Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chess Therapy

One of the reasons I play competitive chess is that my results actually give me a sense of how I'm doing in the most general sense: success indicates that my life is progressing more or less as it should be, while failure suggests that something is out of balance--that I have some internal conflict in need of resolution.

If this sounds overly dramatic, it honestly isn't. Certainly there are exceptions: I may play good chess and still have less-than-great results. But if I lose due psychological factors that result in a concentration lapse or poor decision-making, I take it as a sign that I have some personal work to do.

About two months ago, I had my best chess tournament result ever. I won the Under 2000 section of a weekend-long tournament: 5 wins, 0 losses, 0 draws. For my efforts, I gained an $800 prize and a great deal of confidence in my chess abilities.

My next tournament took place three weeks ago, at a similar but slightly larger six-round event with a top section prize of $1200. I was one of the top-rated players in my section, and given my recent triumph, I had very high hopes.

It started well. The first game, I not only won but did so with a certain brutal efficiency, quickly punishing a couple of inaccurate moves from my opponent. It seemed clear that I was still in the same form with which I had ended my previous tournament.

The next game, played that same evening, also began well. I had a good position in the middlegame and while I missed an opportunity to obtain a decisive advantage, I managed to reach a rook endgame in which I was a pawn up and had some winning chances.

What transpired next is even now painful to think about. I played the endgame abominably and turned a possibly winning position first into a drawn position, and then ultimately into a loss. While any chess player has had his/her share of tough losses, I had never been as angry with myself after a game as I was then. I stormed back to my hotel room and flung my chess set against the wall. I was filled with an unusual and self-directed rage. My loss has little to do with a lack of chess knowledge but instead represented a psychological breakdown: my opponent had been a rather annoying kid who squirmed around a lot in his chair, and I had let his behavior get into my head and affect my concentration. Furthermore, once the win had slipped away I had been unable to adjust. Both the game and my psychological state then fell into a downward spiral.

Unable to come to terms with the loss, I attempted to wipe it away the following morning by re-entering into the 2-day section of the tournament. Unfortunately, I found that I was still rattled from the previous night's game, and began the day with a draw and a loss. I straightened myself out somewhat with a much-needed win the next game, and then managed another draw in the fourth and final game that night.

I was no longer in contention for any prize money, and the next day I discovered that my normally irrepressible competitive drive had been completely sapped. Round 5 was a rather lackadasical and joyless draw. Afterwards, while sitting off by myself in a corner of the hotel lobby, I realized that I had no desire to play in the last round. And so I did something that I have never done before: I withdrew from the tournament before the last round, and headed home.

Now, my results weren't exactly awful: all told I had 2 wins, 2 losses, and 3 draws. Granted, I was one of the pre-tournament favorites, and so I had a right to be disappointed. But what made this tournament so painful was that none of my failures were the result of being unfamiliar with a particular opening line or being outplayed by a superior opponent. My mistakes were all psychological; I would have a lapse in concentration and after one mistake, I was often unable to re-center myself. By the end of the tournament, sadly, I had simply stopped caring.

This brings me back to the assertion I made at the beginning of this post: psychological failure at the chessboard generally indicates that something else in my life is out of balance. The truth is that over the past month and a half or so, I have been struggling with some very real depression. There have been various factors contributing to this, the most obvious one being the return to a full-time job that I don't particularly enjoy. But it's become clear to me in the last few weeks that the roots of what I'm dealing with go much, much deeper.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this abysmal chess tournament actually served as a very effective wake-up call: it forced me to see that something has not been right with myself, and I have been able to come to terms with this knowledge. Simply accepting that I have not been emotionally healthy has helped a great deal, and while things are not all better yet, I am fairly optimistic.

And if I am correct that my level of play on the chessboard reflects my psychological state, then I have some very good news. Yesterday I went to a small one-day tournament, held an hour's drive away. I almost didn't go, as I was feeling exhausted from a tough week of work and not at all sure I was ready to confront my inner chess demons.

My results: 3 wins, 0 losses, 1 draw, and clear first prize.

Castlerook's back.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Pursuit of a Meta-Philosophy

Note: The ideas presented in this post are far from fully worked out. Comments are particularly encouraged.

"Live in such a way that will make the world a better place. Do good to others."

"Live an authentic life by following your heart's desire. Don't give up on your dreams."

The above is my rather crude attempt to summarize two very different approaches to the question of how best to live one's life. I think they are the two dominant approaches in our culture, and possibly other cultures as well, past and present. Certainly I can feel the presence of both within my own psyche. What's more, I believe in the Truth of both.

What follows is an attempt to reconcile them.

I said that these are two very different approaches, and they are, but they are not necessarily contradictory. I think they may illustrate two paths to the same destination: living a healthy, productive, and joy-filled life. Those who have arrived at that destination are both living out their heart's desire and doing good to others. Indeed, in a fully enlightened state, the two may be the same.

The hard part, of course, is getting there. If I live solely according to our first philosophy, I may easily neglect myself, or fail to discover and make best use of my unique gifts, so that I fail to do much good in the long run. If I live solely according to our second philosophy I may neglect those around me, fail to take responsibility for my actions, and as a result never find the bliss I was searching for.

Now, one following the first path might eventually realize that in order to really do good, he/she must also pay attention to him/herself. The converse holds for someone on the second path. In either case, it is at this moment of realization that spiritual growth occurs.

So I think that each path can work. Joseph Campbell spoke of a "right-hand path" and a "left-hand path," and I think he had a similar dichotomy in mind.

What I'm trying to figure out is whether it's possible to pursue both paths simultaneously.

And with that goal in mind, here’s my first attempt at a meta-philosophy:

Strive to place yourself in situations where you will want to do good.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Recent Dreams

Most mornings, I awake with no memory of what I dreamed the night before. When I do remember my dreams, they generally fall into one of three categories:

1. Wild, nonsensical dreams full of seemingly random surrealistic imagery. In these dreams, I am completely unaware of myself as a conscious entity.

2. Dreams in which I am a central character but the "I" of the dream is separated from the "I" of my consciousness. That is, my dreaming self watches as "I" live out various fantastical stories.

3. Realistic dreams in which I have the same sort of thought processes as when I am awake. These are the sorts of dreams from which one awakes and asks, "Was I dreaming?"

Sometimes the boundaries are fuzzy, particularly since dreams can have more then one "episode," and so a dream may begin with one level of consciousness and end with another.

Yesterday morning, I awoke with the feeling one has after a Type 3 dream, but soon felt rather silly asking the whole "was I dreaming" question, since the dream could not be called realistic. For starters, I was pregnant.

Pregnant, and a doctor was informing me that I would have to abort my baby. Apparently I had previously undergone a new, innovative procedure making it possible for men to carry babies, but something wasn't going well and for my own safety, the pregnancy would have to be terminated.

Now, up to this point I think I had been having a Type 2 dream. I cannot recall any conscious thoughts in any detail, just basic emotions and reactions (the doctor's news actually came as something of a relief). But then a new scene begins: I'm alone in a hospital room waiting for my operation. I'm wearing a hospital gown and feeling nervous about what's going to happen. Will the surgery go okay? How do I feel about losing my baby? The conscious thoughts are all there, and everything seems completely realistic. I seem to be fully myself, just in a highly unusual circumstance. So, it's a Type 3 dream now. I analyze my own complex feelings about losing my baby until I wake up.

Clearly this is a dream almost begging to be subjected to all sorts of interpretations.* My wife suggests that the baby could symbolize an aspect of my creative life, and I think there's something to this. Still, it's unclear to me whether the dream suggests that I need to abort some aspect of my life, or whether I'm feeling pressure to abort something and should resist.

*Castlerook's really a woman! Or, castlerook really wants to be a woman! He has uterus envy!!

While I'd be fascinated to read any theories my readers may come up with, I'm going to leave the subject of castlerook's pregnancy for now. Believe it or not, I had another dream the same night which I find even more interesting.

I'd been awake about an hour or so before I realized that I had another dream before the "I'm pregnant" dream.

The dream was very brief, and consisted of a single image and a series of thoughts about the image. In my dream, I was looking at a picture of the enneagram.

Necessary digression: the enneagram (or, more specifically, the Enneagram of Personality) is a tool used in personality analysis, sort of like the Myers-Briggs personality typology, but with something of a more mystical basis. In the enneagram, there are nine personality types which exist along a continuous circle. Everyone supposedly has one personality type, though this type may be influenced by a "wing," that is, by an adjacent point. Here's a good site if you're interested in reading more. Actually, go to that site now even if you're not particularly interested, since I'm about to refer to the image of the enneagram on that site.

Back now? Great. I have, for some time, identified myself as a 2 with a 3 wing. On the site you just visited, 2 is termed "The Helper" and 3, "The Achiever." So, one could say that my basic desire is to help people but I also have a strong desire to achieve things for myself.

Digression over. The sole visual content of my dream was a picture of the enneagram, but each number had a different descriptive word next to it. Next to 2 was the word "communication," and next to 3, the word "insight." There was a very clear realization that I was now too close to the 3-point, and needed to get back to the 2-point.

In remembering this image the following morning, I was momentarily unsure whether I was remembering a dream, or an actual event. Then I realized that the words "communication" and "insight" don't fit in with any enneagram theory that I've ever seen. Indeed, "The Achiever" is usually described as a success-oriented, go-getter type, and the "insight" description doesn't really apply. For me, though, I think it does. The areas in which I care most about achieving have always been mentally oriented (chess being the prime example, but only one). I am fiercely competitive when it comes to mental challenges. Furthermore, lately I've been engaged in a sort of existential effort to try and uncover "the meaning of it all" and this, too, may be deeply related to my need for achievement.

The message of the dream is both clear and accurate: I have become too focused on achieving great personal insight, to the neglect of communicating such insights with others (witness, for example, the dearth of recent entries on this blog).

Come to think of it, maybe my quest for personal enlightenment is also my unborn baby.

Or maybe all of this rambling is a sign that I need to get more sleep that doesn't involve carrying a fetus or floating nine-pointed geometrical figues.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Getting the word out

It's been a busy month. The past three weeks have seen a German singing festival (in which I conducted a chorus of nearly 200 people), a chess tournament that didn't actually happen, a trip to Disney World, and a birthday (actually, those last two overlapped).

Blogworthy experiences all, but none is the subject of this entry. I'm actually writing here today for a simple reason: to advertise the blog of a friend of mine, Diary of an immigrant's wife.

Beth and her husband Khalid have, for some time now, been battling Homeland Security's efforts to deport Khalid. The latest developments, sadly, are not very promising.

For what it's worth, Khalid is one of the nicest people I've ever met.

So, click the link, read, and bookmark/follow to get further developments if you wish. And, if you're the sort of person who likes to "get involved," then, please, get involved.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Okay Then

In my last blog entry, I wrote the following:

"...This is an effect I've noticed before: when I do a significant amount of teaching, my creative output plummets. Why? And, does this mean that I should simply avoid teaching, or does it meant that my challenge is to learn how to teach while still living creatively?"

The next day, I got a phone call offering me a full-time teaching job for next year (one-year term appointment).

In that moment, it became clear that the answer was the second option--partly because, well, financial concerns do matter.

So in my own words, then, "my challenge (for next year) is to learn how to teach while still living creatively." I suspect what I need to do is to "teach creatively," i.e., to bring my creative spirit to all that I do--even to seemingly dry topics such as solving mathematical equations.

And while I still don't conceive of teaching math as a long-term career*, meeting this challenge can give me the experience necessary to better accomplish whatever comes next.

*I've had some thoughts recently about this as well, but the direction of those thoughts is so terrifying that I can't quite bring myself to talk about them yet, even on a semi-anonymous blog.

I've spent the last two years without a full-time job, giving me the luxury of lots of time for reflection and searching--a luxury which, frankly, I haven't always made good use of. I think I'm leaving the woods for real this time, returning to the world and bringing all the benefits of my personal efforts along with me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hey, where's castlerook? Is he still alive?

Well, May has certainly not been a productive blogging month. Whether this is a result of my being unusually busy or the Mercury retrograde or some other factor is anyone's guess. But yes, I am alive and well, in case any of you had noticed my absence* and were getting all concerned or something.

*if not, that's okay too...

Anyway, over the past month I taught two Math Refresher Courses for incoming community college students which, combined with my other part-time employments (math tutor, choral director), made for a rather busy time. But I don't think I can attribute my lack of blogging (or, for that matter, creative activity in general) to not having the time--I haven't been that busy, just busy for someone without a full-time job. No, this is an effect I've noticed before: when I do a significant amount of teaching, my creative output plummets. Why? And, does this mean that I should simply avoid teaching, or does it meant that my challenge is to learn how to teach while still living creatively?

In other news, the weekend before last I broke out of my chess slump, winning a local tournament.* Then this past weekend I played in a larger, weekend-long event. Through four of five rounds I was two for two, which I was happy with--I was playing in the top (open) section and had faced tough opponents. But the final round, against a somewhat weaker player, I played what I can only describe as one of the worst chess games of my life.

*For the fourth and final round, I was in the unusual position of being the only person with three points, and playing the only person with two-and-a-half points. This meant that I only needed a draw to win clear first place. It's remarkable how much simpler chess can seem when you have white and only need a draw--I steered the game into simplifications from the very beginning, and a quick draw was the result.

I mean, it was bad. Embarassingly bad. My opponent played a move early on which I'm sure was a mistake, but the move I made to take advantage of this mistake overlooked a simple tactic and I was down a piece for two pawns. Just a few moves later, I actually hung a piece, plain and simple--no missed tactics, just somehow missed that his piece could take mine. I feel like I need to go to confession at Caissa's altar or something.

So, yeah, a really, really bad loss. But the weekend was good--my wife came along for this one, and we had a great time.

Okay, that's all for now. Reading through what I've written I can see that this entry sorely lacks any manner of cohesion. Then again, they don't call this blog mercurial musings for nothing.

(and yes, I did just refer to myself in the third person plural. it's been that kind of month)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wait . . . is this all, like, my doing?

It's well known that seemingly inconsequential actions can have unexpected, far-reaching consequences. Most of the time we never find out what effects our actions will have on the universe.

Sometimes, though, we do. Here's an example.

My senior year of college, I lived in a co-op dorm, in which we shared communal responsibility for cooking, cleaning, etc. I was in charge of job charts--making sure everyone did a certain number of jobs per week. Over the years, a tradition had developed of including various "fun" jobs that people could sign up for: masseuse (had to accept random massage requests from other co-op residents), baker (had to provide baked goods at various times during the week--extra substances with the purpose of making one "baked" purely optional), and . . . streaker.

Spring semester, we had a problem. One of our residents kept signing up to be the dorm streaker, but as far as any of us could tell, he never actually streaked. Essentially, this meant that he was getting out of doing an hour of work each week.

And so, the task of enforcing our "streaker policy" fell to me.

Our conversation went something like this.

"Hey, Matt, the other co-op officers and I have noticed that you keep signing up for 'streaker'."


"Yeah, well, we've also noticed--that is, uh, have you actually, like, streaked at all?"

"Oh, yeah. Last week I walked naked from my room to the bathroom once."

"Okay, well, that doesn't really count. Look, if you're going to keep signing up as streaker, then you have to actually streak. As in, someone has to actually see you."

"Oh. Okay, no problem."

My duty was done. I'd given him a clear choice: sign up for a real job, or actually do the whole streaking thing.

He chose the latter. The following evening, as I sat in my room struggling with the details of a proof involving mathematical group theory, I suddenly heard a booming voice from the hallway:

"Greetings! Let it be known, that I . . . am STREAKING!"

And so he was. He sauntered casually* down the hallway, continually announcing his presence, then wandered out into the floor's lounge and into the next hallway, as all the while girls peeked out of their rooms and giggled.

*Incidentally, he had red hair--everywhere.

He continued to do this a couple of times a week for the remainder of the semester.

Evidently, he really enjoyed it.

Soon, our dorm was no longer a big enough arena. He started streaking various locations on campus, and recruited some of his friends to join him.

After he graduated, his friends continued the practice--and apparently, for them, even the entire campus was not enough.

The eventual result of my conversation with Matt?

See for yourself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I guess it's official: castlerook's a pescetarian

"So, do you want a real burger or a veggie burger?"

It was Easter dinner* at my parents' house. My parents, knowing that I had been thinking of continuing my Lenten diet, had graciously purchased some veggie burgers. Now my mother was asking me the question: it was time to decide.

*Well, Easter lunch actually. And yes, the menu was burgers, fresh from the grill, with fancy side dishes and on fancy plates.

I looked over at the raw burgers, not yet put on the grill. I contemplated eating one and felt a slight queasiness in my stomach.

"I'll have a veggie burger, please."

* * *

The meal arrived and I was happily eating my veggie burger* and reflecting on whether my decision to have the veggie burger today was really the decision, if it meant that I had just decided to give up eating meat for good, and if so, if I was okay with that. Then my mother, who so far had said very little about the subject, declared:

*which, I have to say, wasn't very good--I think I'm not a fan of "fake meat" and would much rather have plain old "non-meat."

"I have to say, given your family history, this is probably a really smart thing for you to do."

My mind stopped for a second. Family history? What was she talking about? What did my family history have to do with the ethical ramifications of animal-eating?

My mind restarted and I instantly understood her meaning: heart disease. My family history includes a high rate of heart problems. The strange thing was, while I knew that I was technically "at risk" for heart disease due to genetic factors and that one's diet could play a major role in preventing heart disease, I'd somehow completely failed to make any connection between my Lenten discipline and the future health of my heart.

"Thanks," I said, as though this had actually been a factor in my going meatless.

Over the course of the meal I reflected on the disconnect between my reasons for abstaining from meat and what, apparently, were my mother's assumptions regarding my reasons. As I mentioned in my last post, I have felt healthier since giving up meat, but this honestly played no role in my initial decision-making. Should I set her straight? Tell her that actually this had nothing to do with my health, but that I just didn't want to eat all those defenseless animals?

Then again, maybe it should be about my health. Or at least, partially so. If abstaining from meat now can save me from a heart attack twenty years hence, that's a good reason too.

Earlier I had conceived of the dilemma of whether or not to eat meat as a choice between personal taste and enjoyment, and the rights of animals. Not possessing the knowledge of presicely what it means to be an animal, I haven't exactly been able to resolve this dilemma.

But if it's a choice between personal taste and enjoyment on one side, and the rights of animals and my individual health on the other, well, that's a clearer picture.

So. My Lenten discipline continues.

And you know, maybe it always has been about my health, whether I knew it or not. Maybe my questioning of the ethics of eating meat was a sort of divine providence, a spiritual push leading me to change my behavior in a way that, ultimately, would save me.

Regardless, I still don't know whether abstaining from meat is "right" or not.

It would appear, though, that it's right for me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whoa, Lent's Over Already?

Tomorrow is Easter.

That means Lent is nearly over.

That means I should probably come to some kind of decision about whether this whole meatless diet is something I want to continue.

To recap: I gave up meat for Lent, while allowing myself fish (Wikipedia informs me that the proper name for such a diet is "pescetarian"). Apart from one instance in which my wife and I had pierogies for dinner and also realized afterwards that they contained pork, I've stuck to it.

Now what?

I don't think I'm any closer to resolving the ethical questions of meat-eating. I can, however, reflect on how my dietary change has affected me.

First of all, abstaining from meat has been easier than I thought it would be. Certainly it has been psychologically difficult at times, but somehow I anticipated it being more difficult physically, that I'd be hungry all the time or something. After an adjustment period of no more than a week, that wasn't the case.

And yet, I am eating less--my appetite has simply shrunk. Indeed, the most exciting result from my Lenten experiment has been the loss of a couple inches from my waistline. I suspect this is attributable mostly to a significant reduction in fast food--a natural consequence of my meatless diet. Also, my lighter diet seems to result in my having more energy throughout the day.

As far as negative effects, there may be a couple. Over the last month and half, I have been sick multiple times--weird cold/flu bugs that haven't gone away easily. Is this at all connected with my change in diet? I don't think so (a lot of people around here have been battling similar illnesses), but I suppose it's worth considering. When I haven't been sick, though, I've felt great.

I should also mention that I seem to have used my dietary change as something of an excuse to engage in other indulgences. Remember that post about giving up online poker? Yeah, I started playing again a few weeks ago. I've also indulged in more alcohol than usual. Neither activity has been really excessive, but I bring it up here because my inner thought process has sometimes been along the lines of "Hey, you're already abstaining from meat--give yourself a break!"

These concerns aside, though, the meatless diet seems to have been good for me. So, does that mean I'm supposed to continue with it after Easter?

The thought of never having chicken again is sure not a happy one. For that matter, the thought of never having bacon again is really not a happy one.

It's possible that my Lenten discipline has served its purpose. That I can go back to eating meat and keep the benefits that this time has given me.

Then again, the ethical concerns that prompted this experiment in the first place are still there.

I don't know. I simply don't know.

So. Tomorrow, I will give myself permission to eat meat, if I choose to. A moment may come when I have to make that choice; once in that moment, if I listen well, perhaps I will know the answer.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It's the End of the World as I Know It . . . My Mom Just Joined Facebook

I remember when I joined Facebook. In that ancient time (er, a year and a half ago), the Facebook universe was populated almost entirely of people my age or younger. I could reconnect with friends from college and high school and others with whom I'd lost touch, and we could all poke each other and buy virtual drinks for each other and leave flirty messages on each other's walls and there was the sense that, even though this was all semi-public, it was somehow a safe, closed community.

Of course, the population of Facebook users has expanded: first gradually, then, uh, less gradually. Then exponentially. I suspect that soon the population of Facebook users will outnumber the population of humans on the planet.*

*I'm serious. With people setting up Facebook profiles for their pets, fictional characters, etc . . . soon Facebook people will outnumber real people. They'll be able to overpower us in battle, if it ever came to that.

With the population explosion of Facebook users, the feeling of a semi-closed community has naturally faded. Now, this isn't altogether a bad thing; indeed, I suppose it's sort of the point. Greater networkability and all that. And in fairness, I was only able to join after Facebook opened itself up to non-college students, and no doubt many users felt their sense of community threatened when people like me starting showing up.

So I haven't really minded. Occasionally I've had friend requests from older relatives and think, "That's a little weird. He/she is on Facebook?" But no big deal.

Alas, I can ignore the demise of the old, somewhat contained Facebook universe no longer: My Mom is on Facebook.

Apparently, her brother e-mailed her and the rest of her family and said that they should all join Facebook. So she did. This led to a conversation yesterday evening in which I tried to explain the intricacies of Facebooking to her, with little success.

castlerook's Mom: So, how does Facebook work? What are you supposed to do?

castlerook: Well, Facebook helps you stay in touch with people. You friend people and then you can see each other's profiles and send each other messages and stuff.

castlerook's Mom: Isn't that like e-mail?

castlerook: Well, yeah. But you can also leave messages on people's walls, messages that other people can see too. Not only that, but you can see what other people are saying to each other!

castlerook's Mom: Oh. And, you're supposed to put photos of yourself up, right?

castlerook: Yes, you can put up lots of pictures of yourself for eveyone to see, and videos too. Plus you can play games with all your Facebook friends--Scrabble clones and Boggle clones. You can even take lots of quizzes that will tell you things about yourself, like What City You Are or Who You Were in a Past Life.

castlerook's Mom: I see.

castlerook: Does that help?

castlerook's Mom: I think so. Oh, one more thing (she pauses and her expression becomes very concerned and serious): What does it mean to "poke" someone?

So now I have a friend request from my Mom, and of course I will accept, but I'm delaying doing so for a few more hours, at least. I need time to scour my profile for any embarrassing content. Hmm, how will she feel about so-and-so "sending me a Red Kool-Aid?" Do my lists of favorite music and movies pass parental scrutiny?

Okay, maybe it's not so bad. I lead a pretty clean life, after all, and my Facebook profile generally reflects that. Nothing too incriminating after all.

Oh, except for this: my profile contains a link to this blog.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Apparently, "Born Again" Christians Don't Get the Joke

I've never understood what some Christians mean when they describe themselves as "born again." Growing up in a mainline-to-liberal Presbyterian church, I never encountered the phrase. I think the first time I heard it may have been in a conversation with a female high-school classmate of mine, who, after I identified myself as Christian, narrowed her eyes suspiciously and asked,

"But, are you Born Again?"

I wasn't sure what she meant. Over a decade later, I'm still not sure. But last Sunday, in church, my minister addressed the origins of this phrase, and it was a real revelation.

Apparently, there are only two references to being "born again" in the Bible. The main one comes from the Gospel of John (the other is a relatively obscure passing reference in one of the Epistles). Here's the relevant passage, Revised King James version:

3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
3:5 Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Now, this passage has been the crux of Evangelical Christianity's insistence on being "born again" as a ticket to Heaven. After all, Jesus said it, right? "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!" Pretty clear stuff.

Except . . . it was a pun.

Yeah, that's right, a pun. We tend to forget that what we now know as the Bible originated as a rich oral tradition of storytelling that included a fair amount of humor. In this case, the Greek word Jesus uses that gets translated as "born again" is ANWQEN, which can mean either "born once more" (again) or "born from above" (or, of Spirit).

Unfortuntely, puns don't usually translate very well. Here's a better attempt:

3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is ANWQEN (born again/born from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God.
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born? ("Born again?" What do you mean, "born again?")
3:5 Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit (born from above), he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (i.e., You silly Nicodemus, did you really think I meant "born again?" I meant "born from above." Duh!)

In light of this, it would seem that when it comes to "Born Again" Christians . . . the joke's on them.

Incidentally, while Catholics have wisely avoided the strange fixation on the "born again" theme, in researching this entry I discovered that many Catholics (at least, the ones with a prominent Internet presence) have a similarly ill-conceived interpretation of this passage . They cite the line, "Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" as evidence that baptism (being "born of water") is an essential component of one's ticket to Heaven.

Given what we've just learned, it seems pretty clear to me that in this context, "born of water" refers to being born from the womb. Jesus seems to be saying in order to enter the kingdom of God (which I think denotes not a "ticket to Heaven," but rather that source of Divinity which exists within each of us), one must exist both as body and as Spirit.

Now that, I think I just might understand.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Greatest Chess Triumph, Part III

The next morning I awoke feeling excited and nervous. Just two games, I kept thinking over and over. Just two games. I had to win them both.

As I generously partook of the hotel's breakfast buffet, chess players all around were discussing their standings in the tournament. Someone asked me how I was doing, and I told him. He was impressed. "Good luck today," he said as we parted ways.

I checked the pairings for the day's first game, and my opponent's name seemed familiar. I then remembered that we had played in a tournament a few months ago. I had won that game.


The knowledge that I had already beaten this player gave me a needed confidence boost as we all made our way to our respective boards. True, in that game I had been White and today I had Black, but I felt a certain psychological edge all the same. As my opponent (an overweight, thirtysomething man) arrived, I sensed that he was not looking forward to having to play me again.

Round 6: My opponent plays an unusually passive opening as White, allowing me to command a fair share of the center. It's not clear to me how best to take advantage of this, though. I try to claim an outpost in the center with my knight, but this only results in some exchanges that leave me with a vulnerable advanced pawn. I can defend this pawn by pushing another pawn forward, but I fear this would leave some dangerous holes in the structure of my position.

We both castle queenside and, as expected, he moves to attack my undefended pawn. This is my last chance to save it, but do I want to? I have a long think and try to visualize the future course of the game if I simply give up the pawn. Apart from the obvious disadvantage of being down a pawn, my position would be fine. Try and hang on to the pawn, and I may be in a weak, defensive position for the forseeable future.

I let him have the pawn, which surprises him. Good. I try to coordinate my queen, bishop, and rook in an attack on his king, but he pushes his pawns forward and attacks my rook, and it seems that I will have to retreat.

Or do I?

If I retreat now, I will likely not get another chance to put any pressure on his position. I enter a long think and meditate on the position. His pawns now form a continuous, solid wall across the length of the board, neatly dividing up out respective territories. His pieces appear safe, hiding behind his wall of pawns.

As I contemplate the position something in my mind crystallizes and I suddently perceive the chessboard in a new way, as a three-dimensional battlefield. My forces are all trapped on one side of the wall. Neither side has any knights left, making jumping over the wall impossible. How am I going to get through?

Can I get him to open the wall for me?

With this thought I hit upon a plan, a shrewd trap that I suspect he will be unable to resist. Instead of retreating my rook I move it to the side of the board, where it risks being vulnerable to the enemy pawns. But if he wants to go after my rook, he'll need to open the wall. And I'll be ready.

I intentionally move my pieces close together so that he can push a pawn to attack my rook, and next move push the same pawn to attack both my queen and my bishop. It works beautifully. I let him think that he is winning material, but then sacrifice my bishop two of his pawns. The wall is now open, and my pieces are perfectly positioned; he can do nothing to stop my from trapping his queen.

Oh, he's pissed at me now. He has to give up his queen for my rook, and now the game is all but over. My queen sweeps into his position and picks up a pawn, and then my remaining rook enters the fray, and together they win another rook.

Game over.

Yes! I thought to myself as I left the playing area. I had a hard time believing just how well my little trap had worked. For the first time this weekend I actually had a bit of a break: the last game wouldn't start for another two-and-a-half hours. I went outside, and the weather was positively Spring-like. Sunny, with temperature easily in the mid-fifties. In January! I went for a walk around downtown Philadelphia, had some lunch, and stopped by the nearby Franklin Institute. When I returned to the hotel for the seventh and final game I felt refreshed, and peaceful.

Round 7: My opponent is a somewhat elderly man, probably a real tournament veteran. I have White. He plays the Sicilian and I again play the unusual Alapin variation, which he seems ready for. His position out of the opening is fine, and I have to be careful about keeping a strong enough presence in the center, but then he misses a chance to go after my central pawn and now everything is okay. The game becomes open, with all central pawns exchanged, and I claim the open central files for my rooks. Then, he misses a tactic, which I quickly take advantage of: I take his pawn with my knight, and after he retakes with his knight, my bishop can fork his king and knight.

One pawn up.

Will it be enough to win? Maybe, but only if I keep putting pressure on his position. I move my pieces and pawns forward, keeping him on the defensive. I manage to plant my knight firmly on the sixth rank, making it difficult for him to manoeuver.

He's not going to go away quietly, though: he makes some solid defensive moves and keeps me from making more progress. Several moves transpire without either side gaining much. It's about seven-thirty in the evening now, and I try to stifle a small voice in my head reminding me that still have a five-hour drive to make tonight.

He tries to break free from the bind he is in and manages to do so, but at the cost of exchanging more pieces, which should benefit me. Now we have reached a rook endgame where I still have one extra pawn. Often the weaker side can draw this sort of endgame, but I'm determined to do whatever I can to win it. Most of the games are done now, and the playing area is emptying, but I keep trying to manoeuver my king and rook to where they can help advance one of my pawns forward. My opponent plays a bit too passively, and allows me the time to do this.

I manage to advance one of pawns forward to the sixth rank before he can block it with his rook, and on the other side of the board I start to advance another pawn. He stops and captures this pawn with his king, but this allows my own king to march into battle, heading towards the enemy rook. The blockade is broken. To save his rook he has to flee to the side of the board, leaving the path open for my passed pawn. To keep my pawn from becoming a queen he would have to sacrifice his rook, leaving me with an extra rook and a trivially easy win.

He resigns.

Only now did I let my concentration relax. I looked up from the board for the first time in a while and saw that the hall was nearly empty. It was almost ten o'clock. I felt surprisingly peaceful during that last game: intensely focused, but serene. Somehow I had lost any awareness of my surroundings, and it takes a few moments for me to adjust back to reality.

I looked at the standings and confirmed what I thought would be the case: the win puts me in a three-way tie for first place. Sweet. I waited around for another forty-five minutes to pick up my check: seven hundred dollars.

Of course, my expenses for the trip were over half of that amount. Put in perspective, perhaps it wasn't really a lot of money. But I had won it, and with that knowledge came a profound feeling of self-validation.

I finally left Philadelphia at eleven o'clock and made it home at four o'clock in the morning. I napped for a couple hours, then got up and went to work overseeing a math tutoring lab and teaching a class, staying awake and alert on pure adrenaline. Over the next few days as I caught up on sleep and life returned to normal, I was aware that I was different somehow. The experience had changed me in subtle but important ways--I was more confident, more willing to trust my intuition in matters that were wholly unrelated to chess.

You see, my victiories on the chessboard had given me a glimpse of what I was capable of.

They still do today.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sharp Quills

The following is a public service announcement for those readers who used to write at*

*actually, this is for everyone, but former TIBUers in particular.

Former TIBU writer HarmoniMcG has launched a new website,, which has the potential to be all that TIBU was and more. Go check it out!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Greatest Chess Triumph, Part II

I woke up well before my alarm went off feeling strangely awake. The deadline for re-entering was still a couple of hours away.

What did I want to do?

After a moment's reflection I knew the answer: I wanted to re-enter. I wanted a fresh start and the chance to win the tournament. But should I? This was already an expensive trip--could I really justify making it more expensive?

I'd re-entered a major tournament once before. That time I had lost the first two games, decided to re-enter, and then lost the first two games the next day as well. How would I feel if something similar happened here?

I also hoped to be able to see something of Philadelphia this trip. If I re-entered, I'd be playing five games today instead of two, leaving no time for any activity other than playing chess.

After showering and getting dressed I wandered outside the hotel. It was quite warm for January, but also very windy, so windy that even walking down the block was difficult. I'm not going to be doing much exploring of Philadelphia regardless, I thought. I halted my steps and stood there, still, feeling the wind rush past me, listening to its voice.

And then somehow I knew: I was going to re-enter.

An hour and a half later I was sitting down for my first game of the day--now officially my first game of the tournament. The first four games today would all have a (relatively) fast time control to catch us up with the other schedules, before they all merged for the fifth game tonight. Usually I liked playing with the slower time controls, with plenty of time to ponder over each move, but I resolved to concentrate extra hard and avoid time trouble.

Round 1: My first opponent of the day is an African-American gentleman who seems a bit nervous. Before the start of the game he asks to use his chess clock, which is an old-fashioned analog clock, rather than my digital clock. The newer, digital clocks have a five-second time-delay feature that makes time trouble less of a problem late in the game. They are also the preferred, default clocks now, which means that I could insist on using my own clock. But something tells me that I should agree to his request, that I might be able to use his own clock against him.

I have the White pieces. Like the first round yesterday the game starts as a French Defense, but it quickly becomes very unusual: on the second move I move my queen's pawn forward one square (rather than the usual two), trying to reach the King's Indian Attack, and he responds by moving his king's pawn a second time. The position now resembles a double king's pawn opening. As play progresses I provoke him into making some weakening pawn moves, giving me a slight edge. I fail to take full advantage of this, though, as my opponent succeeds in exchanging off several pieces and we reach an equal endgame in which each of us has a queen, knight, and several pawns.

At this point both of us have only a few minutes remaining on the clock and the game becomes a race: can we continue to make good moves, or at least avoid making any blunders, while not losing on time? The pace of play becomes faster and faster. Somehow the queens and many of the pawns get exchanged, and I end up with one extra pawn in the process--I have just a knight and one pawn, while he has just the knight. All he has to do now is sacrifice his knight for my last pawn, and the game will be declared a draw, with neither side being able to mate the other. A couple more moves and he will be able to do this, but then, just in time, his flag falls. I immediately claim the win on time.

An even uglier win then yesterday's first round, but again, a win. I reflect on the amazing correctness of whatever instinct led me to agree to use his clock. I can't reflect for long, though, as soon I have to get ready for the next round.

Round 2: My opponent is a young man of Middle-Eastern descent. He has White and opens with his king's knight rather than one of his pawns; this is a somewhat unusual opening that I am not really prepared for. We end up in some sort of Queen's Gambit position in which my opponent has an isolated queen's pawn that is vulnerable to attack. I am able to tie up his pieces in defending this pawn and take over the initiative. Soon most of the pieces are exchanged and we reach a rook endgame; I am a bit better because of the pawn structure, but will it be enough to win? Objectively my opponent should be able to draw, but I have all the winning chances.

He soon finds himself unable to defend all of his weak pawns and gives one up while activating his rook. After he checks my king and I interpose with my own rook, my opponent has a big decision: exchange the last pair of rooks and enter a king-and-pawn endgame (one pawn down), or keep the rooks on the board? He decides to exchange rooks, which turns out to be a big mistake: in the ensuing position, my extra pawn becomes decisive. Soon he is unable to stop the advancing of one of my pawns down the board, where it will eventually become a queen.

Two for two.

Round 3: I have White against a friendly Indian man who plays the Petroff Defense. The line I choose to play leads to a fairly simplified position in which both sides have time to maneuver their forces. As the game progresses I grab more space on the queenside but he has some advantage in the center, which he skillfully exploits: soon I am on the defensive. Just as I think I have successfully repelled his attack, I overlook a simple tactic and lose a pawn.

I try to stay calm and defend my inferior position, but I am already getting low on time and my prospects are not good. Soon my opponent is able to win a second pawn, and I can do little but watch as he skillfully converts his material advantage into victory.

A definite setback. Still, I have two wins in three games, and am certainly better off for having re-entered the tournament.

Round 4: I have White against a Caucasian kid who I think is in high school. He plays the French Defense but makes some strange moves early on, allowing me to develop an attack on the kingside. I am able to capture one of his kingside pawns with my bishop, but at a price: my bishop may well became trapped where it is. The outcome of the game hinges on whether I will be able to rescue my bishop and keep my extra pawn.

I maneuver my queen so as to join my other pieces on the kingside. In the process I give him an opportunity to corner and capture my bishop, but he misses it: now it is too late, as my knight hops deep into his position and attacks both of his rooks. He does manage to capture by bishop but I am able to grab a knight and another pawn. More importantly, my pieces are still aggressively posted around his king. He tries to fight back but misses a tactic and I win the game in style, sacrificing my knight by checking his king and winning both of his rooks, prompting his resignation.

Round 5: The fast time control games are all over now. I try to mentally adjust myself to the slower time control. I'm getting tired, so the change is probably a good thing. My opponent is a high-school-age girl, just like last night, and I resolve that the similarities between the two games will end there.

I have Black and play the Pirc Defense. She plays an active line that involves immediately exchanging my dangerous dark-squared bishop and castling queenside. She tries to attack my king but in doing so leaves her central pawns under-defended. As a result, early in the middlegame her position completely collapses, and I win a whole piece.

This is an absolutely fantastic start, but I remind myself of how I blew my winning position in last night's game and tell myself not to relax yet. Indeed, my opponent seems determined to try to make a comeback. I develop my remaining pieces and try stay on the offensive, continually focusing on the center of the board. I manage to force the exchange of queens and both pairs of rooks, effectively ending her attacking chances. My opponent chooses to play on well past the point where most players would resign, but her position is hopeless: I use my extra piece to win a pawn, then another pawn, advance one of my pawns to where it transforms into a queen, and deliver checkmate.

The day had been a great success. Four wins in five games, and only two games left to play tomorrow. I felt a strange mix of excitement, fatigue, and contentment. I treated myself to a drink at the hotel bar (as a sleep aid, I told myself) and went to bed eager for the next day's challenges.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two Weeks Down

It's been two weeks now since I've eaten any meat. During that time, I've had to make some adjustments--mostly consisting of things I should do anyway, such as virtually eliminating fast food* from my diet.

*Though at the chess tournament last weekend, I needed to grab a quick meal before a game and there seemed to be no available options other than the nearby Burger King or McDonald's. I chose Burger King, scanned the menu for meatless options, and ended up ordering a fish sandwich.

I'd never had a Burger King fish sandwich before. I hope to never, ever have one again.

But, on the whole, I'm surprised by how easy this has been.

Oh sure, it was annoying when I was at the hotel restaurant buffet and couldn't have any bacon or sausage. And I miss my chicken dishes. But not as much as I thought I would.

What's more, while this hasn't been anything resembling a controlled experiment, I must say that I generally feel healthier and more energetic.

I have no idea whether I will decide to continue this practice past Lent. But it's sure good to know that I can.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tournament Recap (and more)

So, my results this weekend were not good: 1 win, 2 draws, 2 losses. I could, of course, blame these results on my health*, which certainly may have been a factor, but I think only a small one. No, I've actually been in something of a chess slump for a few months.

*Incidentally, I'm doing better now--very tired from the weekend's activities, but that chest cough is finally letting up.

My results were actually as follows: loss, loss, draw, draw, win. As you can see, I can at least claim that I improved during the course of the event. And indeed, somewhere near the end of the second game I had an possible insight into the nature of my slump--and even, perhaps, into much more.

To put it simply: I've had difficulty making choices. I will often reach positions in which I have many possible options--expand on the queenside, push in the center, attack the enemy king? Any or all of these options may be promising. However, in all but rare circumstances, there is only time to do one effectively.

My problem is, I'm liable to try to do all three. Which often results in accomplishing none.

Each move is a choice that affects the possible future course of the game. Each move also is, by its very nature, a limiting choice. Once the decision is made to attack on the kingside, it's too late the change course and attack on the queenside. Once a pawn is pushed forward, it can no longer be pushed back.

The fear of making choices, of making decisions that affect the future in permanent and irrevokable ways, is not limited to my chess game. I often find myself wanting to do so much, wanting to experience and discover all that there is, that I become paralyzed, unable to do anything at all.

Each move we make, in chess or in life, limits what choices will be available in our future. To live, then, consists of making choices that lead to a certain path while losing the ability to explore other, formerly potential paths.

Each choice consists of loss. But if we fail to make those choices, fail to experience that loss and embrace the path we have chosen, then we are not really living.

Perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean about life being suffering.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sick, Tired, and Hungry ... but Undeterred

I had hoped to finish writing Part II (or even Parts II and III) of "My Greatest Chess Triumph" this week, but a few days ago I came down with a nasty chest cold that essentially sapped my creative impulse. I'm doing a bit better but still not great; last night the combination of coughing and not being able to breathe normally kept me to a few hours of sleep. It's also one of those colds that seems to double your appetite, making my little Lenten experiment particularly trying.

And, of course, this weekend is the big chess tournament. Perfect timing.

Given my current state, I briefly considered not going. But I've noticed that people's greatest triumphs often come through inauspicious circumstances. Also, there's nothing worse than not knowing what could have been, if only you were willing to try.

So I'm packing this morning for a chess excursion to Massachusetts. The first round begins this evening at 7 pm.

Who knows, when I come home next week and finish writing "My Greatest Chess Triumph," perhaps its title will no longer apply.

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Greatest Chess Triumph, Part I

I arrived at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Philadephia late on a Friday evening in January 2006. The next morning I would begin competing in the Liberty Bell Open, a seven-round, three-day event with top section prizes of a thousand dollars. As I waited at the check-in line, I stared across the vast hotel lobby, noting a number of other chessplayers--they can usually be recognized by their portable chess set cases and/or a generally unkempt appearance. Wanting to familiarize myself with where tomorrow's battles would take place, I stopped by the playing area before going up to my room: two gigantic rooms on the hotel's second floor.

I had been looking forward to this tournament for a while. I had just had a couple weeks off from work for the winter break, and I had spent them going over my chess books, studying tactics, and playing practice games online. On Tuesday the new semester would start and I would be very busy, but for now, I had nothing to distract myself from chess.

I tried to get to bed early, but tossed and turned with thoughts of what tomorrow might bring. Eventually I drifted off to sleeep, the mental chess pieces still moving back and forth somewhere in my subconscious.

I awoke the next morning feeling confident and ready for battle. There would be three games today, followed by two each of the following days.

Round 1: My first opponent is an Asian-looking man in his thirties or forties. I have the White pieces, and the game begins as a French Defense. In the early middlegame my opponent misses a tactic and I win a pawn, while keeping control of the position. So far so good. A few moves later, though, I make a mistake and he wins the pawn back. In the process, most of the pieces are exchanged and we have reached a roughly equal endgame. Damn.

At this point both of us are getting short on time. Neither of wants a draw, and so we keep searching for a way to improve our positions, ideally by promoting one of our pawns.

Then, a kind of miracle occurs: my opponent's cell phone goes off.

Cell phones are a major taboo in tournament chess. As you might imagine, the sound of a cell phone is extremely distracting to all the intensely concentrating players in the vicinity. Accordingly, there are strict sanctions for a player's phone ringing during a round: half of your time (up to twenty minutes) can be deducted from your clock.

A nearby tournament arbiter hears the offending noise and immediately rushes to our table, giving a stern look to my opponent. The arbiter informs him that he must reduce his alotted time remaining from four minutes to two minutes. My opponent protests, saying that his phone didn't actually ring, but was merely beeping to let him know that he had a message or a low battery or something. This may be true, but it doesn't really matter.

The game resumes. Having more time on the clock now gives me an edge, but more importantly, my opponent is clearly rattled. He soon blunders, I win a pawn, and proceed to push my advantage and win the game.

Not a pretty win, but a victory all the same.

Round 2: My opponent is a friendlly, college-age guy. I have the Black pieces and play the Pirc defense. He is able to initiate a dangerous attack against my king, but I defend coolly, managing to exchange queens and reaching an equal position. Seeing that he no longer has any advantage, my opponent offers a draw.

I examine the position and see that it is indeed equal, and that if either of us push too hard to try to win, we would easily risk being worse. But I didn't come all the way here to draw; I'm playing to win. I refuse the offer, and we keep playing.

Before long I regret my decision: one inaccurate move and now my opponent is in control, penetrating into my position with his rooks and cornering one of my isolated pawns. I try to shut out the inner voices yelling at me for passing up the offered draw and put up a solid defence, but to no avail. My position crumbles, and the game is lost.

Round 3: I try to shake off the loss and focus on my next game. I have White against a high-school-age girl, who seems a bit nervous and unsure of herself. She plays the Sicilian, against which I play the somewhat unusual Alapin variation, which she is not ready for. Early in the game she makes a big mistake, allowing me to trap her bishop--I win her bishop for two pawns on only the thirteenth move.

Yes! This is more like it, I think to myself. I relax, confident now that my position is winning.

My opponent, though, is determined to put up a good fight. Suddenly focused, she tries to minimize the impact of her lost piece and maximize the power of her extra pawns, slowly but surely advancing them. It takes me a while to realize that her plan is potentially very dangerous. In other words, lulled into a false sense of security, I completely misplay the position. She keeps me on the defensive until I finally collapse, giving up a piece and leaving her with an advanced pawn that will soon promote to a queen. Another loss.


I left the playing area feeling stunned. In the last two games, I had managed to turn what should have been a draw and a win into two losses. What had I done? Had all of my preparation been for nothing? Was I destined to never improve at this game, always squandering these opportunities? And yet, there was the knowledge that I could have, should have, two-and-a-half points now instead of one. That counted for something, right? Surely I was a better chessplayer than I had shown so far.

Unfortunately, with two losses already, I would have no chance of winning the tournament. But I did have an option: I could withdraw and "re-enter" into the 2-day sechedule. The 2-day schedule would have five games tomorrow instead of two: fairly fast time controls for the first four games before merging with the other sections that evening. The tournament organizers, knowing that there would be many disgruntled players after the first day and not missing a profitable opportunity, tacitly encouraged this practice by offering discounted re-entry rates.

I sulked my way back to my hotel room and called my wife to tell her the bad news. I also asked what she thought of the idea of my re-entering, spending more of our money on what seemed to be an increasingly foolhardy venture. "Do what you think is best," she said, but I sensed that she was not at all confident I would fare any better if I did.

I sunk into my plush hotel bed and turned on the TV, trying to forget about the day's disappointments. On Showtime or Cinemax or one of those channels there was a lesbian-themed horror-comedy playing. Eventually I sank into sleep, still not knowing what I would do in the morning.

Saturday, February 28, 2009


I have just returned home from a one-day chess tournament, the same venue that was the subject of my February 1st post "The Weekend's Battles." In that post I wrote about a disappointing tournament, and ended the entry with the words, "I'll do better next time."

Alas, my prognostication skills were evidently a bit off. Today was disappointing indeed, partly because my expectations were high: I was the fourth highest rated player in a field of twenty-one, with no one rated much above me. And the day got off to a good start: victories in my first two games against lower-rated players.

Alas, two games and two losses later (against good players, yes, but no one I shouldn't be competitive against), and I'm left wondering where my once proud chess skills have gone. This month has seen a major period of personal self-improvement, and I confess to having had a certain fantasy that such work would magically translate into increased over-the-board chess prowess--into a better, smarter, more powerful castlerook. So far, that does not appear to be the case.

On the other hand, today's tournament was eseentially a warm-up for a much larger tournament that I'll be playing in next weekend. I've had my wake up call--my game is not where it needs to be.

I have a week to figure out why.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


The practice of giving something up for Lent has never really been part of my religious tradition. Once or twice in my life I have attempted some sort of self-denial this time of year, but been generally unsuccessful. The past few months, though, I've become aware of a personal need for greater self-discipline, and I've decided that this Lenten season is as good a time as any to start.

So, here it is: I'm giving up meat.

In truth, for some time now I've been somewhat uncomfortable with eating meat. The life of an animal bred with the purpose of one day being sold at a grocery store is an ugly one indeed. And yet, I really like meat. Especially chicken. And burgers. And so I've usually managed to sweep away those nagging questions in the back of my mind, asking: "Where does your food come from? Do you know? Do you care?"

"How do you feel about the fast-food burger in front you coming at the expense of an animal's life?"

Now, there may be good answers to these questions. But I don't have them, and for years I've avoided listening to these questions precisely because I haven't had an answer.

And so, while the moral questions regarding our relationship with the earth and its other inhabitants are far too complex for me to answer, I'm hoping that my current experiment may help me better understand the dilemma. For now I'm allowing myself fish, though I've never been much of a seafood eater--still, having such an option makes the prospect less intimidating.

In the ensuing weeks, I'll try to better examine my feelings regarding eating meat, and also monitor what effects this dietary change may have on me personally.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself."

Let me tell you about two people I know: "Dave" and "David."

Dave is a charming, fun-loving kind of guy who strives to live life to the fullest. He is a talented singer and actor. He listens to classic rock. At a party, he's usually one of the last to leave. He finds it difficult to settle down and focus on a particular task. He is something of a spiritual mystic, and often attends neopagan rituals.

David is an instrospective, serious-minded individual. He teaches and tutors math. He listens to classical music. Generally shy, he's the sort of person who doesn't get out much. He plays chess and can easily focus on a position for long periods of time. He is religious, and recently became an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

Both Dave and David are, of course, myself. And individually, each of them does pretty well.

The hard part is getting them to communicate with each other.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Substitute Teaching

I pause outside the classroom door before entering and take a deep breath. What will this group of students be like? Eager to learn, or resistant to knowledge of any sort? And what sort of substitute teacher are they expecting?

Whatever the answer to that last question, I'm probably not it. I take a certain pride in this knowledge as I stride into the classroom with my shaggy hair and black leather jacket, maintaining an air of nonchalance even as I can almost hear the students thinking, "Wait . . . he's our substitute?"

The couple of minutes before class officially starts are always the most awkward, and so I pretend to be busy looking over my notes while I secretly gauge the energy of the room. The vibe I get is generally positive. Good. I look up, meeting their now expectant gazes, and flash a brief smile as if to say, "No, I'm not the dreary middle-aged guy you were all probably expecting. Cool, huh?"

I take attendance and start talking about the topic of the day, logarithms, all the while monitoring my connection with the class and striving to maintain it. Am I moving too quickly? Too slowly? If I lose them for a minute, it can be difficult to get them back. It's just like being on stage.

Scratch that. It is being on stage.

The class goes well. Of course, a handful of students never take any notes or show any interest whatsoever, but most do. More importantly, I get the impression that at least some of those who do show interest normally don't.

The class ends, the students leave, and I am left in the classroom, alone. I'm really good at this, I think to myself. A tiny but persistent voice somewhere asks, "so why not do this full-time?"

But I know the answer immediately: because experience has taught me all too well that if I were to do this for an extended period of time, removing the word "substitute" from my current designation, then whatever quality it is that makes me a particularly good teacher would fade away, and I would become that very stereotype which I now happily defy. I know that as soon as it ceases to be a role and becomes a defining feature of my existence, a vital part of myself is lost.

In truth, it's easy to be the cool young teacher when you don't have the responsibility of being available to the students having problems, of grading all of the homeworks and tests, and of ultimately failing those students who don't succeed.

And so I leave the classroom and the building, shedding my "math teacher" persona as I walk to my car, knowing that I can call upon it again when necessary.

In the meantime, I have other roles to play.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How it ends?

The "$0.10 buy-in, turbo No Limit Hold’em tournaments" worked like this: 360 players, first place prize $8.50, 2nd place $6.00, 3rd place $4.00, and so on, down to 27th-36th winning $0.20.

And a new tournament began every few minutes.

I was well aware, of course, that I was "supposed" to play for a while, lose my dollar, but then become so enamored with the experience of playing real money online poker that I'd deposit more money. And if I lost that, well, I could only win it back by depositing more, right?

I had no intention of being one of those people though. If I lost my dollar, so be it.

I had mixed results at first, rather like my attempts at the casino. I'd fail to get in the money in a couple times, then I'd win twenty or thirty cents, then lose some more. In tournaments, as opposed to "standard" poker, most of the time you're going to lose your entry fee. Soon my original dollar was down to thirty cents.

I was frustrated. Only three buy-ins left. I took a break for a couple weeks. I re-read my poker books. When I returned, I felt ready.

I entered a tournament, and lost ten cents. Thanks to some bad cards, I never had much of a chance.

I entered another. Lost again.

Only ten cents left. Well, I said to myself, this is it. If I lose, I'm done--it means this just isn't the game for me.

The next tournament did not begin well. Bad cards after bad cards . . . soon I had only half of my original chips left.

But I didn't give up. Patience, I told myself. Eventually some good cards came, I made a couple key bluffs when I was confident another player had nothing, a good break here and there and . . . I finished third.

Third! I had just turned ten cents into four dollars.

The breakthrough had come. A few tournaments later, I finished first. Suddently my PokerStars account had over ten dollars.

Soon I was moving up from the ten-cent buy-in tournaments to the one-dollar buy-ins, and kept winning.

And winning.

In January, when my account rose over $150, I decided to make sure that I could actually, like, get the money. I "cashed out" for half of my winnings, $75, and sure enough a check came in the mail a few days later.


I kept playing. Kept winning.

However, before you start sending all sorts of congratulatory comments my way, you should know that underneath all of this success, there's a problem, and it's a problem that it's taken me a while to be able to admit.

I have been playing way too much online poker.

As in, several hours a day of online poker.

Last Friday I got a call offering me some substitute teaching opportunities a couple weeks hence. I was, at the time, in the middle of a poker tournament, and I continued to play during the course of the conversation. I accepted the offer but hung up the phone thinking, Damnit. This will give me less time for online poker.


A long-dormant voice (perhaps the "Angel" from two posts ago) awoke in my consciousness, saying, "Dude. Can you, like, hear yourself? I mean, seriously."

To which I could only respond, "Yeah, I hear myself. And no, I don't like it either."

Something was wrong.

I got out my Tarot cards and did a reading, trying to figure out what was going on. Of particular note was that the "crossing card," representing my current challenge, was . . . The Devil.


I logged back onto PokerStars and went to their "Responsible Gaming" menu (a feature I must give PokerStars real props for having) and requested a 7-day self-exclusion from playing.

Since that time, I've felt . . . free.

Which brings us to the present. I'm about to do something, which, quite frankly, has been difficult. I'm logging onto PokerStars and clicking on "Cashier."

I have just over $175 at present. Add that to the $75 I've already cashed, and that's $250, all starting with the single dollar I started with three-and-a-half months ago.

It more than makes up for the money I lost at the casino.

Perhaps it's, well . . . enough.

Deep breath.

"Cash out."


Account Status: $0.00.

Goodbye, PokerStars. Hello, world.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yep. That's "how it starts."

As will probably come as no surprise, in the previous post's argument between "Angel" and "Devil," Angel never really stood a chance. I was back at the casino a few weeks later, and lost the $100 that I had won. But I still had my original $100, so I went back and . . . won! More specifically, I won about $80. Then I went back and . . . lost.

This back-and-forth continued until soon, after a couple consecutive losses, I was down $120, my original and beloved one-hundred-dollar bill (plus a bit extra) gone forever. At this point, I had the good sense to quit while I was only somewhat behind, deciding that given my lack of full-time employment, poker-playing at the casino was perhaps not the most responsible hobby. I resolved to go to the casino no more, at least until such time as some major chess victory gave me a sufficient "poker budget."

In the meantime, I resolved to try and figure out the secrets of this game, whose siren call has already claimed many talented chessplayers. I purchased a couple poker books and practiced with play money on PokerStars, amassing lots and lots of useless (or so I thought) play money chips.

Then in October I received the following e-mail from

Dear castlerook,

We’ve been watching you win big at the play money Sit N Go Tournaments and we think that you’re ready for real money play.

In fact, we believe it so much that we’re giving you $1 in real money FOR FREE to try our real money tournaments. The cash is already in your account, so you can login and hit the tables right away.

Play in our $0.10 buy-in, turbo No Limit Hold’em tournaments. Go on, test your skills at the real money tables today - it’s a whole new level of excitement!

The $1 is only available for ten days, so we encourage you to take advantage of it before it expires. Once you play with it though, it’s yours to keep forever – no deposit necessary.

To access the $1 you will need to download the enhanced version of our software
If you have any questions or need any assistance, please contact us at

Play well!

The PokerStars Team

Wow. Was this for real? Turns out it was. Soon I was playing online poker for real money, without having to deposit a cent.

What happened then?

Fear not, faithful reader; you'll find out soon enough.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Lucrative Birthday . . . Is this how it starts?

I wrote the following for the (now-defunct) website last June. I'm posting it here primarily to give some context for a future post, to appear sometime in the next couple of days.

Yesterday was my birthday. A few days ago, when my wife asked me what I wanted to do on my birthday, I thought for a bit, and then surprised both myself and her when I answered, "I want to go to the casino and play poker."

This was surprising because, even though for years I have lived fairly close to a prominent Native American casino/resort, I have never before felt the urge to go there and throw away my money.*

*Okay, so there was the one time I quickly blew some cash on one of those evil money-sucking machine things, but that was when I was performing in a show there and so I was already on the premises, and it just sort of, well, happened.

In recent months, though, I've been playing online poker for fun, and amassed a fairly impressive amount of online play money, and so I was curious as to whether I could, like, play real poker. With real people, and real money.

I figured a birthday was a good excuse to do something foolhardy. What's more, I recently won a bit over a hundred dollars at a local chess tournament, so I figured I could take that one-hundred-dollar bill* as my budget, and if I lost it, well, no big.

*I'm not used to having one-hundred-dollar bills. When I won the chess tournament and the tournament director handed me a one-hundred-dollar bill, I was like, wow, a one-hundred-dollar bill. It's, like, got Ben Franklin on it and everything. And he played chess too. Dude.

To make a long story short, I took my one-hundred-dollar bill to the No-Limit Hold 'Em poker tables last night, fully prepared to lose it all and thereby extinguish this strange new gambling urge I seem to have developed.

Except, I didn't lose it. I doubled my money. I now have not one, but two, one-hundred-dollar bills.

Now I'm in trouble.

I went to sleep last night amidst daydreams of various poker hands, envisioning scenarios in which I won lots more money. When I awoke this morning I was still dreaming of poker hands, so presumably my subconscious mind was playing poker all night long. It won lots and lots of poker chips, and now it wants me to do the same.

I have two mythical creatures on my shoulders, and they're having a dialogue.

Devil: Come on, you know you want to go back to the casino. Think of all the money you could win!

Angel: No, that was a one-time, birthday thing. Quit while you're ahead.

Devil: Aw, come on. You're good at this! You're not going to lose.

Angel: Hold on there, pal. Remember that you almost lost your entire hundred and were saved only by a good card on the turn.

Devil: It was your first time out, and you did great! Next time you'll do even better. Keep at it and you'll never have to work a real job again!

Angel: Greed is your enemy. That way leads to the dark side.

Me: My angel is Yoda?

I cannot yet tell which metaphysical force will win this argument. For now, I'll leave them to it and focus on my chess game. The chess World Open is less than two weeks away, and I'm playing.

But, yeah. I won a hundred dollars at the poker tables on my birthday yesterday.

How cool is that?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Weekend's Battles

On Saturday I competed in a one-day chess tournament. Here is a chronicle of the day's events.

I wake up at six-thirty, a half-hour before my alarm is set to go off. I know intellectually that I've slept, but I can't tell based on the way my body feels. Is it really morning already?

After having some breakfast and gathering my chess equipment (set, clock, scorebook for writing down moves, and earplugs), I make the hour-long drive to the tournament site. Tournaments have been held at this location once a month for many years. Unlike large, weekend-long tournaments, in small tournaments such as this one all the players are grouped in one section, from complete beginner to accomplished master. There are four rounds, and prizes to the top two players, as well as two prizes for players in specified ratings groups, the top one of which I am eligible for.

I help myself to some coffee before the first round to try and wake up my mental pathways. As part of the tournament entry fee, coffee and snacks will be provided throughout the day--a good thing, since finding time to eat between games is often difficult. As we await the pairings for the first round, some of us engage in some friendly banter as a way of relaxing our nerves. In a nearby conversation, two chessplayers are talking about another player, and one of them asks, "Can you beat his dragon*?" Another player, who overhears this says, "Wow, that sounded wrong."

*The Dragon--more specifically, the Sicilian Dragon--is a fairly common opening setup for Black.

The pairings for the first round are posted, and we begin.

Round 1: I'm paired against a kid, age 13 or so, rated well below me. Could be an easy first round. I can't afford to be overcondifent though, as some of these kids are tacical geniuses, and their ratings are often wildly inaccurate--they're playing a lot and improving quickly, and it takes some time for their USCF (United States Chess Federation) rating to catch up.

I have Black. My opponent plays a somwhat passive opening for White, allowing me to have my fair share of the Center. My prospects are good. He plays tough in the middlegame though, making no obvious mistakes and forcing me to defend on the queenside, where he has some advantage. However, he commits his pieces rather strongly to that side of the board, and after repelling his attack I launch an offensive on the other side, forcing him to compromise the pawn structure around his king. From there I develop an attack that results in the winning of an important pawn in the center, launch my own central pawns forward and force my opponent's resignation soon thereafter.

A good start.

Round 2: From an easy pairing to a very difficult one: I'm up against a Norwegian master who just got a position teaching at a local university and who is new to our tournaments. I know that I can't afford to let his high chess rating get into my head. I tell myself that all I can do is play my best. I have White this time, and I've been studying a new opening system for White that it's time to try out.

Soon I get a bit confused as to the right move-order for my new opening; I push my e-pawn forward in preparation for a future d-pawn advance but my oppoent's reply, immediately attacking my d-pawn, forces me to make a positional concession. Soon my opponent can claim some advantage in both the center and on the queenside. Still, I manage to trade down into an ending in which I am only a pawn down and the pawn strucuture is locked, making the win a difficult task for my opponent to achieve. But, being a master, he manages to force a favorable trade of pawns that makes my remaining pawns diffult to defend--he soon wins a second pawn and begins to advance them. I, powerless to prevent the coming apocalypse, must concede defeat.

A loss, but a good game nonetheless, and also a personally instructive one.

Round 3: I'm paired against another kid, but this one is considerably more experienced--I'm the higher rated player, but not by much. He's a regular at these tournaments and I've played him several times before, with good success. As a result, I think he's nervous about playing me. Early on in our game he misses a tactic that allows me to win a pawn. From there I'm able to take command of the position's only open file and soon win a second pawn. Yeah, he's rattled. He tries to develop at attack of his own but my position is too strong, and victory seems near.

At about this time I force an exchange of rooks--he takes my rook with his, and I have a choice of how to recapture--with my rook, bishop, or pawn. Originally I'd planned on recapturing with the bishop, but now I look at the board and the rook recapture looks more promising and I confidently take back with the rook. Only then do I notice that this leaves my bishop hanging! Momentary panic ensues, which I do my best to hide. In fact, a second glance reassures me that everything is all right: he can't take the bishop after all, because it would leave his back rank exposed to a quick mating attack. Whew. Perhaps on some level I was aware of this all along, but all the same I silently berate myself for moving too quickly and almost making a major blunder. Why didn't I check my last move more carefully? The answer comes in a sudden realization: I am getting really tired. I help myself to another cup of coffee.

My young opponent does his best to defend a bad situation, but his position is beyod repair, and my rejuvenated mental awareness is not about to give him any more chances. It takes a while, but I win the game.

It's now after 5:00, and I've only eaten the snacks (chex mix, grapes, cookies, thin mints) provided by the tournament organizer. Unfortunately, there's less than fifteen minutes before the last round is scheduled to start, and I'm not sure I have the time for a fast-food run. Besides, I'm running on adrenaline now, and I think if I had a full stomach I'd realize how tired I really am. One more game, then I can relax.

Round 4: My opponent is a veteran tournament chess player ranked just slightly below me. Thanks to my loss in the second round there's no way I can win the tournament, but a win here would at least give me a share of the top class prize. I have White, and employ the same opening I did in Round 2. My opponent proceeds to play the same system as Black as the Norwegian master! After several moves, the position is identical to my earlier game. Now I really wish I'd studied this line more.

A have of exhaustion passes over me and a voice somewhere inside asks me if the effort to keep playing is really worth it. I yell at that voice to be quiet and get one last cup of coffee. Returning to my board, I realize that I can at least avoid making the same mistake that I made in my earlier game. Instead of pushing my e-pawn forward I try to create some play on the queenside, nudging my a-pawn forward in preparation to advance the b-pawn and disrupt my opponent's hold on the center.

It sort of works. I don't get a great position but it's a significant improvement over my second round game. As I'm trying to work out my long-term strategic goals, my opponent makes an unexpected mistake, allowing me to win a pawn! A big break against an opponent of this strength. However, after taking the pawn the game becomes extremely complicated. I may be winning, but my position is hardly safe.

Knowing that if I play passively my opponent will be able to recover, I play sharp, aggressive moves, trying to keep him off balance. But he refuses to die passively, and launches an aggressive attack of his own. He makes a subtle move with his queen, and with horror I see that I am in serious danger of being mated.

How can I stop it? One way would be to give up a piece, but that's a method of last resort. Come on, find another way. I think about the position. And think. And think. Nothing comes. I glance at the chess clock and see I have twenty minutes remaining of the ninety we each began with. Sacrifice a piece it is.

My prospects are bleak, but not hopeless--in return for the piece I have two pawns, and the possibility of advancing my passed pawns in the center. Unfortunately, I'm fighting another disadvantage now: my opponent has a lot more clock time left than me. I defend resiliently for a while, but then miscalculate and launch my pawns forward too soon. He is able to blockade, surround, and ultimately destroy them. My position is now hopeless, and I resign.

After the game another player points out an alternative I had to my piece sacrifice which I totally missed--this makes me feel worse, although my position would still have been very difficult. The truth is that during the game I was too exhausted to play at my best. Note to self: stop staying up late playing online poker. Still, it was a remarkable game, full of unexpected twists and wonderfully complex positions.

And I'll do better next time.

Friday, January 30, 2009

First Post

Greetings, faithful readers of castlerook's blog! Allow me to introduce myself: I am this blog's obligatory introductory post. Castlerook wishes me to inform you that in the weeks and months ahead, you may find herein ruminations regarding a plethora of topics, possibly including (but not limited to) music, chess, politics, religion, theater, and various eternal questions regarding the nature and meaning of existence. He may even treat you all to some short fiction or personal update-type material. Furthermore, he pledges to update this blog on a regular basis and hopes that you will visit frequently! Personally, knowing how long it took him to get around to putting me up on the screen, I question Castlerook's ability to stay focused long enough to update this blog at all.

We shall see...