Archive for August, 2007

No “Dunderheads,” the Chess Ethics Commission Rules

August 31, 2007

British grandmaster Nigel Short used the word “dunderhead” to characterize two high-ranking officials of the world chess federation. One of them, a chess federation VP, took offense and complained to the federation’s ethics commission. This week the commission chastised Short for his use of the word but upheld his right to criticize the official.

In essence, the commission ruled that chess officials are allowed to be dunderheads but no one is allowed to point that out. When The New York Times reached Short for his reaction, he said that he’d no longer call the VP a dunderhead. “I’ll stick to the facts,” Short said. “I’ll call him a cheat who is unfit for office.”

The ethics commission ruling inspired me to research the origin of the word dunderhead, which means a stupid or muddle-headed person. According to the word-origins section of, “‘dunder‘ was the dregs or over-flowed froth of fermenting wine, originally from Spanish ‘redundar’, to overflow or froth over.” Other Web sites suggest a Dutch origin, from donder (thunder), the idea being that your thinking would be impaired if a thunderclap went off next to your head. Can anyone add to this etymological discussion?

BTW, on the same day as the Short ruling, the FIDE ethics gurus reprimanded Veselin Topalov and his manager for insinuating that defending champion Vladimir Kramnik was cheating on the toilet because they said he had gone to the restroom a suspicious 50 times. The commission warned Topalov that if he engages in such psychological warfare again, he could be banned from chess for a year. So Topalov hasn’t been punished at all; the federation could at least have asked him to write dunderhead 500 times. He’s gotten away with dragging the 2006 World Championship into the toilet. The Short and Topalov rulings can be found on the world chess federation Website.


Kingfishers Clobber Knights: I Should Eat Crow

August 30, 2007

Wimpy logo or not, the Baltimore Kingfishers tragically defeated my New York Knights 3-1 in the first round of the United States Chess League. Pascal Charbonneau and Irina Krush were both winning in their respective games but threw it all away.

It is a very sad day in the Big Apple, but New Yorkers are used to bouncing back. I remember when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975 and President Gerald Ford refused to help (which occasioned the famous Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”). Well, we survived when Washington turned its back on us. And we will survive the indignity perpetrated last night by Baltimore.

After 34 moves, Irina had reached this promising position as White against her avian foe.

One of the joys of watching top-level games on the Internet Chess Club is that you never know who may drop by and kibitz. Last night, I and the other woodpushers who were watching Irina’s game online were treated to unexpected commentary by the legendary Gata Kamsky, the No. 1 ranked player in the United States. Gata said that she had a “strong advantage” in the position above and suggested a quiet continuation. But Irina surprised him (‘Nice,” he said, approvingly) with the forceful pawn push f5.

Now if Black is so greedy as to grab the f-pawn, he has no defense against the sly Bishop shift Bh5

and Irina shoving her e-pawn (after Black, say, moves his king):

The e-pawn is now immune to capture by the Black f-pawn because then her bishop will capture the opposing cleric.

But none of this after f5 was to be. Black did not grab the f-pawn bait, and although White continued to enjoy a strong game, the wily kingfisher eventually swindled her.

“Rich Bitch”

August 29, 2007

At lunch at Oriole9, which serves the best cup of coffee north of Brooklyn and south of Ithaca (it’s only $1.50 and you get a mini-pot of freshly steamed milk), I noticed that the tabloid headline wars have flared up over Leona Helmsley. Today’s clear winner was the New York Post.

“LEONA’S DOG GETS 12M!” the Daily News headline screamed. “But she leaves two grandkids NOTHING in will,” added the subline.

The Post ran the dishy headline “RICH BITCH” next to a large photo of Leona Helmsley clutching a froufrou snow-white pooch. The subhead offered a clarification: “No, not Leona–her dog just inherited $12M”

New York Knights Ready to Rip Baltimore

August 29, 2007

New York KnightsBaltimore KingfishersToday, at 7:15 PM, my home chess team, the New York Knights, will square off in the opening week of the U.S. Chess League against the Baltimore Kingfishers. The games can be watched in real time on the Internet Chess Club or live at the world famous Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village. Knight’s manager (and Board Two player) Irina Krush is confident: “My strategy is to win,” she told me. “I think we have an advantage on every board except maybe Board Three, and there it’s pretty even.” Each team fields four players.

I think, though, that Irina is being coy and not disclosing the real reason the Knights have a clear advantage. It’s because they have a vastly superior logo (above left). The Knights’ logo is elegant, with its heraldic shield and horse (although the horse itself has an indifferent expression and could look tougher). But the bird in Baltimore’s logo is the wimpiest kingfisher I’ve ever seen. It looks like a delicate humming bird in search of nectar. Where’s the noble tuft on the kingfisher’s head? And why doesn’t it have a fish in its mouth?

New York will also win because its Board One (Pascal Charbonneau) just qualified for a Green Card on Monday and will want to do his adopted American city proud.

(And now please excuse the shameless plug, but I have a child to feed: revealing profiles of Irina Krush and hubby Pascal can be found in my new book King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, which is available at amazon for an inviting 34 percent discount!)

Here’s tonight’s lineup:

Baltimore Kingfishers     New York Knights
FM Tegshsuren Enkhbat: 2411     GM Pascal Charbonneau: 2532
IM Larry Kaufman: 2375     IM Irina Krush: 2442
WGM Katerina Rohonyan: 2329     IM Jay Bonin: 2340
WIM Tsaagan Battsetseg: 2234     FM Marc Arnold: 2316
Avg Rating: 2337
    Avg Rating: 2408

Over the Transom

August 28, 2007

I just completed a short essay about seamier aspects of the chess world and sent it over the transom to one publisher. Normally I wouldn’t write a piece without first securing an assignment, but in this case my pitch letter would have been almost as long as my essay. When I dispatched the mini-manuscript, the wordsmith in me started wondering about the origin of the phrase “over the transom,” which means “unsolicited and unexpected” (and not “unwelcome,” I hope).

A little research turned up a plausible explanation. In Central Casting’s idea of a media bigwig’s office, there is a hinged window above the door, the transom being the architectural term for the wooden crosspiece that separates the door from the window. The earnest writer of yesteryear who wanted to get his hot prose into the publisher’s hands as soon as possible would not trust his writing to the poky post office (this was long before Federal Express). Instead, he would deliver the unsolicited manuscript himself, literally tossing it over the transom of the publisher’s door.

Most over-the-transom submissions probably end up, unread, in the slush pile. But writers live on dreams, and publishers keep the dreams alive by leaving open the transom window.

Escaping the Mundane

August 27, 2007

The Web site mediabistro has a Q & A with me under the subtitle “This writer regularly turns mundane topics into bestselling books.” I can’t argue with the nice coverage the site gave me, but are the topics I’ve written aboutmathematics, aviation, and now chessreally that “mundane”?

Chess Lies

August 23, 2007

Yesterday I watched a loud dispute between two woodpushers in Washington Square Park. Neither in fact was a particularly good player, but each was obnoxiously insisting that he had mastered the deepest secrets of the game. (Which was a ridiculous claim, and would have been unbelievable even if the players had been much more accomplished; Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess talent ever, once told me that there are still things about the game that even he does not understand.)

Why is it that chess players are so prone to exaggerate their prowess at the 64 squares? In my youth, when I frequented the nineteen stone chess tables in Washington Square Park (which would figure in movies like “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), I often faced patzers who fabricated stories about how they’d once trounced the great Bobby Fischer at blitz. They’d even point to the exact table on which the purported victory took place, and some would show me the moves of these alleged miniatures. If Fischer had lost that many games back then, he would have given up chess long before he famously won the world championship from the Russian standout Borris Spassky.

I’ve noticed that when chess amateurs describe their ability, they are prone to add a couple of hundred points to their peak rating. And when they tell you the score of a lengthy blitz match against a stronger player, the score tends to shift in their favor with each telling.

Are chess nuts more likely to bend the truth than people who don’t know how a knight moves? Or is mild résumé inflation part of the human condition?

Kasparov on Aggression

August 21, 2007

I’m reading Garry Kasparov’s new book, How Life Imitates Chess, and am intrigued by his remarks about aggression. (Aggressive is a word often used to describe not only Kasparov’s playing style but his personality, too.)  Kasparov, arguably the greatest player in the history of chess, writes about a trip abroad, at the age of seventeen, when he was a member of the Soviet Olympiad Chess team.  On a stopover in Rome, his teammates–who were on average twice his age–visited the Vatican while young Kasparov went instead to watch a movie that wasn’t showing back in the Soviet Union, namely “The Empire Strikes Back.”  Kasparov writes that he didn’t exactly agree with Yoda’s warning Luke Skywalker that “anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.”

Kasparov’s points out the double standard we have about aggression.  In chess and football, we praise decisive, attacking play, but in political and social life we condemn it.  Moreover, in some domains, whether we praise or condemn such behavior depends on a person’s rank: “We praise a CEO’s management style as aggressive, but the average employee could be fired for being ‘aggressive.'”

Perceived Risk, Playing the King’s Gambit and Hitchhiking in Moscow

August 16, 2007

I have long been interested in different perceptions of risk.  This comes up all the time in chess.  For instance, I play the King’s Gambit (no surprise here!), in which White jettisons a pawn at the earliest possible moment in return for quick development and command of the center.  I perceive this aggressive way of playing as worth the risk: I’m banking that I can amass my forces and land a fatal blow long before the pawn deficit proves fatal.  An opponent who plays into the King’s Gambit Accepted believes that he can withstand the assault, trade pieces, and perhaps reach an advantageous endgame, with the pieces swapped off, in which his extra pawn marches up the board and morphs into a mighty queen.   

Contemporary chess theory sides with Black, but I am comfortable with White.  When I went to Moscow once to watch French grandmaster Joel Lautier play in the annual Aeroflot Chess Open, he was frank, over vodka one evening, about the King’s Gambit.  “You play that?” he said.  “I prefer to start the game with as many pawns as the other guy.” 

I was in Moscow with Joel when I witnessed something that I perceived as terribly risky to which Russians didn’t give a second thought. I was amazed by the way that Muscovites commonly got around the city.  They’d stand on the street with their hand out.  Ordinary drivers would stop and take them to their destination, if it wasn’t too far out of the way, for 100 rubles (close to $4 now).  I remember Joel and I and a friend of his trying this at 4:00 AM, and a single man in his thirties immediately stopping and happily giving us a ride. 

Such hitchhiking would be inconceivable in New York, from all vantage points.  A single driver would never stop to pick up a trio of men in the middle of the night, let alone one man in broad daylight.  And you’d never hitchhike in Manhattan or Brooklyn, out of fear you’d end up in a landfill. 

King’s Gambit Is Here

August 15, 2007

I received, hot off the press, one of the first copies of King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.  I’m excited, of course, because the book is the culmination of years of my thinking about chess and what it means to me, an amateur fan, and those who play it at the highest level.  The book is part memoir (of growing up with a brilliant bohemian father in New York’s Greenwich Village) and part a deep look at the emotional pressures of championship chess.

Of course, I’m combing the 433-page tome for errors.  (I had originally written “tomb,” not tomean ironic mistake pointed out by a friend: I do feel a bit spent, as well as euphoric, now that the book is done.)  I hope I’ve eliminated most of themmany people read earlier draftsbut I know that gremlins, which I’ll correct in future printings, will inevitably slip in. 

The book, which will be in stores on September 11, was mailed to reviewers yesterday.  Now I just need to sit back and hope that King’s Gambit catches the Zeitgeist.