Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunday Reading

Checkmate: The story of a brilliant chess player who is also the victim of his own addiction.

He sleeps on a bench, but he is king of chess during the day at Washington’s Dupont Circle, where he dazzles beginners and masters alike with his winning moves on the park’s stone chessboards.

Tom Murphy, 49, makes what little money he has from teaching his prodigious knowledge of the game to passersby for a few dollars.

“He has the title of expert in chess. This is the second highest American title; above him are master. So it means he is quite good,” said Washington’s Chess Center director David Mehler.

A former math and science major and a celebrity among amateurs, Murphy has made the Dupont Circle public square America’s most prestigious chess park after New York’s fabled Washington Square, according to some chess lovers.

“The mathematical equation has always been fascinating to me, then when you add the camaraderie, the ambiance, the open air, it’s almost irresistible,” said Murphy, peering over a park chessboard that draws players from all walks of life — students, doctors, lawyers, drunkards.

Garrulous and brilliant, Murphy, grew up in North Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two well known chess centers, and specializes in a lightning version of chess known as “blitz.”

In this accelerated version of the ancient game, players are allowed five minutes for all their moves, and the game ends within 10 minutes.

“The appeal of blitz is that, maybe in two or five minutes, I may put together a work of art that might last a life time,” Murphy said in his inimitable style of explaining chess basics.

The game, he said consists of “few guiding principles: king safety, fight for the center, give every piece a job.”

“At blitz he is a very strong player. He has a very fast mind and he sees combinations very quickly. He calculates very quickly,” said Mehler, who has been teaching the board game to underprivileged children for 15 years.

Murphy has won several chess tournaments and finished 15th in the 2005 world blitz championship.

He’s not always down and out, but his addiction to booze often lands him on the street.

“The pursuit of the ego versus the pursuit of the spirit are in conflict sometimes,” he explained. “I enjoy alcohol a little too much.”

He attends Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and admits, “when I don’t drink my chess is better.”

Murphy aims to get better at chess and rise to the title of master.

“I would dearly love to go on and make my master’s rating because through that I get a credibility to increase my teaching fee,” he said.

“There is an upcoming tournament on Thanskgiving (November 22) in Philadelphia. That’s looking promising,” he added.

For now, the homeless chess teacher charges 20 to 30 dollars an hour and will match his wits with any rival for two to five dollars per game.

“Grand masters are teaching 100 or 200 bucks (dollars) an hour, masters can get at least 50, that’s not bad,” he said.

This story touches me because I’ve known several people — one who I spent part of my life with — who are brilliant and yet also addicted and who struggled mightily to overcome it. I’ve also known some who were never able to balance the tension between the genius and the madness; it’s like they are all too aware of what happens, yet they cannot control it. I’m sorry Mr. Murphy is homeless, but I don’t pity him, for he has found a productive way of teaching and contributing. If his lifestyle seems a bit unorthodox for a chess genius, at least he has found a measure of self-contentment and awareness, and compared to someone like Bobby Fischer, he is doing far better.

Nobel Oblige: James Fallows put Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize in perspective.

I am old enough… well, there are many ways to end that sentence, but for now: I am old enough to remember, from my school years, the disdainful reaction in my home town to the news that Martin Luther King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The reaction was, of course, racial at its root. This was a majority-white, minority-Hispanic small town with very few black residents, which went for Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election that same fall.

But the stated form of the objection concerned not King’s race but his obnoxiousness as a man. He was a windbag. He was pompous and self-dramatizing, He was holier than thou. Plus, he had started getting involved where he didn’t belong, in raising questions about the Vietnam War. Through the rest of Martin Luther King’s life, the father of my best home-town friend always went out of his way to refer sneeringly to “Martin Luther Nobel.”

As is the case now with some similar complaints about Al Gore, the criticisms weren’t about nothing.

Gore can be pompous, lecturing, pedantic, and all the rest. I agree with the argument in his book The Assault on Reason but wish he made the point with fewer larded-in references to Jurgen Habermas. (Think of of how, yes, Bill Clinton would make similar points about the simplifications and distortions of today’s nutty media world.) But in retrospect the criticisms of King look very small, and — without equating the stature of the two men — I think something similar will be true regarding Gore.

Like him or not, he has turned his efforts to an important cause, under historical and political circumstances that would have tempted many people to drown themselves in drink or move to Bhutan. It’s interesting about the Nobel Peace Prize — unlike the quirky and PC-conscious prize for Literature, or the quasi-Nobel* “medal” in economics — that its list of winners holds up very, very well under historical scrutiny.

There are a few choices that look fishy in retrospect. (Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973??? Arafat as co-winner with Peres and Rabin in 1994?) But the great majority stand up very well. Desmond Tutu, and then Mandela and deKlerk. Albert Schweitzer. George C. Marshall. Lech Walesa, Willy Brandt, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Norwegian Nobel Institute has earned the benefit of the doubt for choosing people whose achievements will stand up over time.

So: might this award make Gore sound even more righteous? Maybe, but who cares. He has earned it. A lot of other people have the big head on much flimsier grounds.

* The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, often misleadingly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has become a within-the-guild recognition for academic economists. It would be of broader public interest to have instead a Nobel Prize in Architecture and Design.

The apoplectic reaction from the right-wingers over Gore’s honor seems to be based more on their perception of Mr. Gore’s personality and political history rather than the work he’s actually done to win the recognition. But as the Nobel committee has repeatedly made clear, the prize isn’t based on popularity or personality; often their selections are people and programs that have rankled the establishment. And given the right-wing’s definition of “world peace” as demonstrated by the neocon visions of Bush and Cheney, it’s hard to imagine whom they would choose for the recognition who wasn’t dodging the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Frank Rich: Who’s responsible for allowing the Bush administration to continue to torture prisoners and get away with the lies and the outrages that have dragged us down? Look in the mirror.

We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq — and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.


Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

Going Home: Ben Affleck finds that his hometown of Boston is the perfect place to direct his first movie and reconnect with the people that make it authentic.

Although he hasn’t lived in the area for some 15 years, Ben Affleck is still beloved by the locals here. Bostonians are not used to celebrities, and have apparently not seen “Gigli,” or else don’t care. Almost everywhere Mr. Affleck goes, he gets hugged, high-fived, photographed on cellphone cameras.

Mr. Affleck is similarly fond of his hometown, and shot “Gone Baby Gone,” his directorial debut, for which he also co-wrote the script, there. He also hired many Bostonians — people he plucked off the street or discovered nursing early morning beers in the city’s many bars — not just as extras but for speaking roles. The result is one of the most authentic-looking and -sounding movies ever made about this city, which even as it has become a 21st-century financial center has preserved a provincial culture and accent all its own.

As the tabloids never tire of pointing out, ever since “Good Will Hunting,” which was also set in Greater Boston (though much of the movie was shot in Toronto), the career of Mr. Affleck has veered in an almost opposite direction from that of Matt Damon, his boyhood friend and high school mate. Their roles in that movie, which they also wrote, seem in retrospect to foreshadow what became of them: Mr. Damon was the genius, Mr. Affleck the flunky.

Mr. Damon, of course, has gone on to superstardom as the hero of the “Bourne” franchise, while Mr. Affleck, despite appearing in more good movies than he is sometimes given credit for, has made more than his share of turkeys. Mr. Damon has largely succeeded in keeping his personal life private, while Mr. Affleck’s on-again, off-again courtship of Jennifer Lopez turned the two of them into the headline “Bennifer.”

Of late Mr. Affleck, who is now married to the actress Jennifer Garner, with whom he has a young daughter, has been keeping a lower profile. A lot of critics thought his recent performance in “Hollywoodland,” as the faded movie star and TV Superman George Reeves, indicated a new level of acting subtlety and maturity, and though Mr. Affleck is too smart to come out and say so, “Gone Baby Gone,” with a $19 million budget and the backing of Miramax, clearly represents another chance for him to right his career and prove that “Good Will Hunting” was not a fluke, that he is not just a sidekick but a moviemaker.

Doonesbury: Notes from the Sandbox.

Opus: Brutally brief honesty.