Archive for November, 2007

Blind Light

November 30, 2007


There’s only one day left to experience Antony Gormley’s Blind Light at the Sean Kelly Gallery on 528 West 29th St. in New York. It’s incredible: You walk into a transparent room within a room filled with air so misty that you can’t see more than two feet. It’s totally disorienting and cool.

Gormley wrote: “Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter this interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain, or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside. Also you become the immersed figure in an endless ground, literally the subject of the work”

Bad Heir Day

November 28, 2007

Front Page

The New York Post comes through once again with a great coverline and a photo to match (this dude makes even Einstein look kempt). An inside headline is pretty punny, too: DA’S KICK IN THE ASTOR. Yesterday’s cover, on the same subject, was also a winner: CROOK ASTOR.

Two World Chess Champions Face Confinement

November 26, 2007

Two former world chess champions were in the news this week, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the royal game.

Garry Kasparov was arrested on Saturday in Moscow for leading an anti-Putin rally. He was sentenced to five days in prison and is now confined to “Petrovka 38,” a criminal facility in Moscow. He has not been allowed visitors since his imprisonment and has been prohibited from speaking on the phone. The rally was peaceful.

His arrest—only a week before parliamentary elections—was planned in advance by the authorities. “Of course we are very worried,” Kasparov’s wife, Dasha, told the press, “especially after hearing the police at the court say they had been ordered in advance to arrest Garry specifically. Who knows what they have planned for him? And why can’t we visit him? We are asking everyone to get this story out and to let Putin know that the world is watching and that he will be responsible if any further harm comes to Garry.” The Web site of Other Russia, the pro-democracy movement that Kasparov leads, will have updates on his situation as news becomes available.

The word is out that Bobby Fischer, the pride and embarrassment of American chess, has been hospitalized in Iceland for kidney and perhaps mental problems. The details in the press and blogosphere are frustratingly scarce. Mig Greengard’s Daily Dirt gives the best summary of what’s known about Fischer’s condition.

King’s Gambit Signing in Philadelphia

November 23, 2007


Next Thursday, November 29, I’ll be in Philadelphia for a book talk and signing at 7:00 PM at a cool independent bookstore called Head House Books. Head House is at 619 South Second Street.


For the Love of Curling

November 21, 2007


Leave it to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the wacky head of the international chess federation (who claims he was once spirited away in a yellow space ship and believes that chess came from outer space), is now advancing a novel argument for why chess should be an Olympic sport. “Isn’t it absurd that chess on ice is an Olympic sport,” Ilyumzhinov said, and ‘mere’ chess is not?” In fact, he said, he is thinking of suing the International Olympic Commission to get iceless chess into the Olympics.

Huh? Come again, please. It turns out that curling—a sport, played on ice with granite stones and brooms, of which most Americans have only the dimmest awareness—has long been known as “chess on ice,” just as chess itself has long been called “the royal game.” Here, for example, from The New York Times: “‘Curling is often called chess on ice,’ said Chris Moore, 50, a banker in Cleveland who has been curling for more than 35 years. ‘It’s intellectually challenging because all the strategy involved requires you to think four or five moves ahead. And it demands accuracy and finesse. Many times a game comes down to hitting a square inch from over 120 feet away.”

Aside from the linguistic argument, Ilyumzhinov makes an unspoken point: if something as weird and esoteric (in terms of lack of mass appeal) as grown men playing with brooms on ice qualifies as a sport, chess surely should too.

Naturally, the curling blogs are amused by Ilyumzhinov’s position: “Chess on ice. Bah.”

I, for one, think curling is cool, and I’m trying to find a place in New York where my Canadian friends and I can try out the sport.

Superstition in Chess

November 19, 2007


Last week at the Marshall Chess Club, Jay Bonin wielded the sword and shield that brought the New York Knights enough luck for them to make it to the semifinals of the US Chess League, but not enough luck to get them to the finals.

Is there really luck in chess, the consummate game of skill? Of course, there is. I’m lucky if my opponent slept poorly the night before my game. I’m lucky if he plays the one sequence of opening movies that I studied for hours before the game. I’m lucky if he blunders horribly in a position that he could otherwise have won (although maybe I helped cause the blunder by creating so many problems for him at the chessboard that I wore hi down).

In King’s Gambit, I write about superstitions at the board. Players who insist in wearing their lucky T-shirt or underwear or keeping score with the same special pen. World champion Anatoly Karpov was famous for not washing his hair when he was on a winning streak. Grandmaster Nigel Short said of Karpov: “Unfortunately, he had long tournaments where he never lost a game—the guy got greasy.”

Care to share your chess superstitions, or special rituals before the game?

The Invertebrate Turkey

November 18, 2007


I went this afternoon to visit the Lochness monster (because it was a drizzly day, with limited visibility—perfect conditions, in other words, for the shy serpent to show its face). Then I sped back to Williamsburg to attend a cooking demonstration at The Brooklyn Kitchen on how to de-bone a turkey. I wasn’t born yesterday, but I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

The idea is that the turkey cooks faster without bones, and you can plump it up with more stuffing than you could force inside the familiar bony T-day bird. Also, you can carve it more elegantly when there are no bones. Or you can make a turducken—every vegetarian’s nightmare—in which the turkey is stuffed with a duck that is stuffed with a chicken.

De-boning the turkey doesn’t look so hard but it is not for the squeamish. You have to get down and dirty with the bird. Surgeons and taxidermists will have an advantage.

Winning by Rook or by Crook

November 18, 2007

I have an op ed piece in today’s Washington Post:

It’s been a banner year for cheating scandals in sports. In baseball, allegations of steroid use and a federal indictment on charges of lying to a grand jury tainted Barry Bonds‘s record-breaking 756 home runs. In football, the New England Patriots got caught videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets. In cycling, the Tour de France became the Tour de Pharmacie when officials stripped Floyd Landis of the 2006 title after he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. In Formula One racing, the leading team, McLaren Mercedes, was fined a bracing $100 million for stealing confidential technical specifications about rival Ferrari.

I’m not much of a sports fan, so my couch-potato juices started flowing only when the cheating epidemic spread to chess. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old and have spent untold hours practicing sequences of moves such as the Fried Liver Attack and the King’s Gambit Accepted. Chess, I’d always thought, is an ennobling cerebral contest between two determined players armed only with their intellect and free of all drugs, except perhaps caffeine.

So you can understand my chagrin when Azerbaijani adults attending the European Union children’s championship last month accused the 8-year-old Russian winner of receiving illicit help from a third party during the game. Tournament organizers ultimately rejected the allegations and berated the adults for smearing the child’s good name.

But his was not the only indignity the royal game endured recently. The gentlemen’s-club respectability that chess once enjoyed was flushed away last autumn at the 2006 World Chess Championship when Bulgarian contender Veselin Topalov accused the reigning champion, Vladimir Kramnik, of making a suspicious 50 trips to the bathroom during a single game. The implication: that Kramnik was secretly consulting chess-playing software on a Palm Pilot or talking on his cellphone to a confederate armed with a chess computer. Officials hastily boarded up his private loo. “I had to go to the bathroom urgently,” Kramnik said later. “I asked the arbiter to open my toilet. He just shrugged and offered me an empty coffee cup.”

The charges looked too much like an underhanded attempt by Topalov to rattle the taciturn Kramnik, who was forced to explain his hydration and evacuation habits to a prying press corps, and the International Chess Federation ultimately decided that they were spurious. Nonetheless, organizers of future tournaments are now debating whether they should herd grandmasters — the black belts of the chessboard — through metal detectors and all but strip-search them before a match. Already, playing halls have been bombarded with electromagnetic signals to jam secret wireless communications.

Overkill? Not really. At the 2006 World Open in Philadelphia, the biggest annual amateur chess event in the United States, a player was caught with a concealed wireless earpiece. And the 2007 World Open reportedly had its own problems involving the use of body doubles, when a weaker player entered a competition for players of similar skill but had a much stronger look-alike sit in for him.

Trickery and deception are nothing new in chess. In the 1400s, Luis Ramirez de Lucena recommended positioning the board so that light would shine in the opponent’s eyes. “Also,” de Lucena advised, “try to play your adversary when he has just eaten and drunk freely.”

In the pressure-cooker environment of world championships, where the most prestige (and cash) is at stake, players have done much worse. In 1978, world champion Anatoly Karpov employed a sketchy-looking “parapsychologist” to sit in the audience and “hex” challenger Viktor Korchnoi. Not to be outdone, Korchnoi hired two saffron-robed mystics, Didi and Dada, both convicted of attempted murder, to meditate distractingly in the front row.

Many players routinely use more modest means of unnerving their opponents, from banging the pieces and glaring menacingly to chewing with their mouths open and rocking maniacally in their chairs. It is against the rules to purposely distract an opponent, but who is to say that a coughing player doesn’t really have a cold or a fidgety opponent an uncontrollable nervous tic?

Benjamin Franklin objected to all of this. “If your adversary is long in playing, you ought not to hurry him, or express any uneasiness at his delay; not even by looking at your watch, or taking up a book to read,” he wrote in a classic essay on the morality of chess. “You should not sing, nor whistle, nor make a tapping with your feet on the floor, or with your fingers on the table, nor do anything that may distract his attention.”

Wood-pushers are happy to claim the illustrious Franklin as one of their own, but they almost universally ignore his plea for gentlemanly behavior. In 1972, the Brazilian star Henrique Mecking faced former world champion Tigran Petrosian at a tournament in San Antonio. Mecking said that the Soviet grandmaster “was only quiet when it was his turn to move. All the time I was thinking he was kicking the table and elbowing the board to make it shake. If this was not enough to upset me, Petrosian kept making noises, stirring his cup of coffee, all the time varying the rhythm. And rolling a coin across the table.”

Mecking retaliated by making some noise of his own, but Petrosian calmly turned off his hearing aid and crushed him.

Paul Hoffman is the author of “King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game” and the Web site and blog


November 16, 2007

I’ve always had a soft spot for Yeti (the abominable snowman), Sasquatch (“wild man of the woods”), the Loch Ness monster, and other folklorish creatures that dreamy people think are real. And thus I was delighted when the Scottish loch-ness-monster.jpgserpent was spotted on holiday in Brooklyn of all places. Artist Cameron Gainer installed the 12.5-foot-tall Nessie in the salt marsh off Marine Park. I’ve watched Nessie grow up, because Cameron built the serpent in my friend Matt’s synagogue. New Yorkers in need of a nature fix should check out the improbable visitor.  Rumor has it (and I won’t deny it) that I slipped information about the Loch Ness monster into my book King’s Gambit.

Good Knight

November 15, 2007

The New Yorks Knights bid to win the US Chess League was stopped cold last night by the Boston Blitz. Board One, the battle of former US chess champions, Hikaru Nakamura for New York and Larry Christiansen for Boston, was the first game finished; it was a hard fought draw. Then Iryna Zenyuk, the hero of the Knights this year, couldn’t continue her winning ways and went down to her first defeat of the season on Board Four.

On Board Two, Pascal Charbonneau, playing Black for New York, had a great position. On move 29 (shown below)

he shifted his rook to g7, a logical-looking move, training the queen and rook battery on the White king. But White can then defend by retreating his bishop to f1. Black’s position, of course, is still strong, though. When I joined all the Knights for a gallows-humor post-mortem afterward, Pascal realized that on move 29 he should have penetrated with his queen to d2 so that he is forking White’s bishop and b-pawn.

Later Pascal had blundered into the position shown below, in which White, on move 35, has a cute, decisive shot. Can you find it?

The shot is Rh4, attacking and winning Black’s queen. The undefended rook is immune to capture by the queen because then White mates on g7. After Rh4, the French Canadian showed his excellent command of English by uttering a choice expletive.

With Pascal’s loss, New York was down two games, and would lose the match no matter what happened in the sole remaining encounter, between “Sleeping Knight” Jay Bonin and Denys Shmelov. Bonin, in fact, probably had a losing game because Shmelov was up material and had too many pawns. To the delight of his teammates, Bonin ended up swindling Shmelov by weaving a mating net and dangerously advancing his one foot soldier.