Archive for June, 2007

Women and Chess

June 28, 2007

“There’s a reason why women themselves do not excel at the game,” Garry Kasparov once told me over dinner. “Chess is a combination of war, science, and art, areas in which men dominate and women are naturally inferior.  Not by choice but by design.  I tell the truth, even if it is not what people want to hear.” 

In King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, I devote a forty-page chapter called “Female Counterplay” to women in chess.  It’s not so much a theoretical discussion as it is a portrait of the chess experiences of Jennifer Shahade and Irina Krush.

At Chess Life Online, Jennifer recently posted a fascinating interview she did with Elizabeth Vicary, a chess expert and legendary junior-high-school chess coach in Brooklyn.  Vicary just finished her masters thesis on girls and chess.  Her discussion with Jennifer is a must-read for anyone interested in the contentious subject of cognitive differences between men and women.  Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

JS-What surprised you most through your research?

EV- How sexist I was as a teacher. I thought I was enlightened, feminist, etc. and that I didn’t favor boys over girls at all. But after a couple days of watching myself, I realized I have a lot of work to do. Even though I call on both genders a similar amount, I found that I ask girls much easier questions. And honestly, often it was because I didn’t think they were capable of answering the harder ones and I didn’t want to embarrass them….

JS-I blushed when I read the part where you discovered you asked girls easier questions, because I also consider myself an enlightened feminist but, I definitely also ask girls easier questions… I didn’t consider this habit critically till I read your thesis… I always did it consciously,  hoping to get more girls involved.

EV-There is some superficial value in it, but it’s infantilizing, and just perpetuates any actual skill difference. It’s naïve to think you’re fooling them. Kids pick up on things like that quickly….


Succession Planning

June 26, 2007

Vladimir Kramnik, the reigning world chess champion, celebrated his thirty-second birthday yesterday by doing, in his own words, something “unfortunately pretty boring”–preparing for today’s opponent in the elite Dortmund tournament.  When Kramnik, whose play has sometimes been described, perhaps unfairly, as “unfortunately pretty boring,” defended his crown last year, he earned the sympathy of fellow chess pros and fans when he was forced to explain his hydration and evacuation habits after challenger Veselin Topalov exaggerated the number of times (50!, he said) that “Krapnik” had visited the bathroom (Topalov was insinuating that the world champion was cheating on the toilet by consulting chess-playing software).   Kramnik managed to win the match despite Topalov’s assault on his dignity and bladder.   

Dortmund is the last tournament in which Kramnik will participate before September’s world championship in Mexico City.  This weekend, FIDE, the world chess federation, released a byzantine set of rules on who will be playing whom in world-tile matches after Mexico City.  When asked on his birthday about what he thought of the new labyrinthine rules, Kramnik said he’d need to study them in order to understand them!

“I think there are more people who don’t understand the system than who understand,” Kramnik remarked.   “I don’t know if the people who have invented it fully understand the system but it seems to be very complicated.”  And this coming from a man who has mastered the intricacies of the Semi-Slav Variation and other esoteric chess openings.  Pity us mere mortals who try to make sense of the new rules for world-championship succession.  Fortunately, chessbase and chessninja have taken a stab at deciphering the rules for us.

Legislating Good Behavior at the Chessboard

June 26, 2007

There is something about chess that brings out not only the artist but also the beast in both amateur players and professionals.  Garry Kasparov, the greatest player ever, has been known to storm off like a bull after losing, nearly running over unfortunate spectators and autograph seekers who happen to be in his way.  Bad behavior is nothing new: William the Conqueror, after being defeated by the Prince of France, reportedly smashed a chessboard over his royal opponent’s head.  FIDE, the world chess federation, doesn’t condone such violence, of course.  But today, FIDE’s presidential board went one step further and declared that it would forfeit players who did not behave like perfect gentlemen:

“Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent (or greets the opponent in a normal social manner in accordance with the conventional rules of their society) before the game starts in a FIDE tournament or during a FIDE match (and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter) or deliberately insults his/her opponent or the officials of the event, will immediately and finally lose the relevant game.”

Paris Hilton and Chess

June 25, 2007

Paris Hilton may be getting out of jail, but her name–yes, Paris Hilton–is being invoked in chess circles.  No, there is no evidence that she knows a rook from a bishop, but that hasn’t stopped her name from being advanced as a write-in candidate in the election for president of the beleaguered Chess Journalists of America.  If Vogue model-of-the-year Carmen Kass can run the Estonian Chess Federation, surely Hilton can keep some unruly chess scribes in check.

The Boylston Chess Club Weblog, which called attention to the Hilton write-in campaign,  expects a lot of traffic from those who enter “Paris Hilton” as a search term on Technorati.

You Get What You Pay For

June 22, 2007

On the radio station 1010 WINS, I learned a new idiom.  There was a report about a meeting in New York between black community leaders and the police department in which the black leaders urged the cops to learn to talk to street kids using the language and idioms of the street.  Reverend Calvin Hobbs also suggested that the police receive higher salaries.  “If you pay peanuts,” he said, “you get monkeys.”  Anyone know the origin of this expression or other examples of its use?

The S___ the Talent Had to Put up with

June 21, 2007


I needed some recent photographs of me that my publisher could use to promote King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game  My friend Damian Panitz shot me at a stone chess table in a park in Sunnyside, Queens.  Please note all the bird feces (to the right of me on the bench) that Damian subjected me to.  There were excrement-free chess tables, but no, Damian is an artist, and he insisted that the light was diffuse, and hence perfect, at this table. 

Easy for the photographer to say: He did not have to sit under a tree inhabited by a flock of diarrhetic pigeons.  There was soupy poop next to the board, and we needed to work fast before goopy dung landed on my black shirt.  It was a hot day, and you can see by the water bottle on the table that at least Damian attended to his model’s hydration needs.

The Dominican chess hustlers in the park decided I was an Eastern European chess god.  They surrounded us, and I tried to tell them that I was just an obsessed woodpusher, but the language barrier interfered with their understanding me.  We drafted the guy who said he was champion of the park (and who carried a broken iPod) to hold Damian’s reflector for the photo shoot.  The position on the board is something the guy insisted on showing me.  For the actual photos (this one was just a test), we set up the age-old position known as the King’s Gambit.

What do Hillary Clinton and Muammar Gadhafi Have in Common?

June 20, 2007

I was totally satisfied with the final scene of “The Sopranos.”  The show was at its root a family drama, and so it was appropriate to have the dysfunctional family gather one last time for a meal.  And when Tony glances at the door, with a strange, hard-to-read expression, and the screen cuts to black. the ambiguity, too, felt right.  Maybe Tony saw his killer walk into the resturant, or maybe it was just Meadow who was late because of her repeated attempts at parking.   It was a convenient ending, too: because the Sopranos were not killed off, HBO can always resurrect the show if James Gandolfini needs an infusion of cash.

I have been suffering Sopranos withdraw, though, and to get a fix, I tuned in this morning to Hillary and Bill’s parody of the final scene.  At first, before I actually saw it, I thought the idea was brilliant.  Finally Hillary could wipe that forced smile off her face, show us her true relaxed, playful self, and ride the coattails of television’s most popular dramatic series.  But a few seconds into the YouTube video, I saw that even with all the high-powered coaching she must have received, the woman was stiff.  She can’t act.  She can’t relax, at least not in front of a camera.  She makes Al Gore look like Laurence Olivier. 

And, then, whatever pop culture points she got by mixing it up with the Sopranos were lost when she unveiled her campaign song, “You and I,” by Celine Dion, who is not exactly Canada’s hippest export.  I suppose Hillary is making herself look presidential by associating herself with a singer who is a favorite of other heads of state. 

When I talked my way into the World Chess Championship in Tripoli in 2004 (we did not have diplomatic relations with Libya then), I was amused to hear Celine Dion playing in the airport where I was detained and interrogated on suspician of being, not a chess journalist, but CIA.  “Leader,” as Muammad Gadhafi was creepily called by his subjects, apparently enjoyed listening to Dion and thought everyone else should, too.

You can read all about my strange adventures in Tripoli in my forthcoming book, King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.


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Kasparov KO’s 21

June 19, 2007

When Kasparov arrived in Canada yesterday, he told the customs official that he was going to play chess in Toronto. The official said, “Chess? What is that?” The man had not heard of him, either.

But the thirteenth world champion put the Canadians in their place at the unfamiliar activity called chess by winning twenty-one simultaneous games in the course of ninety minutes. If only checkmating Putin were this easy!

The simultaneous exhibition was arranged by Belzberg Technologies.

On Excreted Toothpaste and Genies

June 19, 2007

While reading The New York Times over coffee this morning at Bread Alone, I came across a wonderful expression I had somehow never heard before: “The toothpaste is already out of the tube.” (It was used by a Middle East expert in describing the Bush administration’s unfreezing of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority–a last ditch effort by Washington to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, in the face of Hamas’s success at the ballot box and now in the streets.)

I love the expression because it seems a bit stronger–and fresher, to my ears–than the more familiar “the cat is already out of the bag.” After all, the feline could presumably be put back in the bag, whereas that would be difficult, if not impossible, with the toothpaste.

Even the proverbial horse that has already left the stable could be returned to the barn more easily than excreted toothpaste could be returned to the tube. In this, the toothpaste is more akin to the genie that is already out of the bottle: I wouldn’t know where to begin in trying to coax it back in.

Can anyone think of additional expressions that mean the train has already left the station?

Man Can Live by

June 18, 2007

Today I had coffee at Bread Alone in Woodstock, NY. I always feel good when I visit this coffee shop because it was here, at the choice front-window table, that I banged out much of my book King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.

And when the writing was going slow, I could always eavesdrop on the conversations at Bread Alone. Once I overheard a woman behind me explaining that only Italians could become pope. Was it worth turning around and telling her that the current pope was German and the one before him, Polish? I decided not to: I’m fond of Woodstock, the town in which I was conceived, but it would be a full-time job to try to correct all the misinformation I hear. Better just to go with the chi.