Asa Hoffmann, New York chess hustler

The Chess Handshake Chain

Two years ago, I proposed a chess handshake contest: how many handshakes are you away from famous players? If you shake hands with a famous player, your handshake score is zero, if you shake hands with someone who has shaken hands with a famous player, your handshake number is one.

Personally, I met a lot of strong players: Kasparov, Karpov, Korchnoi, Spassky, Euwe, Botvinnik and Reshevsky. So it was difficult for anyone to beat me. In the comments at the time, readers tried to follow me – not easy, as I was within a handshake of Janovsky, Drake, Fine, Capablanca, Aljechin and many others. Few approached. Except one:

Asa Hoffman wrote: Dear Frédéric, I met all the world champions from Euwe to Carlsen. I also met Bronstein, Geller, Korchnoi and Averbakh. In the US I’ve played Fischer (hundreds of blitz games), Reshevsky, Fine, Lombardy, Bisguier, Evans, Benko, Larsen and Anand. I also played Rossolimo, Kupchik, Horowitz, Kevitz and Kmoch. I have played with many players born in the 19th century, including Edward Lasker, Harold M. Phillips, IS Turover and Herman Helms. I think anyone who can beat my record would be 100 years old! I am busy writing my memoirs.

In another math challenge, Professor Christian Hesse came up with a ‘winchain’ challenge: is there a player you beat, who beat someone, who beat someone, who beat a world champion ? It’s amazing how close you can get – like a 2144 player, Fabian Brinkmann, just three steps behind Magnus Carlsen. Fabian has written a nice little ChessBase app that will help you find your winchains.

Once again, it was Asa Hoffmann who beat us all. I have known him for decades, having met him in New York, initially at the Manhattan Chess Club, in the 1990s. a brief appearance (played by Austin Pendleton) in the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.

Asa playing in Bryant Park in the 1990s

Now, finally, Asa’s book has been published. This is the story of a legendary New York chess player and master of backgammon, poker, Scrabble, bridge and horse handicapping.

Born into a privileged family of two lawyers, Asa was sent to top schools including Horace Mann and Columbia University, but after a year at Columbia he left school and his family home on Park Avenue to earn his life playing chess and other games. the streets, parks and clubs of New York. His character is portrayed in the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.

The Last Gamesman: My sixty years of hustled games in the clubs, parks and streets of New York, by Asa Hoffmann with Virginia Hoffmann, published by Gatekeeper Press (March 3, 2022), can be purchased on Amazon in paperback ($24.95) or Kindle ($12.99) format.

Asa sent me a copy directly, and I read it, cover to cover, in two days. It was a fantastic excursion into the world of New York chess, which spans sixty years. It refreshed memories of an atmosphere I had experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s.

I would like to give you some excerpts from the book, and I will do so in the near future. For today, however, I would just like to quote the excellent review provided by Frank Brady.

Introduction by Dr. Frank Brady

Throughout history there have been more books published on chess than on any other game. Opening books, game collections, biographies, problem books, tournaments, endgame and midgame treatises, and even specific position analysis continue to appear year after year.

The memoirs of chess master Asa Hoffmann – written with his chess-playing wife Virginia D’Amico Hoffmann – are however unique among all chess literature. There are no games (except the one with Fischer), no analyses, no diagrams in this book. It is a penetrating and honest story of a young man trying to find his way through life on his own through the sixty-four boxes, and it is filled with insights, anecdotes and never published or known sons about him and about chess itself.

The descendant of the Park Avenue lawyers, Hoffmann chose to avoid his parents’ plans for him to follow their legal footsteps to become a successful lawyer. He was sent to some of the best schools in New York (Hunter, Horace Mann and Columbia University), but it was the game of chess that became his tutor, his Alma Mater, as well as his pleasure and obsession. And finally, his profession.

During his lifelong journey, subsisting financially solely on the game of chess, he won a million dollars. And he tells, in great detail, how he did it: the hard way. He played countless speed games at twenty-five cents and up. And he played day in and day out, teaching players dollar-a-minute flash lessons and lecturing at chess clubs regardless of the going rate. Between his nonstop routine, he managed to write three books, all of which were well received. Hoffmann takes the reader through his complicated and exciting life, filled with interesting anecdotes and stories, spinning Mark Twain-like stories about chess in New York. He is totally uninhibited.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his memoirs is his recollection of his life of chess in the Big Apple. He weaves memories of players like a novelist would. Here we see him playing some of the great players of his era, from Reshevsky to Fischer, Evans to Kamsky. In his youth, he and a number of up-and-coming chess players wandered the streets at night, looking for a cafe or pub so they could play all night. And he did, often until dawn. By honing his technique playing with such gifted players, Hoffmann became one of the best speed players in the country.

It vividly and vividly describes the atmosphere and inner workings of Manhattan and the Marshall, the two major chess clubs in the United States. When he was a young man, he was elected a member of the two boards of directors of these clubs, and his observations and comments as an insider will undoubtedly become an important part of chess history. His memory of how players reacted to each other is practically eidetic, and he has a playwright’s ear for dialogue as he sits on the board, exchanging “chatter” while playing five-minute games. His descriptions and recollections of playing at the so-called “Flea House,” the 24-hour chess shop that had enough runyonesque characters to fill a Moss Hart room, are hilarious.

Throughout the book, one can discern a touch of melancholy, but no regrets that he didn’t go to law school and lived his life, as he still does, playing chess. As the reader will discover, it was an exciting and reverent life, and totally singular, a life that no one but Asa Hoffmann could have lived.

Although there have been a number of memoirs and autobiographies such as those written by the great masters Mark Taimanov, Victor Korchnoi, Mikhail Tal and others, Asa Hoffmann’s book is easy and enjoyable to read and will not be easily forgotten.

Excerpt from Asa Hoffmann’s prologue

I have heard the stories of the great storytellers for sixty years or more. Get to know players such as World Champion Grandmaster (GM) Bobby Fischer, GM Bill Lombardy, GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Nicholas Rossolimo, GM Walter Browne, famous artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp and many more. others gave me the idea to record my own memories. It seemed to me that in addition to my games, my legacy might include stories about a time in New York chess history that was a special, never-to-be-repeated time and about the unique characters that inhabited this period. I have also been fortunate enough to know a wide range of champions and colorful characters who have stood out in the worlds of horse racing, Scrabble, poker, bridge and backgammon. These are the players who have lived in the world I’ve managed to make a living in for 60 years, hustling, fighting and plying my trade and knowledge in the clubs, streets and parks of New York City.

Although I master many games, chess has always been the closest to my heart. Over the past 60 years I’ve played over 10,000 tournaments and won hundreds of events. I hold the titles of US Senior Master, US Life Master and FIDE Master, the third highest title awarded by the International Chess Federation (FIDE), behind Grandmaster (GM) and International Master (IM). But for me, the greatest triumph is to be involved in the game itself, always playing, struggling, fighting against all odds and against all opponents. However, I have observed that the game itself and the compulsion to pursue a career in chess is to engage in a sado-masochistic exercise – where winning brings euphoria, but losing brings despair, albeit temporary.

I had been taking notes for years for a memoir, but was only prompted to do so with the encouragement of my wife and fellow chess player, Ginny Hoffmann. She helped me both by organizing my notes and doing the demanding work of researching, co-writing and editing the book. She also knew many of the characters and places from the book and completed my memories of them.

We would like to thank our friend and fellow chess player Andrew Hale, for his help and encouragement in putting together the first draft of the manuscript. We would like to thank our friend and literary agent Faith Hampton Childs for reading and writing the book. His contribution has been invaluable and much appreciated. And finally, we would like to thank Dr. Frank Brady, our friend and chess author, for reviewing the book and writing the introduction.

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