Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2004 | People

Checkmates: Matthew Lage

By Kathryn Howe

One is a former grade-school chess champion; the other is the author of a book about the game. This past fall, Matthew Lage and J.C. “Chris” Hallman put their chess skills to the public test.

In an unusual promotional event, Lage, 83BA, a buyer for Iowa Book in downtown Iowa City, challenged Hallman, 91MFA, author of The Chess Artist, to a friendly game of chess-one played via e-mail, with Lage updating every move on a board in a store window display.

Spanning about two months, the chess game sparked the interest of passersby and Iowa Book browsers who became personally invested in the competition. “People would watch and shake their heads at the moves I’d make,” says Lage. “Chris won the game and a grudge match. The guy’s a shark.”

Lage initiated the display game as a way to publicize The Chess Artist and its Iowa City author, a Writers’ Workshop graduate. When he called Hallman to gauge his interest for the project, Lage jokingly warned that he was the 1971 chess champion of Saint Joseph school in Rock Island, Illinois.

Since those glory days, however, Lage’s played maybe a dozen times. As for Hallman’s experience, he worked a job after college as a card dealer in Atlantic City and learned to play chess on the board in a break room lounge. A friendship he formed with a chess master there became the basis for The Chess Artist, a nonfiction account of the passion and influences behind this intellectual game. In the course of his investigation into the subculture of chess, Hallman played more than 2,000 matches and traveled to Russia.

“ It’s a truly wonderful book,” says Lage. “I think chess should be taught in schools. It’s a game that forces you always to think ahead.”