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So What Do You Do, Paul Hoffman, Author, ASME-Winning Writer

This writer regularly turns mundane topics into bestselling books

By Noah Davis - August 22, 2007
Paul Hoffman might not be "the smartest man in the world" (although Chicago's editors, who handed him that moniker, would beg to differ), but he's certainly among the more accomplished journalists working today. Author of 11 books -- most recently, King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game -- Hoffman won the first National Magazine Award presented for feature writing in 1987, was editor-in-chief of Discover at the tender age of 30, and served as president of Encyclopedia Britannica. He's consulted* for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Engineering, and written for publications ranging from The New Yorker and The New York Times to Atlantic Monthly and Wired. His first biography, The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth, was an international bestseller and is published in 16 languages. He's been a color commentator on ESPN, performed paper-folding tricks on Letterman, and discussed the future of technology on Oprah.

King's Gambit, Hoffman's new book, takes the reader from Washington Square Park in the 60s to Tripoli in the post-9/11 world, where "information officers" constantly harassed the author as he observed the Chess World Championships. It's his most personal book to date, and Hoffman says writing it helped him through a rough period of his life. The work fuses memoir with chess history, an example of Hoffman's unique ability to make even the driest subjects riveting. He examines the psyches of top players past and present, noting their propensity for madness (Bobby Fischer, anyone?), contrasting this with his own childhood obsession for the game he abandoned for 20 years because it drove him to tears.

Hoffman* stopped by mediabistro.com during a break in promoting King's Gambit and working on his next project. Among other things, we asked him to spill the secret to his success (he didn't), if he's ever been more scared than he was in Tripoli (he hasn’t), and whether he really is the world's smartest man (he would neither confirm nor deny).


Name: Paul Hoffman
Resumé: President of Encyclopedia Britannica, president and editor-in-chief of Discover, publisher of Disney magazines
Birthday: March 30, 1956
Position: "I write one book after the next and I do a lot of consulting, magazine redesign, and brainstorm consulting for Internet companies and ad agencies.
Education: B.A. from Harvard in history and science
Hometown: Woodstock, NY
First job: Senior editor of Scientific American
Marital status: Divorced; son, Alex
Favorite TV show: Sopranos. "I'm sad that it's done. Jon Stewart would be my favorite that's on TV right now.
Last book I read: Consider the Lobster


King's Gambit is a combination of memoir and history lesson. How did that format come about?
It certainly is the most personal book that I've done. I haven't been in any of my other books. I tend to write about madness, genius, and obsession, and the intersection of all three. I pick subjects or subcultures and go pretty deep into them. I wrote a book about a mathematician [The Man Who Only Loved Numbers] and went deeply into math. Of course, I'm trying to appeal to an audience that's not just mathematicians, otherwise I would sell a few hundred copies. I think chess is a world -- whether you play it or not -- that is inherently fascinating. It seems like this game of wooden puppets, yet it brings out incredible emotions in the people that play it. It brings out all sorts of issues. It's very hard to run away from the fact that if you lose, it's because of something you did. You can't blame a bad draw of cards or a bad bounce of the ball. Even if your opponent made the most brilliant move in the last century, something you could have done earlier would have stopped him from making it.

I was struck too by the two Americans that have reached the status of being the top players in the world -- Paul Morphy, back in the mid-19th century, and Bobby Fischer -- both were pretty nutty and paranoid. There's a connection between madness and chess. It doesn’t mean you're mad to take it up, but it's striking to me how much madness there is at the top. It may have to deal with the fact that it's a solipsistic activity. You have to spend hours studying games and preparing for games, and you're by yourself essentially. I don’t know if there's any more madness in chess than there is in concert pianists, but there's a lot and I was struck by it.

There are a few reasons why I'm in the book. One is that chess means a lot to me. I was very serious about it as a kid, but it drove me crazy. I was dreaming about it constantly. I was too hard on myself when I lost. Too much of my self-esteem was wrapped up in how I did and I stopped playing. But I've always admired it. I think there's this incredible beauty to the game. It combines an artform -- the combination of pieces is incredible when you do something that's beautifully unique and foresighted -- but at the same time, it's a really aggressive sport.

One of the reasons why I took up chess as a kid is that I saw it as this black and white world; everything was confined to the board. I had a pretty chaotic family life. My father was this difficult character and he taught me chess, but I always was fascinated by people that played it a lot. It was only more recently as an adult that I went back into it to try to understand whether professional players got the same kind of obsession and how could they handle the emotional highs and low. You're playing a tournament game for four or five hours and you're nursing a winning position for two hours, but you make a mistake and your opponent bounces back. It's hard to deal with that. If you start obsessing about what you could have done during the game, you're not going to have the concentration to continue.

King's Gambit reminded me a lot of Word Play. Were you familiar with the book before sitting down to write?
Yeah, absolutely. The difference is that in my case, I'm not a journalist who decided to take up chess to see how I would do. It's a game I was taught when I was five and it's been a big part of my life. I grew up in Greenwich Village with this bohemian dad who took me all the time to the chess tables in Washington Square Park. People played chess all night and it was fairly safe. A lot of the cops liked chess and they sat there on horseback watching you play. Sometimes they even suggested moves.

There's a huge amount of chess history in the book. How much research did you have to do?
There's a fair amount of research. What distinguishes my writing is that I spend an incredible amount of time with the people I write about. It's not just sitting down for a Q&A or catching up with them a few times. I really want to know what they are about and that only comes through great familiarity and spending enough time with them that I see stuff happen that's emblematic of what they are like as people. Also, the more time you spend with people -- particularly in chess where top players are always posturing -- the more willing they are to open up and talk about the agony of defeat. It involved research in that I spent a lot of time with a small set of people and followed them around the world to the different places where they played.


The whole time I was in Tripoli, I was harassed and taken into custody and I didn't know what was going to happen. It makes a good story now that I'm back, but it wasn't so much fun at the time.


Chess isn't the most exciting sport. What did your agent and publishing house say when you told them you wanted to write a book about chess?
They were totally behind it. The same thing could have been said when I did The Man Who Only Loved Numbers. Math's not the most exciting subject -- there are a ton of people who were turned off by it in the first grade -- but that was a bestseller, particularly in England. There, it sat in the No. 2 spot for a long time. I got a kick out of that because it was during the one-year anniversary Princess Di's death, and the No. 1 book was a biography of her and the No. 3 book was a biography of her, and here's a book about a mathematician. What I was able to do was to bring out this person's really incredible history and how he fought against all sorts of personal crises in order to be as good as he was, and to be able to bring out what professional mathematicians see in math, which is this terribly beautiful world that you and I might not see.

I think people want to know about subcultures, if you have a compelling storyline. That's the most important thing: You need to tell a story like a piece of fiction. It needs an arc. In the math case, it was this guy who's two sisters died the day he was born and his mother kept him inside for 10 years. He didn't have any contact with other kids because she was afraid he was going to catch a fatal childhood contagion and die. So this kid was terribly sheltered. Many people in this situation would have ended up in a mental institution or worse, but this guy channeled this into mathematics.

King's Gambit is seen through my take. I'm not a professional player at all, but the game meant a lot to me [in my childhood]. It was this sanctuary to escape from a lot of crap that was going on. I idolized the players that played it at the top. It was interesting because as I got further into [the research] I found that they were some of the most deceptive personalities that I've ever met. You think, "How can there be deception in chess?" but there is in terms of cheating and posturing at the board. You're not allowed to do anything to purposely disturb your opponent, but what about coughing at the board? What if you have a cold? That's not against the rules to have a cold. It's against the rules to purposely cough, but there are all these that people do [bend the rules].

[My agent and publisher] was very receptive to the idea because this type of book is what I do. I write about subcultures. I try to do it with an engaging story. Obviously, I depend on good reviews for people to say, "Here's a book on a topic you might not know you're interested in, but you've got to read it." Luckily, the last two books I did got good reviews. But you never know. This one could wither on the vine or it could catch the Zeitgeist, you never know.

When you went to Tripoli, you were questioned repeatedly by information officers. In the book, you make it sound pretty terrifying. Is that the most scared you've been pursuing a story?
Yeah. Now we have diplomatic relations with Libya, but when I went there in 2004, we did not. The United States Chess Federation recommended that U.S. players not go, but I was determined to watch a world championship and go with somebody. Actually, [the country's officials] were very receptive. I couldn't get a visa in the U.S. I had to fly from Canada, and stuff like that but at the very last moment, they became less receptive because the Bush administration got mad at [Muammar] Khadafi and threatened to roll back this movement towards normalizing relations. The whole time I was harassed and taken into custody and I didn't know what was going to happen. It makes a good story now that I'm back, but it wasn't so much fun at the time.

Do you think that the skills you developed on the chessboard as a child translated into being a good writer?
It's helped me to focus. Writing takes focus and chess takes focus. The wonderful thing about chess is that you can start playing when you're three, four, and five. I taught chess at a private school in Woodstock to kids ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. It doesn't matter what level you are at; you'll see yourself getting better from week to week. It's really great, especially for kids with learning disabilities because the disabilities don't seem to translate into affecting chess progression. So it definitely helped me. It gave me some confidence. It taught me to plan ahead. It taught me life stuff, like how not to be a sore loser and how not to gloat when you're winning. When I work with young kids, the emotional aspects are a lot of what we work on so the kid doesn't get devastated when he loses or get too cocky when he wins.

You've held a number of different positions in your career: ASME-winning feature writer, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, and editor-in-chief of Discover. What's the most difficult job you've had?
Britannica was difficult because it was a company that was so entrenched in its ways. My other jobs have been start-ups. Even though I ran Discover for 10 years and it had been started long before I was there by Time, when I took over it had no staff and I hired the entire staff. I'm much more used to start-ups than running huge companies, so [Britannica] was much more difficult for me.

What's your favorite story you've written?
Two stories. "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" was written in The Atlantic. It won the first ASME feature award. It's my favorite because it certainly helped me the most. It's why I can write books fulltime and do consulting gigs that come my way that are exciting. Also, a story I did more recently for Smithsonian, which is part of King's Gambit, was the profile of a woman named Jennifer Shahade. She's the strongest American-born female chess player ever, and chess is an all-male world, so I was very fascinated by what a woman was like who was able to penetrate championship chess to the highest levels.

How do you find these stories? What's your secret?
As I said, the most important thing to me is that there's a great story, so I can use the story to tell people something they need to know or were scared of. That's why I wrote about math. I actually like math a lot, but I know some of my close friends don't. I wanted to write a book that got across the beauty of math, but I needed to do it through the eyes of somebody who had an incredible life story because everyone can relate to another person's story. That's what I'm always looking for.

I did this book about early flight [On The Wings Of Madness] because there was a very colorful character, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and his life story was interesting and tragic. I could use that to hang a lot of science and engineering about early flight.

Also, people suggest things. My closest friend suggested that story about flight. He was down in Brazil and said, "Hey, there's this amazing guy, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Americans don't know anything about him. You should come down and check him out." So that's how that book came about.

So you get a phone call and someone says, "You should go to Brazil" and you just jet off? [Laughs] Yeah, a fair amount. It also helps that I edited Discover for 10 years, so I have a lot of contact with writers and scientists. They are always saying, "You've got to meet this great dude." A lot of times, those are the seeds to a book or the subject of an article.

If you could play one person in chess, who would it be? I think Paul Morphy, the champion from the 19th century. I've played Gary Kasparov, the greatest player ever. It was a sad experience for me. One couldn’t expect to do great against him. But Paul Morphy... actually, Bobby Fischer would be interesting. Not now because he's so out there and his political views are so offensive I wouldn't want to play him now, but Paul Morphy, this 19th-century player, would be great.

You just finished the book. Plans for the future? I'm exploring a couple ideas for books. I'm going to write a mystery at some point. I'm working on turning my last book [Wings Of Madness] into a movie right now. There's some interest in that. It's not like anyone's making it, but suddenly there's interest in it. And mainly promoting [King's Gambit]. That's what I'm focusing on in the next two weeks.

Are you going on a tour? A lot of the press I'm doing here out of New York. NPR shows and stuff like that.

Final question: Chicago called you "the smartest man in the world" once. Is that still true? [Laughs] I'll let you judge.


Noah Davis is mediabistro.com's assistant editor. He can be reached at noah AT mediabistro DOT com.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Disclosure: Hoffman has worked with mediabistro.com.

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