Archive for the ‘Pascal Charbonneau’ Category

Justice, Finally, in Libya

August 3, 2007

In June 2004, I went to Tripoli with Canadian champion Pascal Charbonneau to watch him represent his country in the world chess championship. At that time the United States did not have diplomatic with Libya, and the United States Chess Federation had discouraged American players from participating. I attended anyway because I really wanted to witness a world championship for King’s Gambit and the tournament organizers were trying to arrange for me to play chess with Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi, who was funding the 64-player knockout championship with $1.5 million of his personal assets.

But my visit turned into a nightmare after I was detained and interrogated repeatedly because they suspected that I was a CIA agent who might fire a poison dart at Gadhafi. A month before I arrived, a Libyan “court” had imposed a death sentence on five Bulgarian nurses who had come to the health-care-impoverished country as idealists eager to help save lives but ended up framed for infecting 400 children with HIV-tainted blood. During my detention, the possible imminent execution of the medics was big news, and was very disturbing to me because I, too, did not want to be made an example of by the Libyan “court” system.

Fast forward to this past week, when I was out of the loop on international news because I was in the jungle in Costa Rica: the six nurses, after extensive appeals by many European heads of states, were finally set free. They had been imprisoned since 1999 and under a death sentence for the past three years.

Let Me Dream: King’s Gambit the Movie

July 26, 2007

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

Ignoring My Fortune Cookie, I’m Off to Costa Rica

July 23, 2007

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 Damiana tech head, hard rocker, and filmmakersent 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.

No Rest for the Chess Weary

July 21, 2007

Irina Krush, 23, the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, is making her way today from Stillwater, Oklahoma, the improbable site of the women’s championship, to Montreal, where she is playing in the seven-round 2007 MonRoi International Women’s Grand-Prix Finale. The first round is tomorrowshe doesn’t even get a day’s restand continues through July 28. Chess organizers generally do not consult each other about the timing of their tournaments, and so the professional chess circuit can be grueling or even maddeningly impossible. (A ridiculous example of the latter happened in May, when Gata Kamsky, the top rated American player, had to sit out the U.S. Championship, also in Stillwater, because of a prior commitment to play in a strong tournament in Europe.) OK, Krush’s hurried travel to Quebec is made easier by the flush of victoryand the fact that chessmate Pascal Charbonneau is waiting there to celebrate with her. They are both two-time champions, he of Canada and she of U.S. Women’s chess, of course.

While Irina was tearing up the chessboard in Stillwater, which is America’s newest chess mecca thanks to the generous sponsorship of Frank Berry, Pascal was playing his first two games in the 2007 Eighth Montreal Chess International, one of the strongest chess events ever held in North America. It is so strong that Pascal, rated 2503, is seeded last! He lost the first game and then winged his way through an opening he barely new (the White side of the Two Knight’s Defense) to achieve a draw against “Chucky,” the No. 1 seed Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine. Ivanchuk, the No. 4 player in the world, with a rating of 2762, outranked Pascal by an imposing 250 points.

Pascal told me that he was happy Irina had won. Now, he said, he could try to focus on his own remaining games in the tournament (there are seven more rounds, the last on July 28) rather than worrying about how she was doing.

Thanks to MonRoi, the games in both and 2007 MonRoi International Women’s Grand-Prix Finale.

Irina Krush is the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion

July 20, 2007

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Irina Krush, 23, is the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion. She went undefeated in nine rounds, winning five games and drawing four.  She won the title once before, when she was 14 and became the youngest U.S. Women’s Chess Champion ever, a record that still stands. In 2000, she continued to break records by becoming the first American woman to earn the title of international master. Irina emigrated from the Ukraine in 1988 before she turned five, the age at which her father taught her the game.

Irina’s life revolves around the game. “I am very chessy,” she once told me, when I was interviewing her for King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game. Irina is uncomfortable giving interviews—she’d rather be playing chess than talking about the game. But one morning at 3:00 A.M., when I was driving home from a tournament with her and Pascal Charbonneau, she was unusually philosophical. Of all the top players I know, she is the most idealistic about the power of chess to give meaning to life.

“Chess is a gift that civilization handed us,” she told me. “I believe chess can bring me closer to the spiritual part of this world in a way that simple material stuff can’t.” She sees no intrinsic reason why women can’t play as well as men but doubts whether there will ever be many women in chess. “You have to be obsessive to play the game well, and women aren’t as obsessive as men,” she said. “I’m not fanatically crazy about chess. I like the game but I’m not going to study it ten hours a day like many male grandmasters did when they were teenagers.”

Chess Preparation, the Canadian way

July 19, 2007

Today, a very strong international chess tournament starts in Montreal, and my friend Pascal Charbonneau, a grandmaster and two-time champion of Canada, has been warming up this week by playing blitz games on the Internet against a world-class opponent. Each side had only a mind-whirling three minutes. (Three chapters in King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game feature Pascal’s struggle to earn the grandmaster title and achieve a respectable performance in the 2004 world championship in Libya. It was in Tripoli, when I wasn’t being harassed by Libyan intelligence agents, that I first saw how Pascal avoided serious preparation for his opponents by spending serious time on Internet speed chess.)

After seventeen moves in one of this week’s blitz games, Pascal reached the following position as White in the opening known as the Sicilian Dragon.


His opponent had “sacrificed the exchange”–given up a high-valued rook for a lesser-valued knight–to fracture the pawns around White’s king and accelerate an attack on Pascal’s king. Moreover, Black’s wily knight is both attacking Pascal’s corner rook and threatening to deliver a devastating check that would fork the queen. What did Pascal do?

When you want to know the rest of the game, please see chess problem answers.

U.S. Chess Queens Call a Truce

July 18, 2007

Irina Krush, the No. 1 seed in the 2007 U.S. Women’s Championship had a short draw last night with No. 2 seed Anna Zatonskih in the fourth round of the nine-round tourney in Oklahoma, an unlikely chess mecca. Krush’s official chess rating is only a hair higher than Zatonskih’s. I had expected Irina to go all out to beat her chief rival because she’ll need to lap Zatonskih, who is half a point ahead of her, if she is going to win the coveted title of U.S. Women’s Champion. But Zatonskih chose an unambitious response to Krush’s Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the two cerebral gladiators agreed to a very quick draw, on the 11th move.

Grandmaster Pascal Charbonneau, who watched the game from Montreal over the Internet, told me that the drawn position was dull. “Neither of them wanted to continue this boring game,” he said, “because there wasn’t much fight in the position.” He said that, even with the 1/2 point deficit, Irina stood well in the tournament, because she would have more Whites than Blacks in the remaining five rounds and had already faced her strongest adversaries.

Go Gata, Go!

May 31, 2007


At the halfway point in the first match in the World Championship Qualifying Tournament in Elista (”Help me, MapQuest!”), Kalmykia, the Brooklyn legend Gata Kamsky has surged to a commanding 2.5-.5 lead over French phenom Etienne Bacrot. 

The word on the rue is that Bacrot—who once had the distinction of being the world’s youngest grandmaster—has turned his attention from I-can-barely-pay-the-rent chess to I-can-buy-the-building poker.  (Poker is legal in Paris, unlike in New York, and the elegant Aviation Club de France, founded in 1907 at the dawn of heavier-than-air flight, is a congenial place to play poker late into the night.)  

Whatever the reason for Bacrot’s shaky play, I’m happy Kamsky is winning, and not just because I want to see an American play in the World Championship in September in Mexico City.  But also because I want Kamsky to avenge the loss Bacrot inflicted on Canadian champion Pascal Charbonneau in the 2004 World Championship in Tripoli, Libya.  I accompanied Pascal to North Africa then and watched everything he did that week to prepare for his two-game battle with the Frenchman.   

Three chapters of my book, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, are devoted to Pascal’s chess career and our exciting and harrowing adventures on and off the chessboard in Tripoli (I was detained there and accused of being a spy).  Here’s an excerpt from the chapter called “Gadhafi’s Gambit and Mr. Paul”:

It was now forty-five minutes until his game with Bacrot, and Pascal told me that it was time to put chess aside, stop our heavy conversation, and do “the most inane thing possible, something that required no thinking whatsoever.”  We didn’t have much to work with.  The television in our hotel room received only two English-language stations, and the first, CNN International, was hardly comforting.  Paul Johnson Jr., an American engineer, had been kidnapped in Saudi Arabia, and CNN was replaying footage of his distraught wife pleading with his captors not to behead him. 

Luckily, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was on the other channel.  We watched as Lieutenant Uhura told Kirk, “Captain, I’m getting something on the distress channel.”

“Maybe,” I said, “she’s picking up Bacrot’s cries of anguish as you crush him.”

Pascal laughed. 

A few minutes later Kirk was being philosophical: “Admiral, how we deal with death is just as important as how we deal with life.” 

“He’s speaking to you, Pascal,” I said.  “He’s telling you that if you reach a bad position you must not cave in.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” he said, and he pantomimed a sizzling tennis serve. 

“Strike!” I shouted. 

Pascal looked deflated.  “Shit!  If you thought that was baseball, I’m in trouble.” 

“No, no. I meant to say, ‘Ace.’  I got the word wrong.  Sports isn’t my thing.”

He served again.   

“Ace!” I shouted.

 “Better!” he said.  “Now I’m going to beat the punk.”

Krushing Victory

May 21, 2007

Pascal Charbonneau and Irina Krush 

In the sixth round of the 2007 U.S. Chess Championship, Irina Krush of Brooklyn defeated Bay Area resident and rising star Joshua Friedel.  Krush, one of the players on my fantasy chess team, is profiled in my forthcoming book, King’s Gambit: a Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.   

An excerpt from King’s Gambit:

Irina’s life revolves around the game.  “I am very chessy,” she told me.  Irina is uncomfortable giving interviews—she’d rather be playing chess than talking about the game.   But one morning at 3:00 A.M., when I was driving home from a tournament with her and Pascal, she was unusually philosophical.  Of all the top players I know, she is the most idealistic about the power of chess to give meaning to life.  “Chess is a gift that civilization handed us,” she told me.   “I believe chess can bring me closer to the spiritual part of this world in a way that simple material stuff can’t.” 

Windows Expert Needed in Bulgaria

May 19, 2007

Mig Greengard’s Daily Dirt blog at, which has the superb tag-line “Because losing sucks,” is a must read for chess professionals and their fans.  On Wednesday, May 16, a curious posting stream appeared called “Help Wanted! Elista or Bust”—a general plea for assistance in replacing grandmaster Gata Kamsky’s malfunctioning laptop in Bulgaria—and then curiously disappeared.  Kamsky, a Siberian turned New Yorker who graduated from law school, is America’s best hope since Bobby Fischer for winning the world chess championship.  To play for the world title in September in Mexico City, he must first do well in a qualifying tournament that starts in a week in Elista “help-me-Map-Quest” Kalmykia.  

Kamksy is now warming up in the M-Tel Masters tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria, and can’t use his computer, which houses his all-important chess-opening preparation and a database of his past games as well as his opponents’.  Hence the Daily Dirt plea, which suggested that Kamsky faced the same dilemma as a working mom: he could not shop for a computer in Bulgaria because he had to play chess during the hours when the stores were normally open. 

The fact that the No. 1 ranked U.S. player and his supporters have to scramble for a computer on the eve of his representing our country in a world-championship-qualifying match says something very pathetic about the state of American chess.  Can you imagine Tiger Woods or his manager having to post an ad on Craigslist because the champ misplaced his clubs?  Or Lance Armstrong, because he couldn’t find his bicycle? 

Doesn’t Kamsky have a back-up of his preparation on hand? 

In 2004, I accompanied Pascal Charbonneau to the world championship in Tripoli, and the Canadian Champion installed a copy of his opening preparation on my PC—and he almost needed it after he plugged his laptop into an outlet in the hotel room and the outlet kind of exploded and the electricity in the entire wall blew out!  (I could have provided Pascal with more support in Libya if I hadn’t been taken into custody and harassed on suspicion of being CIA, but that’s a long harrowing story, which will have to wait until the publication of King’s Gambit.)

Why can’t Kamsky just ask the  M-Tel organizers to help him get a new laptop? A world-class competitor like Kamsky customarily employs a “second”—a strong player to help him come up with opening-move novelties and lend moral support.  Can’t Kamsky’s sous-chef take an hour out from cooking up novelties in the Queen’s Indian Defense and go shopping in Sofia for a computer?  Or does Kamsky not have a second? 

And why doesn’t the United States Chess Federation, which has 80,000 dues-paying woodpushers like myself, just step in and buy him a new laptop or fix him up with someone who can reinstall Windows?  I can’t think of a better use for our dues than to support our very best player. 

After a few posters on ChessNinja ridiculed Kamsky because of the Help Wanted request (someone named Eoa slighted Bulgarian, perhaps?wrote, “Lets see a lawyer that can easily earn over a hundred thousand a year easily in the USA needs help from chess peasants laughable. If He is going to play pro let him act pro.”), Kamsky himself wrote to explain that the matter would be dealt with privately and that “Everything is fine:)”.  The Help Wanted thread subsequently came down. 

The latest Daily Dirt blog entry indicates that Kamsky now has a new laptop and new software because good Samaritans intervened and shipped them to him.

Mig’s site does a dynamite job of tracking Kamsky’s progress in Bulgaria (he’s now tied for second place).  News about the M-Tel tournament and his progress can also be found at ChessBase News and Chess Life Online.