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.
"This is a quirky, thoroughly enjoyable travelogue on the often surreal world of competitive chess---with stops at big-city tournaments, a chess-mad Asian satrapy, and a prison. J. C. Hallman does a nimble job of weaving chess folklore with his own observations about the different kinds of obsession over the game."
- Andy Soltis, grandmaster, chess journalist and author of" Karl Marx Plays Chess"
"Hallman is a talented writer whose vivid prose and keen journalistic eye offer chess culture the compliment of intelligent impressionistic portraiture, full of powerful, haunting images of the 'demonic gods' of the chess Olympus and the chess underworld."
- Cathy Forbes, chess journalist and author of "Meet the Masters" and "The Polgar Sisters "
"The whole history of chess is here, from the Crusades through the Internet, and its byzantine, mad, and fascinating story---rendered by J. C. Hallman with deft clarity and an unrelenting display of wit---culminates in a broken-down Russian republic where even warlords play the game. If Dostoevsky had written a book about chess being a form of religious fanaticism, "The Chess Artist" certainly would have been it."
- Tom Grimes, author of "City of God "
"J. C. Hallman has written an important book about the place of chess in contemporary society. In elegant and accessible prose, he covers the history of chess, the Russian obsession with the game, and the competitive perils of professional players. This book should be read by anyone who has ever pushed a pawn forward. A crucial addition to the literature of chess."
- Chris Offutt, author of "No Heroes"