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Bill Hook made Bobby Fischer cry.
“I beat him about four times,” Hook says. “He cried when he lost.”
’Course, when Hook says he routinely whupped on and brought out the crybaby in the person who would later go on to become the greatest chess player in U.S. history (and probably in just plain history), Fischer was only 12 years old. And the games came during speed chess, a quickie variation of the western world’s oldest board game.
But, still. That’s a nice claim to chess fame.
Hook recounts his triumphs over Fischer at New York’s top chess hangouts, plus the night he drove the boy wonder home from a tournament when he was too young to drive, in Hooked on Chess, a memoir about his lifelong relationships with the game and those folks similarly devoted to it.
Hook’s book, released last year, also includes a passage about the night his win streak against young Bobby from Brooklyn was snapped, which happens to be the night Hook realized that the teary kid’s talent would eventually outgrow their club. For that segment of the population as fixated on queens and rooks as Hook has been for most of his 84 years, the paragraph reads like a romance novel.
“One night at the Marshall Chess Club rapids we played a French Defense and a very peculiar thing happened,” Hook writes. “In the middle of the game Bobby made a strong move and I suddenly had an almost physical sense of the power emanating from it. And Bobby moved again with the same effect; it was as if he were playing with dynamic rays of force that I had a heightened sensitivity to. It happened once more, and my position was busted, as the coffee house players would say. I never won another game from Bobby, and I wonder if any other players have had this experience while opposing him.”
Even removing his brushes with Fischer’s greatness, Hook’s story has clout with chessheads. He traded pawns during a romantic era of U.S. chess and at the epicenter of the game here: New York in the 1940s through 1960s. He played against guys whose names are now bigger than their games ever were—Stanley Kubrick among them.
“We actually were pretty close at one point, when neither of us were doing that well and long before he was ‘Stanley Kubrick,’” Hook says. “But Kubrick and I fell out because I wanted to play for quarters and he wanted to play for dimes.”
And Hook says that, like Kubrick, his skills never lived up to his passion for chess.
“I’m not real good,” he says.
But for all the flaws Hook insists are in his game, he managed to insert himself into the highest levels of chess and stay there.
For more than four decades, he’s competed in Chess Olympiad, a biennial international competition founded in 1924 that has long rated as the most important team tournament in the world. Hook has been allowed to participate in these top-shelf competitions by founding two Virgin Islands chess teams—first for the U.S. Virgin Islands, then for the British version.
Representing those tiny islands, Hook, who was born and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., has faced the game’s best in some exotic locales.
“I’ve been in 18 Olympiads, from the Philippines to Buenos Aires, to Malta to Dubai, in Moscow and in France,” he says. “These are great tournaments.”
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Hook even got a rematch with Fischer in 1970 at an Olympiad held in Siegen, Germany. Fischer was playing first board for the U.S. team; Hook headed up the Islanders’ squad.
On talent alone, Hook confesses, he had no right to such a matchup. No, the way Hook describes the Virgin Island boardsmen, they come off like the chess equivalent of the Jamaican bobsledders who gamed their way into the Olympics (the athletical Olympics, not the chess olympics) by representing a nation that really shouldn’t be competing.
“Are we good? No!” he says. “We’re always near the bottom. We’ve played tournaments as a team where we did finish at the very bottom, and I know at one they gave us a trophy showing the hindquarters of a donkey. I still have that around here somewhere. But we just go and expect to have a good time.”
For all his self-mockery, Hook’s not a complete fraud. For starters, his rating peaked as an International Master, which, while not threatening Fischer’s heights, means he’s proven himself more competent at protecting his queen than the Jamaican bobsledders ever did at flying down the hill on rails. And, despite his New York roots and his having a D.C.-area address since the late ’60s, his representation of the Virgin Islands came about rather organically.
“In the 1960s, I started going there to dive, one of my other passions, and fell in love with the place,” Hook says. “My wife and I spent all our vacations there and bought a home.”
In any case, Hook’s streak of Olympic appearances is about to end. The reasons: location, location, location. The 2010 Chess Olympiad is scheduled to be held in Khanty-Mansiysk, an oil town of about 70,000 inhabitants in Siberia.
Yup. That Siberia. Cold, way-outta-the-way Siberia.
As with so many of the happenings in Hook’s chess life, there’s an odd story to the site selection.
The tournament was awarded to Siberia by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which sponsors the Olympiad, at the urging of the head of the organization, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Along with his FIDE duties, Ilyumzhinov serves as a member of the Russian parliament and as dictator of Kalmykia, a Russian republic on the Caspian Sea that nobody’s ever heard of.
“There are some unusual politics over there,” says Hook.
A 2006 BBC profile of Ilyumzhinov said that his “reputation for eccentricity comes from claiming to have been abducted by aliens and running for office on the flagship policy of a mobile phone for every shepherd.”
Ilyumzhinov runs the chess organization in much the same fashion he runs his republic.
Given the bullying that led to the desolate and wholly uninviting locale serving as host, Hook says he’s not excited about showing up for the next Olympiad. Yet even if the placement of the tournament in Siberia were legit, Hook says, he would have trouble fielding a team.
“Our guys are from the tropics,” he says. “They don’t like cold weather. They don’t want to go. I don’t even think there are enough hotel rooms in Siberia to even have a tournament. It’s all strange.”
But if his Olympiad run really ends, Hook says, he’ll start a new one in 2012.
And he’s got no plan to give up chess any time soon. Not until mortality intervenes, actually.
“The way I see it,” he says, “in my final game, I’ll knock over my king in resignation and die.”
So, in the game of Hook’s dreams, he goes out a loser?
“I think that’s inevitable,” he says.
In other words, should his dream come true, Hook won’t cry.
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.