Archive for May, 2007

Shades of Lasker

May 17, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A NovelFor the chess players among his readers, Michael Chabon’s latest novel has an irresistable start (and indeed, upon reading the first two sentences of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,  I immediately had to purchase it because I wasn’t about to stand there in the store and read all 414 pages):  “Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.  Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.” 

Lasker was the second world champion, and he held onto the crown for a record twenty-seven years, from 1894 to 1921.  I write of Lasker in my own book, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, because he famously spoke of chess as a rare bastion of trutha sentiment that unconsciously drew me to the game as a child:

“On the chess board, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long.  The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.  Our little chess is one of the sanctuaries where this principle of justice has occasionally had to hide.” 

Lasker further claimed that chess was not merely a substitute for life but a way of rekindling interest in the larger world: 

“Many a man, struck by injustice as, say, Socrates and Shakespeare were struck, has found justice realized on the chessboard, and has thereby recovered his courage and his vitality to play the game of life.”

As I get further along in Chabon’s novel, I’ll let you know how he weaves chess and Emanuel Lasker into it.

Esopus 8

May 16, 2007

Esopus is a frothy creek, frequented by trout and tubers, that snakes through the towns outside Woodstock.  My friend Tod once had a cottage on a roaring stream connected to the creek.  Now he has created a lush extravaganza of a magazine called Esopus

I went the other night to a launch party for their eighth issue, in the white gallery-space basement of New York City’s Center for Architecture, an attractive building that’s just a stone’s throw from the granite chess tables in Washington Square Park. 

Before I joined the hundred other Esopus revelers, I added my name and cell phone number to the bottom of a list that was kept by a greeter who sat at a desk by the front door.  I was told that sometime during the evening I’d be called by a member of the Headlong Dance Theater, a Philadelphia-based troupe that would put on an individualized dance performance just for me.  The greeter volunteered that no sex would be involved.

An hour and a half and two chardonnays later, a woman called my cell phone and asked where I was.  She instructed me to go up two flights of stairs and out the front door.  She said she would call me back when I was outside.

As soon as I was in front of the building, she called again and told me to cross the street without getting run over and take a seat atop a small yellow sticker attached to the base of the famous statue of Mayor LaGuardia.  “Paul,” she said, “you need a nickname.  I’m going to call you Buzz,” and she pronounced Buzz as if had four z’s.  “Is that okay, Buzz?”

It was more than okay.  I liked it.  It was macho.  Like Buzz Aldrin.  I had the right stuff. 

As I sat on the sticker, she told me to experience the world around me.  “The man drinking coffee on your left, the UPS truck passing in front of you, the birds on the branch above your head,” the voice coming through my phone said, “now take it all in, Buzz.”  I took it all in, but she was nowhere to be seen.  She told me to sit there for 30 seconds immersing myself in my surroundings and she’d call me back.

 

She called on cue and asked me how I was doing.  Then she instructed me to go to a pay phone half a block away on the other side of the street.  She said I’d find a colored sticker to affix to my shirt.  While I walked to the phone, she asked me if I knew that a bee has 3,000 eyes through which they are able to see everything around them.  I told her I didn’t know that.

 

Once the sticker was on me, she instructed me to go around the corner and into an NYU building.  The security guard, she said, would notice the sticker and check to see that my name was on a list.  Then I’d take the elevators to the sixth floor and look for Room 606.  It was confusing to find the room, she said, so she promised to call me back when I emerged from the elevator.

 

When she called back, she told me to walk past the picture of Billie Holiday and around the corner past a series of music practice rooms.  I did as she instructed and found Room 606, which had a honeycomb-cell symbol on the door.  “Be brave, Buzz,” the voice on the phone said before hanging up.  A woman emerged from Room 606 and greeted me, “Hi Buzz.” 

 

I finally got it.  Buzz was not a spaceman’s name but had bee connotations.  The woman explained (or maybe the phone voice had told me some of this—my recollection is fuzzy because at the time I was nervous and excited about what would be expected of me) that I’d have four minutes alone in the cell with three dancers.  That they would respond to my movements and mimic them.  That no one would be watching.  That I should make of the experience what I wanted.  That it would end in exactly four minutes when the music stopped.  She asked me if there was anything I wanted to leave with her while I went inside.  I gave her my sweatshirt and glasses. 

 

Inside were two casually dressed women and one man who were all down on the floor entwined theatrically in a frozen dance pose.  All was quiet.  Then the music started and I gingerly walked around them. They did not respond.  I was unnerved that they were not copying my movements, as I thought was promised.  I walked in a big square around them and self-consciously raised my arms a bit, but still they did not respond.  I’m the kind of person who, at parties with strangers, usually hovers in the corner near the chips and salsa. 

 

Something overcame me, though, and I suddenly got down on the floor and scooted in close.  Now the bees came to life, and I can’t really describe what happened next—it was all a fun blur—but one of the women was kind of in my lap at one point.  Just as I was getting comfortable, the music stopped and my four minutes were up.  The performance was incredible.

Annals of Luddism, I

May 16, 2007

I like to imagine that Woodstock has more manual typewriters per capita than any other place in the country.  After all, these earth-friendly machines don’t consume electricity. 

I can’t get television in my Woodstock home.  Time Warner won’t string a cable down my long dirt road, and the neighbors’ pines and oaks rule out DirectTV.  Cell-phone reception is awful or nonexistent in the town because the manual-typewriter crowd has blocked the construction of cell towers. 

I need a cell phone that works in the Catskills, and so for years I was reduced to a no-frills, drab Nokia where the whole phone is effectively the antenna, maximizing the chances of reception.  Every few months or so I’d try a friend’s flip phone in Woodstock but it wouldn’t get a signal.  Because I am fidgety, the Nokia in my pocket, with its buttons exposed, would occasionally decide to call people on its own.  (Yes, I could use the number lock, but I’m afraid of forgetting the code.) 

A short time ago my pocket embarrassed me by making an early-morning call to a client who had been delinquent in paying me.  Usually I’d call the client’s office number during work hours to prod him for the money, but my pocket apparently had had enough and decided to call his cell—at 7:00 A.M.  I didn’t know what my pocket had done until I received a call at 7:01 A.M. from the miffed client, whom I had evidently disturbed while he was taking his sick pet to the vet.  I told him I hadn’t phoned him; later I reviewed the outgoing call log and saw that my phone had indeed called him. 

Nokia finally introduced a flip phone that works in Woodstock.  My pocket’s calling days are thankfully over, but, now for reasons unknown to me, other people’s pockets are calling me more than ever before. 

 

The pocket of a guy I know in the musical toy business has called me four times recently; I answered and heard muted voices or, in the evening, happy bar talk.  Actually I’m not sure I’ve ever had a two-way phone conversation with Mr. Toyman.  I’ve just listened to myself jabbering into the phone—like the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. 

Half Truth

May 16, 2007

Last night I was carded, for the first time in years, at the Half King, a tavern owned by scribes and filmmakers.  I was thrilled: maybe the Ponce de Leon rejuvenating herbs that I had purchased online from the Nigerian oil minister were finally taking effect.  I was enjoying the moment.  Alas it was only a moment.  My dining companion, who had also been carded, gave me a patronizing, don’t-flatter-yourself look and proclaimed that the Half King’s policy was to card everyone.  I said that it wasn’t.  But I had no idea—she might have been right.  I lost myself in the crab cakes, which thankfully were moist and crabby and not the dough pucks so often turned out by inferior kitchens. 

I was wondering who this Half King was, and the restaurant’s Web site helpfully provided half an answer: 

The eighteenth-century Seneca chief known as “The Half King” is a figure so obscure that no one knows his real name – it was most likely Tanaghrisson, or something close to it.  Tanaghrisson stepped into American history in 1748, when the Iroquois League designated him leader of the Senecas and
Delawares who had migrated to the upper Ohio valley. Ordinarily an Iroquois headman who acted as an official spokesman for the League was called a “King”, but because the Ohio Indians were hunters and warriors without permanent council fire, Tanaghrisson enjoyed only an abridged authority; hence his title, “Half King.” 
 

Click here to read more.

Flatlag

May 15, 2007

 

Four-story Flatland habitat (courtesy of flatlandproject.com)

Through Sunday at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City is a fascinating installation, the Flatland Project, which I’ve been visiting regularly since it first went up. Ward Shelly has created a very narrow, four-story-high, transparent (except for the bathroom), beautifully pristine structure that six artists were scheduled to live in for 20 days. I say “scheduled” because three have already slipped out, with everyone set to leave in five days.

Now this is not deprivation living, a la my friend David Blaine, who lived on fortified water for 44 days in a transparent box suspended from a crane over the Thames. The Flatlanders have their laptops, WiFi, and cell phones, and food delivered by Fresh Direct. Okay, sleeping may not be much fun, if you’re a tosser and turner. And exercise is difficult unless you care to climb up and down on the movable ladders that link the floors.

One of my friends said the artists wouldn’t last three days; all of them have done better than that. I think the place looks cozy and peaceful. I wish I had known about it in advance and had volunteered. I would have used the time to try to bang out a novel on my laptop.

Early in my visits I noticed a folded chessboard on one of the higher floors. I wrote my e-mail address on a piece of paper and invited the Flatlanders to play chess with me on the Internet (on a cool chess server called Red Hot Pawn).  I taped the invitation to the first floor of Flatland.

Now I’m engaged in two chess games, but it’s a bit frustrating because my opponent(s) is not  chatty and doesn’t respond to my questions about life in two dimensions.

When I visit the transparent habitat, the six residents don’t seem to be doing anything exciting: they drink Bustelo coffee (can’t Fresh Direct do better?), they type on their laptops, they climb ladders to reach the bathroom.  One or two Flatlanders smile at me and acknowledge my presence.  Often I’m the only visitor there—which seems strange given how great Flatland is. 

The twenty-something dude who mans the door at the Sculpture Center calls me Chess Guy, as in, “You were here yesterday, Chess Guy.” 

Who is in more need of a life, someone who can afford to live in an art project for 20 days and not do much of anything or someone who comes day after day to watch people who are not doing much of anything?  I wish I could change my status from Flatland groupie to Flatland inhabitant.

Well, here’s the position from one of my chess games. I’m White and have a forced checkmate (oh goody, goody!) in two moves.

Flatland Project Game

Do you see the mate?

[May 16th update: my opponent, who has prematurely rejoined the three-dimensional world,  now cheerfully chats with me when we exchange moves online.  He says he is experiencing “flatlag.”]

Madness in Chess Alert

May 15, 2007

The Jerk  

©2007 FOX BROADCASTING COMPANY
Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/FOX.

Tonight’s episode of House, called “The Jerk,” features a sixteen-year-old chess prodigy with serious behavioral problems. Tune it for such memorable lines as, “It’s a real thin line between tortured genius and awkward kid who can’t get girls because he’s creepy.”

Hikaru Nakamura

May 15, 2007

The 2007 U.S. Championship starts this afternoon.  The number 1 seed is Hikaru Nakamura, who, after a stab at college, has put aside academics and returned to the chessboard.  

Below is a piece I did for The Wall Street Journal on Hikaru’s rise to the top echelons of American chess.  Although the article is a few years old, Hikaru’s take-no-prisoners style of chess and life may be as true now as it was then.  But first, a chess problem:

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Here’s a position from a game Hikaru played as White against Sergei Karjakin, another talented junior.  What move would you make for Hikaru? The answer can be found at Chess Life Online, the excellent Web site of the United States Chess Federation.

The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2003  

Meet Hikaru Nakamura, Boy Chess Wizard 

By Paul Hoffman 

Four Sundays ago, in the sixth and final round of the 2003 National Open Chess Festival in Las Vegas, Hikaru Nakamura, a 15-year-old prodigy from White Plains, was pacing around the tournament hall.  His 24-year-old opponent, Kazakhstani grandmaster Darmen Sadvakasov, a former world junior champion, hadn’t moved for over an hour, and Mr. Nakamura, who had lost patience, went to look at the game of one of the other 898 competitors, Sunil Weeramantry, his stepfather.  Mr. Weeramantry gave him the thumbs-up sign, and he returned to his own game in the front of the hall. 

When Mr. Sadvahasov finally moved, he menacingly advanced a knight toward Mr. Nakamura’s king.  But the younger player was not worried; the position was complicated and double-edged, and he had an attack of his own going against Mr. Sadvakasov’s monarch.  The moves of the game were being reproduced on a large wallboard so that people across the room could follow the battle.  A hundred woodpushers were watching, and they debated in hushed voices which king would be the first to fall.  A mere six moves later, Mr. Sadvakasov resigned in disgust, and a smattering of applause broke out, in violation of the prohibition on noise in the tournament.  With five wins and one loss, Mr. Nakamura was tied for first place.

The crowd was enthusiastic because Mr. Nakamura is arguably the country’s best hope for succeeding on the world chess stage.  [2007 note: our most immediate hope now seems to be Gata Kamsky, who is sitting out the 2007 U.S. Championship because of a prior commitment to play in a tournament in Bulgaria.] This past February, at a tournament in Bermuda, he became the youngest American to earn the coveted title of international grandmaster, breaking a record that Bobby Fischer established 45 years ago.  On September 10, 1958, at the age of 15 and a half, Mr. Fischer became a grandmaster at a world-championship qualifying tournament in Portoroz, Yugoslavia. On February 5, 2003, Mr. Nakamura did it four months younger. 

“It’s a big accomplishment,” he told me, “but how far I go in chess will depend on how much I improve in the next couple years.  I want to be ranked in the top 100 players.  If I can achieve that, I’ll think about the world championship.”  No American has won the world crown since Mr. Fischer defeated Borris Spassky in 1972.  Mr. Nakamura’s mother, violinist Carolyn Weeramantry, is home-schooling him so that he has time to play in chess tournaments. 

He learned the game at the age of seven by watching his older brother, Asuka, and stepfather play, and at 10 he set his first chess record by becoming the youngest American ever to earn the title of national master.  Mr. Weeramantry, a legendary New York-area chess coach and former first board for the Sri Lankan national team, taught his stepson the finer points of the game, but Mr. Nakamura didn’t sound too grateful when I spoke to them in their chess-trophy-filled condominium in White Plains.

“I’m glad I don’t play like you,” he told his stepfather.  “You’re a hacker. You take far too many risks and throw away won games by not leaving yourself enough time at the end and blundering in time pressure.” 

“Sadly, you’re right,” Mr. Weeramantry responded.  “I suffer from indecisiveness.  I take too long to choose my moves.  One of the things I admire about Hikara is that if he does lose, he quickly absorbs the loss and gets over it.   Not like me—a defeat lingers with me sometimes for days and affects my subsequent play.”  Mr. Weeramantry, an affable and jovial man away from the chessboard, has been known to pound the table and scream after losing a game.

“You have lots of very bad habits,” his son scolded.

In a classical chess tournament, each player is allotted two hours for the first 40 moves and an additional hour for the remainder of the game.  Mr. Nakamura is renowned for the speed of his play, and at Vegas he also won the blitz competition (in which each side has five minutes for the entire game) that was held the evening before the main event.  His forte is tactical situations, complex positions in which both sides are engaging in hand-to-hand combat like in his game against Mr. Sadvakasov.  “Objectively,” Mr. Nakamura conceded, “Sadvakasov probably had an advantage after his hour-long think and knight move, but I was hopeful that I could see through the complications more clearly then he could.” 

His fellow competitors marvel at his confidence.  “He certainly knows current opening theory very well,” said Alexander Baburin, the editor of the Internet daily Chess Today.  “His quick moves are very unpleasant to face.  He is sending a psychological message that he knows your stuff and is ready for it.”

“He’s insane about winning,” said Greg Shahade, an international master in  Brooklyn.  “I’ve never faced anyone with a greater motivation to win.  You can imagine that what’s the young Fischer was like.” 

 Most of his friends, Mr. Nakamura explained, are from the chess world, and he sees no need to suppress his killer instinct when he plays them. “I just beat them,” he said, “and laugh at them.  My friends are patzers.” 

Bobby Fischer apparently felt the same way.  He famously dismissed his fellow chessplayers as “weakies.”

Fantasy Chess

May 15, 2007

The deadline for selecting your seven-person fantasy chess team is 3 PM today.  (I’ll post my team after the deadline because, if you drafted the very same players and we end up winning, we’d have to split the 80 GB iPod that is the first prize, and I don’t want to give up 40 gigs).  The contest is based on the total points scored by the members of your team in the 2007 U.S. Chess Championship that begins today in Oklahoma and runs through May 23.  The first U.S. championship was held in 1845. 

Food Outing I

May 14, 2007

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I love ethnic food and ethnic neighborhoods.  After helping my friend Damian (who snapped this picture) take publicity photos of his actress friend Shelly (on my right) in the sands at Brighton Beach, we headed back under the elevated train and ate cherry pelmeni and mushroom julienne at the Oceanview Cafe, a favorite restaurant of mine, albeit one that, despite its name, has no ocean view.

Annals of Envy, Part I

May 14, 2007

Be warned Sopranos’ fans: if you haven’t yet seen last night’s episode, please stop reading this now!

I tuned into the show ten minutes late, just in time to see a battered Tony and Chris in the aftermath of a bad car wreck.  Chris, who’s in terrible shape and is coughing up blood, confesses to T that he’s not clean and begs the mob boss to help him. Chris is afraid of losing his license once the police arrive and he is tested for drugs.  Tony, who’s gotten as far as dialing 91 on his cell phone, could make Chris’s worries go away simply by taking his place in the driver’s seat. 

Instead, he shockingly suffocates his second cousin, blocking Chris’s nose so that he chokes on his own blood.  The scene is particularly disturbing because it’s not clear whether Tony is convinced that Chris is going to die before an ambulance arrives and is merely trying to cut short his suffering or whether he is cruelly murdering him. 

The latter proves to be the case: in imaginary (dream) and real sessions with his therapist, Jennifer Melfi, we learn that Tony despises his cousin.  Tony sees Chris as a weak, sniveling drug addict who can’t be trusted not to rat to the Feds.  His contempt for Chris knows no bounds: he beds one of Chris’s old girlfriends and does peyote with her, too.

Now I like Christopher Moltisanti, and I’ll miss him in the last three episodes.  If I were the kind of guy who let envy get the better of me, I’d rejoice at Chris’s death.  After all, he had the scorching hot girl, Adrianna (even if he ultimately had to off her), and he made a Hollywood movie, which I want to do.  And Michael Imperioli, who plays Chris, isn’t just a good actor, he’s encroached on the writing world by penning several episodes of The Sopranos.  What’s more, the real-life Chris had a bar in Manhattananother dream of mineand has a rock band, called La Dolce Vita, for which he is the lead singer and guitarist (while I am relegated to the ranks of the tone-deaf).  Oh yes, and he and his lovely, talented wife also own a theater.  But, as I said, I’m not the envious sort.