BOOKTHINK: It is interesting to contemplate how well this ancient game fits into the world of the internet. How much has internet competition spurred the growth of interest in chess?
HALLMAN: I don't know if you've seen like a world-wide boom in chess interest. Certainly you saw a world-wide boom in chess interest when Bobby Fischer became popular and played, and you didn't have the internet then. I think there has been a bubble effect, but whether that's going to be a sustained interest, the jury may still be out on that.
One thing that's certainly happening is that tournaments that are held very far away - you get the results from them instantaneously now, when before it would take months. But speed has never really been an important aspect of chess. When you play through someone else's chess game, it's almost like reading a short story. There's a narrative, there's a beginning, a middle, and an end; you can follow along with the person's thoughts and their ideas and their feelings. You can tap into all those things as you play through it. The speeding up of technology doesn't necessarily assist that.
Chess and reading are maybe a little similar in that way. I suggested in the book that playing chess in public was like trying to write a sonnet in public while someone who didn't like you very much was trying to write a better sonnet using the same words at the same time. There is a kind of relationship between chess and writing, and I think you can extend it to playing through someone else's games being like reading.
So I think you're right; chess will feel the pressure of technology in the same way that maybe booksellers will, but it will also be impervious to it in some way, because ultimately it's not an exercise that relies on speed. The community of literature is very abstract. When you read, you have a very intimate connection with an author, but that author is removed from you over time and geography. Reading is a hard pleasure, and chess would fall into that same category. Chess also has that same kind of intimacy, an intimacy that is ironically all built on animosity.
BOOKTHINK: The level of players you were playing with or watching - what that demands to think many moves ahead, to strategize, and so on, is amazing to me.
HALLMAN: That's what I mean when I call it a hard pleasure. Chess players are ultimately testing the boundaries of what's possible. I think it's interesting that the speed of computers is often compared to chess. The metaphor we use for it is "how many chess moves can it calculate in a second?"
Part of the mystique of chess and its central metaphor is that it is human thinking at its most focused. This is maybe one way to express it. And it does have this status of being a highly concentrated expression of what the mind is capable of. Chess players are on the fringe of that, always sort of dabbling with madness. And I called my book The Chess Artist because I wanted to make that link to Chess and Art. Artists are often doing that same thing.
Although the Chess community itself is more likely to link itself to math or to science, that wasn't always the case. In Arabia for example, they would have likened chess players to artists more readily. But somewhere along the road of its evolution, it made that shift. I think it's useful as an exercise to consider the opposite - that there is an artistic expression that's happening that is valuable.
BOOKTHINK: I think the modern world is more fond of linking things to math or science.
HALLMAN: It has the aura of practicality. And chess is sort of constantly trying to show its relevance; if you teach your kids how to play chess, they'll do better in their science classes or something, to give it a practical value. One of the sub-themes of the book is trying to calculate what exactly is the usefulness of the game; and yet for Duchamp, it was precisely the uselessness that was the important part. And for me, I think through chess you can arrive at a pretty sophisticated aesthetic sense. It is something chess players talk about. They talk about what is beautiful in chess, but it's not generally the way they try to market themselves.
BOOKTHINK: I could grasp the beauty of some of the moves in some of the matches you wrote about.
HALLMAN: One of the most fascinating things about chess is that you need to learn very little before you start to see that a move may have emotion laden in it; a move can seem aggressive or passive without knowing very much about the game at all. And as you learn a little bit more, you can tap into that kind of aesthetic quality of moves, moves start to seem beautiful in some way.
You don't have to learn a lot for that - that's what was surprising to me. Chess has this mystique of being very esoteric and difficult; and I think that it is true, but only in the sense that I'm saying that it is a hard pleasure, Actually learning the game isn't hard at all. It is like reading too, in that way. It's much easier to be a good reader than a good writer. You can learn how to appreciate it as an art form without being able to actually execute it yourself.
BOOKTHINK: I was left wondering why chess isn't taught in schools. Do you see benefits that could be gleaned from at least offering chess as part of school curriculum in this country?
HALLMAN: They've talked about this quite a bit. Socially, if you get kids early enough and throw them all together at chess boards, I think they would find that gender and race would play no role in finding out who is good at the game.
BOOKTHINK: I'm thinking about how it breaks down barriers, how it makes you strategize and plan ahead, maybe diverts some of the emphasis from physical sports, and helps in learning how to lose gracefully.
HALLMAN: That last one is a good one. The irony is that the things we are talking about are not the things that chess teachers will tell you. They'll tell you that your child will know how to do science if they learn how to play chess. There are good reasons to put it in schools. And there are programs in place. New York City has Chess in the Schools, a major program throughout New York City with lots of really good people working for it, and I think they are doing really great work.
I just did an interview with a newspaper in Nebraska where a guy has a prominent chess program. These are isolated individuals who start these things up on their own and get lots of people involved. But even the chess texts, such as the Oxford Companion to Chess, will say that there is no proven benefit to teaching chess to children, and there's the danger, they will note, that chess can lead to obsession. There is that darker side. That's what's kind of interesting about it; chess hasn't quite figured out how to market itself. If you are an eccentric personality and you are a painter, that's considered wonderful; if you are an eccentric personality and you are a chess player, that's not considered so wonderful.
BOOKTHINK: In the book you seemed to vacillate between feeling positive and negative about chess and chess players. How do you feel about the chess world in retrospect?
HALLMAN: Well, I still play, and I write articles for Chess Life every once in awhile. I goof around on the internet; I'm not a serious player in any way. I use chess when I'm writing every once in awhile to kind of clean out my mind. If I've been writing for awhile and I want to go back to the beginning and read it through to see how it sounds, I'll go play a couple games of chess because it seems to clean out my mind. I follow what's going on; if there's a big tournament happening, I'll play through the games and watch.
It's not something I would turn back to as a writer at the level in the book; but when I went to my second book, The Devil Is A Gentleman, about William James and the religious fringe, looking at the various studies in religion, chess kept popping up as a concept. There again is that idea of play - culture and games - and how they always have religious origin.
And now I want to do a book about modern Utopian movements. And again, the sort of narrative romances, utopian novels, throughout history they almost always cut out the games. There are no organized sports in these utopian communities, but they still play chess. So chess sort of seems to follow me as a subject matter. It's heartening, not because I owe anything to chess, but it impresses upon me that there is a kind of thematic thread running through the kind of things I get interested in as a writer.
BOOKTHINK: You followed Glenn very closely in this book and revealed quite a bit about his character. How did he feel about the book? What is he doing now?
HALLMAN: Glenn participated in the book; he saw it before it went to press and approved of it. He understood - and again, it might be something that comes from understanding chess - that if he came off as a 3-dimensional character he would be likable, and what that meant was including both the good and the bad about him. So by the end, when we were debating what went in and what went out, he was arguing that material that put him in not such a good light be put back into the book because he got it; he understood that it was a composition that needed balance.
Glenn and I are still friends. He is still essentially in the very same position as he was at the last moment you see him in the book. He's still working at the same casino and doing the same thing and still playing chess whenever he can.
I wanted to get into his passion and portray that here's a guy who has devoted 20 years of his life and made a lot of important sacrifices for this one thing, and he believed in it. And you have to stand in respect of that passion, whatever it might be. To some extent, that had left him a bit broken, but he was, well, I refer to chess players as hunger artists and in some way I'm referring to Kafka. It's that same kind of thing that they are making this sacrifice for what they consider to be an art. I had to admire that.
BOOKTHINK: Glenn didn't talk a lot, but I loved what he said when asked what he learned in Russia upon returning from the trip: "I learned that I have a lot more money than I thought I did." Did it felt really good to get back to the United States?
HALLMAN: I know for him it did. And I felt good not to have to carry his bags anymore! Chess players are sort of notoriously bad travelers, and even though he was sure that wouldn't happen to him, it did precisely. Glenn was interesting to me not because he's a very, very good chess player - he is, but he's not a world-class chess player - but because I could use him as a voice for the very lowest dregs of how chess expresses in culture, and for the very highest level as well. He spans the whole breadth.
He did a lot of things that many chess players don't do - he can play blindfold, do simultaneous exhibitions - and he sort of captured the whole subculture. At some point, I realized that even though aspects of his personality were a strain on me and accounted for some of the tension between us, that gave the portrayal of that friendship dimension in the book. That was actually another aspect of chess because chess players are very smart and they vary their art. They can have the same kind of primadonna air that a concert pianist might have. They're cocky because they are very good at what they do. It was another chance to express that side of things.
Russia was very humbling for Glenn but only very temporarily. He has bounced back.
BOOKTHINK: It's obvious that a great deal of research went into the writing of this book, and you included a pretty extensive bibliography at the end. Have you any favorite book you would recommend for those interested in reading more about the history of chess?
HALLMAN: Jennifer Shahade has a book about women and chess that came out not that long ago called Chess Bitch (Chess Bitch: Women In The Ultimate Intellectual Sport, Siles Press, 2005). I thought it was an interesting book because it attacks the gender stereotypes. I think she did a great job of portraying the variety that's possible in chess. You know, you sort of imagine a couple of very Soviet-looking guys staring across the board at one another, and she really went out and found some of the variety that's out there. So that's one I would certainly recommend.
Certainly H.J. Murray's The History of Chess is the perennial book. The original of this book can go for as much as a used car will go for. It has been reprinted one time, but even that reprint is not that easy to find.
I actually went to Cleveland Public Library where they have the John G. White Special Collections - and the largest chess library in the world. There were a couple of guys in the 19th century who became prominent collectors who were in competition with one another. There is an interesting story to be told just about the guys who traffic in rare chess books.
The Cleveland Library has an amazing facility, and I was able to go through ancient Arabian texts from the 1400's and pre-printing press stuff. And the *Cessolis manuscript, which is probably the most popular early chess book; it's said that the copies that were in existence rivaled that of the bible at the time. It was a hugely popular book at the onset of the printing press. There is actually a book by a scholar named Jenny Adams called Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) specifically looking at this Cessolis manuscript.
The Chess Artist was the first in a series of books that came out about chess over the past few years. And all of them are very different. The one I just mentioned (by Jenny Adams) was very academic treatment, and Shahade's book is ethnographic in nature; others have been popular history or a popular biography, and mine was kind of gonzo journalism. They are all very different books on the same subject.
*Around 1280, Jacobus de Cessolis (1250-1322), a Dominican from Lombardy, wrote Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium. It is one of the earliest allegories and moralities pertaining to chess and it began as a sermon. Probably no other work of medaeval times was copied so much. (excerpted from "Earliest Chess Books and References," by Bill Wall)
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