Archive for the ‘madness’ Category

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.”


Prostrate Problems

May 21, 2007


Four-story Flatland habitat (courtesy of

Flatland is over.  The two artists who stuck it out for the full 20 daysliving 24/7 in a very narrow (“can’t turn over in bed”), four-story, 24-hour-Webcamed transparent habitat at the Sculpture Centerhave now reemerged into the third dimension.  Their lives may be less cramped, but mine sadly has now lost a dimension.  I can no longer make my frequent pilgrimages to check on how the Flatlanders are doing. 

Perhaps I romanticized 2D life, and the idea that in 20 days of quietude, even if the quarters were tight, I would satisfyingly write a novella. 

One of the 2D fellows, with whom I played e-chess while he lived in Flatland, blogged:  “in flatland, i unconsciously learned to limit my movements.  i learned to go to the bathroom twice a day, not seven. i learned to not cook. i learned to not move my computer. i learned to not reach for clean clothes (stored in a basket, amongst the i-beams of the ceiling). i learned to wait …..”


May 19, 2007


Four-story Flatland habitat (courtesy of

Although the Flatlanders are emerging from their two-dimensional world tomorrow, my e-mail chess with one of the artists will happily continue.  Four of the six artists have already abandoned their two-dimensional transparent habitat, and my e-pal is one of those MIA.  It’s still not too late to visit the Flatland Project at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City. 

You can attend the exit party on Sunday from 4:00-6:00 PM, when the remaining two flatigued inhabitants will rejoin the three-dimensional world.  At times like this, I wish I had a doppelgänger: I can’t participate in the exit bash because I’ll be upstate at a birthday party.

Copy Editing Confidential

May 19, 2007

I’ve been poring over (it’s poring not pouring, right?) a type-set proof of King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game in search of annoying typos. 


Gremlins are inevitable in a work of 150,000 words (yes, I have a lot to say!) but I’m hell-bent on reducing them to a minimum.  I’ve had nightmares ever since a well-intentioned copy-editor  inexplicably changed Veselin Topalov’s first name, which I had corretly spelled, to Vaselin.  Now maybe Vaseline is an apt nickname for a grandmaster who is as oily as petroleum jelly (after being down two games in last year’s world-championship match, the slippery Bulgarian tried to distract the chess world from his pathetic 0-2 score by charging his opponent with going to the bathroom too frequently and consulting a chess-playing computer while on the privy).   

Now Vaseline does figure in King’s Gambit, but not as someone’s first name.  In Chapter 8, “I’m Not the World’s Biggest Geek,”  I describe the late Alexander Wojtkiewicz, who was perhaps the most active grandmaster on the U.S. weekend tournament circuit.

“In a chess world full of oversized characters, Wojtkiewicz was still a stand-out.  He was equal part hustler and naïf, and the stories about him were endless and amusing.  Like the time he wondered unknowingly into a gay bar with a male friend and a woman.  At some point the woman had a nose bleed and Wojt got the attention of the place when he anxiously and loudly asked the bartender for Vaseline, an old Polish remedy for her affliction.  There was also the time that he was staying with friends in Chicago, disappeared for a weekend without telling them, and returned with no explanation, as if he had just stepped out to buy a paper, except that he was now on crutches.”

Shades of Lasker

May 17, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A NovelFor the chess players among his readers, Michael Chabon’s latest novel has an irresistable start (and indeed, upon reading the first two sentences of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,  I immediately had to purchase it because I wasn’t about to stand there in the store and read all 414 pages):  “Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.  Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.” 

Lasker was the second world champion, and he held onto the crown for a record twenty-seven years, from 1894 to 1921.  I write of Lasker in my own book, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, because he famously spoke of chess as a rare bastion of trutha sentiment that unconsciously drew me to the game as a child:

“On the chess board, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long.  The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.  Our little chess is one of the sanctuaries where this principle of justice has occasionally had to hide.” 

Lasker further claimed that chess was not merely a substitute for life but a way of rekindling interest in the larger world: 

“Many a man, struck by injustice as, say, Socrates and Shakespeare were struck, has found justice realized on the chessboard, and has thereby recovered his courage and his vitality to play the game of life.”

As I get further along in Chabon’s novel, I’ll let you know how he weaves chess and Emanuel Lasker into it.


May 15, 2007


Four-story Flatland habitat (courtesy of

Through Sunday at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City is a fascinating installation, the Flatland Project, which I’ve been visiting regularly since it first went up. Ward Shelly has created a very narrow, four-story-high, transparent (except for the bathroom), beautifully pristine structure that six artists were scheduled to live in for 20 days. I say “scheduled” because three have already slipped out, with everyone set to leave in five days.

Now this is not deprivation living, a la my friend David Blaine, who lived on fortified water for 44 days in a transparent box suspended from a crane over the Thames. The Flatlanders have their laptops, WiFi, and cell phones, and food delivered by Fresh Direct. Okay, sleeping may not be much fun, if you’re a tosser and turner. And exercise is difficult unless you care to climb up and down on the movable ladders that link the floors.

One of my friends said the artists wouldn’t last three days; all of them have done better than that. I think the place looks cozy and peaceful. I wish I had known about it in advance and had volunteered. I would have used the time to try to bang out a novel on my laptop.

Early in my visits I noticed a folded chessboard on one of the higher floors. I wrote my e-mail address on a piece of paper and invited the Flatlanders to play chess with me on the Internet (on a cool chess server called Red Hot Pawn).  I taped the invitation to the first floor of Flatland.

Now I’m engaged in two chess games, but it’s a bit frustrating because my opponent(s) is not  chatty and doesn’t respond to my questions about life in two dimensions.

When I visit the transparent habitat, the six residents don’t seem to be doing anything exciting: they drink Bustelo coffee (can’t Fresh Direct do better?), they type on their laptops, they climb ladders to reach the bathroom.  One or two Flatlanders smile at me and acknowledge my presence.  Often I’m the only visitor there—which seems strange given how great Flatland is. 

The twenty-something dude who mans the door at the Sculpture Center calls me Chess Guy, as in, “You were here yesterday, Chess Guy.” 

Who is in more need of a life, someone who can afford to live in an art project for 20 days and not do much of anything or someone who comes day after day to watch people who are not doing much of anything?  I wish I could change my status from Flatland groupie to Flatland inhabitant.

Well, here’s the position from one of my chess games. I’m White and have a forced checkmate (oh goody, goody!) in two moves.

Flatland Project Game

Do you see the mate?

[May 16th update: my opponent, who has prematurely rejoined the three-dimensional world,  now cheerfully chats with me when we exchange moves online.  He says he is experiencing “flatlag.”]

Madness in Chess Alert

May 15, 2007

The Jerk  

Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/FOX.

Tonight’s episode of House, called “The Jerk,” features a sixteen-year-old chess prodigy with serious behavioral problems. Tune it for such memorable lines as, “It’s a real thin line between tortured genius and awkward kid who can’t get girls because he’s creepy.”

The Defense

May 14, 2007

I’ve been rereading Vladimir Nabokov’s early novel The Defense, about Luzhin, a socially maladroit grandmaster who comes to see the entire world as one big chess game.  The book is a fun read, and it was necessary for me to review it because I discuss Luzhin’s decent into madness in my own, forthcoming book about chess obsession, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game

English was not Nabokov’s first languagehe collaborated with a translator on The Defensebut the book is a lexicographic wet dream.  His exuberant prose is bursting with simple and sesquipedalian words, which stumped me (and I used to oversee a dictionary company!).  

Opening the book at random, to pages 178 and 179, I find half a dozen unfamiliar words on that spread alonea testament to his erudition (and the fact that my religious upbringing was obviously sub-par):

  • epigaster
  • censer
  • thurible
  • matins
  • censer
  • paschal

Five points for guessing which word means “the posterior part of the embryonic intestine from which the colon develops.”  Ten points for unobtrusively slipping the word into a conversation!