The Moves That Matter Part 5: The King Ain’t Got No Hustle

HUSTLE

Jonathan Rowson writes, “I have a friend who never reads or watches anything recommended by only one person, but acts almost immediately on the advice of two or more. He enjoys looking out for such signals and waits for the world to reveal to him what he should do. He says he appreciates books and films all the more when he senses that they are meant for him, and while I am charmed by his methodology, I fear for his sanity. I thought of him when I started watching The Wire

on DVD in 2011. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0306414/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) The series is a gritty and sometimes harrowing take on the urban drug scene in Baltimore, USA, and is awash with swearing and violence. From that kind of description, I found it hard to imagine I could like it, yet with so many trusted friends telling me I would, I relented, and was pleasantly surprised.”

The opening theme music for HBO’s series The Wire is a song written by Tom Waits titled “Way Down in the Hole” (1987). Each year, during the series’ five-season run, the producers selected or solicited a different version of the song. As a series, The Wire is often interpreted as lacking a space for representations of Black spirituality. Each of the five seasons features complex institutional characterizations and explorations of the Street, the Port, the Law, the Hall (i.e., politics), the School, and/or the Paper (i.e., media). Through these institutional characters and the individual characters that inhabit, construct, and confront them, The Wire depicts urban America, writ large across the canvas of cultural and existential identity. For all of its institutional complexity, The Wire then serially marginalizes Black spirituality in favor of realism, naturalism, and some may argue, nihilism.1 “Way Down in the Hole” is a paratextual narrative that embodies this marginalization and creates a potential space for viewers (and listeners) of the show, one that frames each episode and the entire run, through literary and spiritual Black musical contexts. The multiple versions of “Way Down in the Hole” ultimately function as a marginalized repository for the literary and spiritual narratives that are connected to the series—narratives that become legible via intertextual analyses and in turn render visible The Wire’s least visible entities: Black spirituality and the Black Church.2 (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137305251_7)

Something similar happened to me some years after Jonathan decided to invest the time watching what has come to be on everyone’s short list of the best series to grace a screen. For many years I considered the best television series of the genre commonly known as ‘Cops and Robbers’, to be Homicide: Life on the Street


(https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106028/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1)
The Wire rivaled Homicide and may have even superseded it. Ironically, both series are set in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

“The characters are raw and compelling and their dialect electrically authentic. I remember being irritated to find that audiences in America watched some films set in Scotland, like Trainspotting, with English subtitles, but the street language of The Wire is also so far from conventional English that I initially had to do the same. Still, in an early episode I knew I had made a good decision to watch when I saw one young drug dealer – D’Angelo – teach two others – Bodie and Wallace – how to play chess.


“Ya’ll can’t be playing checkers on no chessboard yo!” – D’Angelo Barksdale

this particular scene is an extraordinary work of art; a beguiling mixture of social commentary, existential despair, youthful hope and dark humour.”

“D’Angelo describes the king as ‘the kingpin’ and says that the aim of the game is to protect your own king and get the king of the other side. He says the king can move one square in any direction but that he doesn’t have ‘hustle’.”

“There are many worlds within that word: hustle. As a noun and a verb, hustle hints at a relationship between a setting and a plot, a juxtaposition that defines the moral ambiguity of characters in The Wire. Describing the king’s lack of hustle is a succinct way to say that the king is rarely out on the streets; in professional terms he does not have to solicit clients. The expression also means the king does not directly display force, he’s not typically aggressive, he’s not illicit, not in a hurry, but equally he doesn’t have what you might need to get things done. ‘Hustle’ is sometimes admirable, not least when it seems necessary; the word conveys the spirit of entrepreneurial transgression needed to survive.”

“The king

may not have hustle, but nonetheless he survives for longer than the other pieces by definition. Checkmate – from the Persian Shah Mat – literally means the king is dead. ‘The man’ is therefore the ultimate target of attack, but he is surrounded by people who will give their lives to protect him, and often do. Most chess endgames when few pieces remain, are characterized by the king suddenly becoming emboldened, partly because with fewer enemies around it is relatively safe to come out ‘into the street’, but also because there are fewer allies left to do his hustling for him.”
“The realization that life-and-death chances are not fairly distributed is what makes the chess scene from The Wire so poignant.”


D’Angelo (center), explaining chess to Wallace (left) and Bodie (right), triangulated in a
way as to distinguish a hierarchy within the Barksdale crew

“As the rules of the game are described by D’Angelo, Wallace and Bodie can see their own lives in the game’s metaphors, giving rise to an open question of who or what exactly they are living in service of, and why.”
“Bodie, himself a pawn in the drug wars, points to the pawns, and asks about ‘them little baldheaded bitches’. D’Angelo explains that they are like soldiers and shows how they move, saying they are out on the ‘front lines’. Bodie gets excited by the possibility of pawns getting promoted, about becoming ‘top dog’ if he can ‘get to the end’. D’Angelo is quick to disabuse him of the probability of that happening, implying that they often get ‘capped’ (shot) quickly.”


‘The queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.’
(https://www.kingpinchess.net/2010/02/the-queen-aint-no-bitch-she-got-all-the-moves/)

“Bodie shoots back that this may not happen if they are ‘smart-ass pawns’, which he himself later proves to be, surviving and rising through the ranks until series four. Wallace, on the other hand, proved as vulnerable as most pawns do, and died a few episodes later when he was just sixteen after trying to leave the drug scene. Bodie, Wallace’s friend, was also his assassin.”

“The writers loop back to this scene in series four when Bodie is speaking with Detective McNulty and considering his next move. Bodie is resolute about not being a snitch and conveys that he has done everything he was told to do by his bosses since he was thirteen, including killing his friend Wallace. McNulty know the context and has clearly grown to admire Bodie, calling him ‘a soldier’, as D’Angelo called the pawns earlier. At that moment, after years of imagining he might somehow escape or transform his fate, Bodie sees the truth of being a pawn more clearly, and realizes he is still ‘one of them little bitches on the chessboard.’ McNulty clarifies: ‘Pawns.'”

“In an early chess manual published around the middle of the sixtenenth century, Francois-Andre Philidor

describes pawns as ‘the soul of chess’, and this line is widely quoted by chess teachers and commentators because we know and feel its truth. Pawns are not the most powerful pieces, and they are mostly at the mercy of events, but they have a certain amount of hustle and they both set the scene and shape the narrative.
What occurred to me while watching The Wire is that most of us are pawns to a greater or lesser extent. We have our moments of power, fame and glory, but we are always potentially alone and vulnerable to forces beyond our control. We are the soul of the game of life, and our lives are precious not in spite of our fragility, but because of it.”

The Moves That Matter Part 4: Chess and Education

“A chess position can be thought of as a system, and probably should be to fully appreciate the game’s educational value. Systems thinking is a form of perception above all, imbued with understanding that wholes have properties that do not exist in the sum of their parts, and that everything is connected to a greater or lesser extent. Defining ‘system’ too tightly risks reifying it into one thing of many, which obscures the premise of systems thinking namely that the fundamental features of life are not things at all, but more like relational processes.”

“In chess the system is deceptively simple and the key question is where its boundaries lie.”

“Perhaps the challenge of thinking systemically explains why chess is so difficult. Indeed, the comedian Stephen Fry

aptly described chess as ‘ludicrously difficult’. If a person doesn’t like things that are difficult, they won’t like chess, which is fundamentally about loving the struggle of reaching beyond our grasp.”

“Since ludicrous difficulty and inevitable mistakes are two of chess’s main assets, it is no wonder that chess is a stiff marketing challenge. In effect, the unvarnished selling pitch would be something like: ‘Play chess! It is extremely difficult and absolutely maddening. You will definitely screw up and possibly feel like an idiot, but you will love it. Hurry while stocks last. Two players for the price of one!’ Of course, in reality, chess promoters sell the sizzle and not the sausage, by foregrounding themes of depth, strategy, play and intelligence. I wonder, however, if something might be gained by making more of the game’s role in helping us experience difficulty and mistakes, which is the character-forming terrain where educational value is deepest.”

The Need For Evidence

“On a frosty day in February 2013 I was one of nine people gently checking each other out across a round table in a high-rise office building on the south side of the River Thames. The meeting was full of words like ‘power’, ‘confidence’ and ‘fidelity’. I felt like I had skin in the game because there was a lot of money at stake; but this was not a legal office and these were not divorce proceedings. The agenda was how to devise and complete a rigorous quantitative study of chess in education. ‘Power’ is a statistical term conveying the likelihood that the study would detect an effect of chess on education if there was an effect there to be found. ‘Confidence’ was about the robustness of any such a finding, and ‘fidelity’ was about the process of the chess intervention being consistent and true to its purpose in each place it was tested.”

“The four academics from the Institute of Education at the University of London knew they would potentially be doing the research, and they seemed dispassionate, as if the meeting was an extension of their day jobs. Two senior staff from the Educational Endowment Foundation looked under thirty, but they would be the ones to establish whether the project was viable and fundable. They seemed excited, as if they had already been given a green light from elsewhere and knew the right answer was yes, but they had to be seen to be doing their due diligence. And then there was a friend of mine, the director of the chess and education charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), Malcholm Pein,

who had developed a comprehensive chess teaching programme over several years and had access to the schools where the research would happen. The potential prize was evidence not only that chess in schools made sense, but that it might make particularly good sense for the poorest children; a dream result for those like Malcolm who love chess as much as they dislike inequality of opportunity. And then there were Malcolm’s wingmen conferring moral and intellectual support: Sandy Ruxton, an experienced policy researcher and chess aficionado, and me, deeply grateful to have grown up playing chess in a regular state school, and hoping others would have similar opportunities.”

“The conversation did not go quite as I hoped it might. Often despite their better judgment, educational professionals are institutionally bound to care more about test results than the social and emotional contexts and thinking dispositions that arguably give rise to them. A policymaker spending public money is acutely aware of being accountable to the taxpayer, so they need to know that educational gains are caused by the active ingredients in chess as such, and not by the mere fact that pupils are, for instance, sitting down and taking a breather from normal lessons, or because the time allocated to chess reduces or eliminates something else that is having a negative impact.”

“The agenda of the meeting is therefore best understood in juxtaposition with suggestions about all the things that should be taught in schools. Those who have sound reasons for suggesting the inclusion of one thing rarely have good reasons for justifying the exclusion of another.”

“Prior to any formal research, few would doubt that chess might make a valuable contribution to educational outcomes. On the face of it, the game should teach us how to think under pressure, to plan, to concentrate, to improve out reasoning by considering competing ideas, and so forth; the fact the game has wide cultural and historical resonance and is so cheap and inclusive adds to its viability. However, at the time of the meeting, and without broader cultural support for the game that reduces the need for validation research, there was little compelling evidence that chess in particular should be part of a national curriculum or a major feature of school life.”

“In one sense the meeting went extremely well and the research proceeded as planned, but I remember feeling quiet desperation at the time, as if what the room seemed to be agreeing to do risked missing the point entirely, The three chess players in the room knew that chess informed education in a profound way and we were eager to share stories that might begin to explain why. However, there was nothing about the discussion or the proposed research process that made our experience seem relevant. We were welcome to be there, and we chipped in now and again, but in terms of what the funders were hunting for, and the tools their academic hunters were planning to use, we were bystanders with no relevant insight or formal standing to influence events.”

“The money eventually rewarded for the project was £689,150, which is significantly better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, and gives some idea of the ambitious scale of the research. The aim was to measure the effectiveness of CSC’s thirty-week programme on 4,009 Year 5 (age nine to ten) pupils across one hundred schools with varying socio-economic intakes in terms of their standard attainment test (SAT’s) results in mathematics at the end of that Year 5, compared to control groups, with some secondary outcomes relating to English and science also considered. The evaluation of this landmark study into chess and education was published towards the end of 2016. The conclusion was effectively as follows; no evidence of effect.”

(John Jerrim, Lindsey Macmillan, John Micklewright, Mary Sawtell and Meg Wiggins (independent evaluators), Chess in Schools evaluation report and executive summary, Education Endowment Foundation, July 2016. Available at https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/filesProjects/Evaluation_Reports/EEF_Project_Report_Chess_in_Schools.pdf)

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2
Pink Floyd
Produced by Roger Waters, James Guthrie, David Gilmour & 1 more
Album The Wall

[Verse 1: Roger Waters & David Gilmour]
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

[Chorus: Roger Waters & David Gilmour]
All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

[Verse 2: Islington Green School Students]
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!

[Chorus: Islington Green School Students]
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

[Guitar Solo]

[Outro: Roger Waters]
Wrong, do it again! *Children playing*
Wrong, do it again!
If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
(Wrong, do it again!)
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
(Wrong, do it again!)
You! Yes! You behind the bike sheds! Stand still, laddie!
(If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?)
(You! Yes! You behind the bike sheds! Stand still, laddie!)
*Children playing*
*Phone beeping sound*

https://genius.com/Pink-floyd-another-brick-in-the-wall-pt-2-lyrics

The Moves That Matter Part 2: An Analogue Creature Floundering in a Digital World

An Analogue Creature Floundering in a Digital World

In chapter five, Cyborgs and Civilians: Algorithms are puppeteers, Dr. Rowson writes, “I was not yet aware that I would be a father the following year, but it was in that life context of beginning to detach from the chess world that I had the privilege of helping world champion Viswanathan Anand prepare for his match with Vladimir Kramnik.

When it became clear that the chess world was going to get the contest it wanted, I offered my services to Anand. I was a strong middleweight Grandmaster rather than a heavyweight, but analytical help is about more than chess strength. Unlike many hired guns, I had some lateral perspectives on chess, an easy rapport with Vishy, and I genuinely wanted him to win. The plan was to offer a few opening ideas for him to develop and some speculative psychological insight for him to ignore.”

“I was also eager to participate in preparation at the very highest level. I had no experience of World Championship preparation, but I had red descriptions of other matches from the seventies, eighties and nineties. Most of those matches were in pre-computer or early computer days, and what I assumed might be a slight shift in emphasis was much more fundamental. I imagined that the training would be part of over-the-board analysis session, part inquiry into the psychodynamics of competition, and part Rocky IV training montage, where Sylvester Stallone lifts huge blocks of wood and runs through the snow.

I expected the training to be roughly 20 per cent physical, 20 per cent psychological, 30 per cent on the computer. In fact, the work was about 95 per cent on the computer, and virtually all of that time was spent trying to help Vishy form new ways of achieving good positions in the opening phase of the game. Just as finding needle in a haystack is easy, if you have a metal detector, finding an important new chess move is easy, if you have the right software.”

“To give an illustration of how far the experience deviated from my expectations, I was in two minds about whether even to bring my computer to the training (a basic Sony Vaio laptop I had used for years). Very soon after arrival, before a pawn had been pushed, Vishy asked me: ‘How many cores do you have, Jon?”
‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ I said, which was clearly not a reassuring answer. Vishy talked me through finding the relevant details on my computer. When he saw it on my screen he paused ruefully and said: ‘Oh, Jon has only one core.’ Kasim (Rustam Kasimdzhanov)

and Peter (Heine Nielsen)

looked at each other, a little troubled. I had no idea what was going on, but it was as if I had arrived at the border to a new country, only to learn that my passport was not valid. Vishy looked mildly ruffled but said it did not matter, because it was possible to connect to online analysis engines – a mysterious notion at the time because I had never done that before, but is was a source of hope too. Alas, I then had painfully mundane problems relating to getting the wi-fi to work, and realized I was slowing the team down. I maintained a professional face, but inwardly I was approaching one of those childlike moments of absolute humiliation.”

There follows a description of what is a core, and what it does, culminating with, “It was only because I was literally up to speed with the others that I could enjoy several productive days at the camp. But I will never forget that feeling of being an analogue creature, floundering in a digital world.”

The author felt that way because, “The work however, happened as the four of us sat around the same table in our on worlds for several hours in a dimly lit room late into the night. The scene was like a Silicon Valley incubator house: humanoids with transfixed faces lit by the glow of computer screens.”

“Mostly we followed the best ideas according to the analysis engines with what Vishy joked was ‘space-bar preparation’ – when the analysis engines are synchronized with the position you are navigating, rather than move the pieces on the screen with your mouse, you press the space bar to keep the engine going down the line it deems to be most accurate for both sides, while watching it unfold on the position on the screen. It is a kind of thinking, I suppose.”

I found this rather sad because it sounds more like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel than real life. Some of my most interesting and enjoyable moments with Chess were those spent analyzing positions with one, or more, players. The arguments were exuberantly endless, and elevating. Maybe the variations were far from best but the interaction with fellow humans was wonderful. Something may have been gained with the coming of the digital age, but something much more important has been lost, never to return to the Royal game. As IM of GM strength Bois Kogan was fond of saying when looking at one of my games, “This is NOT CHESS!”

The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life: Part One

The review will begin with the bottom line. The book is a lovingly written, magnificent masterpiece. Anyone reading it will be richly rewarded in ways they may not even understand at the time of reading. This is most definitely not a book one reads and forgets. It is a book to savor.

I met Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson at the World Open in 2002 while assisting Thad Rogers in the book room after turning certain victory into defeat in the first round and after losing the next two games Thad needed help and the book room looked inviting. There was a discussion concerning his book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins,

which had been read the previous year. Later I read Jonathan’s Chess For Zebras,

which was very entertaining, and while working at the Atlanta Chess & Game Center I advocated any and everyone purchase his excellent books. All I recall now about our conversation is that other books were discussed and when asked to name my favorite novel I answered immediately, “The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse.”

“Really?!” he said before continuing with a question, “Why?”

Why, indeed. I no longer remember how I answered, but do recall being taken aback, because most people with whom I have mentioned the novel have not even been aware of the book. I also recall Jonathan displaying actions which led me to believe he was about ready to leave, so the answer was truncated. In addition I recall Jonathan saying, after I answered his question, “Fascinating!”

GM Rowson tied for first at the 2002 World Open. Because of the pleasant memories of the chance encounter I will admit it is difficult for me to be completely objective. In addition, upon learning of the forthcoming publication of the book about to be reviewed I contacted the publishing company, informing them of the blog and the encounter with Jonathan, while informing them I would like to review the book. I had hoped to finish reading the book long before publication in order to review it ASAP, but life intervened. Another factor is that the book required much more thought than I had imagined, which is a very good thing. A quote from the book comes to mind: “You cannot think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.” – cognitive scientist Martin Minsky. Therefore reading the book required much more time than I had imagined.

The book is full of wonderful quotes, which is a positive thing. Decades ago there was a show on public television, Thinking Allowed, hosted by Dr. Jeffery Mishlove.

http://www.thinkingallowed.com/jm.html

Jonathan Rowson would have made an excellent guest on the program. (Just put Thinking Allowed into the Startpage.com search engine and found: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFk448YbGITLnzplK7jwNcw. Oh happy day!)

After briefly perusing the book one long time National Master Chess player closed it before saying, “Where’s the meat?!” This meant GAMES. After explaining there were about two dozen games contained in the notes he exclaimed, “What kind of Chess book is that?!” This caused me to consider the question too long because he began talking before I could answer. I was never able to answer his question because, to his way of thinking, a Chess book with mostly words was most definitely NOT a Chess book. This has caused me to reflect upon what, exactly, is a Chess book. For example, consider Frank Brady’s book on Bobby Fischer, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.

Would it be considered a Chess book? Maybe what constitutes a “Chess book” is what is in the eye of the beholder…

The Moves That Matter is is a book about oh so much more than Chess. It is a book written by a man who devoted most of his early years, and maybe half of his life, to the Royal game, so therefore it does contain much Chess put into words, but, strictly speaking, it is not about Chess. It is about so much more than a mere game. The book is about life, and thinking about life. Although the reader will be entertained, it is not about entertaining per se. It is a “deep” book which will cause the reader to do some seriously deep thinking. That is to be expected since Dr. Jonathan Rowson is an applied philosopher. “The Society for Applied Philosophy was founded in 1982 with the aim of promoting philosophical work that has a direct bearing on areas of practical concern.” (https://www.appliedphil.org/)

In lieu of a review I have decided to write about the the ideas and questions contained in the book. Copious notes were taken while reading; twelve pages of college ruled note paper to be precise. What I will attempt to do is share some of the thoughts and questions in the book that caused me to question and think about those thoughts and questions.

The book contains eight chapters each broken down into another eight sub-headings. The format caused me to reflect upon one of my favorite books, The Eight,

by Katherine Neville.


Katherine Neville in 1985
A photograph of the author in San Francisco’s Marin Headlands, California, 1985.

In the first chapter, Thinking and Feeling, under sub-heading #5 Asking Pertinent Questions, one finds, “There are many different ways to frame the educational value of chess, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would probably be: ‘questions’.

If I had three words it would be ‘questions about relationships’. As the writer Marinan Benjamin puts it, to ask a question is to invest in attentiveness, to declare a stake in the answer, and that is one of the many gifts of chess; you cease to be a passive recipient of information, and become an active learner – an intrinsically rewarding experience. Playing chess is about posing questions to the opponent, and answering the questions they pose you; the little questions are always nested inside bigger ones.”

We will move ahead to the last chapter, Life and Death, under sub-heading #64, Facing up to death. It is written, “The 2009 Acropolis Open in Greece was overshadowed by the death of a respected Greek player, Nikolaos Karapanos, who had a heart attack just before executing a winning move in his first-round game. His opponent, Israeli Grandmaster Dan Zoler, who happens to be a doctor, tried to revive him, but Karapanos stopped breathing before the ambulance arrived.
This story indicates just how stress-inducing chess can be, but the deeper point is that we never know when our time will come. All the major spiritual traditions speak about the importance of being ready for the unthinkable, and the importance of being ready for the unthinkable, and the importance of dying at peace, without undue regret.
It seems profane to point out that Zoler resigned the game, but he also withdrew from the event, stating that he no longer felt like playing chess in the circumstances. You can hardly blame him. Chess sometimes seems singularly charming and vitally important, but a brief reflection on our mortality has to lead to some searching questions. Is this it? Pushing these pieces around? Is this what I am supposed to be doing?”

Nikolaos Karapanos vs Dan Zoler
24th ICT Acropolis (2009), Chalkida, Greece, rd 1, Aug-10
Catalan Opening: General (E00)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Bb4+ 4.Bd2 c5 5.Bxb4 cxb4 6.Bg2 O-O
7.Nf3 d6 8.O-O a5 9.a3 Na6 10.Nbd2 Qc7 11.h3 Rd8 12.e4 e5
13.Qe2 b6 14.a4 Bb7 15.b3 Re8 16.Rad1 Rad8 17.Rfe1 exd4
18.Nxd4 Nc5 19.f3 Nh5 20.Nf1 d5 21.cxd5 Bxd5 22.exd5 Rxe2
23.Rxe2 g6 24.f4 Nf6 25.Nc6 Rd7 26.Ne5 Rd8 27.Nc6 Rd7 28.Ne5
Nxb3 29.Nxd7 Nxd7 30.d6 Qc5+ 31.Kh2 Kg7 32.Re7 Qc8 33.Ne3 Nf6
34.d7 Qd8 35.Ng4 Kf8 36.Ne5 Nc5 1-0
https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1554879

See the excellent article by Daaim Shabazz at The Chess Drum:

Playing Chess to Death

Aug 4th, 2019 by Daaim Shabazz

Playing Chess to Death

End part one

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

All The Wrong Moves Part 5: Marcel Duchamp’s Puzzle Without A Solution

Decades ago I read a book about Marcel Duchamp:

Although interesting I must admit to being somewhat disappointed because there is little Chess contained in the book. I was fascinated because Marcel renounced art for Chess. When it comes to Duchamp most Chess players will immediately think about the iconic photograph of Marcel playing Chess with a nude woman, Eve Babitz. Although similar, this is mot the picture to which I refer:

Eve has published a new book:

I prefer the cover of her earlier book:

Marcel Duchamp’s Problem

White to move (https://www.chess.com/forum/view/endgames/marcel-duchamps-problem)

“There are those moments when you’re aware that your human programming is a little defective. You become acquainted with the possibility that you’ve been designed to pursue insane commitments directly opposed to your survival. In these moments, when you feel like you need to call God on His private line and demand a refund for what He personally placed in you cranial cavity, it’s sometimes reassuring to remember that you’re probably not alone.”

“Given the number of people who have lived and died, there’s usually someone, alive or otherwise, whose faults resemble your own. For this reason, I often seek consolation in the story of Marcel Duchamp,

a man whose chess problem was a lot like mine, but dialed up to an implausible intensity.”

“You probably know Duchamp’s work, or have at least heard of him. Duchamp is considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, a reputation he established by infuriating people.”

“Duchamp is both loved and loathed – celebrated as the man who freed artists from their old constraints, and vilified by the people who thought those constraints were a good idea.”

Duchamp, my man!

In a 1952 interview with Time magazine, he said, “It (Chess) has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”

That was, two years after I was born, and this is now. In a futile attempt to commercialize the Royal game it has been besmirched and whatever purity Chess had has been replaced by greed so it’s position in society has been sullied. After informing someone you played Chess back in the day the response more often than not was, “You must be smart.” Now the reply is often a one word question, “Why?”

“But in chess, of course, there is no pageantry – none of the pompousness that Duchamp’s work tried to skewer. One can’t speculate about whether a chess move is honest or dishonest. Chess can’t be pretentious, or self serious. It’s just not that kind of thing. It’s simpler than all of that. It is what it is.”

What is it? Chess is a game. Nothing more; nothing less.

“In the final analysis, Duchamp gave up being one of the great shit-stirrers of the artistic tradition, and ended up being a mild curiosity in the history of chess.”

“I am still a victim of chess,” he (Duchamp) said, in the aforementioned Time magazine interview.

“If you’re a player starting late in life, the most you can be, generally, is third class. Duchamp actually did remarkably well, given the low ceiling of chess achievement available to a late bloomer.”

I can testify to that!

“Moreover, age isn’t the only factor that constrained Duchamp’s success. If that were the sole determinant of chess mastery, then every intelligent player who started young and had a solid work ethic would have a shot at the World Championship. But that’s not the case. That’s really, really not the case. Being great at chess is also a matter of raw talent. Chess is one of those things, like music or math, that certain minds really fuse with. You just have it, or you don’t.”

Our hero returns to Toronto after five months travelling while attempting to find an identity.

“My time away left me with no real insights. My world view was not transformed. Everything was essentially unmodified, including me. While I wasn’t sure what I expected, I was sure that it hadn’t happened.”

Been there and done that…

“The only thing that was different about me was, well, chess. Or, rather, at that point the lack of chess, because I’d sworn to give it up – both to myself and to the few friends who knew about the more tedious details of my existence. After all, life was out there for the taking, and I shouldn’t spend all my time getting checkmated. But there was a cavity in my head where all the churning about the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Winawer French Defense used to be. Without the activation of that specific part of my brain, I felt weak and watery.”

I’ve had the exact feeling, often when in time pressure. Now there is no time pressure because time is added. Chess was better before time began to be added.

“Everything non-chess-related seemed silly.”

Are you thinking that if the man just gives it a little time he will drop the “non?”

“Once I had inhabited the realm of chess, full of violence and aesthetic beauty, but also replete with the restfulness of unambiguous actuality, my previous life was unappealing. When you quit chess, or try to, you don’t just leave a game behind. You leave a world behind. It’s painful. All I did was get drunk and circulate, inhabiting vague mental states in barrooms and living rooms. And on one of these nights

I came home a little more drunk than usual and fired up a little blitz game. The next morning, having realized that I’d played chess the night before, I told myself that a slip isn’t the same as a relapse, and I solemnly renewed my vow to never again move a single pawn. Six hours later I was in full relapse – a week disappeared into a long session of unsatisfying blitz. Following this, I tried again, this time installing software that prevented me from accessing chess websites. A few days later, I came home drunk again and uninstalled the software. Another clump of days evaporated. Finally, it got so bad that I told myself I’d trade one addition for another – I’d take up smoking again, which I had quit during my last month in Bangkok, in exchange for not playing chess. This is how I became a chain-smoking chess player.”


https://www.sartle.com/artwork/the-chess-game-marcel-duchamp

Duchamp’s Endgame, in Chess and Art

https://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/play-a-game-of-chess-with-marcel-duchamps-ghost/

All The Wrong Moves Review: Part 3 One Night In Bangkok

The third chapter begins, “My headlong descent into an Internet chess wormhole did terrible things to my personality.”

Let me take a moment to inform you, the reader, that I once tried to play the Royal game on the internet. This was at the former Atlanta Chess & Game Center on one of the computers in the back room. It only took a few games before the realization hit me in the form of a question. “What the fork are you doing, man?” That particular form of Chess held absolutely no interest for me and, frankly, I question the sanity of anyone who would do such a thing.

Mr. Chapin continues, “This is because Internet chess is a fertile breeding ground for hatred. When you’re playing someone who isn’t visible, known to you only by their nickname – SchellingFord or ButtSex69 – your competitive instincts are unmitigated by the basic civilizing effect of the presence of a living person before you.”

This reminded me of the time Lester Bedell, after having been away from the House of Pain for about a year, walked through the door just in time to be paired for the nightly tournament. I asked Lester where he had been during the year he had missed and he replied, “I was playing on the internet.” Later, between rounds, I asked Lester why he had returned to the House. “Mike,” he began, “It’s not the same, playing on a computer. I returned because I missed playing a human being.”

Sasha continues, “But on the Internet, the patter is a little different. When somebody asks you what cup size your mother is, you say, “Fuck you.”

“How your mother do it?”

“I ignored his continuous abuse until right before the end of the game, when I offered the gracious message “You lose.”

“Come in hell for cock suck,” he responded.

Why would anyone in their right mind spend their precious time cursing someone via the internet while playing Chess? There was much trash talking in the pits, or skittles room, at the House of Pain, but without the cursing and without involving anyone’s mother, fortunately. What was heard, mostly, was what could be called “good natured trash talk,” if such a thing is possible. I never liked trash talking and never understood why anyone would do it other than to break the concentration of his opponent. I would watch players trash talking each other while those watching the game would laugh uproariously and think of something IM Boris Kogan was fond of saying, “This is not chess.” Writing this caused me to reflect upon something written in the previous chapter, “Badly played chess is kind of like badly played life.”

Because of constantly playing Chess on the internet, “My life was a constant alternation between triumph and ignominy, all delivered through the glow of my MacBook. The ratio of wins to losses was the determinant of my whole emotional spectrum.”

Is that not sad? Then reality struck.

“At some point I became alarmed that I wasn’t actively seeking human company. It wasn’t exactly that I was getting lonelier. It’s that I was disturbed by how little my loneliness was affecting me now that I was playing chess. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. There was an ideal personality I was supposed to be striving for: that of a witty and urbane writer-type who would fling consequential phrases from his well-compensated fingers before going our in the evening to quip his way through intimate gatherings and win over strangers with lustrous anecdotes. But none of that was happening at all. In Bangkok, a bright and gritty city, totally free to be whomever I wanted, I was becoming a chess nerd.”

Who wants to be a chess nerd, right? Actually, Chess nerds come in various shapes and sizes. To wit:

“So, I downloaded Tinder, in an attempt to prove to myself that I still possessed worldly desires. Resultantly, I met up with a cute girl named Sundae on a lantern-lit patio. She was charming and smart and full of contagious optimism, sure that both of our lives would be forever involved in a state of continuous improvement and joy.”

Oh, to be young again! Her name was Cecelia Jordan, Cecil for short. She had driven a clunker all the way from Sacremento, California, to become a stewardess for Delta Air Lines. She was cute as a button with a rather deep voice like that of one of my earliest crushes, June Allyson. She initiated me into the “Mile High Club.”

I digress…

Sasha and Sundae had a wonderful one night in Bangkok. “But later that week, when she sent me a very felicitous text, I was deep in a chess game. Two days later, she texted me again, at 1 a.m. But I didn’t respond immediately because I was deep in a chess game.”

He fell into the rabbit hole…”My only contacts with non-chess reality were Elena and Sally…”

“So, it occurred to me, in Bangkok, as I started feeling like a sack of fatback left under a heat lamp, that I might be in the middle of this cycle again. Perhaps my chess infatuation was just another vanishing fancy…”

To Sasha it was obvious things had to change because, “I was becoming frightened of my increasingly hostile interior landscape, so I decided that I needed counsel. Therapy occurred to me…Instead, I decided I needed the presence of other chess players, who would steer me in the right direction. I took a shower, got on the Skytrain, and went to meet the Bangkok Chess Club.”

The club met on the upper floor of a pub on the far end of Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s high-efficiency sex markets. Pink lights illuminated pink banners over bars where pink drinks were served by women wearing pink bikinis. Reality was painted one color. Up and down the neon-crated avenue, the working women preened with numbers pinned to their chests. It was a slow night, so the salesmanship was particularly energetic. One woman in a barely existing spandex onesie took my hand and asked me where I was going. When I didn’t offer a distinct answer, she took hold of my crotch. I gently removed her hand from my person, saying something like, “Excuse me, ma’am, I have to go to chess club.”

“At the chess club…Social affiliation has only one cost: the game of chess. Friendship in chess is simple. It isn’t about smartly signaling that you’ve got the right opinions about recent topics. It’s about examining small areas of the game’s infinite tapestry – finding each other in a landscape that transcends the complexities of cultural taste, as well as every geographical boundary. This common bond engenders a positive spirit. With the exception of a few petty jerks, chess players tend to be cooperative creatures.”

“That first night at chess club

brought me back from the edge of melancholy.”

“There are different kinds of players, and broadly, you can sort them by how crazy they are.”

“Strangely, I now remember those pre-tournament days fondly, and not just because of the specialty beverages of Southeast Asia. When you’re devoting your life to chess, even if the devotion is as troubled as mine was, there’s a satisfying purity to it all. You’re surrendering yourself to a search for aesthetic pleasure as well as mental fitness. Chess, to the seasoned player, is pretty like poetry is pretty – it bears the wonder of indelible combinations arising from a simple language.”

It also brought information about a chess tournament, and a chess teacher named Mike. Before the first round of the tournament Mike said, “I’ll be watching you.”

“Do you have any advice? I asked.”

“Be calm,” he said. Ignore psychology, ignore your self, ignore the face of you opponent – just play a good move.”

“I lost the game in fifteen moves, in fifteen minutes – an astonishingly brief amount of time…”

“After I slept for twelve hours, I emailed the tournament directors, announcing my resignation. I would not be attending the remaining six games. This brought me great, instant relief. Clearly, I had been right when I was a teenager – chess just wasn’t my game. A chess hobby would lead only to misery and frustration. I decided to quit, and to keep doing things I was good at.”