Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 10, 2009

The Man Who Loved Numbers, Writing, Puzzles, and Chess

Noted author and enigmatologist Paul Hoffman tells Gelf about going from Lederman to Letterman and beyond.

Dan Adler

People often look to science and mathematics as realms of rational and objective truth. Author Paul Hoffman, on the other hand, explores the eccentricity rampant in those fields. His first biography, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, profiles the strange Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, a man who called children "epsilons" because the Greek letter represents a small quantity in mathematics. His profile of Albert Santos-Dumont, the flamboyant Brazilian inventor who flew around the Eiffel Tower two years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, is aptly titled Wings of Madness.

Paul Hoffman
"People who do mathematics as a living view it as an art form, exposing a beauty and order in the world."

Paul Hoffman

His most recent book, King's Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, delves into yet another hotbed of craziness—chess. Hoffman shows us a world where world champions devolve into anti-Semitic paranoia; losers fly into furniture-destroying rages; and more than a few combatants self-defenestrate, rather than tip over their kings in defeat. As Hoffman writes, "One of the mysteries of this ancient game is how mere puppets moving in opposition to each other have the capacity to stir up bizarre behavior in champions and amateurs alike."

Hoffman's subject is by no means foreign to him. He played chess seriously as a child before ultimately giving it up in college to become a science writer and puzzlemaster. Presented along with his portrait of the chess world of past and present is Hoffman's own story, an attempt to appreciate the game without giving in to obsession, and to come to terms with painful memories of the man who introduced him to chess—his father.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. (You can hear Hoffman speak, along with noted author and commentator John Derbyshire and math museum founder Glen Whitney, at the debut of Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on April 15th at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn, New York.)

Gelf Magazine: What are you up to these days?

Paul Hoffman: I'm in the early stages of working on another book. I do commentary on NPR, for All Things Considered. And I do a fair amount of work for websites. I've been doing work for, which is a sort of YouTube of ideas. There are hundreds of videos on their site of big thinkers talking about contemporary economic issues, healthcare, politics. It's also a social-networking site, where you can establish a profile and communicate with others to discuss big ideas, as opposed to Britney Spears.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get started in science journalism?

Paul Hoffman: I got a job at Scientific American, and started the day after I graduated. What I did was ghost-write articles for Nobel Prize winners and other famous scientists. And I quickly discovered that I knew nothing about physics. I thought there were only three particles, even though I took something like eight physics courses. The only subatomic particles that were ever mentioned were electrons, protons, and neutrons. The first article I did for them, I was working with this guy Leon Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering subatomic particles, and I found out there were hundreds of them. I learned much more science ghost-writing articles than I had in science courses. My science education, even though I went to Harvard, was so disconnected from anything people were doing in the real world of science. I fell in love with that, these personalities that were devoted to one pursuit. I like people that are obsessed with what they do; it could be musicians, it could be artists, but scientists also fall into that category. I had too much fun writing about it, so I never made it back.

Gelf Magazine: Your work has led you to the set of Oprah, chess commentary on ESPN, and Hollywood treasure-map designing. What has been your most memorable experience?

Paul Hoffman: Doing stupid mathematics tricks on David Letterman—that was one of my better experiences. I've done paper folding and cutting paper, where you have to guess what shape you would get. It's pretty geeky stuff. It's based on a book that I did of weird mathematical brain teasers; I used to write them under a pseudonym, Dr. Crypton. Letterman had seen me do these on another show; a producer called me up, and invited me to do it on his show. When I got there, he asked if we could practice. He said usually what happens is celebrity guests just show up and do their thing, but as much possible, he likes to practice, because his lines are better. I did the same thing again and again, but I wasn't practicing, he was. Each time he did it, he'd come up with a better one-liner in response to what I did, and they would videotape it. He told me to keep doing what I was going to do, that I was going to be the straight man. And then when we actually did this on air, we'd already done it seven times, and he was brilliant, because he took all the best one-liners from each time we'd run it, and it comes across as totally spontaneous. He told me that's the way he prefers to do comedy. I really admire the guy for how hard he works.

Gelf Magazine: You have written The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, about the eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös; Wings of Madness, about the flamboyant inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont; and now King's Gambit, on chess, a game whose association with insanity you explore at length. Why the obsession with madness?

Paul Hoffman: I guess Freudians would say it comes from my father. He was a brilliant literature professor with a photographic memory for what he read. He could tell you what was on page 178 of Anna Karenina, in the middle of the page. So I've always been fascinated by people who are very bright. Maybe it goes with the territory, that if you're going to be so passionate about something on which you're spending most of your day and part of your night, too, it will reflect in other areas of life—there are only a certain number of hours in a week. I just admire people who throw everything that they have into something.

"Modern chess games don't resemble old ones. Things we think are true today about chess may turn out not to be true."
Gelf Magazine: How does writing about chess fit into your line of work as a science journalist? How does King's Gambit fit with your previous efforts?

Paul Hoffman: Chess is a culture unto itself. It has its own jargon. And it's something everyone knows about, whether you've played it or not; you've seen guys playing with chessboards, even if you don't know how the pieces move. There's a popular conception of it as a game played by old men, a game played by Russians, a game that has a mathematical sterility to it. I was interested in the fact that there's a whole emotional world going on among the people who play it. I was pretty serious about it as a kid, so I know the kinds of emotions involved, and how your self-image can go to pieces when you lose, and how you can feel cocky and on top of the world when you win.
I look at myself as writing more about subcultures than always writing about science. Mathematics is very similar. People who do mathematics as a living view it as an art form, exposing a beauty and order in the world, and that kind of mathematics is totally alien to people whose last experience was their second-grade teacher yelling at them because they couldn't do long division. So that's what I wanted to get across, both in the chess book and in the math book. If there's some secret formula to what I do, it's that I try to find characters who are so compelling that I can hang a lot of the math and the chess on those characters. Obviously, I couldn't make a living if I was writing these books just for chess players, or just for mathematicians; I'm trying to reach a larger audience. They're really human stories, about success, about defeat, about sense of self.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find it difficult to be faithful to the complexity of the game, and also keep it in layman's terms enough that people could enjoy it as a story about life?

Paul Hoffman: Books work at different levels. You need phrases from the game, some jargon, even if not all readers will understand it, although I tried to explain as much as I could. If you start to read a book like this, to some extent, you're curious about this world. If I didn't give you enough detail, you wouldn't be satisfied. There's a fine line between too much and too little.

Gelf Magazine: What excites you about chess?

Paul Hoffman: Chess has incredible beauty. I love the simplicity of the game, that the game has stood the test of time. It's a world unto itself, infinitely complicated; you can never master it. There are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the universe, which is astonishing. You talk to Garry Kasparov, who is arguably the best chess player ever, and in some respects he's kind of a cocky guy, but when he talks about his games, he talks about things he didn't see, which is astonishing. I was with him once after he played a simultaneous exhibition on Wall Street, against 50 people at once. When one of the games was over, which he won, he told me he wasn't sure he would have won if the person had played better; that it might have petered out into a draw. He had to go catch a plane, but he insisted he had to figure this out. Over dinner, he had to demonstrate to me that it was possible. He was obsessed with what the best play was.
The game also evolves. The rules don't change, but in the late 19th century, people had these blistering attacks; they just went for the other guy's jugular. Games tended to last not as long, because the other person would be checkmated quickly. But then slowly the art of defense arose. You couldn't get away with attacking the guy immediately with just a piece or two, because you would have overextended yourself. The game goes in different spurts. People understand different things about it. Modern chess games don't resemble old ones. Things we think are true today about chess may turn out not to be true.

Gelf Magazine: At the beginning of King's Gambit, you call chess "unfinished business." Why is that?

Paul Hoffman: It was unfinished business in the sense that I was a serious chess player when I was young. And then I stopped, because the game drove me mad. I played through chess games all night in my head, while I was sleeping; I tossed and turned. It didn't matter whether I won or lost. I just got too keyed up, too excited, when I played in tournaments. I lost a lot of sleep. The other thing is, as I got into high school, in order to continue being really good at it, you have to spend a hell of a lot of time doing it, and there was other fun stuff out there: girls, friends. But it's always stuck with me. I've always been fascinated by the people, and I've always wondered what would have happened had I stuck with it. I certainly wasn't as good as the people I wrote about, but at the age I was at, I was pretty good. I've always wanted to delve more intensely into that world. Also, too much of my self-esteem was dependent upon whether I won or lost, and not even so much whether I won or lost, but if I'd made stupid mistakes. I'd be mad at myself. It was like, what was the point of all this energy and time I had spent if I couldn't play a beautiful chess game? If I lost to someone who was better than me, who slowly outplayed me, that was one thing, but if I did something stupid, I was pretty hard on myself. I wanted to know if now, as an adult, now that I've been successful at work and other things, could I do this, and not have so much of my self-esteem be based on it? I didn't really have a linear plan to do the book, but I started doing some pieces for the New Yorker and The New York Times, and I slowly got back into that world. I ultimately decided I was going to do a book about it, and immersed myself much more.

Gelf Magazine: King's Gambit is your first memoir, and yet it is also a chess history, and also a frank and intimate look into the modern chess world. Was it difficult to balance those three elements? And which parts of the story were harder to write than others?

Paul Hoffman: It would have been impossible and disingenuous for me to write a book about chess and not let the reader know that I was serious about it for a time. There are journalists who say, for example, I'm going to go join a football team and see how I do. This is a little different, because this was my life, even if just for a few years, so it's not just a journalistic experience in learning about something, but rather something that meant a lot to me. But I also thought that writing about my own story would make chess accessible to the reader. I can get inside my head more easily than I can get into others'; through my eyes, I could draw people into the book. To integrate my own story with the stories of this world and the top players—in the end that was interesting to me. I'm a biographer, a profile writer, so writing about myself was new. But it was also fun and energizing, because it was different.

Gelf Magazine: There is so much information in the notes that I used two bookmarks while reading the book. Did you find there were lots of stories just too colorful to leave out?

Paul Hoffman: I could have written a few hundred thousand more words, but then no one would have read the book. I love footnotes in general. There are so many more stories. For example, I'm writing about the idea in chess that there are certain players who say they've never lost to a healthy opponent. The thing about chess that's so astonishing is that it's total skill, more than any other game that I can think of. It's what makes the game so great, but it's also what makes it so hard, because when you lose, it's because of yourself. So people make excuses. I wasn't feeling well today, that's why I didn't play well; I must be coming down with something. So I mention examples of that in the footnotes.
The game is so rich. I didn't want to keep bogging down the narrative with asides and anecdotes, although my style of writing is asides and anecdotes. That's why people like what I do. And I also thought having all the notes mirrored the game of chess itself. Chess is a very multilayered game, that you can keep analyzing deeper and deeper, and looking at more and more variations on the board that didn't happen but could have happened. So I wanted to structure the book that way—still have a conventional narrative, but also really deep footnotes, to get deeper into the game.

Gelf Magazine: What portrait of the chess world did you ultimately paint?

"These people wanted to destroy you in the rest of their lives, not just over the chess board."
Paul Hoffman: I really like the idea that chess is a self-contained world, that playing was about finding truth on a chess board. But as I got into it more seriously, I found that some of the most duplicitous personalities were some of the strongest chess players. People cheating, people hustling, people who were aggressive not just when they were playing, but then afterwards, were so psychologically aggressive that they couldn't shut off the fact that the game was over. Can't we just be friends? Can't we have a beer? No, these people wanted to destroy you in the rest of their lives, not just over the chess board. I found it very disconcerting, because this is a game I loved the beauty of, and yet I found all of these pathological personalities. As I got further into the book and was meeting these top players and hanging out with them a lot, it was very dispiriting in some ways. It makes great copy that these guys are insane, but it also made me think, why did I spend years of my youth even thinking about continuing to do this? I wanted to find chess players who I admired as much for how they mobilized their knights and bishops as for how they conducted the rest of their lives. And I did. They were few and far between, but that was enough for me.

Gelf Magazine: While you credit your father with introducing you to the game, you ultimately came to realize he was a pathological liar and con man. How does your memory of your father affect your view of the game?

Paul Hoffman: Some of my memories of chess and my dad are the fondest memories I have of him. I grew up in Connecticut, but I spent every weekend with him in the West Village, which was kind of a fun place to be in the '60s and '70s. There were chess clubs all over the place, coffee shops people played chess in, and three chess clubs on Thompson Street. There was no curfew in Washington Square Park at the time, and people played all night. My father was an English professor at the New School, and he would sit in the park correcting his papers under some streetlight so I could play chess at night. It was fun.

Gelf Magazine: Did writing King's Gambit bring you closer to making peace with your memory of your father?

Paul Hoffman: It did, absolutely. I'm at peace now with my dad. It was very difficult for me because I knew so little about him, he manipulated the truth so much, and he did it in a way to change my behavior; he made up stuff to get me to do something or not do something. It took me a while to realize this. Everyone in college puts his dad up on a pedestal; if he said the dog ate my homework, I'd believe the dog ate his homework, until I realized later that he had no dog. It's always been difficult for me, and it was particularly difficult because as I was coming to this realization, he was slowly dying of cancer. We never really made our peace before he died. But when I look back, so many good aspects of my character, my love of life, and my love of the world do come from my father. We shared an intellectual curiosity about everything. Both of my parents supported every interest I had, and I was a serial hobbyist. I'd decide I wanted to go predict the weather, so I bought all this equipment, built weather vanes and thermometers, put them on the roof of my house, and hooked them up to dashboards in my room so I could read the weather. I'd be over the hobby in two weeks, but basically anything I wanted to do, they would support me in that. That has a lot to do what I love about being a writer; I can run around and meet interesting people, learn something about something I know nothing about. Writing becomes an excuse to learn about it. That's why I write profiles about people. The kind of profile I write is really not to just sit down with someone, but then to get involved with them and watch what they do. Lots of people I write about in the book, I run around the world with them so I can watch them play at the highest level. That kind of curiosity about people and life, my father had that, and that was a good aspect of him.

Gelf Magazine: Toward the end of the book, you wish your son, Alex, the same elation you experience when you win a chess match. Are you worried that wish could conflict with your desire to be a better father than your father, to have a relationship with your son devoid of competitive angst?

Paul Hoffman: It's more like, when I won a game against someone better, I felt incredibly competent, like I'd managed to pull everything together, so that I could pull off this improbable victory. It's not the competitiveness I wish for him, but that he can find things in life that give him incredible joy because he feels competent, whatever that is. It could be music; it could be making a scientific discovery. My own relationship with him, as much as I can consciously be aware of it, is pretty uncompetitive. My dad was very competitive with me. I play chess with Alex on occasion. I think it's something he's interested in because I'm interested in it, not because it's his favorite activity. But he likes to play occasionally. More interesting is when we don't play the game all the way through, I can just show him the beauty of something.

Gelf Magazine: Can he beat you yet?

Paul Hoffman: No, but he doesn't play enough. He has so many other interests. He's drawn toward writing photographic novels, illustration. He's an incredible storyteller, and an obsessive illustrator.

Gelf Magazine: Following King's Gambit and your return to the chess world, do you feel your second foray into the chess world is a healthier one?

Paul Hoffman: It was a healthier one. Sometimes I'm surprised—I still get a little emotionally bent out of shape. I just want to see more, I want to understand more, and it just takes a lot of playing and a lot of work to do that. I stopped playing chess at some point when I was writing the book because it was too much. Now that the book has been out for a couple of years, I'm probably going to start playing again in tournaments, and now it will be fun. I can just enjoy it, because I don't have to monitor my own experience to write about it.

Gelf Magazine: Do you like losing any less?

Paul Hoffman: I still hate it when I lose, but my self-esteem is not based on that, so I get over it pretty quickly. When I was younger, chess was the one major thing going on in my life. Now, if I lose a game, I can do something fun with my friends, or do something fun with my son.

Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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First of all let me tell you, you have got a great blog The Man Who Loved Numbers, Writing, Puzzles, and Chess.I am interested in looking for more of such topics and would like to have further information. Hope to see the next blog soon.

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Kim Hoggan

Great interview. This author is a genius but realistic at the same time. Funny because I don't like being competive at all yet love chess. That is why I find Paul interesting. He has come to realize that the highest of intelligence can't replace the value of love and family.

Article by Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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