Prisoners Lose Sleep over Chess

January 9, 2008

Fellow chess blogger Michael Goeller has an interesting post on prison chess.  Michael’s post was occasioned by a report in the Scottish press that two of that country’s “worst killers have struck up a bizarre jail friendship over games of chess”; the two men are said to keep their fellow inmates up at night when they shout chess moves to each other from their respective cells.  So far things are more civil in the Scottish prison than they were in the Ohio jail where one convict choked another to death because the victim abandoned their chess games too soon.  “Every time I put him in check,” the killer said, “he’d give up and want to start a new game. And I tried to tell him you never give up….  I just got tired of it.”


January 8, 2008


As a veteran of the magazine industry, I enjoy looking at premier issues of new titles. The other day, at my favorite kitchen store, I came across Meatpaper, an arty magazine put out by two recovered vegetarians. The photographs are striking (The one above is from an article called “They’ve Got Chops” about three women who run an artisanal butcher shop in San Francisco.) Meatpaper aims to capture what its founders call Fleischgeist, “the growing cultural trend of meat consciousness, a new curiosity about not just what’s inside that hotdog, but how it got there, and what it means to be eating it.”

I thought the magazine might inspire my fleish-adverse eight-year-old to give meat another chance, but he didn’t find the machete-wielding gals as beguiling as I did.

Lip Balm Stains Chess Tourney

January 7, 2008


Anna Rudolf, recent cheating-smear victim (as depicted on Susan Polgar’s blog).

I am back blogging, after a long holiday break.

The latest (false) cheating scandal in international chess soiled the Vandoeuvre Open in France during the last week in December. Latvian grandmasters were fazed by the strong performance of Anna Rudof, who was unexpectedly leading the tournament. The disgruntled GMs accused the Hungarian phenom of cheating.

The pattern of these nebulous accusations is often the same, as in Toiletgate and Toddlergate: a successful player is accused of going to the bathroom too often and having physical or wireless access to a chess-playing computer. In Rudolf’s case, suspicion centered on her lip balm, which was said to be a wireless device for communicating with a remote silicon adviser. To her chagrin, the organizers confiscated her handbag and lip balm before the key round. Her opponent refused to shake her hand before the game and told her she didn’t play fair. Her concentration was rattled and she ultimately blew the game.

The Web site Chessdom has an interview with Rudolf and continuing coverage of the nonsense.

It is now too common in chess for disgruntled losers to raise the specter of cheating without offering a shred of evidence. False allegations, which are maliciously made in order to hurt a player’s reputation and confidence, are as much a threat to tournament chess as are real cases of hidden microcomputers and surreptitious wireless devices. The problem is that FIDE, the international chess federation, has let the false accusers run amok.

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.


[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


[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


[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


[Above photo from 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.