Hallman first met chess master Glenn Umstead in a dealer break room deep in the bowels of an Atlantic City casino. The two became friends, Hallman tagging along as Umstead performed blindfold chess exhibitions or gave lessons to young students. Umstead was obsessed with the game: a chess monk. Shortly after the odd friendship began, oligarch and ex-chess prodigy Kirsan Ilyumzhinov took control of Kalmykia, a poor autonomous region of the Russian Federation. Ilyumzhinov immediately established chess as the small country's national pastime. This completed the basic ingredient list for The Chess Artist.The true story of Hallman's friendship with Umstead wanders from interviews with chess-playing murderers to encounters with Nobel Prize-winning scholars to speed chess matches with Mongoliian girl champions and finally to the office-cum-throne room of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a dictator sometimes mentioned in the same breath with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who tells them of his plan to turn chess into a religion.
J.C. gives an overview of the book:
If I lose badly I will feel like committing suicide.
GM Nigel Short
It was the fly that woke me, a Kalmyk housefly as big as a grape. Bigger in the blur of myopia. I mistook it at first for something much larger near my feet, then it landed on the blanket in front of my nose and ascended again when I jolted. My eyes focused as best they were able, and the lazy swim of a fat fly offered diagnosis of the churning flush of my brain. I was drunk in Russia.
There was a knock at the door, and I recognized the trope: the beginning of the day, the gap in action filling in at once with plot. I stood up. I was in the strange weakened state of alcohol recovery when the down of it has worn off but the headache has yet to arrive. Shame and chemistry. It would blossom soon, like a flower opening to sunlight and torture, but for now, it was a kind of limbo: I would not be acting like myself for some time, but the future would become a past uninterrupted by further failure of memory.
It was Glenn at the door. Glenn was a chess player, a self-described chess artist. He was thirty-nine years-old, a boyish African-American man with dimples and a tender smile. Glenn´s skin was the color of the dark squares on a fine chessboard, a perfect mahogany. His hairline had begun a ragged retreat, but he had a giggle so girlish he sometimes seemed like a teenager. His vocabulary was urban, but his accent was neutral. He neither drank nor cursed. He was a parent once, possibly twice. A few years back, he had spent a number of days in jail for reasons I was still unclear about. He had played chess while on the inside. Shortly after I met him, I asked Glenn which was more important to his identity, the game or his race. He considered the question seriously a moment. It was odd for him because he tended to pride himself on supplying quick answers to everything, as though logic made every question simple.
‘I´m a chess player first,’ he said, finally. ‘Then I´m black.’
It was the combination of the two that made him a rarity—in the entire history of chess, more than 1,400 years, only a few dozen black chess players have achieved the rank of master or higher. This is because chess, generally a cold climate game, failed to penetrate Africa at the beginning of the second millennium. Glenn was one of the few.
Teetotaler that he was, the shame he wore for me now suggested I would spend the better part of the morning distributing apologies.
‘I know I wasn´t on my best behavior last night,’ I said. ‘But it was only here, right? It wasn´t with Galzanov.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘It was all over. You tried to hug our maid when she didn´t want to be hugged and stuff.’ Glenn had never been drunk in his life and he was proud of it. He had the advantage on me, and his manner was efficient in generating guilt even though I knew of his habit of trying to induce sobriety in everyone he met.
‘What time is it?’ I said.
‘It´s 9:15. We have a meeting with Galzanov at 9:45. Downstairs. Suit and tie.’
He left me standing at the door, content to allow me to collapse and shrivel up if that´s what would happen. I locked the ancient lock, and the room was back to the deep hum of the Kalmyk fly as it clicked against the window trying to get out into Russia. I followed. Our rooms were on the fifth floor of the Elista Hotel, one of only two hotels in downtown Elista, Kalmykia. Kalmykia was a desperately poor Maine-sized republic on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea. Here, a chess movement was underway. The republic´s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former chess prodigy, was using the game, I believed, the way tyrants used religions to unite people. Many thought he was mad, and possibly a murderer. I wasn´t sure what I thought, and that´s why Glenn and I were here: to interview Ilyumzhinov and visit his pet project, a mysterious place called Chess City.
I looked across Elista at tree height, over roofs and a sporadic canopy of leaves. Just behind the hotel an alley served as parking lot and maintenance yard—men worked on cars, and a dirty brown dog wandered. On a neighboring street, above-ground sewage pipes shaped a squared-off threshold that marked entrance into nothing. Many wires hung between the city´s buildings, sad droops of potential as numerous as ornaments. The buildings were all of the same block brick, an architectural surrender to the elements that would have made sense if it had been a moon colony. Smokestacks for some kind of power generator stood near the edge of the city, and past them the squatty supports for power lines ran off into the sand of the north Caspian steppe, yellow-brown in the distance.
I removed my clothes and took solace in the fact that, drunk as I had been, I had managed to change into the sweats I slept in. The room was cold. Heat in Kalmykia, in all of Russia, would not be turned on until October 15th. It was state-controlled. Furthermore, hot water and electricity were regulated to help Kalmykia pay off debts to neighboring regions. In the bathroom, a square of elevated tile amounted to my shower. I turned the red-painted knob in vain. The icy feel of the water sent a shudder up my shoulder, but dehydrated as I was it struck me as potentially delicious anyway. But I was as drunk with propaganda as I was with vodka. Do not drink the water in Russia.
I climbed up onto the shower and looked down at its grid of tiles, like a chessboard. The elevated pedestal was somewhat like a square itself, to which I had moved or been moved. I used a pipe snake showerhead to spray myself, the whole thing awful and self-inflicted. The water did not cure me, but it did grant an illusion of sobriety. When I was dry, even the room´s 13 degrees felt passable. I put on one of my suits.
Bad drunks tease the ego: flaws inflate, finer characteristics recede if you´re willing to admit they ever existed at all. Assurances that you did not behave badly amount to nothing; assurances that you did make you want to jump out a window. I sat and waited for Glenn. My friendship with Glenn over the last year and a half had become a kind of inadvertent tour of chess, and if the chess movement in Kalmykia was an experimental use of the game, then my time with Glenn was an experiment of a different sort. I was an accidental chess historian. I studied the game. Glenn was my guide. I didn´t know it when I met him, but during our friendship Glenn would force me to play blindfold chess with him in public, together we would explore the dusty crevices of New York´s chess underworld, we would one day crash a Princeton Math Department game party, we would attend one of the largest chess tournaments in the world, we would visit a prison in Michigan and a murderer in Virginia, we would host a Mongolian Women´s International Master from the opposite side of the planet, and finally we would fly to Russia, to a newly born chess state, where we would be received by Galzanov, a young suspicious press secretary armed with a bottle of vodka flavored with medicinal ‘grasses’ and emblazoned with a portrait of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
I recalled a chess writer who had noted that chess was the only game in which players were forced to resign, to admit defeat. In most games, time simply ran out while you were losing. Chess players were KO´d every time they lost, and they remained conscious through the ordeal. The agony was significant, the writer said, and now, waiting for Glenn, not really aware that I was still under the influence of Kirsan´s magic vodka—only now did I truly understand what it meant to lose an important game of chess. The drink had been ritual but the ‘grasses’ could have been anything, and our first evening in Kalmykia had been an effort to find out what we wanted with the president. My imagination burbled with lost history—I remembered arguing with Glenn, I remembered someone saying, ‘Massage, or just sex?’ My stomach wrung itself dry as I tried to find logic in the decision-making protocol I had employed for the last twenty-four hours. I felt an intense need to dream.
There was another knock at the door. I opened it expecting Glenn, but it was one of the maids, perhaps the one Glenn said I tried to hug. It´s possible—I wanted to hug her now, actually. She held a scrap of my clothing, a Nike shirt with a tear under the arm. I wasn´t sure how she had obtained it. She began speaking, and I caught the idea, the dear woman, that she blamed herself for the tear, that she must have done it while scrubbing it. She mimed sewing to suggest that she fix it. It was too great a task to explain to her that the tear had been there for several years, that I was actually fond of the shirt because it was torn, so I gave her a 100-ruble note to fix it—I had a thick pocket of such notes. She nodded and said, ‘Spasibo,’ and when she was gone I was left again with the sick and absurd sense that I had lost a kind of game.
J.C. Hallman can be reached most directly through JCHallman.com. He grew up in Southern California and studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. After graduate school,...