Archive for May, 2007

Go Gata, Go!

May 31, 2007


At the halfway point in the first match in the World Championship Qualifying Tournament in Elista (”Help me, MapQuest!”), Kalmykia, the Brooklyn legend Gata Kamsky has surged to a commanding 2.5-.5 lead over French phenom Etienne Bacrot. 

The word on the rue is that Bacrot—who once had the distinction of being the world’s youngest grandmaster—has turned his attention from I-can-barely-pay-the-rent chess to I-can-buy-the-building poker.  (Poker is legal in Paris, unlike in New York, and the elegant Aviation Club de France, founded in 1907 at the dawn of heavier-than-air flight, is a congenial place to play poker late into the night.)  

Whatever the reason for Bacrot’s shaky play, I’m happy Kamsky is winning, and not just because I want to see an American play in the World Championship in September in Mexico City.  But also because I want Kamsky to avenge the loss Bacrot inflicted on Canadian champion Pascal Charbonneau in the 2004 World Championship in Tripoli, Libya.  I accompanied Pascal to North Africa then and watched everything he did that week to prepare for his two-game battle with the Frenchman.   

Three chapters of my book, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, are devoted to Pascal’s chess career and our exciting and harrowing adventures on and off the chessboard in Tripoli (I was detained there and accused of being a spy).  Here’s an excerpt from the chapter called “Gadhafi’s Gambit and Mr. Paul”:

It was now forty-five minutes until his game with Bacrot, and Pascal told me that it was time to put chess aside, stop our heavy conversation, and do “the most inane thing possible, something that required no thinking whatsoever.”  We didn’t have much to work with.  The television in our hotel room received only two English-language stations, and the first, CNN International, was hardly comforting.  Paul Johnson Jr., an American engineer, had been kidnapped in Saudi Arabia, and CNN was replaying footage of his distraught wife pleading with his captors not to behead him. 

Luckily, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was on the other channel.  We watched as Lieutenant Uhura told Kirk, “Captain, I’m getting something on the distress channel.”

“Maybe,” I said, “she’s picking up Bacrot’s cries of anguish as you crush him.”

Pascal laughed. 

A few minutes later Kirk was being philosophical: “Admiral, how we deal with death is just as important as how we deal with life.” 

“He’s speaking to you, Pascal,” I said.  “He’s telling you that if you reach a bad position you must not cave in.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” he said, and he pantomimed a sizzling tennis serve. 

“Strike!” I shouted. 

Pascal looked deflated.  “Shit!  If you thought that was baseball, I’m in trouble.” 

“No, no. I meant to say, ‘Ace.’  I got the word wrong.  Sports isn’t my thing.”

He served again.   

“Ace!” I shouted.

 “Better!” he said.  “Now I’m going to beat the punk.”


Annals of Corporate Chill

May 30, 2007

As a red diaper baby, and son of a social activist, I grew up watching my father and his bohemian friends have various run-ins with the law, as the government tried to interfere with their right to free speech. I had problems, too, starting when I was as young as seven or eight.

My family were atheists—there is no religion recorded on my birth certificate—and this did not sit well in elementary school.  During the pledge of allegiance in first or second grade, the teacher noticed that I quietly skipped the words “under God.”  She ordered me to say them.  When I didn’t comply, she banished me daily to the hall during the pledge. The teacher stopped punishing me only after my father visited the principal and threatened to involve the ACLU and sue the school.   (I write about my family’s unconventional religious and political beliefs in King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.)

Thus it irks me to read on Mig Greengard’s “Daily Dirt” blog—he writes the most interesting chess blog on the Web—about the heavy-handed efforts of a Canadian company called MonRoi to quash statements and comments that it didn’t like on his Web site. MonRoi manufactures a handheld device on which tournament players can record their moves (instead of writing them on a score sheet);  the moves can then be immediately uploaded to the excellent MonRoi Web site so that chess fans around the world can follow the progress of the games in real time.   

There were difficulties at points during the recent U.S. Championship with the transmission of the moves to the Web—I, for one, was disappointed that at key moments in the games of Irina Krush, who was a star on my fantasy chess team, I could no longer receive new moves—and MonRoi came under some criticism by Mig and others who posted to his site. The company apparently demanded that critical comments be removed from the site and made noises about defamation.  Maybe some of the criticism was unfair—the transmission problems may not have been MonRoi’s fault—but that doesn’t justify the company’s hardball tactics. 

And I think MonRoi has made a business blunder: Chess players, by and large, are civil libertarians, and they are flocking to post comments on Mig’s site and offering to contribute to his legal defense fund, should he need one.

Overheard on Bedford St.

May 29, 2007


Having once written articles under tight deadlines in a wide-open newsroom, I am used to a noisy workplace.  Indeed, I prefer to work amidst hustle and bustle and can tune out most conversations around me.   I was correcting a proof of my book King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game at a coffee shop called Verb while overhearing—and largely ignoring—a conversation at the next table.  (Verb is the place I go when I’m in Brooklyn in the afternoon and want only decaf, which my favorite Brooklyn morning spot, Gimme Coffee, which makes the best cup of coffee in the world, is too hip to serve.) 

“You could send you story to McSweeney’s,” one twenty-something dude told the other.  “You can find the address on-line.  Your story would appeal to the David Eggers crowd.   Then again, you might want to reach a larger audience.  The themes you write about are universal.  Don’t just send it out to random publishers.  It will be lost in their slush piles.  You need an agent.”

“I don’t know how to get an agent.”

“My girlfriend can help you.  She knows an agent.” 

The conversation went on in this general way for half an hour, and I only perked up when the unpublished author inquired why the themes he wrote about were universal.

“Well,” his coffee companion said, “You were born in Puerto Rico.  Your father died in 9/11.  You went to jail.  And now you’re a fine man who has made something of himself.” 

Now I listened closely, dying to know why he had been incarcerated.  But, to my dismay, the two men just quietly nursed their lattes and finally left, without revealing anything else personal.

Chess Playing Cow

May 28, 2007

Gata Kamsky, the only American player in the World Chess Championship Qualifying Tournament in Russia, scored first blood today in his match against the French wunderkind Etienne Bacrot by playing an aggressive defense knownappropriately enough for a match being held in Russiaas the Leningrad Dutch.   Mig Greengard has a nice discussion of the gameBacrot flagged on the clock in an apparently drawn endgame when he failed to make his fortieth move in timeon his Daily Dirt blog on the ChessNinja Web site.

While Kamsky was preparing for the game, I took my son to an early morning showing of  the interminable “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Sandwiched among the previews shown before the three-hour film was a Hyundai commercial.  When the announcer described a Hyundai car buyer as “smart,” the commercial reinforced the intellectualism of the buyer with an image of a chess game in progress. 

Perhaps my favorite advertisement that makes uses of chess was a TV commercial for milk, in which a cow defeats the legendary curmudgeonly grandmaster Victor Korchnoi. 

Ewe Read It Here First

May 27, 2007


 Pregame chess ritual: the hefting of a sheep (photo by Casto Abundo for

Chess has a bit of an image problem as a game that is now dominated by computers.  So the PR mavens at the World Chess Federation are now bringing sheep to tournaments to make the game seem warm and fuzzy.

The World Chess Championship Qualifying Tournament starts today in Elista (“Help me, MapQuest!”), Kalmykia, a desolate, sheep-herding semi-autonomous Russian republic on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea.   The tournament employed a novel system for deciding who had White and who had Black in the first game.  One of the two players on each chessboard was ceremoniously presented with a chest containing an ovine.  The color of the animal dictated which color he’d playand the sheep was his to keep!  

When French phenom Etienne Bacrot (the dude with the mod shirt, at the right in the photo) received a black sheep, his adversary, American veteran Gata Kamsky, knew he was getting the White pieces. Kamsky, age 32, is among the sixteen candidates who’ll contest two successive six-game knockout matches.  The four people left standing will compete in September in Mexico City for the World Championship. 

Kamsky, who defected to the United States in 1989 from Russia, is America’s best hope of becoming world champion since Bobby Fischer held the title from 1972 to 1975. 

In the mid 1990s, tournament chess was fissured by two rival world-championship titles, one awarded by FIDE, the world chess federation, and one granted by a breakaway organization called PCA, the Professional Chess Association. Kamsky managed to play for both titles, losing an eleven-game match to the PCA champion Vishy Anand in 1995 and a twenty-game match to FIDE world champion Anatoly Karpov in 1996. 

In 1999, Kamsky abandoned the game for five years and ended up in medical school and then law school.  Armed now with a law degree, which he says he can fall back on if chess doesn’t cover the rent, Kamsky plunged back into tournament chess in 2004. 

The smart money gives Kamsky a slight edge over Bacrot.  But there’s one wildcard: the Frenchman has never had a sheep among his retinue before.

[Update: their first game ended in a draw after an uneventful 28 moves.]

Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining

May 25, 2007

My friend Greg has been going through a lot, and I’ve noticed that when he’s stressed out, his language gets saltier.  Twice of late, he has said, “Don’t blow smoke up my ass,” and, another time, “Listen to me, I’m not blowing smoke up your ass.”  

Now I like coarse turns of phrase, but, even with my childhood training as an actor, I can’t quite pull them off without sounding self-conscious, as if I’m just pretending to be tough. Greg is more convincingalthough not entirely so.  The three times he used his new-favorite expression, in the course of what was an otherwise heavy conversation, I was amusingly distracted.  Where, I wondered, did the expression come from? Like the phrase “When the shit hits the fan,” you really do not want to picture it literally. 

Later, I did some research.  Blowing smoke was something that 19th-century stage magicians did to conceal their moves.  So the phrase “don’t blow smoke” meant “don’t deceive me.”  According to blogosphere chatter, the “up my ass” part was incorporated into the expression in the 1950s for no other reason than that butts are inherently funny and show up in many phrases: “smart ass,” “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” and “Take your money and shove it up your ass.” 

A more interesting explanation, given by an anonymous poster to a word-phrase message board, ties the expression to the 18th-century practice of blowing smoke into the butts of dead people to ascertain that they were really dead before they were buried.

“One of the pipes of this remarkable apparatus was thrust into the anus of the apparently dead person; the other was connected, by way of a powerful bellows, to a large furnace full of tobacco,” writes Jan Bondeseson in his scholarly book Buried Alive, The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.  “Such enemas of tobacco smoke were thought to be very beneficial and were used to try to revive not only people presumed dead but also drowned or unconscious individuals…  Modern science has discerned no physiological rationale for their use, except the pain and indignity of having a blunt instrument violently thrust up one’s rear passage must have had some restorative effect.”

So there you have it.  In the movie “Meet Joe Black,” Anthony Hopkins says, “Don’t blow smoke up my ass, it will ruin my autopsy.”

New Chess King

May 24, 2007

 Alexander Shabalov (courtesy of

Riga-born Alexander Shabalov, the anchor of my fantasy chess team and a wild tactician at the chessboard, won the 2007 U.S. Championship yesterday with a score of seven wins and nine draws.  Overall, though, my fantasy team had a rather mediocre performance, tying for 117th through 159th, out of 387 places. 

I will take this as a warning that I should stick to my day job as a writer and stay away from handicaping chess players on sports betting sites. 

South Africa Does It Right

May 23, 2007

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 Chess billboard in South Africa (Photo by Jennifer Shahade)

Outside the tournament hall, chess pros in America live in relative obscurity.  The average American probably could not tell you the name of a top player aside from Bobby Fischer (who retired from chess a decade and half ago and now lives in exile in Iceland) and Garry Kasparov (who stopped playing professional chess in 2005 and is now one of the leading anti-Putin voices in Russia). 

Grandmaster Susan Polgar, the oldest of the three Hungarian chess prodigy sisters and the only one of the trio to reside in the United States, has done an admirable job of making a name for herself among the general public.  For instance, she showed up ahead of Picasso on Parade Magazine’s list of the Top 50 Smartest People in the World.  But, compared to female rock stars and tennis players, Polgar’s name recognition is still low.  Our TV culture unfortunately does not value mental gladiators who have mastered the sixty-four squares.

So imagine how surprised and tickled two-time U.S. Women’s Champion Jennifer Shahade was when she traveled to Johannesburg to be a guest at the South Africa Ladies Open and was greeted outside the tournament hall by her own face looking out from a large billboard.  How cool is that!

Jennifer is the editor of Chess Life Online where she blogged about her unusual trip to South Africa.  She promises to publish a second blog on the subject soon. 

I profile her in my forthcoming book, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.

Made in Woodstock

May 21, 2007

I like to wear a burgundy T-shirt that trumpets “Made in Brooklyn” across the front.  I especially like wearing it in Manhattan.  A long time ago I, too, was a Manhattan snob who rarely ventured to the other boroughs, but now I am a big fan of all the ethnic neighborhoods off the island.

My shirt is a paradox, like René Magritte’s iconic picture of a pipe that has the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (or “This is not a pipe”) written below it.  The shirt may have been made in Brooklyn but I certainly wasn’t.  I was made in Woodstock, NY.

I have a very complicated relationship with the famous hamlet that I’ve frequented or lived in since the time I was an embryo.  I like the physical beauty of the woods and rugged mountains.  I like the creativity and open-mindedness of its inhabitants.   But I scream inside at all the flakes.

I was sitting on a bench this evening outside Taco Juan’s, a purveyor of ice cream, sorbet, inexpensive tacos, and tofu chili.   A sketchy-looking woman walked by, and I remembered the time, a decade ago, when I was sitting on the very same bench and a woman who had two small children in tow stopped in front of me.  She gazed over my shoulder at the menu items listed on the chalkboard in the window. 

“That’s the problem with this town,” she said to her kids.  “The stores should be more careful with their signs or you’ll never learn how to spell.  It’s absurd they spelled quacamole with a g.  It’s not guacamole.  A Mexican restaurant, of all places, should know that it’s spelled with a q, like the word queen.  It should say, ‘Quacamole and Chips.'”  And words, for once, eluded me: I sat there in surreal silence.

Prostrate Problems

May 21, 2007


Four-story Flatland habitat (courtesy of

Flatland is over.  The two artists who stuck it out for the full 20 daysliving 24/7 in a very narrow (“can’t turn over in bed”), four-story, 24-hour-Webcamed transparent habitat at the Sculpture Centerhave now reemerged into the third dimension.  Their lives may be less cramped, but mine sadly has now lost a dimension.  I can no longer make my frequent pilgrimages to check on how the Flatlanders are doing. 

Perhaps I romanticized 2D life, and the idea that in 20 days of quietude, even if the quarters were tight, I would satisfyingly write a novella. 

One of the 2D fellows, with whom I played e-chess while he lived in Flatland, blogged:  “in flatland, i unconsciously learned to limit my movements.  i learned to go to the bathroom twice a day, not seven. i learned to not cook. i learned to not move my computer. i learned to not reach for clean clothes (stored in a basket, amongst the i-beams of the ceiling). i learned to wait …..”