- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

For some, chess becomes a fascinating leap into complex triviality that absorbs their life. Chess champion Bobby Fischer lacked both balance and stability. America’s first great player, Paul Morphy, died penniless and insane.

How to explain the appeal of pushing 32 pieces across 64 squares while attempting to weave a mating net for the opposing king? How to explain people who spend hours as organic statues, moving little more than their hands?

And how to explain two unexceptional Americans visiting the impoverished Russian province of Kalmykia, ruled by the certainly authoritarian, likely corrupt, and oddly eccentric Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, to play chess? In “The Chess Artist,” J.C. Hallman attempts to answer this last question.

While working at an Atlantic City casino, Mr. Hallman and Glenn Umstead form an unusual friendship. Mr. Hallman is a writer and a chess amateur — competent, but easy prey for serious players. Mr. Umstead is a chess master. Although “minor royalty” in chess, as Mr. Hallman puts it, Mr. Umstead is not good enough to make a living as a professional. Nevertheless, chess defines his life. He tells Mr. Hallman: “I’m a chess player first. Then I’m black.”

Mr. Hallman enjoys the game but prefers to explore the culture surrounding the clack of pieces on the board. Mr. Umstead just wants to play.

They make an odd pair, but together they explore some of America’s more unusual chess dens. One is their casino, where dealers often play during breaks. There’s also the Manhattan Chess Club, Washington Square Park, and Village Chess Shop in New York City.

The friends crash a chess party hosted by Princeton’s math department, and Nobel Prize winner John Nash makes an appearance. They organize a simultaneous chess exhibition at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., demonstrating that chess can be enjoyed anywhere.

The most beguiling part of their journey, richly detailed by the author, is to Kalmykia — a desolate Russian republic adjoining war-torn Chechnya. Explains Mr. Hallman: “Both Glenn and Kalmykia had used chess as a fundamental building block of their identities.” In his view, “what seemed to unite them was a simple interest in the game not based on simple excellence in chess. This suggested a dimension to the game that hadn’t been considered.”

Only a true “chess nut” can follow the endless permutations of international chess officialdom. The Soviet Union dominated the game from World War II until the USSR’s collapse. The American Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972, but forfeited his title three years later in a rules dispute.

Then the matches were organized by an international organization, FIDE (the Federation Internationale des Echecs, or World Chess Federation), which became infamous for its corrupt politicization of the game. When FIDE champion Garry Kasparov organized a retention contest outside of FIDE, the group stripped him of his title and created a separate match.

Into this chaos stepped Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a business mogul elected Kalmykia’s president in 1993 at age 31. Two years later he won FIDE’s presidency, and set about making the city of Elista, capital of a nation of about 350,000 people, into a “Chess City.” FIDE moved its headquarters to Kalmykia, new buildings arose above the Russian steppes, and the 33rd Chess Olympiad made its appearance in Elista in 1998.

So Mr. Hallman and Mr. Umstead fly to Chess City: Mr. Umstead to play, Mr. Hallman to conduct “social science research” on his purported theories about the development of chess. The result is a delightful travelogue that even the non-chess player will enjoy. There’s the author’s meeting with Kalmykia academics to discuss his chess “theories.” There’s Mr. Umstead’s frustration at being defeated by Kalmykia’s top child player. There’s Mr. Hallman’s slightly bizarre interview with the slightly unbalanced president.

And there’s the surreal atmosphere of an impoverished authoritarian state. Grandiose ambitions run wildly out of line with reality. Expensive buildings, unused, fall into decay. Political apparatchiks and presidential toadies seek to satisfy the assumed wishes of the godlike leader.

Eventually, Mr. Hallman’s and Mr. Umstead’s tolerance for Kalmykia, for each other, and even for chess is tested. They return to America, with chess tournaments to play and life to live. So, too, does Kalmykia muddle along, with Mr. Ilyumzhinov winning reelection to the presidencies of both FIDE and the country.

And the international chess world has remained in chaos. In June 2004, FIDE hosted a tournament in Libya in an attempt to reunite the chess crowns. But the contest lacked several important contenders, leaving controversy in its wake.

The game remains as enthralling as ever. Mr. Hallman leaves us as he travels westward to restart his life. He begins his book playing a chess-obsessed adult; he ends “The Chess Artist” attempting to teach a four-year-old autistic child the game. And why not? We’re all entitled to our personal obsessions.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He long ago realized that his chess ambitions would never be fulfilled.

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