alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Overwatch is an entirely natural role for me. Up until a little while ago, it had been a form of self-protection. Now, I had to save Captain N'klaus, too.

We were on one of the minor planets of the Anome system when the local warlord N'klaus was dealing with decided it was time to put on big-boy pants and try to hijack the Captain's ship, which happens to be the ship I pilot and whose quantum matrix I inhabit as a virtual entity. While getting rid of N'klaus was a fantasy I had often indulged in, during private time, the fact is the ship requires a human crewmember, so given a choice between keeping N'klaus or replacing him with a would-be hijacker supervising a ragtag handful of followers, there really was no choice.

The local bigshot, whose name was an unpronounceable mess of consonant sounds, was convinced there was nobody else aboard N'klaus's ship. I knew he knew this because what the ship lacks in firepower it makes up for in intelligence-gathering capability, all military grade, thanks to yours truly. And while the ship's advanced capabilities weren't of much use on this boondock planet, cameras and microphones work everywhere, including uncivilized backwaters such as the one we were sitting on.

As it happens, N'klaus always carries a collection of remote surveillance devices around with him. The devices exhibit the physical characteristics of Ctenocephalides felis, the common flea, and provide excellent video and audio coverage over extended distances. Instead of sucking blood, the devices derive power from body heat. N'klaus doesn't mind carrying the "fleas" because… well… he has no idea of what they are; he actually thinks they're fleas, assuming he notices them at all. This, by the way, makes tracking everything he says and does outside the ship a pretty straightforward deal, and was how I learned that his business on this planet had gone sour.

So when the locals dragged N'klaus up to the boarding lock, I recited John Masefield's Sea Fever to myself until the leader had punched in the access code that his underlings had obtained from N'klaus by repeatedly punching him in the face. When the hatch opened, the leader stepped confidently into the vestibule, much like Columbus stepping onto the shore of the New World, at which point I closed the hatch behind him and made my presence known to all.

"Your leader is now our prisoner!" I announced. When I later reviewed the imagery recorded of everyone's face at that moment, I noticed that nobody was more surprised by this turn of events than N'klaus. The look on the warlord's face, on the other hand, betrayed no surprise; only terror.

After a moment or two, the sharpest and most loyal soul in the small mob outside the ship produced a knife and held it to N'klaus's neck. "Release our leader, or your captain dies!" he shouted.

"Captains are easily replaced," I said. "Men like your leader are not. In any case, we both know your lives will be forfeit if any harm befalls your leader." I paused for a few seconds, and then recited a list of items that I expected this group to collect and bring to the ship to ransom my captive. When the man with the knife protested that his people had no access to such items, I replied by recalling highlights from collected surveillance data, and described exactly where the items could be found in their encampment. N'klaus's eyes would have grown to be as big as dinner plates during my recitation, except for the fact that most of his face had become swollen as a result of his beating. After convincing the locals that they didn't need to leave anyone behind to guard N'klaus, they left, presumably to start gathering the goodies I had asked for.

For some time after the ruffians left, N'klaus remained sitting on the ground outside the boarding lock, making no attempt to get closer to the ship. I was pretty sure I knew why.

You should know that the first thing I did after accepting N'klaus's invitation to join him was to disobey his direct order to leave all my stuff behind, including my dog, which had been severely wounded in the fight with a telepathic predator that had brought us all together in the first place. Instead, I picked Max up and made him as comfortable as I could in the pocket created by my body and my jacket as I followed N'klaus to his ship.

We had barely entered N'klaus's ship when he turned and unceremoniously shoved me (and Max) into a tall narrow compartment, the door of which closed quickly. The compartment filled rapidly with fluid, and I distinctly remember the moment when I could hold my breath no longer and the breathing reflex took over. My lungs filled, and I lost consciousness almost immediately thereafter.

When I came to inside the virtual world I now inhabit I was pretty disoriented and yes, more than a little anxious about where, exactly, I was. To boot, I had a world-class headache and felt exhausted, as if I had crammed for the past week straight for the final exam of all final exams. I don't know how, but I knew Max was nearby and okay and though I could easily visualize where N'klaus was and what he was doing, I couldn't visualize much else.

After about a week in my new "digs," I was able to start giving form to my environment, pretty much by thinking about the things that ought be in it. I created a room, with furniture, and computer terminals, and a library in just that way, all of it virtual. (Don't ask me to explain how this or anything else works inside my matrix; it just does.)

All during this time, I thought N'klaus wasn't talking to me because he wanted to give me some time to recover from my transition from physical to virtual being. Then one day, just as I had figured out how to activate the speakers in the control room and communicate with N'klaus, it occurred to me that he hadn't seemed particularly interested in my welfare at all. He had never tried to talk to me, or check up on me. I wondered why, so I remained mute.

By this time, I had also noticed that although there was nothing actually wrong with Max, he simply lay there (as I imagined him) in the same position, as if sleeping. After a little digging in the library (which had become populated by books I had no voice in choosing), I learned that the ship had been designed to be operated not by just a pilot, but by what can only be described as "a pilot and the pilot's companion animal." A dog, in my case.

It turns out that while the subconscious mind of either pilot or dog can, by itself, run all of the ship's systems and keep things humming, doing so leaves the rest of that mind in a coma-like state that, according to what I read, should not be indulged in for an overly long time. On the other hand, when the subconscious minds of both pilot and dog are engaged, the load on each "participant" is lessened considerably. The dog can derive pleasure from the experience (much like the pleasure derived from sticking its head out the window of a moving car) and the human can spend time doing, well, pretty much the kinds of things I had been doing since I woke up.

It occurred to me that N'klaus was pretty sure that I was out for the count, in a permanent coma. That meant his promises of equal shares and so on were just a lot of hot air. So, after engaging my subconscious to work together with Max's, I set about making sure I learned absolutely everything about my Captain, behind his back. A marvelous side-effect of this was being able to procure military-grade surveillance gear and some other toys and pay for them using funds from bank accounts N'klaus never paid close attention to. I was pretty successful in my efforts, knew the man better than he did himself, and throughout the process, he never tumbled to the fact that his pilot was conscious. Until now.

"Hey there, skipper!" I said to N'klaus as he sat, blinking at the sky, looking unsure as to how to proceed. "You going to sit there all day?" I spoke slowly.

N'klaus fixed his gaze on the speaker next to the boarding lock. "How…?"

I cut him off. "Long story, okay? And just so we get off on the right foot, I know what you tried to do, and I am not a happy camper. That said, it would appear we need each other, and so I propose a truce. Agreed?"

N'klaus nodded his agreement, and though I was sure there was a corner of his mind already scheming a way to get the upper hand, we had immediate business to attend to. "In a moment, I will open the boarding lock," I said. "When I do, I need you to take charge of the situation and intimidate the wannabe Genghis Khan I've got trapped in the vestibule into letting you handcuff him. It should be pretty easy, as he's been on his knees, whimpering, since shortly after the lock closed and I started blasting him with rap music. Do you think you can do that?"

N'klaus stood up and already looked a thousand percent better. He gave me a thumbs-up, whereupon I cut the music and opened the boarding lock. N'klaus stepped inside. Five minutes later, our captive lay on the ground outside the lock, in chains. Ten hours later, after exchanging our captive for the ransom I had demanded, N'klaus and I wasted no time getting the ship spaceborne.

I am the permanent overwatch, over everything. Including N'klaus, until I can figure out a way to get rid of him.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Eugène Farcot stamped his feet and rubbed his hands. Although it was still September—the 23rd, in fact, the day of the autumnal equinox—the night had been chilly and he had been standing guard throughout most of it. Now, a few minutes before 6 o'clock, the sun had risen and he could get a good look at Paris's only remaining hope of communicating with the world outside—a 42,000-cubic-foot bag made of lightweight cloth, almost spherical (now that it had been filled with gas) and attached to a small gondola that hung beneath. The owner of the apparatus, a young man everyone called Duruof (although his real name was Dufour) had christened the contraption Neptune.

The last train carrying mail had left Paris for Le Mans at 5 pm on September 18th, 5 days before. Shortly after midnight on the 19th, the Prussians completed their encirclement of Paris and cut all rail and road links. The Prussians, for reasons they did not share with the French, had elected not to start by shelling the city into submission. Instead, they apparently intended to starve the city for a while. For their part, the French clung to the hope that the prolonged war was placing an unbearable strain on the economy of their enemy, and that ultimately, Prussia could still be defeated.

Be that as it may, the center of France's Second Empire now found itself isolated, except for an underwater telegraph line that, in anticipation of the impending siege, had been hurriedly laid in the Seine river over a series of successive nights, but the cable had proved inadequate, unreliable, and ultimately vulnerable to discovery by the Prussians. Given the situation, the State Telegraph Office had signed an agreement that some considered foolish, and that others—more kindly disposed—described merely as desperate: Mail was to be sent on its way by air, using lighter-than-air balloons.

Neptune had been constructed only two years previously, but between numerous appearances at public fairs, several "private" flights that Duruof had arranged with beautiful young women, and having been raised and lowered from Montmartre several times a day over the previous 17 days to reconnoiter Prussian troop movements, the apparatus was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Patches dotted the surface of the envelope.

All during the previous night, a small army of volunteers had held the balloon down as it was being filled with gas, but this was neither easy nor safe. One prolonged wind gust had distorted the balloon's envelope and threatened to rupture its fabric. Later, another particularly strong gust almost succeeded in launching the half-inflated balloon into the air, and while this was prevented by the heavy rope that had held the aircraft captive during its reconnaissance flights, the shifting rope had swept the legs out from under half a dozen volunteers, who had to be carried away on stretchers.

At 7 o'clock a carriage belonging to the Administration of Posts arrived, along with a contingent of soldiers. Duruof supervised the weighing of three sacks of dispatches, each weighing almost 100 pounds, and watched as they were stowed in the gondola. Finally, a few minutes before 7:45, he wrapped his woolen coat tightly around himself and boarded Neptune. Exactly on the quarter hour, Duruof stuck his head out of the gondola's port and cried "Cast off!"

Once set free, Neptune shot upward like an arrow into a clear blue sky, to general shouts and cries of "Vive la République!" Farcot, standing off to the side to view the ascent, added "Vive Duruof!" to the cacophany before going home to get some sleep. It's good to know that such daredevils exist, the old man thought to himself.

At an altitude of nearly a mile above the ground, the balloon caught a layer of air that took it in a northeasterly direction at a speed of about 20 miles per hour. As it flew over the Prussian lines, Neptune attracted unwelcome attention, and despite the fact that the probability of hitting an object as big as Neptune at that altitude was very nearly zero, that didn't prevent shots from being fired.

As an experienced pilot, Duruof knew that one or two extra holes would not significantly impact his craft's airworthiness, because once at altitude, it was not only normal for Neptune to leak gas, but essential. This was because the gas inside the envelope expanded as the sun warmed the cloth envelope and the surrounding air, and the expanded gas provided buoyancy and kept the balloon in the air, but only if the extra gas could escape from the envelope. Of course, if the leakage were to become excessive because, say, a major seam were to tear open or a great number of ragged holes were to suddenly appear in the envelope, the flight would end swiftly, with dire results, but Duruof never let such thoughts enter his mind.

Upon hearing the faint sounds of shooting, Duruof took a moment to stretch his cramped legs while lying on his back, after which he lightened his aircraft even more, by dumping "ballast" overboard. This consisted of newspapers, freshly printed and containing news of Paris. As an afterthought, he also cast overboard a large handful of visiting cards that he had ordered printed with his name on them. That, for you, Bismarck! So you know who you're dealing with! thought Duruof, as he looked down at Versailles and the surrounding countryside. Despite the cold and the fact that people were shooting at him (albeit from far away), Duruof felt as he always did while in the air—free.

Exactly three hours and fifteen minutes after casting off, at 11 o'clock, Duruof landed his aircraft in a park near the town of Evreux, a little over 50 miles from Paris. The landing was rough, and although Neptune would never fly again, the cargo was safe and the pilot had walked away with only minor scrapes.

The mail sacks were handed over to the town's postmaster while Duruof set off for Tours and, eventually, to Lille, where he waited, in vain, for the winds to blow favorably to let him attempt a return to Paris by air.

The Siege of Paris came to an end on January 28, 1871, and with it ended what might be considered the first modern "regular" postal service by air. And while historians and philatelists may argue about how many balloons were involved in delivering mail during the Siege, nothing can detract from the daring of a small band of "aeronauts" like Duruof, who used their fabulous floating machines to keep the mail moving under most extraordinary conditions.



Balloon mail flown during the Siege of Paris, aboard either the balloon Parmentier or the balloon Gutenberg, which both departed the Orléans Station in Paris at around 1:30 am on December 17, 1870, and landed in the Marne region at 9 o'clock that morning. A second postmark was made on the back of this letter upon its arrival in Amsterdam on January 1, 1871.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Emil Bor's physical demeanor, the crispness of his uniform and the manner in which he wore it (together with the medals and orders he had been awarded) was the stuff designers of military recruiting posters dream of depicting, except that high-ranking officers like Bor never appear on such posters, and in any event, Bor's service branch never made use of such vulgar, public recruitment propaganda. Bor sat behind a desk in a room that should have looked dingy, but didn't. Instead, the plain room and the furniture in it was neat and spotless and conveyed an unmistakable impression of competence, hard work, and discipline.

Two young men stood at attention in front of Bor's desk as the latter reviewed a pair of files. The men wore the uniforms of provisional lieutenants. The pressed creases on their uniforms were sharp, their shoes gleamed with polish, and the men's eyes were locked on a point about halfway up the painted concrete block wall behind Bor's chair, where there hung a portrait of The Leader. After a suitable interval, Bor closed both files and placed them atop one another, aligning them perfectly in the center of his desk.

"At ease, comrades," ordered Bor. As one, the men in front of him snapped to a no-less-formal position, with the left leg "relaxed."

"You are both to be congratulated," continued Bor. "You have completed a very arduous course of training to serve in a most trusted capacity in our country's security apparatus. Before you can assume your responsibilities as lieutenants in that apparatus, however, you both face a special challenge." Bor allowed the hint of a smile to flicker across his face before continuing.

"Comrades, we have removed your desk chairs from your office area, arrested them, and placed them in Interrogation Rooms 23 and 27 downstairs." Bor paused for a moment to let what he said sink in, and then continued. "Please understand that this is not a joke of some kind. From here, you will proceed to your respective assigned room and commence an interrogation of the chair you will find there. I will expect you to deliver a valid confession from the chair, however long the process might take. You will formally receive your assignments momentarily. Do either of you have any questions?"

"No, comrade general!" answered the men, in unison. Bor pressed a button on his desk, and said, "It is now Friday afternoon. I expect you to be finished well before Monday morning." A second or two later, an orderly opened the door to Bor's office and motioned for the men to come out. As each man left the room, he received a file from the orderly.

* * *

"So, how did our young lieutenants do?" asked Bor during an unplanned visit to his facility on Sunday. The captain on duty snapped to attention and reported.

"Comrade general, I was informed both candidates handed in completed confessions after about six hours," said the captain. "The legal department vetted both confessions as valid according to current rules and regulations. The confessions are on your desk, comrade general, awaiting your review."

"Excellent!" said Bor, and headed off to his office. Some time later, as he passed the captain on his way out of the facility, Bor said, "Please arrange for our two young fire-eaters to meet with me in their office area at 8 am, won't you?"

"Yes, comrade general!" said the captain.

* * *

The lieutenants came smartly to attention when Bor entered their room at the appointed time the next day. This room was smaller than Bor's office and looked like most other rooms at the fortress-like facility, clean but... ordinary. In addition, there was a strong feeling of imbalance in the space, which was doubtless the result of each man having a filing cabinet and desk in the room, but no chair.

"As you were," said Bor, as he closed the door behind him. After the men relaxed—to the extent lieutenants could in front of a general—Bor continued, "I wanted to come by and congratulate both of you on a job well done. I am pleased to note that you were able to fulfill the task I assigned you." Bor allowed what seemed to be a genuine smile to appear on his face. "Interrogating each other's chair is probably the last thing you ever expected to be ordered to do, am I right?" The young men allowed themselves to smile, faintly.

He turned to the lieutenant standing behind the desk to the left of the door and said, "Your interrogation was a model of propriety," said Bor. "When the chair did not answer your questions, you put down 'the accused does not deny guilt'; when the chair did not provide information in its defense, you put down 'the accused refused to provide any mitigating information'; when the chair did not sign the confession, you certified that fact and made the whole thing proper and by the rules. A textbook confession. Bravo!" The last word was uttered without much enthusiasm, however.

As if on cue, a knock came on the door.

"Enter!" said Bor. A sergeant and two enlisted men carrying a furniture dolly entered the room. Bor pointed at the desk between himself and the lieutenant and motioned the lieutenant to move out of the way.

"That said," said Bor to the lieutenant (who stared as his desk was being loaded on the dolly), "your success—compared to what your colleague was able to accomplish—fell a bit short of the mark."

Here, Bor turned his attention to the other lieutenant and said, "The confession you extracted was truly a pleasant surprise for me to read. I was particularly impressed with the scope of the confession, especially the part where," and here, Bor turned his attention back to the first man, "your chair admitted to being part of an international conspiracy against our country, and further, implicated your desk as one of the ringleaders of that conspiracy!" Bor was now pointing at the desk, which was being rolled out the door. "Your inattention to the 'big picture' indicates a certain need for 'seasoning' in the field for several years… perhaps at a remote, cold duty station… before you can be trusted with serious responsibility." After a beat, Bor said, "I trust you have learned a valuable lesson from this exercise. Report immediately to the duty officer for further instructions. Dismissed!" Visibly shaken, the man left the room directly. Under our previous Leader, thought Bor to himself as he watched the man leave the room, you would not be getting off so easily, so count yourself fortunate!

Bor then turned to the remaining lieutenant and said, "I noted with satisfaction that you were able to get the chair to sign the confession, although I must admit to being saddened by the news of the chair's fragile health and sudden demise due to splintering at the end of the interrogation. The fact you had the chair's signature witnessed was a good example of fast thinking, and saved the day. Bravo!" This time, Bor sounded like he meant it.

"Thank you, comrade general!" said the young man, almost bursting with pride.

On his way out the door, Bor turned and said to the lieutenant, "This will be your office now. I'll have our supply people come by and arrange things. While your training is far from over, I think you will go far here."

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Russia to New York in his youth, observes Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar, on January 7. Early in our friendship, I asked him what it was like to celebrate Christmas almost two weeks after "everybody else." He smiled, thought for a moment, and said that it all boiled down to two main points.

"On the plus side," he said, "you wouldn't believe the great deals I get when it comes to purchasing gifts during the sales that start on December twenty-sixth!" After we both enjoyed a hearty laugh, he added, "On the other hand, it takes somewhat of an effort to hold on to the spirit of the season after people have put their decorations away and the world has returned to the everyday rule of 'screw your neighbor'."

I knew what he meant. Not long before, I had been walking north on Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan when a man, also walking north a couple of dozen yards ahead of me, took his hand out of his left trouser pocket for some reason, and when he did so, a roll of bills dropped out of his pocket onto the sidewalk. Almost as soon as the money hit the concrete, an individual who had been walking in the same direction a pace or two behind this unfortunate fellow bent smoothly down, picked up the cash, and put it in his pocket, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I was a little shocked at this rather straightforward example of 'screw your neighbor,' and I doubtless contributed to it by doing… nothing.

From time to time, though, things do move in the other direction. One day, after our family had moved to Colorado, news came of a vacationing couple that had driven back to our small town from the top of Wolf Creek Pass, where they had found a wallet lying on the ground, stuffed with over $3,000 in cash, and turned it in to the local police. As it turned out, the wallet had been dropped by a local college student who had stopped at the top of the pass to enjoy the view on her way to her freshman year at school and her first semester away from home.

And while most of the time, the news seems to be a serial compendium of tales about individuals who, for no good reason, go out of their way to inflict harm to others, there are stories out there—and I believe they are much more common than you would believe, because they are so rarely told—about people who, for whatever reason, do what they can to lend someone a hand.

In my own past there was an incident that occurred a few weeks after my wife and I had moved from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. Various expenses associated with the move had tapped us dry, financially, and I came home a few days short of payday to find my wife in tears. She had gone to the grocery store down the block yo do some shopping with our last twenty-dollar bill—about sixty dollars in today's money—but when the time came to check out, the bill was not in her purse. She had dropped it somewhere, or lost it, or something.

Then and there, on impulse, I hied us to the store, where I stepped up to the manager's counter and asked the bespectacled man there, who was just hanging up the phone, if anyone had turned in a twenty earlier in the day. Clearly, I thought to myself as I asked, this was a mad act of desperation, for I had been born and bred in New York and I knew how the world worked. To my surprise, the manager's face lit up when he heard my question, and he exclaimed "They surely did!" And he reached down behind the counter and handed my wife a twenty. Both my wife and I stood there, for a few moments, in disbelief, before we thanked him and shuffled off into the aisles to do our shopping.

That was not an isolated incident in my life. Shortly after moving from a condo in California to mobile home in Colorado, my wife drove our van back to the West Coast to take care of some unifnished matters. On the return drive to Colorado, the van broke down some distance from Bakersfield, California. She was safe and was coming home by train, but the van would require major repairs to put it back on the road.

Our new neighbors—Shari and Lloyd—were kind enough to lend me a car to drive down to Santa Fe, where I picked up my wife at the Amtrak station. All during the drive back to Colorado, we tried to figure out the logistics of getting our van back from the garage owner, who we had begun to call "the Bakersfield Bandit" (given the size of his bill for towing and storing the car). How would we ever manage to get the van back to Colorado?

When we got back home, our neighbors came to the rescue. "Lloyd's got a pick-up and a trailer," said Shari. "If you can cover the gas," said Lloyd, "we'll go get your van!" I forget the rest, except that Lloyd and I pulled an all-nighter and a half driving to Bakersfield and back over the next thirty hours.

After we got back, I recalled the idea of "paying it forward" that I had learned about from Jerry Pournelle, an author known for his science fiction and whose monthly column appeared, in those days, in BYTE magazine, where a number of my articles had also been published. Over sushi one evening, during one of my trips to the Los Angeles area, Pournelle related to me how Robert A. Heinlein—yes, the Robert A. Heinlein—had been of great help to him back when he was first starting out as a writer, and later, after Pournelle had become established, he asked Heinlein how he could pay him back. "You can't pay me back," said Heinlein, according to Pournelle, "but you can pay me forward," by lending someone else a hand, some day.

And so, over the years, I have been "paying it forward," in my own way: some here, a little more there. And as I've become older, I become ever more convinced that "screw your neighbor" is far from the default setting for human interactions. If it were, we would never have survived as a species.

In any event, I always make sure to send my old New York friend a Christmas card timed to arrive just before January 7. It's the least I can do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I was going through my chess books the other day with the idea of reducing their number to some manageable quantity when my eye fell on a single hardcover tome, bound in black, that had somehow found its way into the "humane society donation" pile, along with—among other things—an old (but complete) Monopoly game and a nearly mint "Monkeys in a Barrel" toy. I turned from my task, took up the book, and sought out a place where I could sit down, flip through the book's pages, and think about whether to really donate the book or not.

The book, written by World Champion Alexander Alekhine and straightforwardly titled My Best Games of Chess: 1924–1937, is certainly not a keeper. The book is not rare, my specific copy is not in particularly good condition (in fact, to tell the truth, it's falling apart), and the moves are written in a notation nobody uses any more (although admittedly, I can still read the moves).

A penciled price on the inside of the back free endpaper suggests the book was sold to its previous owner for $3.50. There are additional notations on that endpaper, made by me, indicating the book was given to me in August 1967, and the scrawled name and address of the previous owner, a fellow named Tom, who—as it turns out—drove the Good Humor ice cream truck that delivered frozen, sweet treats to our summer camp, timed to coincide with the end of the post-lunch "rest hour." Tom, who also happened to be quite a strong chess player who had drubbed me soundly over the chessboard numerous times over the previous weeks, had given me the book as a gift as the summer wound to a close.

That address was important. Without it, Tom and I would never had been able to start playing chess by mail.

Now, it may seem, to the normal, average person, that playing chess by mail would be about as interesting as watching paint dry—and might even take second place to that broad, chromatic spectacle—but there are certain aspects to correspondence chess (as it is more formally called) that give this pastime a certain appeal to some chess players.

First, unlike when playing over-the-board, where reflection time is limited to an average of a few minutes per move, in correspondence play you are free to think about a single move for two or three days, if you like. You can even refer to books and magazines to learn what other players did in similar situations (doing so in over-the-board play is considered cheating, and is punished with forfeiture). Correspondence players can also move pieces around on a board while analyzing variations, which is a far cry from the draconian over-the-board rule of "touch-move," i.e., if you touch a piece, you have to move it. In short, chess by mail really lets a player get into the game.

That said, you might think that—given the opportunity to really think through your moves, play over variations, make notes, refer to books, and so on—it'd be fairly difficult to play poorly.

You'd be wrong. I'm living proof.

My over-the-board record against Tom during that summer of '67, though poor, had at least included one win and one draw out of about two dozen games. In correspondence play against him afterward, though, I fared even worse. To my credit, I suppose, I didn't lose heart; upon finishing a game, I'd doggedly start another one. After a couple of years of exchanging postcards, however, our extended correspondence match came to a close. I don't recall winning a single game against Tom, but I learned quite a lot about chess.

In the years that followed, I entered a number of correspondence chess events, more to play the game than to win any prizes. A couple of my games—wins, naturally—were deemed "good enough" by various editors to publish in chess periodicals, thereby adding my own modest contribution to the mass of reference material used by correspondence players in their games.

As I continued to flip through the Alekhine book, and read the various notes I made here and there, back when I avidly played the game and analyzed the games of the great players, I realized it's been ages since I've played chess by mail.

One reason has to do with how, for me, much of the enjoyment of correspondence chess lay in the tactile feel of physical postcards and the "vacation" one got while cards traveled through the post, during which one could analyze a position (or not). These days, most players seem to prefer electronic mail to transmit their moves, which is certainly less expensive and more reliable than the service offered by the post office, but it speeds the game up too much for my taste.

A far more important, and perhaps deciding factor in my decision to stop correspondence play has been the widespread availability of chess analysis software, with the result that all too commonly, I can find myself playing chess against a human opponent who is satisfied to act as an intermediary between me and a computer program. How anyone could derive pleasure from such "play" is beyond me, but I prefer not to participate in such a charade. If I want to play against a computer, I can do so in the privacy of my own home, thank you.

I completed my examination of the book and put it in the appropriate pile, for reasons of my own.

Soon after, I picked up the latest copy of Chess Life, the official publication of the United States Chess Federation, the delivery of which I had (in my capacity of Life Member) recently resumed after a hiatus of about a decade.

It turns out they still organize old-fashioned, snail-mail correspondence chess matches!

How about that! Hmmm…



NOTE! Due to a miscommunication, I ended up listed as taking a bye in the current poll. That is not the case, so if you liked what you read enough to vote for me, please do so even though the poll—which cannot be edited once it's been put up—says I'm taking a bye. Thanks!

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
He was known as "Chaz" on the cell block, and as prisoner 622293 in the system, but I knew his real name, what he'd done to end up here, and how that had forever screwed his playing career. The system had him working in the prison library, which is where I found him. I got to the point.

"You still play chess?" I asked.

Chaz barely glanced at me as he shelved a book. "Not really," he sighed. "But I've nothing better to do right now, so... yeah, let's play a game. You be White."

I looked around, but there was no board set up in the room. "So, where...," I started to ask.

"No set, no board. In your head, y'dig?" said Chaz. "Here. Now. Your move."

Chess players describe this technique—using no set or board—as "blindfold" play (even though there's no physical blindfold), but I'd never done it before, and told Chaz so.

"So scram. Come back when you've learned how," he said, and turned away to shelve another book.

It turned out the library had one chess book, a tattered volume of all-time best games played up to 1940. I proceeded to spend a lot of time with that book, playing the games over in my head (or trying to). It got easier after a while. Three months later, I challenged Chaz again.

"Your offer still stand?" I asked. Chaz was scribbling notations on a pile of index cards and filing them in a box.

"More or less," he said, "except now, I'll be White, and I'll make your first two moves as Black."

"No way!" I said.

"Way... or we don't play," he said. "Here's what I propose," he continued, and recited the first two moves for each side.

I visualized the board. His two White center pawns had advanced two squares and my Black bishop was attacking one of them from behind a pawn that had been pushed up one square on the right side of my board. Before I could do or say anything, my opponent said, "It's straight out of the book. The Owen Defense. Ever hear of it?" I shook my head no, whereupon Chaz said, "It doesn't matter, because now we leave the book behind with my third move, Bishop to gee five."

"Weird setup," I said, and furrowed my brow. Chaz's Bishop had landed on what seemed like an awkward square. And his pawn was still undefended. "Some kind of gambit?" I asked.

"Well, now, it's funny you should ask, because as a matter of fact, that's just what it is. It's called the 'Mousetrap.' You gonna take the pawn, or not?" He filed the index card he was working on and picked up another.

I never much did like gambits, because they have a tendency to sucker you in with what looks like a "free" advantage, much like the undefended pawn I saw on the board in my head. But it was all I could do to just visualize the board at that point, so I said: "Bishop takes pawn."

Five moves later, I resigned the game.

"Pretty good, for a first time out," said Chaz afterward. When I gave him a "yeah, right!" look, he put down his pen and stuck out his thumb. "One, you wanted to play me bad enough to learn how to play blindfold." Then out sprang his forefinger. "Two, you didn't forget the board setup during the game. That's pretty good, in my book."

"Not much of a game," I said. "I lost."

"Well, when the mouse goes for the cheese," singsonged Chaz, picking up his pen, "there's a price to pay, y'know?" It took me a moment to realize that he was talking about my Bishop and his pawn, respectively. "Anyway, if I had a nickel for every game I ever lost...," his voice trailed away.

When I mentioned that playing blindfold had tired me out, Chaz said: "It happens, when you start playing blindfold for real. But it's like any exercise; you get better with practice. You did okay. Lots of players can't play more than three or four moves blindfold, and would've lost the same way with a set and board in front of them. Anyway, sets don't last long in here," he waved his hand to indicate the prison in general, "so blindfold is really the only option." With that, he turned his attention back to his index card stack.

"I don't think I much like the Mousetrap," I said, just to keep the conversation rolling.

"Stop complaining and don't worry, you'll learn to love the Mousetrap," said Chaz, "at least, if you want to keep playing with me." He filed another index card.

"How come?" I asked.

"Because at the moment, I'm the only other player around here," he said.

"But why the same opening all the time, and why this one?" I persisted.

"Primo," he said, again with the extended thumb, "you get to know one opening inside-out, your overall chess skill improves. Segundo," he extended his index finger, "the Mousetrap is offbeat enough not to have been analyzed to death." By the time Chaz was finished all five fingers were extended, and for what it was worth, besides the fact that all his reasons made sense, I noticed the tip of his pinkie was missing.

"So the bottom line? It's this," said Chaz. "You keep playing this opening, you'll become a better player. Instead of you building a better mousetrap, think of it as this mousetrap building a better you!"

And I gritted my teeth as he burst out laughing, uproariously, at his little play on words.

I could have killed him right then. I may yet, someday, if they don't parole me first. But in the meantime, I need to improve my game.


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My first cigarette was filched from a pack my stepdad had left on the table next to his TV-viewing couch and smoked in a quiet alley far from the family hearth. After a few drags on the cancer stick, I could only wonder why anyone would deliberately do this to themselves every so often during the day, day in and day out. I concluded that smoking was, in the words my mother used in extolling the virtues of lima beans and broccoli, "an acquired taste."

As I grew up, I never really felt any compulsion or pressure to start smoking. My dad had smoked, true, but my exposure to him had been minimal before he and my mom had divorced and he died. My stepdad smoked, but the episode with the stolen cigarette only reinforced my resolve to be nothing like him in any way. Among my peers in junior high school, cigarettes were the badge of those who ran with the fast crowd, a somewhat exclusive group one did not so much join as become a part of though some arcane process unknowable to the rest of humanity.

The point was reinforced one teenage August day while attending a summer camp where the adult staff had adopted a policy of allowing the older and (theoretically) more mature campers to supervise the rest of us. This arrangement resulted in a mêlée of rule-bending, bullying, and hazing by the older campers that went unreported because of the universal imperative - one perhaps hard-wired into the human genome - not to snitch, but I digress...

I had been walking in a wooded area outside the camp's boundaries when I stumbled, quite literally, across a milk carton half buried in the soil. Intrigued by the artifact and the geometric precision with which it had been planted in the ground, I picked up the wax container and looked inside. It was filled with cigarettes and matches. Realizing I had stumbled across the counselors' stash, I replaced the carton as carefully as I could and walked away, thinking "no harm, no foul."

My bad.

That night, after returning to the tent area after dinner, I found my path blocked as I attempted to leave the toilet. The senior counselor stood in the door that led to freedom.

"We want to talk to you," he said, taking a step forward and pushing me back so that I was sitting on the trough that served as the urinal in the bathroom. "We" turned out to be the rest of the counselor "staff," which filed into the room after him.

"What were you doing in the woods this afternoon?" asked the senior counselor.

"N-nothing," I said. "Walking around."

"Find anything interesting?" asked another voice.

I figured there was no percentage in lying, so I answered, "A milk carton. I put it back. I didn't take anything."

"Uh-huh," said the senior counselor, taking a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket. He shook one out and offered it to me. "Here," he said, "have a cigarette."

"No, thanks," I said, giving my head a little shake. "I don't smoke."

"What do you mean?" he said, with feigned surprise. "I thought you just adored cigarettes!"

"Yeah," said another voice, from the lookout in the doorway, "especially those that aren't yours!" This elicited a ripple of subdued laughter in the small room.

"Take it!" snapped the senior counselor. It was not a request.

I took the cigarette and he lit it for me.

"Now smoke it!" he said.

"We want to see you inhale!" said another voice over my left shoulder.

"But..." I started to protest. Tears were already welling up in my eyes.

"I don't want to hear it!" the senior counselor cut me off. "And stop stalling! Since you like to smoke, then smoke!"

"And we don't want to see you breathing between drags, either," came the lookout's voice.

The rest of that night is a jumbled memory of tears, pleading, getting slapped and punched, stalling for time, and inhaling cigarette smoke. I remember being told that as soon as I threw up, the punishment would end. Unfortunately, I had mostly skipped dinner that evening, electing to eat only a plate of spinach soup, which had long since passed through my stomach. The best I could produce was dry heaves. By the time the punishment stopped, I had lost count of how many cigarettes I had been forced to smoke. It had seemed like a million.

For the rest of the summer, I walked lightly and kept a very low profile.

You would think that, with such a painful and embarrassing experience behind me, I would stay as far away from cigarettes as possible for the rest of my life.

You'd be wrong.

I began to smoke consciously, of my own free will, during freshman year of college, and then only for the best of reasons: to give myself the aura of an older, more worldly-wise person. Go figure.

Smoking did nothing for my popularity, but I was hooked, and I continued to smoke while in college and afterward. Like many people who start smoking, I found quitting to be the easiest thing in the world; by the time Galina was about to deliver our son, I had done so at least several hundred times.

I had made a particularly vehement vow to stop smoking by the time Drew was born, but like most such promises, it crawled into a corner somewhere and expired quietly. When we moved from New York to Florida, I tried to contain the urge and managed to confine my smoking to areas outside our apartment, but I could not quit. In fact, the harder I tried to quit, the more I was drawn to light one up. There were times I almost gave up the effort and tried to convince myself that I really liked to smoke.

One Sunday morning, I came down with some flu-like symptoms that kept me in bed, out cold, for the better part of three days. Galina told me later she would have called the paramedics had it not been for a neighbor of ours, who nursed me back to health, mostly with copious quantities of liquids.

One of the first things I did after getting out of bed was grab hold of my cigarettes.

Then I stopped, holding the pack in midair as if I was offering a smoke to an invisible guest.

I realized that I was acting out of habit, because I really didn't feel a need to smoke. So I put the cigarettes down, telling myself I would light up as soon as I felt I had to. It was Wednesday, a work day, so I got dressed and went to work. I took the pack along, just in case.

By quitting time, I hadn't felt the urge to smoke, but I knew I wasn't out of the woods yet. The local chess club met on Wednesday nights, and it just so happened that the first round of the annual club championship would be played that night.

With the exception of a handful of tournament games played when I was in high school, it had been years since I had played a serious game of chess without a cigarette between my lips. By this time, I could not imagine playing chess and not smoking. So, when I left for the club that night, I made sure my pack was in my shirt pocket, and I was prepared to light up at the slightest provocation, especially if it took the form of a struggle in a difficult position.

The tournament schedule called for me to play two games that night, and surprisingly, I won them both. Even more surprising, the thought of lighting up hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Those two tobacco-free wins gave me enough confidence to get to the next Wednesday night without a cigarette, but I still wasn't convinced. That next Wednesday, though, the pack stayed untouched in my pocket as I scored a win and a draw. My result after the first two weeks of play was the best I had ever achieved in the first four games of any tournament!

I forgot to take the pack to work the next day, and didn't even miss it. On Friday, I deliberately left the pack at home. The following Wednesday, I won the last two games of the tournament. The pack had remained home, sealed in a plastic bag.

Just in case I got the urge, you know?

A few years ago, I ran across that pack, still in the bag, in the bottom of an old storage box. I broke open the plastic, took out the pack, and shook out a cigarette. I held it the way I used to when I smoked, moved it to my lips and away again. I put the cigarette in my mouth and left it there. I lit a match and paused a moment.

Then I blew the match out, tossed all the cigarettes in the trash, and went on with my life.

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