In a few short hours, I’ll be heading back to New York from Costa Rica. I’m in the capital city of San Jose now, at our quaint resting place for the night, the expansively named De’Luxe BackPakers. I’m happily stuffed with rice and beans, trying to confirm my departing flight online, while my traveling companion is out on the city chaperoning two jail-bait-looking Israeli party girls to “The Simpsons” movie, perhaps the only English language film they could find. A moth the size of Rhode Island is perched on the wall above my head, a reminder that even in this gritty capital one is never far from the jungle. Our accomodations, at an unbeatable $10 a night, are perfectly adequate, but I would not have had the cojones to call the place De’Luxe. (Call me demanding, but I reserve the word deluxe for hotels that, at a minimum, have toilets that can accomodate not only bodily excretions but toilet tissue at well.) On the plus side, there’s a pool table, a nice glass chess set with which Damian and I did battle, and free Internet stations for those guests, like the Israeli girls, who seem to be spending as much time texting their MySpace friends as exploring the city. More on Costa Rica later so that I’m not guilty of the same.
Archive for July, 2007
Happy birthday, Fabiano Caruana. The country’s youngest grandmaster* ever turns 15 today. I have fond memories of a chess event, when Fabiano was 10, where he almost abandoned the game. I write about the event in King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.
In December 2002, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, who had perhaps the bitterest rivalry in the history of chess, came together for old time’s sake for a two-day match in the ABC Studios in Times Square. The two veterans played two games of rapid chess a day, at the brisk time control of twenty-five minutes apiece with ten seconds added for each move.
The organizer of the match had asked me to help him with the staging of the match. He asked me if I knew a celebrity who understood enough about the game to be able to make the honorary first move. (The first move is, in fact, chosen by the player with White, but you still want someone who can perform it without, say, pushing the king pawn an extra square or making a knight hop in the shape of a V instead of an L.)
I am friends with David Blaine, the magician and endurance artist—we’ve played chess together—and I thought he’d enjoy meeting Kasparov. “Chess is like magic,” David once told me. “You always have to stay one step ahead of your opponent—or your audience.” The television cameras were rolling when Kasparov and Karpov swaggered up to the board and watched David pick up a White pawn. With an agonizing expression on his face, David grunted and squeezed the pawn, like the strongman at a carnival, until he’d crushed it into a cloud of dust. The match arbiter started berating David on camera because the pawn he destroyed was irreplaceable. Like each of the other chessmen, it was uniquely equipped with a microchip so that the electronic circuitry in the chessboard could sense what square the pawn was on and broadcast the full game position over the Internet to hundreds of thousands of chess fans around the world. The arbiter was angry, but the champions were laughing—a rare display of levity for them at the start of one of their matches. Needless to say, David made the crushed pawn rematerialize and the match, and Internet transmission, began without a hitch.
David asked me which kid in the audience was particularly talented in chess, and I directed him to Fabiano. He did some card magic for the ten-year-old, who was then small for his age. The future grandmaster was bedazzled and asked David to perform trick after trick. He paid much more attention to the knaves in David’s deck than to the knights on Kasparov’s chessboard. Later, Fabiano asked me how much work it took to be a magician; he said he wanted to master David’s tricks. When I explained that it required even more prepration and practice than chess, he dedided to stick to the royal game.
*He is really a grandmaster elect because the title must still be approved by FIDE, the world chess federation.
For all the press-conference talk (and, admittedly, my own hyping) of the grudge chess game in Montreal between Nigel Short and Gata Kamsky, the hoped-for confrontation was an uneventful draw, which was interesting only initially because Short trotted out a rare opening, the Ponziani, that has barely been played in high-level chess since the Late Cretaceous. Maybe he kept the gloves on because he was trying to recover his equilibrium from an otherwise terrible tournament.
As John Saunders, the editor of British Chess Magazine, blogged today:
“Which brings me to the main talking point of the Montreal event: the dismal showing of Nigel Short. He got off to an absolutely dreadful start, 0/4, which became ½/6 (thereby equalling his… start at the 1980 Phillips and Drew tournament when he was 14 years 10 months old). It is reported that he was suffering from dental problems, which is indeed unfortunate, though I’m also told that Alekhine had similar problems in the early stages of his world championship match against Capablanca, had six teeth pulled out and went on to become world champion.”
Saunders’ whole blog entry is worth reading. He has the following to say about the game that wasn’t:
“One cannot help wondering whether the dental problem was the only reason for Short’s debacle or whether yet another airing of his ancient grudge against Kamsky after round two may have been a contributory factor. The English grandmaster has an elephantine memory for slights and disputes from the past and his inability to keep a statesmanlike silence could perhaps be his Achilles heel in a tournament context. It was noticeable how he occasionally liked to dust off and rehash some old vendetta in one of his newspaper columns whenever there was a slow news week in chess. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes offensive, but he no longer has this conduit for his pent-up aggression. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened between the Kamskys and Short all those years ago, he should surely have channelled all the remaining aggro into their individual game in Montreal and let the pieces do the talking. And, if I might be permitted to patronise the former world championship finalist further on his selection of opening (just this one time – I promise it will never happen again): the Ponziani is not a good choice if you want to play for a win with White. Believe me, I’ve tried and it’s not up to the job.”
In year autumn’s world chess championship, reigning champ Vladimir Kramnik had his name dragged through the mud—Krapnik, he was dubbed—when Veselin Topalov’s team accused Kramnik of retreating to his bathroom a suspicious 50 times. (They exaggerated the number.) The implication was that he was somehow cheating in the lieu. Later. Topalov’s team said that it was suspicious that three-quarters of Kramnik’s moves matched what a computer would play in the same position. (That’s hardly surprising, though, because Kramnik and the best computers are of similar playing strength.) All the charges were ultimately dismissed by the tournament organizers as unfounded.
Tomorrow the world chess federation is holding a public hearing into whether Topalov and his manager acted unethically in making the cheating accusations.
The grudge game between Nigel Short and Gata Kamsky that I blogged about earlier is this afternoon in Montreal (rather than yesterday, as I mistakenly wrote initially). Short is having an awful tournament in Montreal. He’ll need to pull it all together to beat the higher-rated Kamsky.
Short made it clear in a press conference last week how happy he’d be to beat Kamsky today. In answer to a journalist’s question about how he’ll feel playing Kamsky, given their bitter match in the 1990s, Short said:
“What can I say? I have been playing chess for a very long time. My match against Gata Kamsky was by far the most unpleasant experience I ever had in my career. In essence Gata Kamsky won this match by cheating. His father threatened to kill me during the match. It was a very ugly incident. It had to be reported to the police. He (Rustam Kamsky) had to be pulled off me actually. So, quite frankly, I would rather not see him (Gata) But it’s not up to me, the organizers decide who is to participate. This is not my business. Gata Kamsky, if you talk to him now, I am sure you will find him to be a polite person. But it’s like someone who was part of a gangster group, and he would very much like to forget about these unpleasant parts of his past when he went everywhere with his father – who is nothing more than a thug. In other sports if you had a situation where a member of a delegation threatened to kill one of the players, and don’t forget Rustam Kamsky was a boxer, and, as far as I understand, had been in prison for such offenses, you would have an automatic disqualification, but for various reasons that didn’t happen. I am sure Gata Kamsky would like to forget about the influences of his father, but he benefited from it at the time. If I win this game it will give me more satisfaction than anything else.”
My over-active imagination has been fueled by a caller from Hollywood who inquired about film rights to my book. And so I’ve come up with a fantasy cast for King’s Gambit the movie:
The Cast (in order of appearance)
Johnny Depp as Paul Morphy
Rosie O’Donnell as Morphy’s mother
James Gandolfini as my father (because Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, and John Candy are unfortunately unavailable)
George Clooney as me
Angela Landsbury as Mrs. Perrutz (my kindly therapist when I was three)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Pascal Charbonneau
Natalie Portman as Irina Krush
David Blaine as David Blaine
Scarlett Johanssen as Jennifer Shahade
Reese Witherspoon as Susan Polgar
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Garry Kasparov
Jim Carey as Nigel Short
Ben Kingsley as Bruce Pandolfini
Anthony Hopkins as Claude Bloodggod
Mel Gibson (behaving like he did when he encountered the trooper) as Bobby Fischer
Today the ballots will be counted in the most contentious election in my memory for the board of directors of the United States Chess Federation. Not that my memory is that long for chess politics; mere mention of it puts me to sleep faster than Lunesta. But this year even I stayed awake because the election was either a circus, or a tragedy, depending on your vantage point.
Last year, Sam Sloan, a gadfly Web journalist from New York was elected to the USCF board promising to root out corruption and financial irregularities and other problems in the chess organization. But almost immediately there was a backlash against his election. His opponents made much of the fact that he had served time for a felony and that his Web site contained provocative material that they judged was not suitable for children (and maybe not suitable for many adults). Now the USCF promotes chess in schools and has a large scholastic base, and so perhaps it was not surprising that a board member who didn’t have a squeaky clean background would raise hackles. A recall attempt failed, but the election rules were changed so that any candidate for the USCF board must disclose a felony in his campaign statement in Chess Life magazine.
Sam Sloan got a lot of air time with charges about improprieties in the chess organization. He is a smart man who has the distinction of being one of the few people who is not a lawyer to argue and win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of his charges amounted to little, and were denounced by his adversaries as spurious, but he did succeed in bringing down a fellow board member, a tournament director no less, whom he accused of rigging tournaments so that the director himself achieved an artificially high chess rating.
Sloan is now up for reelection. Ten candidates are running for four spots on the USCF board. The story of the campaign gets even worse, with enough mud slinging to make U.S. presidential politics look like a lesson in good manners.
The results will be announced on the USCF Web site.
[Update: Sloan was not reelected.]
If I wasn’t in Costa Rica, I’d be heading to Quebec for a ringside seat for tomorrow’s grudge game between Nigel Short and Gata Kamsky in the Montreal Chess International. In the mid 1990s, Short lost a world championship semi-finals match to Kamsky by the lopsided score of 5.5 to 1.5. Short said that the match was the worst experience in his long chess career because he was subjected to unfair and terrible psychological warfare waged by Kamsky and his father.
The Kamskys suggested that he was cheating. “Never before had anyone accused me of cheating,” Nigel told me. “And they were doing this after I lost. That would make me the the worst cheater in the history of chess.” And then there was the notorious death-threat: Short said that Kamsky’s father got in his face and threatened to kill him.
The toxic match reared its ugly head last October when Short and Kamsky got into an Internet spat (Mig Greengard has a nice post on this). The online scuffle ended with Kamsky threatening to take it offline: “I don’t want to talk about it, but if you want to do something about this, we can settle this like real men, outside. I’ll be waiting.”
At the press conference in Montreal, Short dragged out all the old dirty laundry in response to a journalist’s question. The tournament organizers were apparently not happy; Kamsky, however, was not in attendance.
You can watch the moves of their game live, although unfortunately not their behavior, at the tournament Web site.
While killing time on an airport stopover in Atlanta, I noticed there is a great photo of Irina Krush, the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion at Chess Life Online. Even if you’ve already read about her victory on CLO, you should look again because they’ve substituted a fantastic new picture, which shows off her love of animals.
The legendary Eek the Geek at Coney Island. Photo by Damian Panitz.
My last fortune cookie said: “Action with a brain. Today you should proceed with caution.” So what did I do? On the spur of the moment, I booked a flight to Costa Rica. My friend Damian—a tech head, hard rocker, and filmmaker—sent me an email from an Internet hut somewhere in Central America and invited me to join him. The invitation came at the right time: this is the perfect week for me to get away, before I start doing promotional activities related to the publication of King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.
Any trip with Damian should be interesting. The man likes freaks. So much so that he’s been photographing them for years. His idea of the perfect wedding is one where the waiters and barmaids are midgets, fat ladies, and other denizens of circus sideshows. (While he was telling me this, his girlfriend looked a bit horrified; she said that she wanted a traditional wedding—white dress, white cake, white drapes.)
One day, when Damian couldn’t leave work, he sent me a text message imploring me to go in his place to an all-day reunion of sideshow freaks at Coney Island. I was happy to go because, sadly, the Coney Island amusement park is being torn down this year to make way for nondescript luxury condos and upscale boardwalk concessions. I went with a friend, and we had a great time watching two generations of fire eaters, sword swallowers, snake wranglers, dancing dwarfs and contortionists do their thing. It was all very quaint, even family-friendly, compared to some of the performance art I’ve seen in Manhattan. (The only part that made me squeamish was when the sword swallow instructed a member of the audience pull the sword out of his throat and stomach to prove that it was real.)
I’ll be in Costa Rica for a week, and I hope Damian’s interests extend beyond freaks to the beach and the jungle. From there I won’t be able to watch on-line as my friends Pascal Charbonneau and Irina Krush kick chess butt in Montreal, but I hope to have the sporadic Internet connection so that I can check on their progress and blog intermittently.