Marx, Yeats and Berlioz take on Moldova's football squad

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A book by the comedian Tony Hawks about his quest to beat every member of Moldova's football team at tennis will compete with a study of human genetics and a biography of Karl Marx for Britain's most lucrative non-fiction book prize.

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, by the TV and radio panel-game regular, whose first unlikely bestseller told of his attempt to travel around Ireland with a fridge, has been shortlisted for the second Samuel Johnson Prize.

Last year the award, worth £30,000 to the winner, went to a rather more sombre excursion into eastern Europe: Antony Beevor's history of the battle of Stalingrad, which has since gone on to sell more than 300,000 copies.

Hawks's odyssey had its origin in a bet with a friend that required the loser to stand naked in Balham High Road in south London and sing the Moldovan national anthem.

The book is competing with Francis Wheen's life of Karl Marx, which has been shortlisted for three other literary prizes, and Genome by Matt Ridley - an "autobiography of the species" based on studying newly isolated genes from each of the 23 human chromosomes.

Also on the shortlist, chosen by a panel chaired by Nigella Lawson and including Stephen Fry and Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, are David Cairns's biography of Hector Berlioz (a contender for the Whitbread Book of the Year Award), Brenda Maddox's life of W B Yeats, and Deliver Us From Evil, William Shawcross's account of international peacekeeping since the end of the Cold War, which was recently serialised in The Independent.

Lawson said: "We wanted to choose books which we were not only keen, but positively itched, to recommend to friends and other, unknown, readers."

The winner of the prize, which is funded anonymously by a retired British businessman, will be announced on 23 May at a dinner at the Banqueting House in Whitehall.