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An Interview With J.C. Hallman

by Catherine Petruccione

#89, 5 March 2007

Chess - the oldest game in the world - has long traveled the globe, steadily evolving as it has passed through time and widely varied cultures. In his first book, J. C. Hallman travels too, taking us on a quest that explores the history and obsession behind the game. He and Glenn Umstead, a quirky African-American chessmaster, visit places as diverse as the small chess-obsessed Russian province of Kalmykia, a Princeton math department tea party, and a high-security prison in Michigan - all with chess board and pieces in tow. It is an extraordinary story told by a writer with a gift for describing the lay of the land on the chess board and in hidden places most of us will never see. His writing is honest, intellectual, and well-seasoned with understated humor.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me a little about your background and writing career.

HALLMAN: I teach at Sweet Briar College (Sweetbriar, VA). I went to University of Pittsburgh and studied psychology and creative writing, then went to Iowa for fiction [Media Editor's note: Iowa Writer's Workshop], wrote and published a bunch of short stories and then made the jump to non-fiction.

I did a stint as a casino dealer for a number of years. I just wrote a little piece for an anthology that's coming out about risk, and in that piece I liken it to Melville's decision to not just be a teacher but to go out on the whalers and have some experience with life. I had not really had a regular job; I had a safe upbringing in California and then college and graduate school and didn't really do anything work-wise, so I thought I needed experience in the working world. And that's how I found Glenn, the main character in The Chess Artist.

BOOKTHINK: That's great, because I think this happens a lot in Academia. The people who have only worked in education and haven't experienced other facets of the world - I'm not sure they can relate well to other people.

HALLMAN: It seems like they stop having things to write about and that kind of concerns me on a cultural level. If academics only end up being able to talk to each other, then does literature fulfill the same role?

BOOKTHINK: You certainly get out there and experience a lot of different areas of life to write these books; I admire that - you've got a lot of guts.

HALLMAN: I've been lucky to find subjects that offer something by way of adventure, and there is some way in which I can feel like the subject becomes a lens that refracts a larger culture around it. With chess, even though it's a book about chess ostensibly, it refracts so many other things - economics, politics, mathematics, interpersonal relationships - I really thought that, thematically, it was about everything else. The subject matter was chess, but the theme was everything else.

BOOKTHINK: The sheer honesty and humor of your writing, especially about the time spent in Kalmykia with Glenn, brought to mind, for me at least, Bill Bryson's travel writing.

HALLMAN: I really wanted to get at the adversarial nature between writer and subject. Glenn is my main character. It would be more standard to cut out some of the tension between the writer and the main character, to write that out, cut that out of the book. But I wanted to be honest about that because I thought it said something about chess and about human relationships. There was something about the adversarial nature of chess that sort of fed into the idea of this particular friendship.

I tell my students that if you say that someone else's piece is honest, you are paying it about the highest compliment that you can. So I'm very grateful to hear that. It's certainly what I was trying to be. I think that's the way in which non-fiction can aspire to be literature, and not just journalism.

BOOKTHINK: Who are some of your favorite writers?

HALLMAN: I have been reading a lot of Orwell lately. I think he's a writer who split between fiction and non-fiction, and the kind of non-fiction he does is something I would like to emulate. Kafka is sort of a perennial favorite. I've been reading Nikos Kazantzakis lately - The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which is a huge undertaking. It's a wonderful book, it's what it says it is, but it is a brilliant study on the emergence of consciousness and civilization, and it's wonderfully poetic and lyrical.

BOOKTHINK: It's a full plate isn't it, to write, to read, to travel, to teach?

HALLMAN: It's more than a full plate; it's second helpings! It's tough, and I'm wondering if it's feasible to do it all. Those are the things I'm looking at right now, with a book proposal out and doing magazine work as well.

The chess book went from conception to finished first draft in about 18 months, which could be thought of as being very, very fast. I didn't know anything about chess when I started it, but I threw myself into it completely. I didn't have other work at that time, so I could do that. Partly, that's out of necessity. If they give you a significant advance and they give you a due date, that's a pretty good motivator. And I like working that way: I like doing a book every 2-3 years; proposing it and getting it under contract and banging it out. And really devoting your life to it - total immersion writing, I guess. I think that this kind of stuff comes out best if you really internalize the subject, if you become the thing you are trying to describe, at least to some extent. To do that, you have to devote your life to it wholesale.

I've just been lucky to find subjects that I'm comfortable doing that with. I don't think I could do that if I was getting an assignment. If I was a straightforward journalist, I don't think I would do it because for me, it has to be something I choose, that I'm in tune with thematically in some way. When non-fiction is trying to be literature, you are trying to find expression for what is ultimately inexpressible, and you can't fabricate that feeling.

BOOKTHINK: Chess history is an interesting niche I hadn't even contemplated before reading The Chess Artist. How did you become interested in it?

HALLMAN: I've always been interested in games of various stripes. I was a pretty good pool player in college - and poker and bridge - I would dabble with different things. I read Johann Huizinga's book, Homo Ludens, which is a seminal work on play and culture, and always had it in the back of my head that chess might be something that I might look into; and then I found Glenn. And we just were friends at first. A couple of the chapters of the book are things that we did together not knowing that there was a book coming - the Princeton chapter, for instance. It was kind of a dalliance; I just thought it would be interesting to do. Again, to find the subjects that are going to click with you in that way, you have to trust your curiosity. We did a variety of things before I heard about Ilyumzhinov and thought, "Okay, here's a book."

BOOKTHINK: The prison chapter - that was after you came back from the trip?

HALLMAN: No actually, we did that the summer before we went to Kalmykia. I'm particularly fond of that chapter. What was interesting about that is that Glenn and I had the idea for it at about the same time. I found Bloodgood, the convicted murderer who had been playing correspondence chess for years from his prison cell, and doing an interview with him was pretty much a no-brainer; but then Glenn and I had the idea to do a simultaneous exhibition in a prison in Michigan at just about the same time. And it made for great scenes. I sort of think of that scene in the book as being chess's redeeming moment, and it being in a prison gives it a kind of irony that I like.

BOOKTHINK: You did an excellent job of conveying the sensations of bleakness and paranoia in Kalmykia, where President Ilyumzhinov built Chess City. Did you get a sense of how the people there actually feel about Chess City? Are they proud of it, resentful?

HALLMAN: I think it depended on who you were talking to. The academics I talked to were very, very skeptical. The government flunkies that I would talk to were obviously thrilled to death; for them it was propaganda. For regular people - it was hard to talk to them; it's such a broken down nation. Not only were they tremendously poor, but the land of Kalmykia is slowly being desertified as the Caspian Sea recedes and salt spreads across the country. You have dunes popping up in the middle of towns. And they have no natural resources. So even though Ilyumzhinov, the president and ex-chess prodigy, who built this place and basically decided that chess would be the national pastime, even though I thought of him as a kind of quasi-tyrant and a nut, he wanted something to work for the people and I believe that he earnestly hoped that this would serve the purpose of bonding the people together and giving them something to unite around.

Ironically, chess had served that purpose in the Soviet Union once upon a time, and, after the fall of the Soviet Union and Bobby Fischer sort of popped that bubble for them, chess stopped being so popular in wider Russia, and Ilyumzhinov borrowed the concept for his small republic. I think the regular people were willing enough to go along with it. I think there truly is a chess history and a chess tradition in Kalmykia. I don't know that they necessarily bought that chess was going to be the religion that Ilyumzhinov claimed it was going to be because they were pretty ardent Buddhists. But I think they liked the idea of Chess City, even though to our eyes, it was pretty much a run-down suburb.

To them it was the grandest structures they had ever seen. And I liked that earnestness in them. They weren't resentful of it. Were they proud of it? They kind of understood where they were, but they may also have understood that this was all they had.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure it must have offered some hope, for a time at least. Like you say, if you have no resources and your country is being desertified, you have to turn to something.

HALLMAN: Something that's not in the book, that got cut from it - but I did a little piece for Chess Life on it - is that the whole scheme of Chess City was borrowed from a Russian novel called The Twelve Chairs. In the book, there's a scene in which the main character promises great things, there is this sort of chess scam, and that's what The Music Man is actually based on. So instead of Henry Hill trying to get a band together in River City, that story is lifted from this book in which a character is promising to put on a big chess tournament if the town will put up the money for X, Y and Z. The character promises this sort of utopian renewal for the city.

And that's essentially what Ilyumzhinov did in Kalmykia. And so the hopefulness that you're talking about was very palpable there, and they are still hanging on to it.

BOOKTHINK: What do you think the future holds for Chess City? In the book you conveyed that a sense of decay was already setting in there and that some of the construction seemed to have been done "on the cheap," some of it abandoned before it was finished. Is there a future?

HALLMAN: I haven't been there in a number of years now, but it was already falling down then. It's being used for things. But the future that it has is going to be, really, the same future that all failed projects in the Soviet Union have been. It will keep falling apart until it becomes abandoned. Ironically, there were some failed neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Chess City that I explored when I was out there. And I think ultimately that is what will happen; it will slowly revert to nature until people just don't go there any more. Like a Potemkin Village - villages that are built to make it look like there's people who live there.

BOOKTHINK: What do you think President Ilyumzhinov means, really, when he says he wants Chess to become viewed as a religion?

HALLMAN: I think he honestly hoped that it would serve as a bonding element for the people. In the same way that any kind of political leader will use religion to try to bring his people to cohere. That's what he was using this for.

I think he probably believes too that chess has potential that goes beyond the simple "toy" that it is in the U.S. I don't want to say that it has quasi-mystical powers, but chess as it's practiced in Eastern Europe or all of Russia or greater Europe has a much greater stature. It's essentially like baseball is for Americans. To that extent, as a vehicle for national identity, it's not that far-fetched. That is what I think he meant.

BOOKTHINK: While doing some research on the internet, I came across a 2004 article about a project in the works for a US $2.6Billion International "Chess City" in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Can you tell me anything about this, and is Ilyumzhinov behind it?

HALLMAN: I've heard about it. It certainly looks like Ilyumzhinov's next step. I actually have a friend who is living in Dubai and her husband is an architect and they haven't heard anything about it. So I don't know if it's actually gotten off the ground. I think, like most politicians, Ilyumzhinov tends to talk about plans as though they are etched in stone. So I don't know if that's actually happening or not; I imagine not, though it could be that it's happening under the radar. There are plenty of things happening in Dubai that are weirder than that, so it could be happening. I don't know.

BOOKTHINK: One of the points you make so well is that chess brings people together, crossing cultural, racial, language, economic and gender barriers. My favorite section of the book was when you and Glenn discreetly "crashed" the tea party at Princeton. How surprised were you that you were able to share the room with the likes of John Nash and have Glenn engage in a game of chess with the Chairman of the Math Department? Glenn beat him, if I remember correctly.

HALLMAN: This was Peter Sarnak, who was at that point the head of the department; they have a rotating department chair. He is a pretty famous mathematician. and he was a chess player in South Africa as a young man, so he knew what he was doing. And Glenn was a strong enough chess player to beat him at a couple of games.

The point of going - Glenn is African American, and the faculty and students of the math department there are overwhelmingly white, so I was hoping to stir the pot a little by taking Glenn there and see what happened. Realistically, I was probably hoping for a dramatic scene that I could use in some way, where we would be kicked out. It turns out that's not what happened at all. The scene actually became a great way of showing one the great ironies of chess - that even though it's a game that is thought of as being emblematic of combat, generally what you see are people coming together and forming community around it, and that's exactly what happened.

BOOKTHINK: Just as the use of the internet has taken some of the cozy traditional charm out of selling used & rare books, so it has taken some of those qualities from traditional chess playing at a board with real pieces and players sitting face to face. But traditional forms of chess will surely survive, don't you think?

HALLMAN: If you look at the man vs. machine matches that routinely get lots of coverage lately, you see chess struggling with the kind of pressure that computers and technology bring to bear on it. Chess and computers have a very interesting history, because a lot of the advances that have been made in computer technology have used chess as kind of a model for thinking and have gotten better kind of riding on chess's coattails to some extent. Now we're to that point where machines are beating the best players. It's been awhile since anybody has done better than a tie against a computer in a big match.

So yeah, you see those pressures. But chess players are quick to remind you that the advent of the automobile did not mean that people stopped running foot races against one another.

BOOKTHINK: I think of the social aspects too, though, where people will sit at a computer and play someone instead of at a table.

HALLMAN: I think chess is ultimately its own form of language, its own form of communicating with another person. On some level, when it's social anyway, chess is simply a form of sharing ideas. And that certainly is not something you get when you are playing with a computer. So even though the technology pressures it, there is something precious about playing with another person that isn't about to go away. Furthermore, I think chess has a kind of symbolic value that's been around for hundreds of years that isn't going away either - all the ways in which chess sort of wends its way into culture, language and thinking.

BOOKTHINK: One thing I hadn't realized before is how often games are saved, studied, and passed around.

HALLMAN: They are actually intellectual property too; you own a game. And there are debates about this. Who owns it? When you play a game in a tournament, do you own the game, or does the tournament director own it? And it's not quite worked out; you have to get to the point where you're going to be able to sell something for it to matter. And it hasn't gotten to that point, unless you're talking about Bobby Fischer's games or something like that.

Marcel Duchamp was a chess player for a long, long time. When he talked about chess, what he said he liked about it was - he said, "Chess is useless. This above all else is important." For him, what it meant was that, as an art form, chess was pure. A game would never come to have any value. Now here was an artist, who, if he put his name on a toilet, it would be worth a lot of money. And yet, the chess games that he played do not have that value. So even though chess games are intellectual property, even for Marcel Duchamp, they are not worth anything. But Duchamp felt this made the game pure, and that was why he was loyal to it for half a century.

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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