Archive for March, 2010

I finally caught up with Henry Bird signing copies of his memoirs in a wigwam in Sarnia, on the shore of Lake Huron. “Mr Bird, you are a very difficult man to track down!”

He beamed benignly. “You might have found me recently in the Nest at Amsterdam, in the Bowery at New York, and in the accident ward at Vienna. I tell you, I’ve witnessed many strange things and distressing circumstances, have endured innumerable interviewers without a shudder, and have perhaps been asked more questions about chess than any man living or dead.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because I good naturedly always answer them, and have furnished matter enough in ten minutes for a two-column article.”

“That’s precisely what I wanted to discuss with you — your creativity. Is yours an exceptional temperament in a desert of dullness, or are all chess players creative, do you think?”

“The temperaments of chess players vary greatly. Some get easily disconcerted, disturbed and even distracted; others seem little affected by passing events, a few, apparently not at all.”

“Are they like artists or actors? Are chess games a form of theatre?”

“Some players might think so. Some even like a gallery and don’t object to reasonable conversation.”

“Conversation? I think that would be frowned on by modern chess players.”

“Well, it varies, you know. Conversations or little interruptions which would pass unheeded by a McDonnell or myself, or perhaps a Zukertortian would sadly disconcert a Buckle or a Morphy, make Staunton angry, and drive a Gossip to despair.”

“Gossip, I gather, was not a great chess player.”

“Do you mean great in stature?”

“Hardly anyone has heard of him now.”

“But he has left us a legacy nevertheless. He loved to write. Like myself.”

“It takes all sorts, I suppose.”

“The attitude as well as the deportment and demeanour of chess players at the board shows many varieties: Anderssen and Captain Mackenzie were statuesque; Staunton, not quite so tall as the Rev. J. Owen, seeming to be soaring up aloft. Harrwitz not quite so small as Gunsberg, seemed sinking to the ground, but the story that he once disappeared overawed by Staunton’s style and manner of moving, and was, after a search, found under the table, is a mere canard of Staunton’s which need not be too confidently accepted.”

“Is height an advantage in chess?

“It’s a factor rather than an advantage. Harrwitz disliked being called a small German by Staunton because it savoured too strongly of the sausage element.”

“Really? But how did it affect Harrwitz’s game? Did he hit back with the fried liver attack?”

“I once heard him say of Staunton ‘If he he makes sausage meat of me I will make mincemeat of him.'”

“A little ribbing brings out the competitive spirit, I suppose. I thought the chess players of your era were all gentlemen, Henry.”

“Not a bit of it, old chap. Staunton pretended sometimes not to see Harrwitz, and would look round the room and even under the chairs for him when he was sitting at his elbow, which greatly annoyed Harrwitz, who, however, sometimes got a turn, and was not slow to retaliate. In a game one day, Staunton materially damaged his own prospects by playing very tamely and feebly, and testily complained–‘I have lost a move.’ Harrwitz told the waiter to stop his work, and search the room until he had found Staunton’s lost move, and his manner of saying it caused a degree of merriment by no means pleasing to the English Champion.”

“Of course everyone now knows Staunton’s name because the style of chess pieces named after him must be used in competitions. But, in life, was he full-blooded or wooden, would you say?”

“Staunton was definitely considered full-blooded, and his amiable French opponent, who used to play for £5 a game no doubt thought he expressed himself favorably and forcibly when he said he is one very nice, charmant man, but he is a bloody fool!”

“A fool? He was a Shakespearian scholar, and a prolific author, wasn’t he?”

“He liked his stories, certainly.”

“What kind of stories?”

“His celebrated stories about Lowenthal and Williams, though very amusing to chess ears, are unrepeatable, though extremely funny as Staunton originally told them, and as MacDonnell repeats them; but they are probably not strictly founded on fact, and are lacking of the respect to which the memories of two such amiable and chivalrous chess players as Williams and Lowenthal are entitled.”

“Talking of reputations, it’s undoubtedly a great honour to have a chess opening named after you, particularly on the very first move of the game — 1.f4 — but how do you feel about The Bird’s lack of respectability?”

“Its reputation has fared a lot better than that of Miss Rooster.”

“Miss Rooster?”

“Miss Rooster, on one occasion when her dearest friend, Miss Pullet called, was found so absorbed in studying a problem by the great Schwerlagerbier, that her visitor could not obtain even a sign of recognition. After various unsuccessful efforts to attract the attention of the fair enthusiast, Miss Pullet departed, and meeting an acquaintance immediately afterwards jocosely remarked that she had left Miss Rooster engaged with thirty-two men, whereby she acquired the reputation of being a dangerous coquette. To this thoughtless jest Miss Rooster ascribed the circumstance, that during the remainder of her life she walked in meditation fancy free.”

“An apotheosis to which I can only aspire, dear Henry.”


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1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.e3 Bg7 4.d4 Nf6 5.Bd3 0-0 6.0-0 c5 7.c3 b6

I have been reading a book called Bird’s Opening by Timothy Taylor, which I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I was put off by the fact that Bird’s Opening has a very dubious reputation in the chess world. But Timothy Taylor has been playing it for over 30 years and his enthusiasm is undimmed. He’s a terrific guide and he takes you on a fascinating journey through 53 vigorous games.

Taylor plays the Bird to win but you could equally well play it like I do  — to lose yourself in its endless possibilties.

Playing over some of these games, I was reminded of a passage in the introduction to another book I have been reading recently, in which Simen Agdestein talks about creativity at the chess board. The book was on the Stonewall Dutch, which, if you’re in a creative frame of mind, could be seen as the Bird reversed with a missing tempo.

“It’s in general important to vary your openings; at least it is for me. You have to be inspired and some new food to chew on is always great. That keeps your creativity alive. And creativity is definitely necessary when you play the Stonewall. What’s fun about throwing out moves you know in advance? … I’ve deviated from the main lines, although I knew nothing wrong with them, just to get something new to ponder over.”

How refreshing!

There is only one game in Timothy Taylor’s book by the great Henry Bird himself, so I decided to go off on an adventure and track down the eccentric English genius to find out more about him. He was quite hard to catch up with since, besides having passed over to the other side,  he’s always had a propensity for foreign travel.

More of that next time! In the meantime, here is a position from the Stonewall Dutch (or the Bird reversed).  The main line is 7. … Qe7 but that spoils the  symmetry with the game up above, which is from Danielsen-Halldorsson, Reyjkjavik Open 2002.

1.d4 f5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 5.0-0 Bd6 6.c4 c6 7.b3 0-0

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Lately I’ve been writing in the staff canteen. It’s the only place I can go at lunchtime that’s warm.  Spring has been slow to arrive in London.

But our building has become so crowded that it’s hard to find somewhere to sit every day. It’s playing havoc with my routine.

Today I wasn’t writing my novel, I was writing some Chinese. I had a bit of an epiphany last week and decided to intensify my efforts. Most of the time when you’re learning Chinese you’re just practising characters. You write the same ones over and over again and if you try and learn new ones you forget the ones you thought you knew, so you constantly have huge holes in your knowledge. If you want to write anything fast you resort to pinyin, which is the romanised form of the language that’s used for word processing.

Last week I started to write something in pinyin that I intended to type up later when I got home. The way a Chinese word processor works is you type the word in pinyin then select the character from a pop-up screen. For instance if you type “ta” you can choose from 54 characters that have that sound, with the most common ones being offered to you first.

But sometimes I wanted to write “she” and sometimes “he.” In Chinese the pinyin is the same (“ta”) but the characters are different. To avoid ambiguity it’s actually quicker to write the characters than to mess around with pinyin. So I found myself writing in characters instead. I had a few gaps in my knowledge and got tripped up a few times, so that’s why I’m practising again, trying to plug those gaps. The Chinese call them stones in your path. There are always stones in your path, whether you are reading or writing — characters you don’t know and can’t guess.

But the stones in my path today were the two people who sat opposite me and started having a business meeting. Their voices were so loud you’d think they were two politicians on a podium. I couldn’t help but listen. Their voices penetrated the deepest recesses of my brain. But as to what they were saying, I have no idea. One was American and one was English but they were speaking a language I could barely understand. Okay, maybe I understood the odd word here and there. “Leverage,” for example. I’ve heard that one quite a lot recently. If I hear it again this week I’m going to scream.

I’ve found the people who talk the most impenetrable language use the most penetrating voices.

But I suppose I shouldn’t let it get to me. Leverage needn’t be a bad thing. I could use a bit of leverage to clear the stones in my path.

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It's all in the chemistry, darling!

Tom thinks Mingzhu could be the one for him. She’s just his type. She has beautiful long black hair, big brown eyes and a tiny waist. She is worldly and witty, has an engaging laugh and always dresses with style, as you might expect from a woman raised in Shanghai. 

Tom even thinks he’s in with a chance. Why not? He has a great job. He’s not bad looking and he takes a lively interest in other cultures. He’s even lived in China and can speak a little Chinese. True, he does so much travelling that he doesn’t have much leisure time, but that’s because he’s a high flyer. Besides, he makes sacrifices. He’s managed to squeeze in quite a few dates since Christmas, even if it’s meant rushing to meet her straight from the airport. 

But he’s losing heart. After all this time he still isn’t sure what Mingzhu feels about him. With any other project he’d be marking off his milestones week by week but with this grilfriend project he’s still trying to define the baseline. 

He’s thrown out a few feelers. He invited her to join him on his business jaunts in Budapest, Rome and New York. (She wasn’t crazy about the idea of buying expensive plane tickets.) He asked her how she’d feel about nursing him through his recent cold. (It didn’t ignite any interest.) Most recently, he offered to buy her lunch in a swanky restaurant. (She claimed she was ill and didn’t feel up to it.) 

Now he questions her commitment. Maybe it’s time for a little risk management. He’s wondering if he should bail out to avoid serious loss of face. 

As for Mingzhu, well, she finds him very likeable. He’s a very decent guy. But the chemistry isn’t there. 

When the chemistry isn’t there, what can you do? You just have to go on looking for the one who can create that vital spark.

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Gao Yuanyuan in Shanghai Dreams

When Lanying was eight years old her parents made her cook the rice every day for dinner. She was also sent to get the tofu. 

Tofu, like all food in China in the early 1980s, was rationed, so she had to take her bowl and her coupons to the tofu shop, which was some distance from her home, along a lane patrolled by a fierce dog. 

She received some guidance from friends on what to do if the dog approached. Whatever you do, they told her, do not run. Instead she was to crouch down low as if picking up a rock. This would make the dog stop. 

They didn’t have any advice for what to do if it didn’t stop. I suppose she could either give it some tofu or hit it with the empty bowl. Have you ever seen a dog eat tofu? 

Anyway, she told me this after we’d spent the evening watching Shanghai Dreams, a film about life in China for two families who were moved to the countryside from Shanghai in order to strengthen China’s industrial base in the time of Chairman Mao. This was a political initiative known as the Third Front and it evoked in Lanying many memories of her childhood. Lanying herself was not moved to the countryside because her parents were army doctors and were treated differently but many of the domestic details were the same. 

It was a very touching film but one detail touched me more than any other. Everyone in the family put on elasticated cotton sleeves when they were doing housework —  mother, father, son and daughter. Lanying has a pair of these cotton sleeves which she keeps in a drawer in our kitchen. Her mother made them for her because she can’t get them here. She has got out of the habit of wearing them but when I first knew her she used to wear them all the time. 

It is not often that we watch a serious film at home. Normally Lanying won’t watch serious programmes. She only wants to watch comedies and lightweight entertainment. 

It’s not that she is shallow. She knows more about international politics than anyone I know and she recently scored higher than all my brainy colleagues in the BBC’s English vocabulary test. But when you’ve risked your life for tofu, you don’t want a diet of stodgy drama and bloated bulletins. 

Next time she cooks me tofu I will try to be more appreciative. I must admit, it’s not something for which I would normally go the extra mile.

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Mandy's Shorts by Dan Yeagle

Writers come up with all sorts of excuses for not finishing their books. I don’t blame them, really. Writing is very hard work.

I came up with some excuses of my own last month. I had to concentrate on moving house. I was ill. The weather was too cold. I needed to spend more time learning Chinese. There are too many books anyway.

You might think the cold weather excuse was a bit flimsy. But my usual writing seat is a marble slab in an unheated passage under the railway and I go there because it’s the only quiet spot near my office, so the long spell of sub zero temperatures did give me a slight problem. I suppose I could have brought in a furry cushion. I managed to go to a warm café on some days but most of the time I couldn’t get a seat anywhere and wasted a lot of time wandering around from café to café.

My work was also very busy and since my employer had a fit of generosity and offered to buy me as many Chinese lessons as I could do in a year, I thought I’d better take advantage of the opportunity and try to give value for money by spending more time at work as well as on my Chinese.

Yesterday there was a storm and my bedroom walls became alarmingly damp. All the more reason to concentrate on moving house. But at least I still have a house.

And I can’t complain about spending more time with my Chinese teacher. Last week she was in a very good mood because the weather had warmed up a little. When she took off her long black coat I was surprised to see she was wearing a pair of red hotpants.

She is a great motivator.

“I love your stories,” she is fond of telling me. She means my stories in Chinese. “You should write more.”

I haven’t told her I’m writing a novel. It’s better not to tell people, I’ve found. It’s better to just do it. Well, now the temperatures are above zero again, I have no excuse. And writing in English is a lot easier than writing in Chinese. I rarely even need to think about those great shorts.

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