Dr Richard Cann R.I.P.

In Memoriam: Richard Cann

Friday November 8, 2019

Longtime Go-player Richard Cann, 68, died on Sunday, Oct. 6th of ALS. A memorial service will be held Nov. 16th from 1-4pm at the Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Rd, Pennington, NJ 08534.

Born in Pasadena, California he grew up in Denver, Colorado and lived for many years in Hopewell Township, NJ. He received a BA in 1972, and a Ph.D. in 1978 from Princeton University. He was a member of the United States Chess Federation, the American Go Association and the Recording Industry Associates of America. He was the IT Director for the Atlantic Trading Company from 2002 until the time of his death.

Richard was known for his passion for music; the game of Go, which he played at a 2 dan level; and his joy in skiing the black diamond trails of Colorado with his brother. He enjoyed fishing and hiking on his trips to Colorado. He had 30 years of Sunday morning hard fought racquetball games with a dear friend. He was a skilled competitor with a generally superior ability at games of most sorts. His talented musicianship on guitar, violin and piano was expressed by the musical bands he formed and played with over his lifetime. He was known for his warmth, kindness, quiet sense of humor and his easy smile. He had a gift for teaching, whether it was a game, a musical instrument or a physics theory. He had great love for his family as well as the numerous dogs who were valued companions throughout his adult life. He is terribly missed.

Condolences can be sent to his widow, Joanne Sheehan at joanne.sheehan@pobox.com.
photo by Phil Straus

In Memoriam: Richard Cann

All The Right Moves

During the interval between finishing the book

and writing the review a younger fellow came to the Ironman Chess club one evening with his lady friend on his arm. As an unknown he attracted much attention especially when playing his first game with one of the regulars, a class ‘B’ player with obvious mental problems (he is the kind of human who, when he comes in contact with a dog, the dog begins to growl before baring its teeth and barking. At the House of Pain it was commonly acknowledged the fellow, “Ain’t right.”). The newcomer had the ‘B’ player on the ropes, and was actually winning. The worse his position became the more afraid were we he might EXPLODE. Fortunately, the newbie blundered and lost the game and the frown and stare of his opponent turned into a smile while he “talked shit,” happy as a clam, while his opponent continued playing out the lost cause his game had become.

I was next in line to play a game with the newcomer. Before beginning the game I asked the young man a few questions, learning he had only played online Chess up to this point in his life. This made me think of the recently finished book, which was to be reviewed. While listening to the man I could see he had “The Look.” If you play any type of game you know about what I am talking. I have seen “The Look” many times throughout the course of my life. It has been noticed in not only Chess, but Backgammon and Poker. I even saw in in an opponent when playing Risk. Sure enough, we were the final two players in that particular game, and yes, I won. Writing about Risk reminds me of another game of Risk played in the Great State of Alabama many decades ago when returning from a Chess tournament. Big Al Hamilton, NM Michael Lucas, and I stopped at Doug King’s house and a Risk game was started. The three fellow Chess players were all from Alabama. When the game began Big Al looked at the other Bama brothers and said, “Let’s all attack Bacon and put him outta the game.” Since all three of them would play before my turn the of my chances surviving were minuscule. After being wiped from the board I upset the board and that ended the game. I regretted it immediately because I needed a ride back to Atlanta. Fortunately, the Bama bro’s were the understanding kind of fellows and I made it back without having to ride the ‘Hound…

It was obvious the younger man could play some Chess, and had played some Chess, but, like most newbies, he “attacked” with only his Queen and Knight, eventually “winning” my Queen’s Rook. Unfortunately for him he lagged in development and his “plan” allowed me to place pawns on both d5 and e5 while infiltrating the seventh rank with a Rook, which was en prise for several moves on d7 while his Knight on f6 could not move because of a deadly pin.

After resigning they decided to leave, but we did have a chance to talk, with my learning he was twenty-nine and a programmer. I highly recommended he read the book, All The Wrong Moves, but not for the reason he thought. The email exchange will explain:

Oct 15 at 10:12 PM
Hi Michael,

Enjoyed meeting & playing you tonight!

I went to buy “all the wrong moves”, but the book description says it’s a memoir – is that correct? I was under the impression that the book you recommended was a chess tutor book.

Michael Bacon
To:
Oct 16 at 8:14 AM
Why would you have thought that? It’s about a 29 year old man who decides to enter the world of human Chess tournaments after first playing online. You NEED to read the book before taking another step into the Chess world.

AW

To:Michael Bacon
Oct 28 at 10:24 AM
Just finished the book and really enjoyed it, thanks for the recommendation. I read it as a cautionary tale to not get into chess! It does seem like for certain people (like me!) chess can have an addictive quality, so I’d like to enjoy it more casually.

I don’t think I’ll be able to make a club meet up until late november!

Make of it what you will but I prefer to think it was synchronicity that brought the man to the club of Iron. I also like to think he attained that for which he was looking at the Ironman CC. I realize there are many “true believers” reading this who will disagree with me. You know the type. To them “Chess is the BEST AND GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME!” They will ask, “Why did you do that? Chess needs more adults because currently the vast majority of humans who play Chess are children.” You know, the “Kill the messenger” kinda people. The fact is that I only gave the young man additional information to help him decide what to do with his time in the future. Besides, does the Chess world really need another stumble bum who gave up a promising career, and life, to do whatever it takes to get to the next round on time even though he may have to sleep on the floor underneath the table upon which a Chess game will be played in only a few short hours?

All The Wrong Moves Part Seven: The Secret Of Chess

This paragraph is the first of chapter 7: The Secret Of Chess.

I first stumbled upon the lectures of my future teacher and spiritual guardian,

Ben Finegold,

during a despairing google for chess tips in Bangkok. He was different from all the other chess lecturers I’d seen before. Most lecturing grandmasters, even the most charming ones, approach the game with a hushed reverence, as if delivering news on a pediatric oncology ward, or trying to placate an errant tiger. Finegold is the complete opposite. He’s charismatic, frank, and viciously funny, matching a respect for the game’s elegance with flagrant mockery of everything else. When Finegold’s students raise their hands, he often points a meaty had at them and says, “You, with the wrong answer,” or “You, with some crazy comment.” Upon hearing one of their replies, he’ll often respond, “Ugh, that was painful,” or “Hey, you’re the best player in your chair.” He’s given to claiming that the Panov-Botvinnik Atack was named after “Mr. Attack.” His lectures are littered with Tarantino references, imitations of other lecturers from hiss chess club, and fatuous advice like “never move pawns.”

Finegold

has a unique place in the chess world. He has ardent fans, because of his aforementioned characteristics, and many detractors, also because of his aforementioned characteristics. Moreover, he lives on an odd plateau of chess skill – that of the low-level grandmaster.

Ouch.

It seems like just yesterday Ben was being proclaimed “The World’s Strongest IM,” while gracing the cover of Chess Life (now Lifeless) magazine. Garner that coveted GM title and nobody knows your name…

The fact that this is a coherent concept is another illustration of the vast distance between the amateur and the professional player. To any player like me, any grandmaster lives in an unreachable and starry grove of intellectual superiority. Someone like Finegold can calculate in drunken sleep better than I can while achieving satori on Adderall. But, to most grandmasters, Finegold isn’t that notable, except for his personality.

Euwe, that hurts!

There are essentially two ways you could regard Finegold, given his position in the chess ecosystem. You could see him as a pitiable example of the game’s mercilessness, by focusing on the fact that Finegold never made it to the upper ranks. On the other hand, you could see him as someone who hurled himself directly into the howling void of chess and came out intact, with a fan following, two kids, a little house in Georgia,

and the ability to eke out a modest living by teaching his favorite game to captivated pupils –

occasionally including desperate adults who come all the way from Canada to absorb his teachings.

I arrived in St. Louis a few days before my first meeting with Finegold, to have a chance to explore the city. And during this pre-Finegold interval, I had a random meeting with a stranger that would prove to be an omen of the month ahead. She was a woman walking alone downtown, screaming.

“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Holy shit,” she screamed.
“Um,” I said.
“Fuck all these pussy-ass people,” she screamed.
“I am so tired of this life,” she screamed.
“Damn it,” she screamed.
She walked away. And, unfortunately, I came to agree with her about the city of St. Louis.

This is probably my fault. I am a great believer in the idea that a failure to love is often the fault of the lover. If I were more patient and more curious and more forgiving, I probably could’ve found more to appreciate. I’m told that St. Louis contains many beautiful sun-strewn lanes and cheerful people, and fun bars where tender words are exchanged over locally made beers of the highest quality. But that is not what I found. What I found was a humid, boring, and flat place, dappled with some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in North America. According to the website of the St. Louis Police, you shouldn’t “wear clothing or shoes that restrict your movement” in their fair metropolis, so you can run away from assailants if you need to.
The local food, also, is hilarious. There’s a special kind of pizza they make there, which is a prank played by Satan. It’s a cracker, topped with ketchup, finished with a goopy kind of processed cheese that you’ve never had before, because they invented a new kind of cheese for this pizza. It’s edible caulking that clings to the back of your throat, reminding you that you live in an unjust world.

Based on my experiences, I cannot recommend St. Louis. Unless, that is, you’re interested in studying chess. Weirdly, St. Louis is the home of the world’s best chess school. This is the greatest love of billionaire Rex Sinquefield,


https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36257742

a longtime St. Louis resident. Although he was never a skilled player, he was a skilled investor, to say the least, and he arrived at retirement age with enough money that he could quite casually open an air-conditioned temple devoted to his favorite game, and bankroll grandmaster lectures as well as exclusive tournaments with big prizes for the strongest players in the world. The club is housed in a pristine two-story commercial property, and might be mistaken for a posh hernia clinic or a yoga studio if not for the chess pieces depicted on the frontispiece’s stained glass windows.

We have now arrived at what I consider to be the best part of the book, that being the meeting of the teacher and the pupil.

“Hey, Finegold,” I said.
“Sup,” he said.
“I’m Sasha,

that Canadian guy.”
“Who?”
“That guy who emailed you.”
“I know who you are.”
“Yeah, so here I am.”

You ever notice that no matter where you go, there you are?

“How many lessons are you looking for?”
“I was thinking like ten hours.”
“You could do more – the more you pay, the more you learn.”

Wasn’t that the motto of Trump University?

As I considered this, a class of kids, whom he had just taught, flooded out of the classroom and started playing blitz in the lobby, which is to say that they started knocking pieces off tables, knocking clocks off tables, making illegal moves, and screaming at each other. Finegold presided for a few minutes until the parents showed up, delighting the kids with a barrage of verbal abuse, and then returned to me with a searching look on his face.
“Jesus, I want to kill myself,” he said, very quietly.
“Wait till you see my games,” I said.
“You’re not here to impress me, you’re here to learn.”
“But I’d like to impress you.”
“Well, you won’t.”

And he was right. He was right about everything. Sooner or later, everything he told me came true.

Just Because Someone Goes Crazy, It Doesn’t Mean You Also Have to Go Crazy

“If your wife

cheats on you, that’s bad,” Finegold said. “She shouldn’t have done that.

But if you then kill her, kill yourself, and the mailman, that’s not really constructive. You shouldn’t escalate a situation just because someone else did.”

“How does this apply to chess?” I said.

“Well, you consider yourself a creative guy, which is kind of a problem. So, from move two, you’re going out of you mind, trying to invent a work of genius. Which means that when your opponents play crazy, you start playing even crazier. Don’t do that. Just don’t be crazy at all. When they play weird, just play normal good moves. Other grandmasters will tell you that you have to punish your opponents for all of their mistakes. That’s one point of view. My point of view is that you have to win chess games.”

The wisdom of this became clear after the lesson, when we played some blitz at one of the tables

set up on the sidewalk outside the club.

The muggy air was licking my face. Cute couples walked by on their way to Whole Foods, unaware that they were passing a spectacle of truly historic importance: my first game against a grandmaster. It was also the first time I’d ever played against someone drinking two brands of seltzer at once. Finegold played the Slav Defense, an extremely solid opening.

“I hate playing against the Slav,” I said.
“The truth hurts,” he said.
“Is this a good move?”
“It’s a move.”
“But is it good?”
“Probably not. Whose turn is it?”

He moved his queen deep into my territory. For the first ten moves, I thought I might have a microscopic chance of victory, because I didn’t lose all of my pieces. But, every other turn, I made a slight mistake that I didn’t know I was making, and in the face of my craziness, he responded not with theatrics but with a quiet malice. As sweat dripped down my chest, I realized that a crowd was gathering – all the kids in the neighborhood wanted to see Finegold crush me. I tried to put up a good fight so I could entertain these little boys and girls, who were soon to be embittered adults, maybe losing at chess themselves. But Finegold didn’t give me a good fight – he gave me a slow, vicious grind, allowing me only to twist lamely while he attained total control. I was a jittery rabbit, running from a surefooted cheetah, in a maze whose pathways slowly curled in on each other and contracted, until we were confined together, predator and prey, in a tiny cell. Under the pressure, I cracked, and made a horrible blunder.
“You’ll have to forgive him for that,” Finegold said to the audience. “He’s tired, because he just moved here. From Crazytown.”

Finegold, who was always coming and going, and who noticed everything, observed that I was having a lot of fun, and that it was translating into my play as a whole. He disapproved.

“Take a look at those guys over there,” he said, during a lesson, pointing to an array of portraits of great players that hung on the far wall.

“What am I supposed to be seeing?” I said.

“Tell me who looks like he’s never had fun in his life.”

“Um, Kasparov.”

Garry Kasparov was the top-ranked player in the world for nineteen years, except for a three-month-long slump. And he was famous for his boundless, masochistic work ethic. “Chess is mental torture,” he said.

“Yeah, Kasparov never had any fun. Now, tell me who looks like he’s furious all the time.”

“Bobby Fischer.”

Remembering Bobby Fisher – I

“Yeah, Fischer. That guy didn’t have a lot of fun.”

What he was saying was true. Slow tournament chess, played well, is like violent meditation. The mind is wrenched by an evolving series of parenthetical thoughts, during which the limits of human cognition are directly assaulted.

“Being a winner starts when you realize what a loser you are.”

At my next lesson, I explained my emotional turmoil to Finegold. He was having none of it. “Your emotions are irrelevant,” he said. “You can’t stop protecting your pawns because you’re sad. Chess isn’t one of those crazy stories that you sell to a magazine. You’re not a hero; your opponent isn’t the villain.”

“It’s hard for me not to think like that. It’s kind of who I am,” I said.

“Well, then, don’t be yourself.”

“I can tell you everything I know,” he said, “but absorbing it can take years. Chess is hard. Like, let’s take a simple part of being a grandmaster. To be a grandmaster, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what your opponents want to do, rather than just focusing on your own plans. Saying that to you is easy, but it’s hard to do, because just thinking about yourself is kind of the human instinct. Being good at chess is pretty counterintuitive. A lot of the time, you’re fighting your basic tendencies.”

“That sounds hard.”

“It’s actually easy. It’s just impossible.”

I was twenty-nine years old. I walked back towards the metro station, through the deserted streets beyond, between beautiful art deco skyscrapers, and I thought about what Finegold had said at the end of our first lesson. After we’d gone through a few of my games, he had nonchalantly asked me whether I’d like to know the secret of chess.

“Um, sure,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But you’re not going to believe me,” he said. “And maybe you never will.”

This was correct. I had no idea what to make of the secret of chess. And I definitely didn’t believe it. Only later, much later, when I was walking on a beach in California, did his words really strike me with their full force.

The review must end somewhere, and this is where it ends. It seems I have written, arguably, too much, but actually, it is only the tip of the iceberg. To learn the secret of chess, according to Ben Finegold you must find a copy and read it for yourself. You can thank me later…

All The Wrong Moves Part Six: Floating In A State Of Static Mediocrity

This is the penultimate post in what has become my longest book revew, ever.

“People love using chess as a metaphor. Supposedly, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the most chess-like of the martial arts. One chef I knew, upon hearing of my passion for the game characterized his selection of flavors as a “chess game I lay with you mouth, bro.” Part of me hates this tendency. After all, as I’ve mentioned, part of what makes chess wonderful is how much it isn’t like all to this other shit we put up with on earth. Chess has a way of encircling the imagination, of generating fanciful poetics and dubious conceptual linkage.”

Our hero meets Katherine, “…a senior editor at a publication that demanded scrupulously written arts criticism based on diligent research. He “…delivered to her inbox a scrambled piece of mumbo jumbo, larded up with a few pretty sentences so she maybe wouldn’t notice how bad it was. She noticed.”

And a new game of love was on!

“I lived two lives: a public, romantic one with Katherine, and a private, shameful one with chess.”

His chess life “…mostly consisted of playing thousands of games at my computer, huddled and nonplussed. This was not satisfactory. It was lonely and unglamorous and possessed no drama beyond the momentary rages of one game or another. When I told my children about my twenties, I didn’t want to explain that I spent big chunks of it in my bedroom staring at digital chess pieces, surrounded by granola bar wrappers, occasionally noticing the snow drifting by the window. And more importantly, I didn’t want Katherine to see me abasing myself in such a fashion.”

It would appear our hero had come to a fork in the road of life. Or as Yogi Berra (https://yogiberramuseum.org/about-yogi/biography/) said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“No. If I was going to be a victim of chess, like Duchamp,

I was going to be a proud victim, like Duchamp. If I was going to waste my hours, I was at least going to waste them flamboyantly. Rather than skulking alone in my room, I decided, I would hold my head high. I would play in real tournaments, in countries near and far, for real money, against live, breathing opponents, hopefully with Katherine at my side…”

He did this because, “…chess is about the most human thing you can do.”

And because, “Chess takes the most banal act of all – violence – and makes it a symbolic ballet with a culture entirely of its own.”

The author, “…decided to set myself an ambitious goal that I would almost certainly fail to achieve, the key word being almost.”

“Yes, I thought: in roughly a year, I would play in the Los Angeles Open, and I would beat a player whose rating was at least 2000. That would represent a violent assault against the limits of my truly meagre talent.”

Why a 2000-rated player?

“Well, it’s just such a satisfying number: those three zeroes standing neatly in a line. Also, the prospect brought me a sort of vicious glee, because I imagined that whoever had taken their rating past that second thousand would be quite proud of themselves. Proud enough that they’d feel extra bad when their position came crashing down before me.”

When I began playing Chess seriously as an adult in Atlanta, Georgia, the top players attending the Atlanta Chess Club at the YMCA on Lucky street in downtown were rated near 2000 but there was not one who sported a 2000 rating. Although there were a few players with a rating beginning with a “2” Tom Pate was the top active player with a rating in the high 1900’s. When seeing the first number of my rating a “2” I will admit to being “quite proud.” I stopped playing Chess to begin playing the much more lucrative Backgammon and upon returning to Chess the going was difficult, to say the least. There was a period when bonus points stopped being added which caused rating deflation, making it even more difficult to garner the much needed rating points. When I did finally break the Expert barrier the Legendary Georgia Ironman said, “You did it like a salmon, Bacon, by swimming against the stream!” Tim figured I would have made it over 2100 if bonus points were still being handed out, but that mattered not to me because I had a TWO at the beginning of my rating.

Our hero made the decision to play in a tournament knowing, “All tournaments are created equal. Most are inglorious little affairs conducted in church basements on weekends. You do battle with a crowd of local yokels… Meanwhile, top-tier tournaments are calm,buttoned-down affairs, sponsored by energy companies and banks, taking place in spacious, teal-carpeted venues.”

“Economically, chess is sort of like acting: top people make money, second-rate people teach, and everyone else receives spotty compensation at best.”

The tournament was in Canada. “There’s a menacing lull that precedes all open chess tournaments – a silence tinted by the excitement of incipient conflict felt by a room full of dorks awaiting their fate. Their fate is determined, during those long moments, by the arbiters,

who run an algorithm that determines the pairings. Also, the computers are always beat-up old PCs. There are no Macs in the chess world. The anthropological significance of this is left to the reader.”

And what did our hero learn from the experience of playing in his second tournament?

“This is one of the embarrassing things about coming to chess in your twenties. When you’re in the lower ranks, your opponents are basically of two varieties: children with promise who haven’t yet developed their skills, and adults who are long past their peak, too old to calculate complicated tactics. Meanwhile, you float in the middle, in a state of static mediocrity.”

And…

“Clearly, I needed to stop relying on my own judgment. What I really needed was a teacher – someone who could actually figure out why I was so terrible. One name came to mind instantly: that of Grandmaster Ben Finegold.”


Ben and Karen Finegold in happier daze