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


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


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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.

About the Author

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.

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Debra Hamel/, September 20, 2006 (view all comments by Debra Hamel/
J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist is structured around a trip the author took with his friend Glenn to the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, whose president also heads the World Chess Federation. Woven around the story of their journey are chapters on chess history and accounts of Hallman's further adventures with Glenn: chess over the internet and in formal competitions, chess played in prison and in Princeton, encounters with child prodigies and the denizens of Dickensian chess shops. Part travelogue and part history, Hallman's book explores both the international subculture of competitive chess and the author's traveling companion. The Chess Artist is well researched and thick with information, and it is punctuated by some wonderful writing. The book is similar to Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak in that it exposes the weird underbelly of an intellectual pastime, but Hallman's book is a more serious and more difficult read.
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Product Details

Hallman, J. C.
St. Martin's Griffin
Chess - General
Chess -- History.
GAMES / Chess
Regional Studies
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
Includes one map
8.5 x 5.5 x 0.781 in

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Hobbies, Crafts, and Leisure » Games » Chess

The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game New Trade Paper
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Product details 352 pages Griffin - English 9780312333966 Reviews:
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