Archive for January, 2008

Heath Ledger and Chess, Part II

January 24, 2008

Yesterday I blogged about Heath Ledger’s interest in chess. In the past 24 hours, two interesting items on the subject have appeared in the mainstream press.

From the Los Angeles Times: “For the last year, Ledger also had been gearing up for his directorial debut, working with veteran screenwriter Allan Scott on an adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ about an orphan girl who becomes a chess prodigy. Scott said they recently offered the part to ‘Juno’ star Ellen Page.

“‘The movie is about chess, and what is a little known fact is that Heath was very close to being on the grandmaster level,’ said Scott, who met and spoke to the actor frequently over the last year in New York and London. ‘He was a chess whiz, and he intended to get his grandmaster rating before he started shooting the picture.'”

Ledger played in chess tournaments as a child in Australia, but it has to be a tremendous exaggeration to describe him as close-to-grandmaster strength. The exaggeration would perhaps be excusable if it weren’t coming from the screenwriter who is turning one of the all-time great chess novels into a film. And the idea of the actor’s getting a grandmaster rating before filming can only be described as fantasy, albeit a delightful one, which fellow chess obsessives can appreciate.

At the other extreme is People.com, which undoubtedly understated Ledger’s chess prowess by portraying him as a mere woodpusher. People quotes a Greenwich Village dog walker who’d watch the insomniac Ledger play chess at 6:30 A.M at the celebrated stone tables in Washington Square Park: “He didn’t seem to be such a good chess player but I’m not sure ….”

Heath Ledger, “Chess Champion,” Is Found Dead at 28

January 23, 2008

ledger.jpgphoto from MTV News

Heath Ledger’s talent as an actor was considerable: he has been compared to Marlon Brando and, with his earlier death, to James Dean. In Western Australia, where he grew up, he was a child actor, but he also exhibited many other talents, among them chess.

A profile of Ledger in Current Biography says that in his youth, “he had been involved in numerous sports and other activities: he was the state junior chess champion at age 10 and a junior go-kart racing champion, played hockey for the state team, and dabbled in cricket.”

In an interview last November, Ledger discussed his chess playing on MTV:

MTV: I hear you play a lot of chess in Washington Square Park.

Heath Ledger: Yeah. I’ve played since I was a kid. I play at least one game a day.

MTV: That’s dedication.

Ledger: Yeah, or obsession.

MTV: Smoking and chess?

Ledger: Yeah, they go hand in hand.

Will the Chess Madness Ever End?

January 23, 2008

In his day, Bobby Fischer was involved in some messy disputes in the chess world, but none as strange and sordid as the current spamming scandal that is soiling the United States Chess Federation. From Monday’s New York Post, under the headline VULGAR CHESS MESS:

“In a classic example of brainy people behaving badly, a bizarre, epithet-filled dispute is rocking the staid world of chess.

“On one side of the fight is Samuel Sloan, 63, of The Bronx, a former securities trader, ex-con, former cabdriver and would-be Republican congressional candidate from Brooklyn.

“He served a year as a member of the executive board of the United States Chess Federation, the nation’s leading such group.

“In a $20 million suit filed in Manhattan federal court in October, Sloan claims he wasn’t re-elected because Paul Truong and wife Susan Polgar, who were elected to the board in July, posted more than 2,000 scurrilous remarks under his name on chess bulletin boards.

“One of the potty-mouthed postings was, ‘I will convert that bull dyke [name withheld] with my 41/4-inch power tool.’ Another accused Sloan of performing oral sex on a 12-year-old girl and being a purveyor of kiddie porn. A woman who answered the phone at the Truong-Polgar home had no comment.”

The New York Times has also covered aspects of the controversy in both the paper and in Gambit, its chess blog.

Susan Polgar and Paul Truong have denied the allegations in Sloan’s suit; see, for example, Susan Polgar’s Chess Discussion Forums.

My Moment with Bobby Fischer

January 22, 2008

In the late 1960s, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I was playing in the novice section of one of my first weekend chess tournaments at the now-defunct Hotel McAlpin near Penn Station in Manhattan. After one of the rounds, my opponent and I retired to the skittles room for a post-mortem discussion of our game. Other neophytes were doing the same thing, when Bobby Fischer, who was in his mid twenties then, entered the room, pulled up a chair, and joined our spirited discussion and suggested alternative moves. He seemed to enjoy analyzing our game, even though we were complete beginners. His explanations were clear and not at all condescending.

When I thought about this years later, I was impressed by how he had treated us as chess brethren.

64 Years for 64 Squares

January 18, 2008

Perhaps there is cosmic consolation that Bobby Fischer, a man who once said “chess is life” and devoted much of his to unraveling the mysteries of 64 squares, died at the age of 64.

Bobby Fischer is Dead

January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer, the great pride of American chess and a poster child for paranoia, died yesterday of kidney failure in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was 64.

Fischer was a Cold War hero, and an international celebrity, when he became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating Boris Spassky and ending the Soviet domination of chess. He was the only American player in my lifetime to be a household name. I was in high school in 1972, and I watched his match with Spassky on public television along with millions of others. I remember two girls I knew who were glued to the televised coverage day after day, even though they didn’t know how a bishop or knight moved. They were fascinated by two grown men huddled over little figurines for hours in a grand cerebral battle.

Fischer’s moody behavior added high drama. He complained about the playing conditions—the presence of TV cameras, the height of his chair, noise from the audience—and for awhile it wasn’t clear that he was going to play at all. Henry Kissinger had to get involved and urge him to show up at the chessboard and fight on behalf of his country.

Fischer was once asked in a television interview what his interests were besides chess. “What else is there?” he innocently replied. And yet he dropped out of chess and the public eye soon after beating Spassky. He lost the world title in 1975 when he refused to defend it in a match. He joined a fundamentalist religious sect in California and had various run-ins with the law. Fischer, whose mother was Jewish, believed there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to destroy him. He reportedly had the fillings in his teeth removed because he feared that they were antennas receiving radio messages beamed by his enemies. The chess world waited for him to return, or at least to publish his favorite games, but all they got was a candycane-colored booklet called I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse, an incoherent diatribe about his brief incarceration after being mistakenly arrested for a bank robber.

In 1992, Fischer was back in the spotlight, playing a $3-million rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, in violation of the State Department’s ban on American’s conducting commerce there. The games showed little of his earlier brilliance. Fat and slovenly, Fischer himself was also unrecognizable. The Cold War hero now spat on a letter from the State Department that protested his play and he uttered a bunch of obscenities. Again he vanished, only to emerge occasionally as a call-in guest on talk radio venting about Jews. He praised 9/11 because of the number of Jews who were killed in the World Trade Center.

In July 2004, Fischer was arrested by Japanese immigration agents in Tokyo’s Narita airport on the grounds of being illegally in the country with a revoked U.S. passport. Washington pressed for his extradition but Fischer was one move ahead of the American authorities and persuaded the Icelandic parliament, which fondly remembered the attention he brought to Reykjavik in 1972, to grant him Icelandic citizenship and a passport. After nine months in a Japanese detention center, Fischer boarded a plane to Reykjavik with his new fiancée, the head of the Japanese Chess Association, and went into hiding yet again.

Prisoners Lose Sleep over Chess

January 9, 2008

Fellow chess blogger Michael Goeller has an interesting post on prison chess.  Michael’s post was occasioned by a report in the Scottish press that two of that country’s “worst killers have struck up a bizarre jail friendship over games of chess”; the two men are said to keep their fellow inmates up at night when they shout chess moves to each other from their respective cells.  So far things are more civil in the Scottish prison than they were in the Ohio jail where one convict choked another to death because the victim abandoned their chess games too soon.  “Every time I put him in check,” the killer said, “he’d give up and want to start a new game. And I tried to tell him you never give up….  I just got tired of it.”

Fleischgeist

January 8, 2008

meatpaperbutcher.jpg

As a veteran of the magazine industry, I enjoy looking at premier issues of new titles. The other day, at my favorite kitchen store, I came across Meatpaper, an arty magazine put out by two recovered vegetarians. The photographs are striking (The one above is from an article called “They’ve Got Chops” about three women who run an artisanal butcher shop in San Francisco.) Meatpaper aims to capture what its founders call Fleischgeist, “the growing cultural trend of meat consciousness, a new curiosity about not just what’s inside that hotdog, but how it got there, and what it means to be eating it.”

I thought the magazine might inspire my fleish-adverse eight-year-old to give meat another chance, but he didn’t find the machete-wielding gals as beguiling as I did.

Lip Balm Stains Chess Tourney

January 7, 2008

rudolfanna.jpg

Anna Rudolf, recent cheating-smear victim (as depicted on Susan Polgar’s blog).

I am back blogging, after a long holiday break.

The latest (false) cheating scandal in international chess soiled the Vandoeuvre Open in France during the last week in December. Latvian grandmasters were fazed by the strong performance of Anna Rudof, who was unexpectedly leading the tournament. The disgruntled GMs accused the Hungarian phenom of cheating.

The pattern of these nebulous accusations is often the same, as in Toiletgate and Toddlergate: a successful player is accused of going to the bathroom too often and having physical or wireless access to a chess-playing computer. In Rudolf’s case, suspicion centered on her lip balm, which was said to be a wireless device for communicating with a remote silicon adviser. To her chagrin, the organizers confiscated her handbag and lip balm before the key round. Her opponent refused to shake her hand before the game and told her she didn’t play fair. Her concentration was rattled and she ultimately blew the game.

The Web site Chessdom has an interview with Rudolf and continuing coverage of the nonsense.

It is now too common in chess for disgruntled losers to raise the specter of cheating without offering a shred of evidence. False allegations, which are maliciously made in order to hurt a player’s reputation and confidence, are as much a threat to tournament chess as are real cases of hidden microcomputers and surreptitious wireless devices. The problem is that FIDE, the international chess federation, has let the false accusers run amok.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.