeing places, but books about a good road trip. This is a road trip book. Good read.
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