How Bobby Fischer briefly changed America

This summer marks the anniversary of an extraordinary moment in U.S. history: the 1972 match in which the American genius Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet wizard Boris Spassky for the chess championship of the world.

The battle probably should have been just one more headline in an eventful three months that saw the Watergate burglary, the expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt and the humiliating dismissal of vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Somehow the story of Fischer and Spassky and their epic match, which ended 40 years ago this month, captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since.

The two best players in the world were playing 24 games in Iceland, and everyone paid attention. Strangers who had never picked up a chess piece discussed the match on subway trains. Newspapers put out special editions announcing the results of the games, and vendors hawked them from the corners, shouting out the name of the winner. Book publishers were signing up chess writers by the dozens.

Chess is a very hard game, and what is most remarkable about that summer is that people wanted to play anyway. They wanted their minds stretched, and were willing to work for that reward. The brief period of Fischer’s ascendancy — he quit chess three years later — was perhaps the last era in our nation’s history when this could be said.

Nowadays, we like things easier. We seem more interested in the doings of the “Real Housewives” than in the great intellectual challenges (except of course those intellectual challenges that yield a great deal of money, such as those on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley). Those who deploy their extraordinary mental gifts to do a difficult thing extremely well for a modest reward somehow cannot hold our attention…

…The great Ray Bradbury, who died this year, used to say that simplicity was the great enemy against which we should be doing battle — that theme is the subtext of “Fahrenheit 451” — but we are a long way from heeding the call to arms…

When Fischer died in 2008, his passing went scarcely noticed. He was never an admirable man, but he performed an admirable service. By his brilliance and his antics he focused our attention, in that shining summer 40 years ago, on the life of the mind. He made an enormously difficult intellectual pursuit so alluring that, for a brief moment, everybody wanted to be a part of it.

We could use another moment like that. Bradbury was right: Simplicity is the enemy of democracy. Yet our images and arguments get simpler, and sillier, by the day. Unless we can become freshly excited about stretching our minds, the rest of the world — much of which still values complexity — may leave us in its dust.

Bobby Fischer’s personal politics were easily as contemptible as, say, Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Todd Akins – both of whom hold elective office in the United States. Less fashionable, though.

His erratic behavior and egregious self-concern never eclipsed his brilliance – most of the time – at the chessboard. I doubt Americans have the attention span anymore to grow that kind of focus.

World Computer Champion Rybka stripped of titles amid plagiarism claims

Vasik Rajlich, creator of Rybka

Players who use computers to cheat are a growing concern in the chess world. Now the developer of Rybka, the winner of the last four World Computer Chess Championships, has been accused of plagiarizing code to create the program.

Rybka has been stripped of its titles, and the developer, Vasik Rajlich, has been barred from entering programs in competitions.

The ruling on Rybka and Mr. Rajlich was made Tuesday by the International Computer Gaming Association, the group that organizes the championships. It concluded that Mr. Rajlich, who has American and Czech citizenship and lives in Poland, had used source code from programs called Crafty and Fruit…

The group’s president, David Levy, who is also an international master, said in an e-mail that Mr. Rajlich had been invited to defend himself but declined to do so.

When questions were first raised about Rybka earlier this year, Mr. Rajlich wrote on a forum on his program’s Web site that “Rybka is and always was completely original code, with the exception of various low-level snippets which are in the public domain.”…

Mark A. Lemley, a Stanford law professor who specializes in science and technology issues, wrote in an e-mail that because Fruit and Crafty are freely available may mean that Mr. Rajlich is not guilty of misconduct if he copied some of the code. But, Mr. Lemley added, “I can see why the Computer Gaming Association might want to prohibit it under its rules.”

Larry Kaufman, a grandmaster who helped Mr. Rajlich in the development of Rybka, but who now works on a rival called Komodo, said in an e-mail that he believed only earlier versions of Rybka were based on Fruit and Crafty.

This gets into the issue of what we have lost in chess as a result of computers. We have gained so much as well.

I look forward to following the discussions on this one.

Peter Falk — “Columbo” — dies at 83

Peter Falk with Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi

Peter Falk died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday night. He was 83.

The “Columbo” star won four Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the cigar-chomping detective who always looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed. Falk played Columbo on television regularly from 1971 to 1978 and then sporadically from 1989 until 2003…

In a court document filed in December 2008, Falk’s daughter Catherine Falk said her father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Columbo” began its history in 1971 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie series…

Columbo — he never had a first name — presented a contrast to other TV detectives. “He looks like a flood victim,” Falk once said. “You feel sorry for him. He appears to be seeing nothing, but he’s seeing everything. Underneath his dishevelment, a good mind is at work.”…

Columbo’s trademark was an ancient raincoat Falk had once bought for himself…

Peter Michael Falk was born Sept. 16, 1927…. At 3 he had one eye removed because of cancer. “When something like that happens early,” he said in a 1963 Associated Press interview, “you learn to live with it. It became the joke of the neighborhood. If the umpire ruled me out on a bad call, I’d take the fake eye out and hand it to him.”…

When not working, Falk spent time in the garage of his Beverly Hills home. He had converted it into a studio where he created charcoal drawings. He took up art in New York when he was in the Simon play and one day happened into the Art Students League.

He recalled: “I opened a door and there she was, a nude model, shoulders back, a light from above, buck-ass naked. The female body is awesome. Believe me, I signed up right away.”

Falk is survived by his wife Shera and his two daughters.

Girl on Skype asks Ivanchuk, “Please play 1. d4”. Ivanchuk says o.k. and wins.

The headline is just an amusing excuse to post this. This wasn’t a banner tournament for Vassily Ivanchuk, but it’s a delight to see him talk about his game. He says that he didn’t do any special preparation for this game, and that his opening move was inspired by the suggestion of “a girl” via Skype. Simple enough, right?

O.K., Eid likes me to post chess stuff once in a while, based on what I find interesting. This is what I find interesting today.

Play over the moves to Ivanchuk-Nakamura here: Ivanchuk vs Nakamura
Read coverage of the tournament here: Magnus Carlsen wins Medias 2011

Armenia makes chess study compulsory

Armenia’s GM Levon Aronian, sporting an academic look

Every child aged six or over in Armenia is now destined to learn chess. The authorities there believe compulsory lessons will “foster schoolchildren’s intellectual development” and improve critical thinking skills.

The country has plenty of reasons to believe in chess. It treats grandmasters like sports stars, championships are displayed on giant boards in cities and victories celebrated with the kind of frenzy most countries reserve for football…

A two-year study conducted in the US by Dr Stuart Marguilies found that learning chess improved reading test scores and reading performance in elementary schools.

Another study by Professor Peter Dauvergne, who is also a chess master, concluded playing chess could raise IQ scores, strengthen problem solving skills, enhance memory and foster creative thinking.

Malcolm Pein, chief executive of Chess in Schools and Communities, a programme that puts chess into UK schools, says there are lots of reasons why chess has a positive impact on primary school children.

“Not only does it give children good thinking skills and improve concentration, memory and calculation, but it teaches children to take responsibility for their actions.”

Of course, the most important consideration isn’t even discussed at all. Is chess something worthy of study in its own right? The answer is yes, whether you view chess as art, science, or sport, or whether you want to study the history of chess, which in itself will teach you a lot about how theories are created, applied, revised, built upon, discarded. Continue reading

Happy 80th Birthday, Viktor Korchnoi

Sosonko: “Pssst. You’re not supposed to be winning any more.”
Korchnoi: “I can’t help it.”

Of all modern players, Korchnoi impresses me so much– as he does many others– because of the longevity of his competition at the highest levels. At 80 years of age, he is rated 2557 and ranks 427th in the world (FIDE). He was about 75 years old before he fell off the top 100 list.

I got to watch Korchnoi play Mecking in the 1974 candidates match for the World Chess Championship. One of the things I remember was the sound of the large doors slamming when Mecking would exit the playing area after making his move. The first couple of times, Korchnoi looked up like a half-perturbed bear. After that, he seemed to ignore the sound as if ignoring a pesky fly at a picnic. He feasted on Mecking and won the match.

One day, I was seated next to the infamous and aging Norman Whitaker (quite a trip!). At one point, not realizing the volume of his voice (or did he?!), he remarked of a move just made: “As Tarrasch used to say, the Bishop bites granite.” He kept repeating this to himself. There was a bit of a stir, but things quieted down.

Study: Chess masters may really be wired differently

Professionals use the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain

Tracking blood flow in the brain to detect spikes of activity, researchers found that master players of shogi — a Japanese game similar to chess — use two regions of the brain to make critical moves.

Unlike amateur players, who use the precuneus area of the parietal lobe, professionals use the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain, said Keiji Tanaka at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute’s Cognitive Brain Mapping Laboratory.

“Professionals are trained extensively for a long time, over 10 years, hours every day. This extensive training (may have) shifted the activity from the cerebral cortex to the caudate nucleus,” the study’s lead author Tanaka said.

“Amateurs use the precuneus only a third of the time (that professionals do),” Tanaka said.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

Experts believe the caudate nucleus is responsible for switching bodily movements.

“The caudate nucleus is very well developed in rats and mice, while the cerebral cortex is very developed in primates … by becoming expert, shogi masters start to use all parts of the brain,” Tanaka said.

I sent Eid a few subjective comments in response to his showing me this study. I do that hoping to irritate the hell out of him, but it doesn’t always work. In fact, he asked me to post the story along with a few subjective comments. Cripes. Continue reading

Judge tosses preposterous cases against park-playing chess players

A judge has tossed out summonses against five men busted for playing chess at Inwood Hill Park.

The judge’s action Tuesday came after civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel agreed to take on the bizarre case…

“We won’t be satisfied until all of them have their cases dismissed,” said Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There was no reason for the police to issue these summonses.”

The other two players opted for civil trials on Jan. 4 in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Charges against the five were dismissed on the condition they stay out of trouble for six months.

There should have been no conditions.

Here’s an earlier statement from the cops– per an earlier article by Shelby Lyman:

“It’s the broken-windows theory: Small things can turn into bigger things.”

Ah, yeah. Some kid might see them playing, take up the game, learn to think critically, go to college and get a degree, influence the world. You see the danger, from the government’s point of view. One thing leads to the next.

Related Link: My earlier post about this story:
The new USA: Chess players, like Socrates, busted for corrupting the youth.

Thank you, GM Larry Evans: 1932-2010

Chess Grandmaster Larry M Evans dies

Larry Evans, a five-time United States chess champion and prolific writer … died Monday in Reno, Nev. He was 78.

Mr. Evans, who lived in Reno, died of complications of gall bladder surgery….

Though Mr. Evans was a grandmaster, he was best known for his writing; he had a syndicated chess column for decades and wrote more than 20 books….

Mr. Evans was an editor of the 10th edition of “Modern Chess Openings,” Continue reading

Chess GM John Nunn wins World Problem Solving Championship

Left: John Nunn, 2010 World Chess Problem Solving Champion
Right: Jonathan Mestel, 1997 World Solving Champion

At fifteen he was Oxford’s youngest undergraduate since the 15th Century. He did a PhD on finite H-spaces, lectured on mathematics, and became one of Britain’s strongest chess grandmasters. At 55 John’s brain is still in top shape, as he showed by winning the problem solving world championship ahead of 70 mostly younger solvers. Truly amazing.

I wonder if bad hair days are part of the secret. Read John Nunn’s own report on the event here.