Monday, August 28, 2006

Chess dharma

Illustration by Michael

Things aren't always as they seem. Never underestimate the person in front of you.
I offer this not as advice, but as self-admonition.
I'm less likely to forget that which I've written down.

Because of Sunday's monsoons, I played chess at the public atrium inside the Sony building at 56th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
When I arrived, there were five or six games going on, and a few were compelling enough so that their spectators didn't feel like peeling their eyes off the action to play a newcomer.

Sitting at a small table by himself was a fellow with arms folded across his chest, half-dozing, half-watching the game at the table next to him.
"Wanna play?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah, sure, I'll play," he said in a flat, emotionless voice sprinkled with a hint of uncertainty.
He spoke with his eyes half-closed. He was dishevelled. His flannel shirt was half-unbuttoned. His sneakers were old and tired and didn't have laces.
I wondered if he even knew how to play.
It turned out that he could play, and masterfully.

Jeff and I wound up playing more than seven straight hours of chess -- from 3 till past 10 p.m. -- with each other and as part of a foursome.
I'm just getting home now, and my head is still spinning.
Jeff critiqued my games, gave me a lesson in key opening moves and complimented me on my creativity (but pointed out in no uncertain terms just how much I have yet to learn).

Through karate, I've learned to respect all opponents as if they were deadly foes, which they often are. But sometimes, this lesson gets left behind when I leave the dojo.
Through chess, I get to see this principle in a perspective that's at once different and identical.
I picked up some great pointers Sunday, the most important being that the beauty and intricacy of a person's mind has little or nothing to do with outward appearances.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

All in all ...

"But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious."

Jack Kerouac
"The Dharma Bums"

Monday, August 14, 2006


Sunday was chess day, as has become my custom this summer.
For the past two weeks, the small group with whom I play gathered at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. We had been playing in Washington Square in Greenwich Village, but we grew tired of the constant come-ons of the drug dealers, the keen competition for tables in the shade and the non-stop din of latter-day flower children with their drum circles and sing-alongs.
Bryant Park is more quiet and civilized.
I saw a few familiar faces from Washington Square and met a new cast of characters who have turned Bryant Park into a chess haven.

It seems that few of the players go by their given names. They all have nicknames.
There's Elementary, a master player so dubbed because his moves are textbook-perfect as he dismembers you.
There's Doc -- yes, a medical doctor -- who says he has a strong aversion to knights because he was forced to eat horse meat during World War II. It doesn't make a difference, though, because Doc (one of the best amateur players around) could spot you both knights and both bishops and still beat you handily.
There's Van, whose nickname origin is lost in the mists of time.
And Sunday, I met Cornbread, a lanky, laconic man whose soft drawl and thousand-yard stare give one the impression that he's a little spaced out and detached. But the gears of that beautiful mind are always in motion, and I watched him whip a strong player and still fit in a two-minute nap between moves.
I also saw Dave, a clever and resourceful player who had beaten me quickly and soundly in Washington Square a few weeks ago.

Watching the several games going on simultaneously was an older, slightly disheveled fellow in a sky blue silk shirt and fedora. He looked like he stepped right out of 1950s Little Italy.
Leaning forward in his chair, he would intently check out the game in front of him for half a minute, then shift his gaze to the other games being played nearby.

Dave defeated his opponent, and it was my turn to play him. We played two games. Dave easily defeated me both times. I turned to the fellow in the fedora and asked him if he wanted to play Dave.
"Ah, no, he's too strong for me," Dave said. At first, I thought he was being sarcastic. "If he spots me two minutes, I'll play."
We play timed games, either five minutes or seven minutes long, depending on the ability level of the players.
The clock was adjusted so that Dave had five minutes to complete his moves, and Hank, the fellow in the fedora, had three.
Within a minute, Dave found himself in a world of trouble. Within two minutes, his situation was hopeless. A second game was played with much the same result, and Dave quickly got up and moved to one of the other tables and was quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

Hank, it turns out, is a master player, a former member of the oldest and most prestigious chess club in New York City. He knew Bobby Fisher when the onetime world champion was just a teen (and a world-class player even then). Hank has played with some of America's finest.
And here he was playing me, game after game.
Of course, he crushed me. We'd get maybe five or six moves into a game and the stage would already have been set for a lopsided victory. He would tell me where I went wrong, we would set up a new game, he would be on the verge of annihilating me and then would explain how I had walked into the trap.

It turns out that Hank is a chess teacher in his spare time. I asked him how much he charges for lessons. "Do you think you can manage 10 bucks a lesson?" he asked.
I became his student today.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Still here

It has been two weeks since my last entry.
I'm still here.
I just haven't had much to say.
Call it the summer doldrums.

One interesting note: The site meter I use for this blog allows me to see how people wound up here. Lately, there have been a few visitors (or perhaps the same repeat visitor) who have been steered here through search engine inquiries on parathyroid cancer and related topics.
This is a compelling development, in that I'm always willing to share my experiences with other people who have this illness. I encourage such visitors to contact me either by commenting on this blog or through e-mail (via the hyperlink on my profile).

Please know, however, that I'm not interested in dwelling upon doom and gloom. Sometimes, I have a natural inclination to do so, but I strive to rise above it and I certainly don't need fuel for it.
So, yes, I'm very interested in sharing my experiences and hearing about yours, but let's try to be as circumspect and optimistic in our correspondence as possible without ignoring reality.

Finally, just a word of advice for those of you who may be using the Internet as a research tool on parathyroid cancer -- or on any serious illness, for that matter.
Don't do it.
Or, at least, don't consider the information you glean from the Internet to be the final, authoritative word.
A lot of the information is outdated or misstated. What you read will have you thinking that it may be time to settle your earthly affairs and prepare for the end.
That's bullshit.
Find a competent doctor, and then find a second and a third to weigh in on one another's opinions.
Otherwise, you'll scare yourself silly, often needlessly and mistakenly so.

OK, I'm off my soapbox.