Archive for the ‘words’ Category

Owen Wilson and Me

September 4, 2007

The current issue of People, with an anguished Owen Wilson on the cover, is the first consumer magazine to review my book. I’m happy that People awarded King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game, three and a half out of four stars!

“Chess has long been known as the game of kings,” People wrote,” but according to journalist and former Encyclopaedia Britannica president Paul Hoffman, it also attracts models, madmen, and malcontents. Take Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of chess’s international governing body, who rules the semi-autonomous Russian province of Kalmykia and believes the game has extraterrestrial origins. The author’s thorough study of the sport is rife with backstabbing, suicide and adultery. The sum is a story readers will find fascinating, even if the closest they’ve ever come to playing the game in checkers.”

King’s Gambit will be in the stores in seven days, but pre-publication copies are available at 34% off.


“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”

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”?

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.'”

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.

PC Fishing

July 13, 2007

Walking through a gourmet food market in Grand Central Station, I was struck by a sign promoting wild salmon.  “Line caught!” the sign trumpeted.

Now there is a legitimate food-safety debate about the relative merits of eating farm-raised fish versus free-ranging salmon.  At first blush, farmed salmon would seem to be the better choice because they have not bred in carcinogenic streams.  But the farm-fed fish actually turned out to have higher levels of carcinogens in them because of what they were fed, and they had undesirable traces of the antibiotics they’d been treated with so that they didn’t get sick in their over-crowded enclosures.

So wild fish are probably healthier (and generally tastier, not to mention free of the pink dye with which their raised-in-captivity cousins are sometimes injected).  But the issue of how a wild salmon is captured would seem to have little bearing on our physical well-being.   We’re not even talking about whether these wild fish had the satisfaction of a free-ranging lifethey all swam free.  We’re just talking about how they spent their very last moments.  It can’t matter to our own physical health whether a wild fish was “line caught”and heroically exited this world after a mano-a-mano struggle with a lone craggy angleror was instead unsportingly identified by radar and herded with hundreds of its hapless brethren into the mass grave of a mile-long net.  But I guess it could matter to our guilt-ridden mental health if we imagined the fish we’re about to eat as a noble fighter, nearly pulling the fisherman into the water, and not the victim of mass slaughter.


July 9, 2007

Driving into the Baked Apple today, where temperatures may reach 100 degrees, I was listening to WAMC, the public radio station out of Albany.  They had a call-in show in which listeners were asked to share what they thought was good about America.  One man from Boiceville called in and said it was good that in our country, even though it was polarized, he could attend a Pro-Choice rally and come home and not find that a Pro-Lifer had played “mailbox baseball.”

I was unfamilar with this vivid expression, although I realized of course what it meant.  Now I find a whole Wikipedia entry on the topic detailing all the movies and television shows in which mailbox baseball, aka mailboxing, has been depicted.

Just How Much Chance Does a Snowball Have in Hell?

July 5, 2007

There’s a front page article in The New York Times, on the uphill battle of the government of Mauritania (an Islamic republic in northwest Africa) to combat obesity in women, where men have long prized fat as sexy. “Until lately,” the article says, “a Mauritanian woman in jogging shoes was roughly as common as a camel in stiletto heels.”

Now the picturesque camel analogy, in an otherwise serious piece, is too jaunty, not to mention confusing. I venture to guess that camels in stilettos are never seen. Did the Times writer mean that? That jogging women were never seen, or just rarely seen? It would have been better to skip the colorful humpback reference and just say what was meant.

The camel in stilettos got me thinking about similar phrases, like “a snowball’s chance in hell.” Of course, the snowball’s chance, for long-term or even near-term survival, is zero. But just how long would a baseball-size snowball last in hell? Anyone care to make some calculations?

You Get What You Pay For

June 22, 2007

On the radio station 1010 WINS, I learned a new idiom.  There was a report about a meeting in New York between black community leaders and the police department in which the black leaders urged the cops to learn to talk to street kids using the language and idioms of the street.  Reverend Calvin Hobbs also suggested that the police receive higher salaries.  “If you pay peanuts,” he said, “you get monkeys.”  Anyone know the origin of this expression or other examples of its use?