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Montage | Open Book

Unnerved by the Urge to Win

November-December 2007

book cover

Paul Hoffman ’78 was a child chess prodigy and now, after a 25-year break from tournament chess, he has started playing again. He has been president of Encyclopaedia Britannica and editor in chief of Discover magazine and has written books about obsession, genius, and madness. His new book, King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game—chess, of course—is about those themes, as well as deception and male competition. When he first had dinner with then-world champion Garry Kasparov, for instance, he was unnerved by the Russian’s “insane competitiveness.”

Our dinner stirred up all sorts of issues. I have never gotten along with alpha males and am unsure about the line between acceptable competitiveness and nasty aggression. I had difficulty in gym class not just because I was inept but because sports seemed too brutal to me. When is the urge to win not just about performing optimally and more about breaking your adversary, physically or psychically? Assuming your opponent is not a jerk, is it immoral to want to destroy him? To me this kind of attitude, which is common in chess, detracts from the nobility of the game. Chess is said to be a safe way to sublimate aggressive impulses. But is it harmless just because the aggression isn’t physical? The idea of “healthy competition” may be a myth when it comes to chess. Can you really play a friend, go for each other’s jugular, and be buddies afterward?

I have watched thoughtful chess players wrestle at different levels with these issues. Pascal Charbonneau avoids playing chess with his girlfriend, who is an international master. Nor will he play a game with me, although he’ll happily help me for hours with my own chess (although I must wonder if he is actually conflicted about the reverse pos sibility—that he’d derive unwhole some pleasure from trouncing me). Nigel Short has eliminated the possibility of playing chess with his wife by humiliating her the first time she asked him. He insisted on doing it blindfolded with just 15 minutes on the clock while she could take all the time in the world while looking at the board.

As for my own attitude toward competition, I can play card and board games with people I love, but I can’t do it casually. I like to go all out in games. So if I think people I care about are going to misinterpret my determination as aggression, I won’t play. Ann [his wife] has tried to interest me in Scrabble, but I’ve turned her down because I don’t want to risk upsetting her. She probably has a better vocabulary than me, but I’m convinced I’d consistently beat her because I’m a better strategist. I also have the infuriating habit of appearing like I don’t give a damn. So she might be deflated to lose to someone who doesn’t seem to be trying.