November 14th, 2002

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Soul Insomnia

"We hit the road to Hull, sad amps and smashed guitars, played badly at the Dukes, to almost no applause. Someone made it worthwhile--when smiling with bright eyes--you gave me full attention, and you took me by surprise"--Bill Nelson
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    "Axe Victim", Be Bop Deluxe
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The Boredom Poll

Is there anyone else who feels that the only media event more boring than listening to AM radio pundit Republicans talk about their 51% mandate is listening to talking head pundit Democrats talk about what went wrong?
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King's Gambit

In chess, an opening strategy in which one surrenders material in return for attacking or positional advantages is called a "gambit". The King's Gambit is one of the most "romantic" chess openings, in which the player with the white pieces sacrifices a pawn on the second move in order to try to get a brisk kingside attack against the opposing king in the very early stages of the game. Some of the most beautiful chess art arises from games in which players assay one side or the other of this gambit. The king's gambit usually produces wild, surging adrenaline games, filled with parry and counter-thrust.

When I have the white pieces, I never play the King's Gambit. It is far too rich for my blood, and requires far too much knowledge of far too many subvariations. When I have the black pieces, I never accept the gambit, and I never decline the gambit with a conventional defense, as is usual, in which one quietly develops one's pieces and waits for the coming on-slaught.

Instead, I play the Keene Defense to the King's Gambit. It's an ugly thing--instead of accepting the gambit or properly declining it, the second player plays the queen out in a rather ugly, amateurish looking "check", one of those pointless things that five year olds usually do. Then, when white repulses this check by a simple "g" pawn move to block and threaten the black queen, then the black queen promptly makes yet another ugly move, retreating to the e7 square, blocking black's own king's bishop.

By all the "conventional" rules, the Keene variation should be easy to refute. Black is wasting time, whipping the queen out too early, and then misplacing her in the line of traffic. In fact, though, I tend to win lots of my games in this variation. So many times the opposing side misses the way in which I have changed the thread of the game. Somehow, the "romantic" sturm and drang of the game has been cut off, as if snipped by a queenly Fate. In its place, the game has resolved itself into an odd but rather staid baroque game, in which I can close down lines, blockade like mad, and force my opponent to play a Twilight Zone game.

In my life, I've often found that the obvious path is the wrong path. I do make it a point to "go against my strengths" from time to time. I am not a particularly social person, so I work on being friendly. My instinct is towards shyness, so I try to make myself do things shy people don't do, like sing karaoke. I am artistically inept, so I do mail art and love it.

Still, there's a tremendous virtue in playing not only against one's grain, but also playing to one's strengths. We can't all be Paul Morphy, the addled brilliant New Orleans chessplayer, forcing mate with wild abandon. Some of us are instead Tigran Petrosian, whose games are quiet positional poetry--abstruse, arcane games in which the pieces seem to do nothing but be constantly rearranged behind the scenes--until they mysteriously come out and force mate. A few of us are Duncan Suttles, the eccentric Canadian grandmaster who could hold positions anyone else would give up for lost, or even Michael Basman, the Brit grandmaster who can make the most frivolous positions playable and aggressive.

Today at the post office, I bought a sheet of those Cary Grant stamps. Cary Grant was so amazing--an actor who just embodied class and romance and daring and suave. But in real life, he was a man of oft-failed marriages and personal inconsistencies. We all have our sins to expiate, and I'm not sure Cary Grant's were any greater than my own. But he seemed like such a King's Gambit player, and yet was really yet another odd positional grandmaster. We cannot always judge a man by the cut of his suit and the charming way he holds a cigarette. We must watch him play chess instead, and see what moves he actually makes. Bogart was a brilliant chess player, but I do not believe that the King's Gambit was his forte, either.

I think that it's so easy in this world of shopping malls and SUVs and MBAs and coffee-house cool to lose one's way in a world of conformity or hip (although I suppose I date myself when I use the word "hip"). I am certainly no grandmaster of self-esteem, but I do see, as clearly as a mate in three, the importance of pursuing one's own path, and building stonewalls and hedgehog phalanxes of pawns that aren't in the respectable chess books. It's not that the chess is necessarily better played in that way. We are all masters of our own sixteen pieces, and we have to play the game in our own way, because that two faced chess clock is ticking. We do not all go in for the wild sacrifices, but we all want to create the most amazing games.
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