Archive for December, 2007

Hail Gata Kamsky, Chess Champion from, Yes, the United States

December 16, 2007

I was one of the (too few) chess-crazed Americans who got up early this morning to watch the live Webcast of fellow countryman Gata Kamsky playing the fourth game of his World Cup match in Siberia against Alexey Shirov. The game began at 5:00 a.m. EST, and three hours and thirty-five moves later, the game was drawn. Kamsky had won their four game match by the score of 2.5 – 1.5 and was now the World Cup Chess Champion. No American has done this well in international chess since 1972, when Bobby Fischer defeated Borris Spassky to become undisputed World Champion.

Kamsky played a total of 18 games in a series of World Cup knockout matches and lost not a single game. He was unflappable in positions where his opponents were attacking him, and he consistently employed an active defense. For his efforts at the chessboard, Kamsky will return to Brighton Beach with $120,000. Hail Kamsky!

The Internet is of course a great medium for watching world-class chess events. You can get up and stretch between moves, or you can watch commentary from top players who are also observing the games. It is sad, though, how few spectators attend these events in person. Notice the absence of an audience in this photograph of the penultimate game between Kamsky and Shirov. I like watching in person, because the tension is so palpable.

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[Kamsky is on the right.]

Kamsky Pulls Ahead in World Cup

December 14, 2007

Gata Kamsky defeated Alexey Shrirov today in a thrilling 37-move slugfest in Siberia that had his American fans (the really loyal ones who joined the live Webcast at 5:00 a.m. EST) on the edge of their seats. The real fireworks started shortly after 8:00 a.m. by which time some of the grandmasters kibitzing from the U.S. had consumed enough coffee to comment intelligently. The most astute observations, though, came from European GMs like Italian champion Fabiano Caruana who had less of a time-zone disadvantage.

Kamsky now leads in the finals of the World Cup by one game with two games remaining.

Kamsky on the Move

December 13, 2007

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[Kamsky studies his opponent's first move, the advance of the king pawn, in today's World Cup game.]

Grandmaster Gata Kamsky, America’s best hope for immediate triumph at the pinnacle of international chess, just drew the first game of his final match for the World Cup. Kamsky was playing Black in a double-king-pawn opening, and after a tense struggle that petered out into an even endgame, he and Alexey Shirov agreed to sustain hostilities on the 42nd move. Tomorrow Kamsky will have the first-move advantage of the White pieces.

Kamsky has been playing great chess for three weeks now in Khanty-Mamsiysk, Russia. Tomorrow’s game starts at 5:00 A.M. EST and can be viewed on the official Web site.

Mate in 208 Moves!

December 12, 2007

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[Alexey Shirov would need to have seen ahead a mind-numbing 206 moves in order to be sure of forcing a win in a game at the World Cup.]

According to the rules of chess, a player can claim a draw if 50 moves pass (50 for each side) in which no piece has been captured and no pawn moved. The original idea of the rule was that if one side seems to have an advantage in the endgame (the stage of the game where only a few pieces or pawns remain), 50 moves should be more than sufficient to turn that advantage into checkmate. If there was no 50-move rule, one side could keep playing on in a theoretically drawn position hoping to win only because his opponent becomes fatigued. But leave it to computers to discover that there are certain winning endgames that, even with best play, require more than 50 moves to win. These endgames are incredibly rare, and seem more like composed problems than positions that might arise in actual play, and so the 50-move rule has been left enforce.

Now, incredibly, one of these endgames—two lone knights versus a lone rook and bishop—actually occurred in a very important game, in the semifinals of the World Cup. Alexey Shirov and Sergey Karjakin had tied their regular games in the semifinals. To break the tie, the two grandmasters played two rapid games, and it was the first of these that saw the unusual endgame. With best play (from the position below), computers tell us, Shirov as Black could have checkmated Karjakin in 208 moves!! Shirov didn’t see that, of course, and the game ended in a draw.

The excellent online daily newsletter Chess Today discusses the endgame in the December 12th issue. Chess Today is a great, subscription-based publication and well worth the modest fee.

Why Grandmasters Need Helpmates

December 11, 2007

After five rounds of the Marshall Chess Club championship, grandmaster Jaan Ehlvest, the defending champion, is in the lead with 4 points. Six other players, including New York Knights manager Irina Krush, are in close pursuit and tied for second with 3.5 points. The final four rounds will take place next weekend.

Two years ago, I had an amusing experience with Ehlvest, who was once ranked No. 5 in the world. The story, which I tell in King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, illustrates why grandmasters are not necessarily the best people to organize and promote chess events, even if their command of sixty-four squares is unsurpassed.

Ehlvest invited me to his six-game match against Zappa, the world amateur computer champion, on April 29 and 30, 2005. The match was being held in an auditorium in Estonian House, an old ornate building in Manhattan that had been a speakeasy during Prohibition. The promotional flier billed Alexander Shabalov, the 2003 U.S. champion, as doing the play-by-play commentary for the audience. Ehlvest set the admission price for the first evening at a whopping $59. I showed up at the scheduled hour as his nonpaying guest. The event was a disaster. The auditorium was empty. There was not a single paying customer, Shabalov stayed home (we were told) because he had forgotten that it was his wife’s birthday, and the computer itself never arrived. We ended up drinking vodka for the evening after Ehlvest was unable to reach the machine’s programmer and handler on his cell phone.

U.S. Chess Successes

December 10, 2007

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[Above photo from chessbase.com: proto chess wizard Fabiano Caruana at the age of three]

Kudos to two American chess players for triumphs this past week. Yesterday, Gata Kamsky of Brighton Beach reached the finals of the 2007 World Cup in Khanty-Mamsiysk, Russia, by defeating Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen. The finals will take place on Thursday.

And last Tuesday, 15-year-old Fabiano Caruana, who once lived in Brooklyn, won the Italian Chess Championship. I’m sure he is destined for further chess greatness. In my dotage, I’ll be able to say I knew him when.

Counting on Karina

December 10, 2007

My friend Yvetta Fedorova has an Op-Art piece in The New York Times. It is the first in a series of comic-strip-like work on the peculiarities of raising a child in Manhattan. The strip is funny, and years from now Karina will be able to show it to her therapist.

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Latest Review of King’s Gambit

December 8, 2007

The Oregonian is the latest newspaper to review my book. Under the title “Mated to a Fanatical Spouse: Chess Mastery,” the review begins:

“After reading King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, Paul Hoffman’s memoir of his and others’ lives in and around the world of professional chess, it’s easy to see how this mesmerizing sport keeps itself largely removed from the hearts and minds of the American public.

“For every Garry Kasparov, the former champ and would-be successor to Vladimir Putin, witness: the cruel decline of another former champ and current anti-Semitic expatriate Bobby Fischer; the narcissism of Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a millionaire who runs the international chess federation FIDE and whose own Russian republic chokes on dust as he showers the chess world with his excesses; and the madness of Vladimir Nabokov’s Luzhin, the broken grandmaster culled from reality in the novel The Defense.

“Neither flawed genius nor chess is new to Hoffman….”

And the whole review can be read here.

(Another) Missed Opportunity

December 7, 2007

On Wednesday evening, at 9:11, I received an unusual text message from a cell phone number I didn’t recognize: “Ultrasecret hanging out with 40 wasted nurse practitioners. They know how to wrap a bandage.”

I thought it was porno spam—the first I had ever gotten on my cell—and feared a barrage of texts for penal enhancement supplements (see comments below) and get-rich-quick Nigerian oil schemes. I showed the text to a friend, and he too agreed it was porn.

I particularly liked the appellation “practitioners.” Nurses are a mainstay of pornography, or so I’ve been told. But these were not just nurses—care-givers in tight white dresses who were eager to attend to your needs—but nurse practitioners: they had additional schooling. The implication was that they could hold a conversation between acts of bandaging.

Last night I was IMing my friend Chris, and he said, at one point, “I hung out with 30 drunk nurses last night.”

Oh damn, I thought, the party I missed!

During the previous evening’s debauche, he had been using a different cell phone, which accounts, of course, for my not recognizing that the text was from Chris. I realize now that the unusual expression “nurse practitioners” (which is particularly wordy for a text message) should have been a giveaway: only he (who is an appealing amalgam of heady and hedonistic) would have used it.

No Nunchucks in the White House, No Fellation in the Library

December 5, 2007

Once I went to a reception at the White House for Stephen Hawking. As I passed through the metal detectors at the security check point, I read a sign that listed prohibited items such as knives, guns, and nunchucks. Gee, I thought, does the sign really deter world-be presidential assassins? And nunchucks!! If it weren’t for the sign, would Kobudo warriors have taken over the president’s home?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the august reading room of The New York Public Library searching for a topic for my next book, and I was similarly struck by a list of seemingly self-evident prohibited behavior:

Obscene and/or abusive language or gestures.

Creating a public disturbance.

Harassing or threatening behavior.

Sexual acts.

Use of bicycles, skates, skateboards, scooters, or similar items.

Engaging in any activity that is a violation of criminal or civil law.


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