Could a novice beat Magnus Carlsen with a month to prepare? (Spoiler alert: No)

Someone said that headlines formulated as questions almost always have the answer “No.”

I came across this column on which is a reaction to this Wall Street Journal article on a recent chess match between Max Deutsch, “a self-diagnosed obsessive learner” and Magnus Carlsen, current World Chess Champion and arguably the greatest chess player of all time..

The original WSJ piece has a certain breathless quality which alternately grates and endears. The piece follows Deutsch’s various one-month learning quests which culminated in his challenge against Carlsen:

Max’s year of monthly challenges had already been more successful than he could have imagined. He’d been contacted by students in a Belgian school who started their own projects after discovering his blog. Max, too, had been inspired by “Month to Master.” He left his job in August, raised money and started a company, Openmind, to guide people through the learning process.

Max hadn’t started thinking about chess at the end of September. He was still learning how to freestyle rap. “I don’t have a plan until the month begins,” he said. It was fairly conventional at first. He played Magni of different ages on the Play Magnus app.

Naturally enough, the piece by GM Greg Serper takes a more jaundiced view of the enterprise. He also recounts an entertaining story reminiscent of Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game:

Let’s rephrase the question: can a non-master amateur beat a world champion in a regular one-on-one game? While I never heard about such an event, let me tell you an unusual story that supposedly happened about 35 years ago.

The city of Kharkiv (the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine) has always had many very strong chess players. Currently the former women’s world champion Anna Ushenina and the super-GM Pavel Eljanov as well as a number of “just very strong” GMs live there. So, one day in the beginning of 1980s an unknown man entered Kharkiv’s chess club and started playing blitz with everyone for money. Despite giving serious time odds, the stranger kept winning. The strangest thing was that the guy had a bag full of cucumbers and he was munching them non-stop during the games!

Eventually the local masters entered the fray, but the mysterious guy was beating everyone! The situation looked more and more like Fischer’s famous visit to the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The young American prodigy demonstrated his amazing blitz skills beating famous Soviet masters! Eventually grandmaster Tigran Petrosian came to the rescue and successfully defended the honor of the Soviet chess.

Back to our story, Kharkiv’s strongest blitz player, Mikhail Gurevich, was called. The stranger recognized Gurevich and said: “If you were just a regular master, I would give you odds of three minutes vs. five minutes, but you are a very strong master so we are going to play five minutes each.”

The man was absolutely correct: in a couple of years Mikhail Gurevich won the Soviet championship, got a GM title and in the June 1990 rating list he was number seven in the world! So they played for several hours but the total score was about even. At the end of the day the bizarre stranger picked up his winnings and the remaining cucumbers and left the speechless crowd.

He was never seen again. The word on the street is that the man was returning home after many years spent in prison where, just like the protagonist of “The Royal Game,” he learned to play chess. Personally, I don’t buy this version since I totally agree with the famous statement by Botvinnik that no amount of analytical work is a good substitute for a tournament play.

So, if the mysterious man never played chess tournaments, he had no chance to beat a strong master like Mikhail Gurevich even in one blitz game. From the other side, the Soviet Union had a very closed chess community since during the years of the iron curtain you couldn’t just go abroad and play chess. Therefore all strong chess players, even candidate masters were well known, and the guy wasn’t one of them!

It is a great pity that the “cucumber guy” was never again seen playing chess.


“an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls”

The full text of Henry Hitchings‘ review of Nicholas Hytner‘s memoir in the current TLS isn’t available online, but there is just enough to include this gem:

“The artistic director of a modestly resourced theatre once told me that his job obliged him to be an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls.”

Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

Auto reblogging is perhaps a little narcissistic but this is something that has relevance far beyond healthcare…. Dr Herrero’s blog is highly highly recommended.

A Medical Education

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for…

View original post 506 more words

Josef Pieper on silence and leisure

I came across this on the ever wonderful First Known When Lost blog:

“Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness’; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947

Pieper was not a thinker I was familiar with before reading the blog. His work has  been featured in Brain Pickings. Here, the focus is on Pieper as a prophet contra workaholism:

Pieper traces the origin of the paradigm of the “worker” to the Greek Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, a friend of Plato’s and a disciple of Socrates. Being the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue, Pieper argues, he became the original “workaholic”:

As an ethicist of independence, this Antisthenes had no feeling for cultic celebration, which he preferred attacking with “enlightened” wit; he was “a-musical” (a foe of the Muses: poetry only interested him for its moral content); he felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”); as a flat Realist, he had no belief in immortality (what really matters, he said, was to live rightly “on this earth”). This collection of character traits appears almost purposely designed to illustrate the very “type” of the modern “workaholic.”

I’d be interested to find if the concept of hesuchia is explicitly discussed in Pieper’s book. To recap (from Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue):

Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire.


“the primacy of the material world over the digital”

From Janan Ganesh’s “Notebook” column in the FT, 29/10/16 (firewalled):

As the internet stirred at the turn of the 1990s, its distance-closing properties were talked up. Speculative accounts of the near-future involved little things like the abolition of geography, with executives plugged into each other via remote interfaces regardless of where their offices were or whether they had any.

Amid all this, the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactile basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-patrolled shopping lines. People and things still need to move around in real space and time.

When Robert Solow, the American economist, said the computer age is “everywhere but the productivity statistics” it was still 1987. His attempt to curb our credulity about what machines can do reads even better after three decades of Palo Alto hype.

Another economist, Robert Gordon, has charted the meagre returns achieved by the internet compared with innovations such as electricity in The Rise and Fall of American Growth – some people’s idea of the best work of nonfiction of 2016. For a sense of the primacy of the material world over the digital, you can pore over his 780 pages of you can reflect on the concrete strip that is roiling British politics.

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Well, not quite fifty – but there is a range of methods seen in these YouTube videos on the apparently simple project of how to  build a hedgehog house.

Sometimes one gets the impression that this is a much much more ecologically and environmentally aware age than, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This may be true of the number of people who  self-identify as someone who “cares about nature” and conservation, or consumer preferences in terms of environmental-friendliness being a popular marketing approach. In terms of species loss and biodiversity decline, however, recent years have seen many species take a pummelling – and I don’t think this can be seen as the legacy of earlier decades. Insect numbers are in a dramatic decline over recent years.And “ordinary” species of the British Isles such as the hedgehog are also declining steeply.


Building a hedgehog home is something you can do to help hedgehogs. Hedgehog Street, a British initiative jointly run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, point out that no matter how lovely your hedgehog home is, if there isn’t access for hedgehogs to your garden than there is no point. Hedgehog street also point out that a natural feature is a very good way of encouraging hedgehogs to stay:

The best way to provide a nesting option for hedgehogs is by creating a natural feature, such as a compost heap or log pile, as this has the added benefit of encouraging insect prey too. Artificial hedgehog houses (or hibernacula) are also used by hedgehogs and can be great fun to make.

If you leave a messy patch in a quiet undisturbed area of your garden then hedgehogs might make their own nest there either to hibernate in or to rear their young. However, if you want to improve your chances of having a resident hedgehog you could either buy or make them a home.

There are a plethora of how-to videos on YouTube on hibernaculum (singlular of hibernacula -which seems to be a hibernation chamber for any creature) construction. Much the most straightforward is this from Wildlife Connections at Chester Zoo, very much of the “cut a few holes in a cardboard box” school:

You won’t be that surprised that the above approach is the one I tried with my children yesterday evening. Here’s another straightforward, child focused holes-in-a-box-with-a-bag-on-top video:

Here’s nice video that, aside from an echoey quality to the narration which is a bit distrating, is quite entertainingly dinky and is a variation on the cardboard box with a few neat features added from the YouTube account Alice Loves Internet:

Much, much more elaborate approaches are possible. This video from the woodwork/upcycling site Rag’n’Bone Brown is entertainingly produced – and the narrator assures us that it took “two hours from start to finish” – but as it involves jig-saws, belt sanders, bitumen paint and an impressive variety of woods this is something that I don’t think I’ll be knocking off in anything like two hours:

Finally (for now) here’s a Danish approach that is extremely thorough and well-insulated -I will leave the viewer to judge the degree of equipment and effort required.