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In the tiny Russian province of Kalmykia, obsession with chess has reached new heights. Its leader, a charismatic and eccentric millionaire/ex--car salesman named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is a former chess prodigy and the most recent president of FIDE, the world's controlling chess body. Despite credible allegations of his involvement in drug running, embezzlement, and murder, the impoverished Kalmykian people have rallied around their leader's obsession---chess is played on Kalmykian prime-time television and is compulsory in Kalmykian schools. In addition, Kalmyk women have been known to alter their traditional costumes of pillbox hats and satin gowns to include chessboard-patterned sashes.
The Chess Artist is both an intellectual journey and first-rate travel writing dedicated to the love of chess and all of its related oddities, writer and chess enthusiast J. C. Hallman explores the obsessive hold chess exerts on its followers by examining the history and evolution of the game and the people who dedicate their lives to it. Together with his friend Glenn Umstead, an African-American chessmaster who is arguably as chess obsessed as Ilyumzhinov, Hallman tours New York City's legendary chess district, crashes a Princeton Math Department game party, challenges a convicted murderer to a chess match in prison, and travels to Kalmykia, where they are confronted with members of the Russian intelligence service, beautiful translators who may be spies, seven-year-old chess prodigies, and the sad blight of a land struggling toward capitalism.
In the tradition of The Professor and the Madman, Longitude, and The Orchid Thief, Hallman transforms an obsessive quest for obscure things into a compulsively readable and entertaining weaving of travelogue, journalism, and chess history.
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J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies.
During a postcollege stint as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City, freelance writer Hallman discovered the chess community that thrives in dealer lounges. There he met 39-year-old chess master Glenn Umstead, who performed exhibitions while blindfolded and had "hoped to become the world's first black grandmaster." The two became friends and embarked on an exploration of the chess subculture, a grand tour that took them from Princeton to prisons, from windowless rooms to the "giant electronic chess room" of the Internet Chess Club (ICC). At his first tournament, in Philadelphia, Hallman found "watered-down machismo and bent personalities." He visits the chess-obsessed characters of Manhattan's Washington Square Park: "In winter chess players could be found in the park dressed in huge down jackets, the only problem presented by the cold being the difficulty of moving pieces while so encumbered." He interviews Claude Bloodgood, a high-ranking chess player serving a life sentence for murdering his mother who once reputedly tried to use chess to escape from prison (he denies it). Much of the book is devoted to a fascinating visit to Kalmykia, an impoverished Russian province, whose president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is "a not entirely unsympathetic supervillain with a kooky plan to dominate the chess world," evident in his 1998 construction of Chess City with its centerpiece, the Chess Palace, a five- story glass pavilion. Interweaving art and literary references along with the game's 1,200-year history, Hallman summarizes the many meanings and metaphors of chess in the final chapter: "Chess had come to represent intimacy, economics, politics, theories bleeding from rhetoric to outrageous science." Chess enthusiasts will enjoy this delightful tour.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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