Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chessaholics Anonymous

ME: Hi. My name is Ernie and I'm a chessaholic.
ALL: Hi, Ernie.
ME: It's been forty-four days since my last pawn push.

I wish to start out saying that I don't do drugs. I hardly even drink since I dislike the bitter taste of alcohol and it wreaks havoc on my digestive tract.

In considering my dysfunctional relationship with Caissa, I concluded that my relationship with chess is less like a codependency with a sadistic girlfriend and more like a drug habit. I've heard that the hallucinogen LSD was popular because of its mind-expanding effects, but I've also heard that "bad trips" discouraged its use. Chess is like a drug where your wins are good trips and your losses are bad trips.

Polly calls her addiction to time scramble chess "cracktion".

In my ninth game of the Reno Club Championship Qualifier, I won against strong A player Mark Rand. Going into it, I really had a defeatist attitude. "I'm facing the three highest rated competitors in my section. I just came off a loss. I'm out of form. I can't calculate any more." I made some opening choices that further hurt my confidence. I decided to play into the main lines of the Najdorf even though I've never played a tournament game against it. I hardly ever castle queenside because I think my king is a sitting duck on c1 as opposed to g1. But I grimly set myself to the task and memorized a few lines. Of course I was out of my book in seven moves. I even gave up my beloved bishop pair to double his f-pawns. The game was good on some levels, disappointing on others. My opponent said he kept checking for the thematic Nd5, but just when he forgot, I played it and ended a tactical exchange one pawn up. Both sides had some pawn weaknesses, but the black pawns seemed worse especially since they blocked his bishops. I had some good ideas restricting his play like a boa constrictor, but missed some of the best ideas. Basically, I just exchanged all the pieces except for my good knight against his bad bishop and ground him down with the extra pawn. Although I knew I had the advantage, the endgame wasn't very clear to me until the h-pawn dash at the end. When he played f5 and broke up my pawns, I thought, "Uh-oh. There goes the win." At one point, seated at the board, I lifted a cup of water to my lips, but halfway there, I noticed that I was shaking like a junkie. I don't know if my opponent or the couple of spectators noticed, but I quickly grabbed my left hand with my right, just to get it to stop shaking. This was my sixth longest tournament game ever.

My knowledge of the Najdorf was limited to the thematic Nd5 move, e5 and f5 pushes, and play against weaknesses on e6 and f7. Fifteen years ago I had a similar pawn formation playing Black and survived a missed mating attack to win my first three-figure prize. In this game I think I was basically lucky that my opponent walked into positions that I knew how to milk in a general fashion without actually knowing specific variations of the terrifically booked Najdorf.

After the game, you'd think that I could sleep better than after my previous round loss, but I actually slept worse, about three hours. However, this time all the bad variations were in my nightmares and when I awoke, the win was still mine. Still, I wonder if I'll have to completely kick this habit some day because of the weird things it does to my mind and body.

The wins send me into a euphoric mania while the losses send me into a wallowing obsession. Both paths lead to insomnia. The day after is a hangover of sleep deprivation and guilt that I let a stupid game mess me up. Here's my pale imitation of the inimitable Chessloser.

ME: Um, Caissa? I think our relationship has taken an unhealthy turn. Maybe we need to take a break.
CAISSA: You're breaking up with me? YOU'RE breaking up with ME? I'm a goddess! You're a lowly expert and a weak one at that.
ME: See, you're cutting me down again. I need someone who will be a positive influence on my life. Someone like...Scrabble.
CAISSA: You're choosing that skank with the shapeless tiles over this statuesque beauty? Don't think that I didn't know you've been two-timing. You're gonna regret this. You'll come crawling back. Best of all, I won't even miss you. Drop dead, you patzer!

Maybe I'm just trading one crazy girlfriend for another, but I'm participating in a Scrabble tournament here in town next week. My wife will not only be there to keep me grounded, but she'll be playing, too. I predict that Scrabble won't be able to inspire the same depth of passion as chess, but maybe a little less insomnia is healthier for now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Freak Show

Here are two book reviews. I hope people don't get offended by my broad-brushes with the word “freak”. Taking a cue from Mr. Fatsis, I consider these personalities freakishly accomplished.

King's Gambit by Paul Hoffman
In my review of The Chess Artist, I ended up panning the book mostly because I felt robbed at the end by the author's disillusionment and estrangement from his friend and chess itself. After reading King's Gambit, I would say that Paul Hoffman's book is the one I had been seeking.

King's Gambit explores the lofty aeries to the depths of abyss experienced by those chess artists that commit the best part of their lives to the game. The heights include interviews with Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. The depths include analyses of the usual suspects: Morphy, Fischer, Bloodgood. Not only did Paul Hoffman interview FIDE President Kirsan Ilzhuminov, but he also played a tense King's Gambit against him which ended in an agreed draw. The author's friendship with Pascal Charbonneau allows us to vicariously live the triumphs and tragedies near the top, including the penultimate aspiration chessplayers can have aside from becoming world champion: becoming an International Grandmaster.

One of the most amusing parts was reading about Charbonneau's terrible study habits. The most dramatic part was the intimation of threats of bodily harm in Libya.

Paul Hoffman himself is quite a character with an amazing resume including: graduating summa cum laude from Harvard College, steering Encyclopaedia Britannica, steering Discover magazine, and being color commentator for ESPN on the man vs. machine match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Fritz. When I found out he was also the man behind the pseudonym Dr. Crypton, whose puzzles I had played with as a teenager reading Science Digest, I had a "No way!" moment. Ridiculously ubiquitous.

The inclusion of his complicated relationship with his father points up the subconsciously patricidal psychology of chess illuminated by Ernest Jones' analysis of Paul Morphy. I felt disappointment that the author's marriage fell apart, but perhaps feel privileged that he confided this with me as the reader of his memoir. I hope that his own experiences are a cautionary tale on how to maintain his relationship with his son. As with Chess Artist, I sensed an estrangement between the author and chess, backed up from what I see in the USCF databases, but Hoffman recently defended his legitimacy as a continuing chess player by pointing out his participation in an unrated 2007 city team league. Whereas there is still disillusionment at the end of the book, there are still relationships to fall back on in the larger scheme of the author's rich life. Since the book was autobiographical in scope, the larger context of accomplishment makes the disillusionment less jarring. This time, I didn’t feel robbed.

Word Freak by Andrew Fatsis
Word Freak is an entertaining and thorough treatment on the history of Scrabble and the colorful (read dysfunctional) personalities that inhabit its upper echelons. Again, the story follows the author's own efforts to find some level of accomplishment in the game while hanging out with amazingly skilled anagrammers. Many of the chapters are entitled simply with a four digit number which was his rating during that time. Ups and downs and self-loathing are all too familiar.

I was most amused when he described the craving for more legitimacy for Scrabble as a socially important pastime relative to chess which has its own inferiority complexes, usually craving the legitimacy of golf and tennis. The question "Why can't tournament Scrabble be as legitimate as tournament chess" makes me laugh when I think about chess' current sad state of governance. The doubters' refrain "It's just a game" hounds the Scrabble players who like chess players seem to be hopelessly behind the house in terms of life spent in questionable pursuit. Books like these help to document and legitimize the common effort of a chosen - or stigmatized - few.

Being a book about Scrabble, the words themselves became a star subject. Having spent some time memorizing a few 7-letter bingoes myself, I appreciated it when Fatsis worked words like ETESIAN (an annually occuring wind) and SENARII (Greek or Latin verses consisting of six metrical feet) into the everyday vignettes. One gets the impression that the English language is one massive fusty museum with entire wings of forgotten words that only get visited by the pedantic Scrabblers in search of their next bingo or clever word hook. The sheer mental exertion required to cram hundreds of thousands of obscure word patterns into a mind is reminiscent of the herculean task of cramming chess openings and tactical patterns into these fallible brains. The sieve and the sand. A visit to a lexicographer who seemed to possess the keys to the entire English language in his modest ascetic apartment came off as positively surreal.

In both of these books, the authors are fairly proficient practitioners of the games, nearly experts. They feel the inferiority complex of hanging with the masters without being able to really hang with the masters. I think this is the sweet spot of writing for an amateur audience. They are both skilled writers who can describe in beautiful detail the promised land from a lofty vantage point, but like Moses, they themselves are not allowed to enter. Author and reader commiserate in the bittersweet wistfulness of mediocrity. I highly recommend both King's Gambit and Word Freak as clear and luxurious picture windows on these freakish worlds within our world.