Time for a “Board” Meeting?

Some fascinating nonfiction on top level play in two brainy boardgames would be good selections for your next book group meeting.

King’s GambitPaul Hoffman’s The King’s Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game mixes the author’s memoir of his relationship with his dishonest father with a tale of returning to competitive chess as an adult after years away from the board. The best parts of the book, however, are his recounting of the mixture of genius, mental instability, and bad behavior through the history of top level play. Hoffman looks at Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer, and many other champions and grandmasters whose brilliance at the board was ultimately overshadowed by insanity. He also follows top contemporary players, both men and women, through high pressure matches and tournaments. The chapter where he attends a World Championship in Libya as a second for a Canadian grandmaster and journalist makes for great suspense: as an American Hoffman was followed continuously by the Libyan security service.

Stefan Fatsis wrote a similar book a few years ago, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Word FreakTriumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, which stays with me in detail. Instead of chess, this book covers Fatsis’s attempt to join the top ranks of professional Scrabble players. The same mixture of geniuses, hustlers, oddballs, and crazies also inhabits this world. Fatsis is becoming a kind of contemporary George Plimpton: his new book, A Few Seconds of Panic, recounts his attempt to get playing time as a kicker in the NFL.

If you are not a game player, these books may read as a fascinating visit–sometimes funny, sometimes creepy–to a kind of contemporary freak show. If you enjoy games of any kind, you’ll find the competitive urges of these master players both appealing and appalling. If you are especially skilled at any competitive endeavor, you’ll probably see a little of yourself in the personalities involved. No matter who you are, these are compulsively readable books that are hard to put down. 

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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