by Catherine Petruccione

#89, 5 March 2007

An Interview with J.C. Hallman

BookThink's Author Profiles

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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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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