From the archives: Adventures

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Raging bishop

Friday, 16 September 2011 — 12:26am | Adventures, Board games

On Saturday I attended the London Chessboxing Championship, which was more or less what it said on the tin. For those unfamiliar with the emergent hybrid sport, there is chess, and there is boxing. Every bout alternates between successive rounds of speed chess and boxing until one of the contenders secures a checkmate on the board or a knockout in the ring (along with the usual victory conditions for resignation or time).

It should be no surprise that chessboxing’s promoters sell it as a perfect biathlon of mind and body. Chess has an ancient mystique of intellect about it even among those who barely know the game, and boxing is far and away the most story-rich of sports. Both activities stand as cultural paragons of some indefinite struggle of individual mastery. And the combination is hardly arbitrary: the boxing forces the chess to be played under conditions of high adrenaline and extreme physical fatigue, imposing a test of mental stamina quite unlike any other.

Not so clear is whether the chess takes a toll on the boxing. Andrea Kuszewski has argued that the most cognitively taxing part of the game is the rapid task-switching, which demands superb emotional control; indeed, chessboxing may prove to be exceptionally well suited to training one’s aggression management. In theory, a good chessboxer has to box with the ability to play chess very shortly in mind. (In practice, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case.)

The London event at the Scala was reportedly the world’s biggest night of chessboxing to date, with five bouts on the card drawing a capacity crowd of 1000. Before the first match, my own estimate was 400-500 spectators on the floor with many more in the balcony and VIP lounge, but the audience swelled as the night wore on and the official count became more plausible. One of the organizers called it the largest live audience on record for a game of chess, though I believe Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky drew similar numbers in the Piatigorsky Cup (Santa Monica, 1966), and that’s only the record in the United States.

Nevertheless, the sport shows signs of rapid expansion, filling a former cinema palace kitty-corner to King’s Cross that doubled the capacity of its previous venue in Tufnell Park. There are rumblings that talks have begun to bring chessboxing to Royal Albert Hall next year, presumably to catch some of the Olympic spillover, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Continued »

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Canadian climate clears customs, conquers Cambridge

Wednesday, 6 January 2010 — 11:47pm | Adventures

I returned to Cambridge yesterday and it looked like this:

Today, it looked like this:

The Times covered the day as it unfolded, and the Telegraph reports we should expect at least six more days of snow. Here in East Anglia the weather has struck me as tame and, to be honest, rather pleasant; the snow is fluffy and there isn’t much wind. If this is what passes for a meteorological calamity on a national scale, I shudder to think how Britons would take the conditions I saw in Alberta only a week ago. The difference is in preparedness, I suppose.

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Around the World in Eighty Crisps

Wednesday, 18 November 2009 — 2:25pm | Adventures, Literature

I’ve had a thing for gourmet potato chips since I was very young. Over the years I’ve become so accustomed to expensive high-quality snack foods—fortuitously, the ones that are often promoted as healthy options that won’t kill you quite as swiftly as that tennis-ball tin from the Pringles factory—that I find it very difficult to go back to chips of the ordinary sort. Root vegetable snacks that retain the flavour of the vegetables are a whole order of magnitude more delicious than your average powdery munchies laden with artificial flavours and a surfeit of cheap salt.

I don’t think my potato chip snobbery is a consequence of marketing; I liked these snacks before the organic foods craze ever came to fruition, and I savoured them for flavour and texture alone. But there’s no denying that the companies behind specialty chips pay careful attention to packaging their foods to evoke nostalgia for an imagined pre-industrial authenticity. They appeal to images of the harvest and of kettle-cooking by hand. You certainly see this embodied in high-end brands like the king of root vegetable snacks, Terra Chips (who substantiate their boasts in every way with an astonishing assortment of vegetables and spices), but midrange brands that can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores like Miss Vickie’s (which, by the way, has really gone downhill since it was acquired by Frito-Lay and switched from peanut to vegetable oil) also call upon a rustic ideal where their products, in their words, “remind people of a less-hurried time, when people cooked with care and patience.” We know, of course, that a high-volume national product like Miss Vickie’s isn’t exactly a pastoral manufacture, but that’s how they distinguish themselves from the competition all the same.

I’ve sampled a few of the potato chip brands here in Britain, where they are known as crisps. So far, I’ve been unimpressed, and the potatoes are clearly to blame. I know this from having tried the control group of the global Kettle brand, which is here a cut above your typical crisp, yet oddly stale and inert in comparison to the North American equivalent. Most well-travelled individuals have likely experienced this sort of brand-name dissonance with respect to breakfast cereals; it’s a shock to many a Canadian when travelling abroad that the formula for Kellogg’s Special K everywhere else doesn’t taste anything like Rice Krispies like they do at home.

Then I discovered Phileas Fogg.

Phileas Fogg potato crisps are nothing special, although their Indian Red Chilli mini-poppadoms are one of those unique and delightful pleasures of the British imperial legacy that I haven’t seen before. What caught my attention about these snacks, though, was the branding. The copywriting is magnificent. Far from the usual blurb about the innocence of cottage life, the inscription on every bag aims for a loftier romance:

Embodying the pioneering spirit of the legendary PHILEAS FOGG, our snacks have been created using carefully selected authentic ingredients from around the world to satisfy the most discerning culinary explorer.

It gets better. Here’s the description of their Sea Salt and Indonesian Black Peppercorn crisps:

Indonesia; the breathtaking land of volcanoes, emerald green pastures and the home of our black peppercorns. Here they are known as the king of all the spices and are treated almost as royalty. The pepper farmers are fiercely protective of their crops and watch over them as they dry in the sun. We think it’s worth all the trouble. They give our crisps a satisfyingly balanced flavour—fruity and fresh, with a hint of fiery heat.

And those mini-poppadoms I mentioned earlier:

India. Land of mogul palaces, mystical cities, vibrant colours and delicately spiced poppadoms. Ours are carefully flavoured with hot and fiery red chillies from the Guntur region. Then they are sent to Chennai in the sweltering south to be used in the creation of the perfect poppadom. For an evocative flavour they are sun dried and then cooked to split-second perfection. This gives a crisp, bubbly texture that melts in your mouth, leaving a gentle, aromatic and authentic taste.

If they were really taking this seriously they would have called the city Madras instead of Chennai, but that’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. What astounds me is how the brand has co-opted the name of Jules Verne’s quintessential globetrotter, Phileas Fogg, as a great symbol of imperial adventure who brings knowledge and goods from faraway lands to home soil. Their television advertisement speaks of Fogg as a real historical figure! Nowadays, popular fiction in all media is so tied up in licensing and property rights that we see contemporaneous promotional products like C3PO’s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, but one can only wonder what cultural or literary sources snack foods will draw on a hundred years from now, not to promote the original text but to deploy it as an emblem of a more flavourful time and place.

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Cantabrigia

Friday, 5 June 2009 — 4:51am | Adventures

My next adventure:

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 09 September 2004.

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New York Minutes

Tuesday, 5 August 2008 — 10:55pm | Adventures, Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble

I visited Manhattan for the first time before and after the Orlando NSC, and one doesn’t visit Manhattan for the first time without coming back with a swarm of impressions that cling to the memory like barnacles.

Not content with restricting myself to the usual landmark-hopping tourist experience of scheduling ill-lit drive-by shootings (now in digital), I thought it would be rewarding to amble around the City That Sleeps As Much As I Do with little planning and forethought, and let adventure ambush me as it will. At times, the excursion assumed the manner of a pilgrimage. Mecca, with less ululation. This isn’t to say that I didn’t tick my way down the usual checklist—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more navigable corners of Central Park, a Broadway production or two—but stopping there wouldn’t have made it my New York, and like any good tourist, I populated my list of things to see with a few sentimental items, guided as always by the invisible hand of personal entitlement.

So when I wasn’t busy getting lost in more of Central Park than most New Yorkers will ever see, I went looking for Scrabble and jazz.

Continued »

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The National Scrabble Communion, Day 4

Tuesday, 29 July 2008 — 8:33pm | Adventures, Scrabble, Tournament logs

It’s over, thank goodness.

I finished on a record of 10-18 (-533), ending up in 125th place of 133 players in Division 3. I was bottom-feeding all day, but at least I was feeding.

Truth be told, this was an unremarkable day. I didn’t come away with many stories to tell, though I did pay more visits to the challenge table than on the first three days combined. On one occasion, I opened the game with FEDEX for 48 points, drawing a challenge and buying myself an extra turn. My opponent didn’t know that FEDEX was added in the 2006 dictionary revision, along with a whole smattering of genericized trademarks like PYREX and KLEENEX. This worked to my advantage, since I’d placed the word in a risky position: if he knew the back extension, my opponent could have plopped an -ING on the end to make FEDEXING and hit the TWS for 60 points.

Really, though: that’s the most interesting thing that happened all day, unless you count the incident where my opponent and I were mistakenly assigned to Nadine Jacobson’s permanent location at Table 65. Nadine Jacobson, I should explain, is the blind player with the Braille Scrabble set who reads the board in caresses and keeps score on a Perkins Brailler. She famously refuses the extra playing time that she is entitled to on account of her handicap, preferring the standard allotment of 25 minutes per player simply because it’s fair.

This year’s National Scrabble Championship did not feature a televised final, unlike the ESPN-affiliated editions that ran from 2004 to 2006. It reverted to the old format, where Division 1 is treated like all the other divisions, with no separate best-of-five showdown. In a way, this is fairer—why shouldn’t the top prize go to the player with the best record?—but it’s also a shame, because the thought of witnessing a Richards-Cappelletto battle on a closed-circuit feed in a room full of kibitzing experts strikes me as both educational and intensely entertaining. Oh well: I could always trace my way through Nigel and Brian’s top-table matchups in Rounds 26 through 28 online.

So that just about wraps it up for the Orlando NSC. According to the full tsh report, this tournament chipped my rating from 1315 to 1254. In a way, it was Day 1 that did most of the damage; I went 10-11 in the remainder of the tournament, good enough to save my rating from too steep a plummet (i.e. I can still play in Division 2 at the WCSC). Nevertheless, I think it may be high time to start being concerned that I haven’t appreciably improved in the last four years: sooner or later I’ll have to face the decision to either shape up or ship out. You know which one I’ll pick.

(Day 4 bingos: REtAINER, RERAISE, ABATeRs, RECLINeR, OVERPILE*, RIsIBlE, OUTROSE*, RESoLVES, FLOATIER—bringing my tournament total to 38 bingos over 27 games played, which is merely ordinary and not reflective of the travesty that was my win-loss record.)

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The National Scrabble Cataclysm, Day 3

Monday, 28 July 2008 — 10:13pm | Adventures, Scrabble, Tournament logs

“How does that saying go?” one of my opponents asked me today, after another heated battle at the bottom of the barrel. “The road to hell is paved with…?”

“Good intentions,” I said, “and bad tiles.”

I am now at 6-15 (-528), and sincerely having the time of my life. I may be losing, but at least I’m playing real Scrabble. In my 133-player division, I’ve gone from 133rd on Day 1 to 132nd on Day 2, and now I’m 131st. At this rate, I should finish the tournament in fourth-last place, a smidgen worse than New Orleans (where I finished 165th of 169).

So why am I having so much fun? Round 19, that’s why. Oh, golly. Let me tell you about Round 19—instantly one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played, and enough to make me stop worrying and love the bomb (aka the SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game). It was like falling all over again for a lost and unrequited love that had already jilted you a dozen times. Like making beautiful baroque music with her after months of distant longing and minimal conversation. No, not whoopee, you unchivalrous pervert. Just music.

I lost Round 19, you know. It was euphoric anyway. Sometimes a loss is a loss, and all you can do is make the best of it. Is there a word for the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory?

(Before I proceed—Day 3 bingos: ESTUARY, WOrRIeS, WEARYINg, VISITOr, NOTaRIZE, ELECTOR, RADIANT, OPERATED, SANdBILL*, UNAIrEd, ANTSIER, FLATIROn, COILIEST*. More blanks, more phonies, and more laughs.)

Continued »

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »