"Drunken Master adjusts fly for opening gambit
Sanctions pondered against apologetic player
It is a game ... typically played ... at a ... sedate ... pace. A single move can take half an hour. Talking is forbidden. Drama occurs imperceptibly, like the rising of a tide. A malfunctioning time clock counts as unexpected excitement. Etiquette and sportsmanship generally rule.
Generally. Not always.
The Canadian chess community has been buzzing over the strange saga of the drunken International Master.
Drunk is only the half of it.
According to a report posted on (but since bumped off) the Ottawa Chess Club bulletin board, one of Canada's top players created a rare spectacle at the RA Winter Open tournament in January.
Michael Schleifer 'drank a huge amount a (sic) beer' while celebrating his birthday before Round 3 of the Ottawa event, wrote Neil James Frarey, president of the Eastern Ontario Chess Association. He was cut off but a friend bought the player more beer before the start of his next game.
'The IM made it on time to his game, and then proceeded to pass out, head on hands at the board.'
He was startled awake by a ringing cellphone.
'Immediately after awakening he stood up, unzipped his pants, pulled out his manhood, and urinated all over the table, the chess pieces and board, and on the floor. His opponent was transfixed in complete shock,' the report said.
Schleifer has since sent letters of apology to local organizers and to the Chess Federation of Canada, which is pondering sanctions.
What is shocking is not just the bizarre nature of the incident — which one bulletin board respondent dubbed 'The Open Fly Gambit' — but the glimpse it provides into the world of chess masters behaving badly.
It is also providing fertile fodder for another rarity — chess humour.
'This brings a new meaning to `elimination round,'' commented one message-writer.
"Certainly we can expect ... to have an increase in the sale of plastic (i.e. washable) boards and plastic pieces," wrote Kevin Spraggett, Canada's top-ranked Grandmaster.
The player's unexpected opening manoeuvre threatens to bring the game some of the attention normally accorded to the bad boys of mainstream sports.
(Chess is considered a sport by some and has been formally recognized by the International Olympic Committee.)
Though it happened at a modest tournament in Ottawa, the incident has been noted on international chess websites and, says the Portugal-based Spraggett, discussed at European tournaments.
"It was so out of character and so astonishing," says veteran chess columnist Lawrence Day, the Canadian champion in 1991 and an International Master (one step below Grandmaster) since 1972.
"You go 10,000 chess games, everything is normal and peaceful like church, and then every now and then something happens and you notice. In my whole life, and that's like 3,000 tournaments, I've witnessed one fight."
That was in 1981 in New York. Two Grandmasters were playing other opponents on adjacent boards when one broke the no-talking rule.
Day remembers the Grandmaster imitating Robert De Niro's character from Taxi Driver: "`What are you looking at?' he says with a Bronx accent like Travis Bickle. This Hungarian Grandmaster replies: `What are you looking at?' And the first guy says: `Do you want to step outside?'
"This is a quaint chess club in New York with a little garden in the back yard, about 20 square yards," continues Day.
"So these two guys go out to the garden and all the players in the tournament, looking at each other, wonder what's going on. Then they all, almost simultaneously, agreed to draws and left."
Day never did learn what set off the quarrel.
But bizarre behaviour is not unheard of in championship chess.
"Chess players are eccentric at the top level," says Robert Hamilton, a top-25 player in Canada recognized by the world chess governing body as a Master.
"These are people who grow up spending a great deal of their life inside of something that's 18 inches by 18 inches."
In fact, some of the game's most famous players have built their reputations, in part, on their antics. Mikhail Chigorin took open bottles of brandy to his 1889 world title match against Wilhelm Steinitz, prompting Steinitz to bring champagne. Steinitz won.
At the 1978 world championship, organizers reportedly had to install a board under the table so that fierce rivals Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi couldn't kick each other.
And then there's Bobby Fischer, whose peerless play was trumped only by his public rants — "Is it against the law to kill a reporter?" he once asked.
"Chess players are oddballs in many ways," says Spraggett, who recalls shocking a friend when he took him into a chess club in Montreal about 15 years ago.
"He didn't know too much about chess and I was showing him around the club. All of the sudden we came across this guy who was sleeping underneath one of the tables. It was very embarrassing because he was the Canadian champion."
Despite the oddities, most competitions are, as Day points out, pedestrian affairs.
For some chess lovers that means Ottawa's "Open Fly Gambit" is a cause for celebration.
Wrote one on the Ottawa Chess Club bulletin board:
"Thanks for finally showing us that a chess tournament isn't just full of uptight nerds with no sense of humour!"