The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game

by J. C. Hallman
ISBN: 0312272936

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A Review of: The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the WorldÆs Oldest Game
by Jerry White

There's been a lot of hand-wringing recently about the proliferation of MFA programmes in Creative Writing at North American universities. There are clearly some intellectual and educational problems there: In what way is writing a "Fine Art"? Why does someone need a professional credential to be a writer? What exactly qualifies someone to teach in such a programme? Still, many of the concerns seem to be of the professional variety. Just what does one do with an MFA anyway, besides get a teaching job (all-too-often to create more MFAs and perpetuate something perilously close to the pyramid scheme that holders of humanities PhDs know all too well)? One of the answers I hear from time to time is that an MFA can be a great entre into magazine writing, that it gives a budding writer a good sense of story, of attention to detail-and hey, what magazine editor wouldn't want that?
But aren't MFA programmes designed to encourage creativity? Aren't they meant to get budding writers to follow the muse wherever it may take them? These are not skills that a magazine staffer needs. Indeed, a lot of people who take the MFA experience seriously become obsessive or maladjusted, just as anyone fully devoted to an all-consuming art should be. "It was perhaps not a surprise that [they] tended to be odd and paranoid. Or that when pressure mounted, they began to act strangely, eccentricities surfacing." Those are the words of J.C. Hallman, a 1991 graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the US's most prestigious MFA programmes. He is not writing about budding novelists, but he may as well be. He is writing about chess players.
It's more than just that quote that leads me to think that MFA programmes and chess are a match made in heaven. We find in The Chess Artist, finally, a reasonable answer to the question "what do you do with an MFA in Creative Writing?" Well, one thing you can do is a write a book that combines fluid, well crafted language with obsessive curiosity-a book that combines the mass-market appeal of a good story with an insistence that the reader follow the story to some pretty far-flung part of the world, in addition to some unpleasant parts of the US. The Chess Artist reads to me like a seminal MFA book, a work that brings a craftsman's eye to topics to which only an unbalanced writer could devote so much time.
Hallman's tale opens in Kalmykia, a place that my computer tags as a spelling error and which I bet few readers could find on a map. This is a Russian republic, much closer to Kazakhstan than Moscow (as the very sharp map in the book's opening page shows), run by a dictatorial, chess-obsessed President named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. His plan to re-vitalise his post-Soviet capital is to turn it into a full-blown chess city, a sort of combination of gargantuan amusement park and city-size religious temple devoted to the world's favourite board game. Hallman often quotes him at length, giving a sense of his rambling incoherence that I do not think is just a result of poor translation. The theme of chess as a new religion is a recurring one:

I tensed up when I heard him use the Russian word for religion, and shifted anxiously when the translation arrived from Bammusha. The president went on:
"Because right now half a billion people in the world play chess. My aim is to make a billion people play chess. There are Muslims, Christians, Buddhists-I think the twenty-first century will be the century of the Internet. Humankind is making very large steps in its development. And there will be meetings. Humankind will meet other civilizations in the future. Not Earth civilizations. From other stars in our universe. A person in the twenty-first century will differ in many ways from a person in the twentieth century. And chess is a sport of the Internet. You cannot hold a football championship on the Internet. Millions of people in America, millions of people in Europe, they can all be on-line at the same time. This is not possible in football. Maybe chess, then, can become a religion."

The book closes in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Hallman and his friend Glenn Umstead (a maladjusted master chess player, who, throughout the book is Virgil to Hallman's Dante) play a game of chess in front of the artwork of the chess-obsessed Marcel Duchamp (the PMA has an entire room devoted to Duchamp, including his famed upside-down toilet). These bookends would seem to suggest two divergent interpretations of the way that chess serves as the ultimate preview of a globalised world, a cultural force that transcends borders at the same time that it transforms localities. These narrative streams do indeed drive that point home, and are even linked by a common theme of incoherence (Duchamp, in his way, was as nutty as the Kalmyk president). But there are two other sub-plots in this maze-like book that make that point more viscerally: the first relates to a young Tibetan Buddhist born in Kalmykia, raised in Philadelphia and now living in Boulder; and the second involves descriptions of the place chess has in US prisons.
The monk's name is Telo Rinpoche (born Erdne Ombadykow), and he was at one point relatively close to both the Kalmyk president and the Dalai Lama. He became, in essence, the point-man in the attempt to revive and protect Buddhism in Kalmykia (uniquely in Europe, it's the majority religion there), but at the same time, he was a pawn in the Kalmyk President's effort to re-define the culture. Hallman seems fascinated by the paradoxes that the young man embodies, and also by the nomadic life he has lead:

"Rinpoche had begun to tap into a conundrum far more absurd than the fact that he was a monk who liked listening to the Smashing Pumpkins. He was a god-puppet. Kirsan and the Dalai Lama had each tried to play him like a chess piece of their own array. Eventually, he had told people he was giving in to His Holiness's request that he continue his studies in India. He recorded a terse good-bye on Kalmyk television, and left Kalmykia in 1994. But instead of heading to India, he went to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, having already decided that he would not return. After the holiday, Rinpoche headed West rather than East. He went to Boulder, Colorado, where there was a growing community of Tibetans. It was in this interval that he disrobed."

This is quite a nicely constructed passage, compressing quite a lot of detail into a form that also gives a sense of the way that Rinpoche has spread himself across the globe; it's a highly efficient evocation of sprawl. Such a paradox conveys not only the aspects of chess that fascinate Hallman, but also his mastery of the tools of the trade that MFA programmes seek to teach their students: confidence in the use of language and a good eye for a developing story; those parts of the story that can't be fully developed are hinted at, leaving plenty to the reader's imagination. No need to underscore here the fact that this particular story-about a chess-playing Buddhist monk who is manipulated by an obscure monomaniacal dictator from the Caucuses-takes us a lot closer to the territory that is usually reserved for novelists unconcerned about winning a large audience; we are also pretty far from the typical concerns of the contemporary travelogue.
And we move further still from these concerns when Hallman takes us into the bowels of the US prison system. Towards the end of the book, Glenn does some workshops for prison chess clubs-one in Jackson, Michigan and one in Richmond, Virginia. In a bizarre turn, the prison in Michigan brings Hallman close to the universalist idealism to which the Kalmyk president, however insanely, aspired. When one inmate asks, "How do you, like, really get good at chess?" Hallman reports that "The others fell quiet. The question was not so much about chess as it was about using the game to adopt a regimen of study and practice. It could apply to chess; it could apply to anything." But the prison in Virginia reveals to Hallman the dark side of the internationalism that Rinpoche seemed to embody, particularly when he meets Claude Bloodgood. Bloodgood is introduced as a guy who claims to have been born in La Paz, Mexico as Klaus Bluttgutt, and to have fought in WWII with the German Abwehr (like his father) and then with the Marines in Korea. A few pages later, Hallman deflates the story, telling us that the "more likely version of Bloodgood's life was shorter and less interesting": he started his criminal career as a petty fraudster, eventually killing his mother and winding up with a life sentence. Chess keeps him sane in a way. So chess is what links not an internationalist Buddhist monk with an internationalist Nazi mercenary; instead, chess is the link between a failed international peacemaker and a pathetic, pathologically lying criminal. Both are chess players, both see chess as a reflection of their internationalist aspirations, and both find their grand ambitions frustrated by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The simple connection between these two men, the Buddhist monk and the sociopath lifer, is, finally, Hallman's analysis of the game's meaning for a globalised world. The game cannot make the man, the man makes the game. But coming right up the middle of this duality is our protagonist Glenn Umstead, a neurotic, slightly unstable guy, who persists in fearlessly wandering the globe in search of a kind of enlightenment through chess. And always on the sides, never far from the story but never quite at the centre of it either, are two more chess-obsessed men whose surrealist sensibilities are a bit too close for comfort: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Marcel Duchamp. The Chess Artist, then, is a neat' narrative put together with all the exactitude and attention to detail and structure that one would expect of a well-trained professional. But it's also a story about disorder': obsession, insanity, squalor, and a tiny Republic in eastern Russia. George Steiner, a real lover of the game, once wrote that "Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labours on an ultimately trivial human enterprise." This is a pretty sensible analysis with which I agree. I am also heartened to see an emerging writer, trained in fiction as though it was another craft whose technical aspects need only to be learned in a workshop, completely ignore such a sage pronouncement.

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