States of Mate
Justin Sarkar could use more time. Three o’clock becomes five, and suddenly he’s late for an appointment. “I wish there were 36 hours in a day,” he sighs. During college he needed extra time for exams, and barely made it through his last semester. Hours can go by before he pulls himself out of bed. A simple task like buying juice might lead him into a frustrating maze of indecision.
But on a bright, warm Monday in October, Sarkar ’05CC stood calmly on the sidewalk at Broadway and 112th Street. Before him, lined up by the curb near Tom’s Restaurant, were ten small tables made of green milk crates and wooden chessboards. This, for Sarkar, was where time ceased to exist.
“Chess is its own world,” he says. “You play a serious, intense game, and for a while, nothing else in the world matters.”
At each table sat a player of unknown ability, awaiting the chance to outwit Sarkar and gain some glory. Sarkar, of New Rochelle, is the New York State Chess Champion, a title he shares with Alex Lenderman, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn. Beat Sarkar and you’d be King of New York.
Nearby, a sidewalk guitarist strummed Dylan and pedestrians stopped to bask in the carnival-like spectacle of the grappler who takes on all comers. This simultaneous exhibition (“simul” in chess speak), which included Columbia faculty and students, required Sarkar to have his mind inside ten games at once.
Dressed in beige chinos and an orange T-shirt bearing the words “New York Chess,” Sarkar approached the first table and made minuscule adjustments to his pieces (he was playing white), touching them, arranging them just so before making his opening move. He repeated the ritual at each table.
Was it a nervous tic, this pregame touching? A psychological ploy? Or was it a way to assemble his thoughts, bring order to a complex mind?
For Sarkar is nothing if not complicated. A brilliant chess tactician (he majored in applied math) as well as a gifted writer (his e-mail missives about his games border on the Nabokovian), Sarkar has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition whose traits of social awkwardness, acute self-consciousness, heightened sensitivity to stimuli, enhanced perception of patterns, and problems with attention and time management can create huge hurdles in life, including academic life.
“I can’t think of when I was ever able to follow a lecture,” Sarkar says in his soft, gentle voice. “I generally had enough will to get myself to class. My courses were really courses in survival: How can I survive?”
Somehow, he’s been figuring it out. In 2001, at the age of 20, Sarkar became an International Master (IM), the highest title conferred in chess below Grandmaster. There are about 900 Grandmasters in the world.
“I seem to have an original approach to the game,” says Sarkar, who first learned chess from his father at the age of nine. The two played until the father started losing (“He kind of gave up”). “I have my own system, but a large part of it is not having a system. A lack of studying has its price — it takes me a long time to make certain moves that shouldn’t take that long for someone of my caliber.”
That careful deliberation was on full display on Broadway as Sarkar went from table to table. Sometimes, after making a move and advancing to the next game, he would shift his hawklike eyes to the previous board and survey the pieces without expression. Then, after a few penetrating seconds, he’d slowly turn back to the game at hand.
“I can be thrown off balance by an unexpected move,” he explains. “I think, ‘Why didn’t I properly assess?’”
This wavering of his attention caused some of the more optimistic players to imagine that Sarkar, taxed by the demands of ten separate games, might prove sufficiently distracted to lose at least one of them.
Little did they know just how much Sarkar had on his mind.
Four days earlier, Sarkar had spent the day with Russell Makofsky, the 23-year-old founder of NYC Chess, an organization devoted to the promotion of chess and chess education. (Makofsky’s colleague at NYC Chess, bookseller and artist Adhemar Ahmad, can often be seen at Broadway and 112th playing chess with passersby.) NYC Chess was sponsoring the Sarkar simul, and Makofsky and Sarkar decided to head down to the Marshall Chess Club on West 10th Street to hand out flyers for the event.
Located in a grand old brownstone on a residential Village block, the Marshall is perhaps the holiest site in all of chessdom. Ascend a winding, carpeted staircase and enter a sanctuary lined with red vinyl benches and chess tables. The walls are crowded, Little Italy–style, with framed photographs of the greats: Mikhail Tal, Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian. A bust of club founder Frank Marshall, the U.S. Chess Champion from 1909 to 1936, sits on an antique cabinet between two high windows, and nearby is the famous Capablanca table, which was donated by one-time Columbia engineering student Jose Raul Capablanca, widely regarded as the greatest chess prodigy in history.
The president of the Marshall Chess Club is Dr. Frank Brady ’76SOA, who taught English at Barnard for 25 years and is Bobby Fischer’s biographer. Brady first met Justin Sarkar at the Marshall in 2001, during the tournament in which Sarkar graduated to IM. The two became friendly, and Sarkar occasionally sat in on Brady’s classes at Barnard.
Brady, who often played against Fischer (“Don’t ask me if I ever won”), has high praise for his fellow Columbian. “Justin will be a Grandmaster,” he states flatly.
When Sarkar and Makofsky reached the Marshall, the participants in the club’s Thursday Night Action Tournament were gathering. Looking around, Sarkar suddenly got anxious at the idea of coming here to hand out flyers for his own event. Did it seem arrogant? Presumptuous? What would people think? He considered signing up for the tournament in order to justify his presence, but was stopped by the unhappy thought of losing to a lesser-ranked player, which would damage his standing. (Action chess is played on a 30-minute clock — not Sarkar’s strength.) “He had more to lose than to gain,” Makofsky later said.
Finally, Sarkar decided not to play, but as soon as he got outside he was assailed by fresh doubts. “I should have played,” he fretted. That was when Makofsky suggested that they walk over to Washington Square Park.
If the Marshall is the high temple of the chess world, the southwest corner of Washington Square, with its cement chess tables and strewn newspapers, is the outdoor bazaar. Here, the gentleman’s game is coarsened with trash talk and the slamming down of chessmen. Denizens, some of them homeless, beckon to onlookers for a game. Money has been known to change hands.
Sarkar had never visited this area, whose tinge of illegal street activity and wafting urine smells came up rudely against his fine-tuned fastidiousness.
“Hey, you lost?” a man called out from behind one of the tables, mistaking Sarkar for a curious amateur who had blundered upon the scene.
Makofsky quickly stepped in, and, with an impresario’s flair, he arranged a five-dollar game between the man, a park fixture, and Sarkar, who was now feeling guilty about concealing his status as one of the top players in the country.
Sarkar put down his bag, which contained a new chess clock and some chess books, and sat. The man across from him lit a cigarette and spewed salty wisecracks, further irritating Sarkar, who was used to playing in silent, smoke-free environments.
After seven or eight moves, however, the man recognized what he was up against. His commentary faded.
“Piece by piece, move by move, Justin broke down his position,” Makofsky recalled.
A crowd gathered, and Sarkar, pushing his pawns, promoted one of them to a queen. Game over.
“What are you, a 2300?” said the beaten man, inquiring into Sarkar’s World Chess Federation rating. A 2200 is the threshold for an IM. Sarkar was at 2517.
“What are you?” Sarkar replied innocently. “A 1500?”
“Somewhere around there,” said the man, who was a good deal stronger than that.
Makofsky refused the man’s money, and instead tipped him two dollars. Everyone shook hands. Sarkar then looked down and saw that his bag was gone.
It was highly upsetting, this theft, but Sarkar could hardly afford to dwell on it. The next day, Friday, he was to begin a much-anticipated match at the Marshall with Alex Lenderman, his New York State co-titlist. Frank Brady had proposed the weekend-long contest as a way to unofficially settle the dispute of the shared title.
Perhaps the incident in the park had a galvanizing effect. Sarkar demolished Lenderman in the first three games, and offered him a quick draw in the fourth.
Then, on Monday, Sarkar traveled from New Rochelle, where he lives with his parents, to the simul in Morningside Heights.
Few at the exhibition knew what Sarkar had borne over the past days, to say nothing of his entire life.
“My confidence is very delicate,” he says. “It seems to be hanging by a thread. It’s very scary. If things are still intact, they are held together delicately.”
But on this day, Sarkar moved methodically from table to table, betraying no sign of exhaustion or self-doubt. One by one, his challengers fell. Sarkar won every game.
Later, Sarkar was asked about his peculiar habit of fondling the chess pieces at the outset. He said he didn’t recall doing it, but then he thought again.
A few weeks earlier, he said, he had witnessed a simul at the Harlem Children’s Zone, wherein the featured player, a famous Grandmaster, touched all of his pieces before each of his 30 games.
Sarkar grinned shyly and brought out a worthy epitaph: “I saw Kasparov do it.”
— Paul Hond
Many Happy Returns
The Columbia Club resides within the Princeton Club’s building on West 43rd Street, so in the spirit of bipartisanship, the two groups jointly hosted a happy hour to witness the historic election of Barack Obama ’83CC, and pay tribute to the new first family’s collegiate pedigree.
“Think about it,” said John Celock ’04JRN, a Columbia Club board member. “Both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR dropped out of Columbia Law School. So what we’re seeing is a little pride in the fact that — obviously he’ll be the first African American president — but you’re seeing a lot of pride in the fact that he’s the first Columbia graduate to be president.”
A few dozen people sipped martinis and cabernets as CNN announced the returns on a big-screen TV. An oil portrait of DeWitt Clinton, Columbia College Class of 1786 and 1812 Federalist Party nominee for president, hung on the lobby wall. Among a table of friends sat Vaughn Hart ’08GS.
Hart’s mom, who is Jamaican, and his dad, who is Trinidadian, told him, as a child growing up in Brooklyn, that he’d have to be twice as good as everyone else to succeed. For a short while, he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology; he left engineering, and after a few semesters at Nassau Community College, became an English literature major at Columbia’s School of General Studies. Hart, 33, wore a gray suit with a Columbia pin affixed to his lapel. He said he hoped the election of America’s first black president would dispel the racist stereotype that affirmative action helps blacks who otherwise would be undeserving of an Ivy League education.
“This is a historic moment to show that, no, that’s not the case,” Hart said, multitasking on his BlackBerry. “And, I’m glad he’s a Lion, so, woo hoo!”
Like Obama, Chris Luna GS ’11, transferred to Columbia from a small California school (Obama came from Occidental College, Luna from San Joaquin Delta College). Luna told the story of how Obama spent his first night in New York sleeping in an alleyway near Amsterdam and 109th. The next morning, the future president joined a homeless man to wash up at an open fire hydrant.
“That’s how I think it was in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Luna, 28. “But it’s definitely changed.”
Some Princeton alumni welcomed the prospect of future first lady Michelle Obama, Class of 1985, as an improvement over the two most recent Princetonians to inhabit the nation’s corridors of power — Donald Rumsfeld and Samuel Alito.
Others did not. Three blonde women with southern accents, who had cheered when John McCain won Georgia, decamped from the bar and trudged to the elevators as soon as CNN called Ohio for Obama.
“This country’s going to hell in a handbasket,” said one of the women.
“I work hard for my paycheck,” said another.
In the slowly emptying dining room, a barman in a tuxedo vest dried a tumbler with a towel. At 11 p.m. CNN announced breaking news: Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. Hart sat in ecstatic, wide-eyed disbelief. Rawle Barker, a security guard at the club, came running into the room to hug a waitress.
“We longed for this day,” he said to her.
Hart put on a wool topcoat and donned a blue baseball cap with a big C on it and, with friends, headed for the jubilant celebration in Times Square, where a fire engine had parted a path through the crowd by honking to the rhythm of “Yes We Can!” McCain appeared on the jumbotron to give his concession speech and the crowd booed.
Hart ducked into a nearby bar to watch on a TV as President-elect Barack Obama took the stage at Grant Park in Chicago. Patrons hushed one another.
“It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled,” Obama said. “Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
Raucous cheers filled the bar. Hart, giggling like he was still that schoolboy at Brooklyn Tech High School, shouted his approval for the president-elect’s oratory, how it evoked a certain Baptist minister from Georgia and the poetry of Langston Hughes.
“This is that transcendence,” Hart said above the din. “I, too, am America!”
— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN
Armistice and the Man
Early in November we took the Long Island Rail Road out to Northport, New York, and then a taxi to Commack to have lunch with William D. Kaufman ’38JRN. A small, welcoming man with a short, white beard, Kaufman first proposed taking us on a tour of the attractive and busy Gurwin Jewish Residences, where he’s lived in a tidy two-room suite for seven years. When we reached the bingo room, Kaufman pointed out a card table he’s commandeered — “This is my desk” — on which were framed photos of his parents, an Italian-English dictionary, some maps, a stack of magazines, several yellow legal pads, and a handwritten sign warning, Do Not Touch. “This is where I wrote my book,” he says.
The book, The Day My Mother Changed Her Name and Other
Stories, was published this fall
by Syracuse University Press. It
is the first book by the 94-year-old author.
“I always felt that I could write, but I never really did,” says Kaufman, who worked for 31 years as a fundraiser for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He began taking courses at SUNY Stonybrook after his wife, Zelda, died in 1982, and the classes got the ink flowing. “That’s when I started writing seriously, and by seriously, I mean writing stories.”
The 30 or so stories in his book are mostly about his childhood and teenage years in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the anthracite coal city where he was born in 1914. Wise rabbis, tyrannical schoolmarms, golden-hearted whores, immigrant neighbors, priests, playmates, and much of his immigrant family wander in and out of Kaufman’s character sketches and vignettes. Some of the stories, seasoned with sugar and pepper, are so neatly tied up that we had to ask Kaufman where the tales lie between memoir and fiction.
“Heavily, heavily memoir,” he answers. “Most of my stories are true, or partially true, or somewhat true. I have very few fiction stories.”
One of the true stories, “The Day the War Ended on Penn Avenue,” draws on memories of a November afternoon 90 years ago. Kaufman, just shy of four, was playing in front of his house when the Polish, Ukranian, and Russian miners started returning home for the day from the surrounding pits, four or five miles away.
“They would finish work somewhere around 3:30 and come back by streetcar,” says Kaufman. “Their faces were black with coal, and some of them were still wearing their caps with the burning lamps. There were kids among them — 11, 12 years old — called mule boys, because they took care of the animals used to haul the coal.
“Right below where we lived on Penn Avenue, which the miners called Jew Street, there was a saloon, and it was the first place that they would run into, especially on a Friday, which was payday. The men would go in the front door and the boys would go through the family entrance in the back. Usually they would stop and they’d tease us. They liked us: I was a cute little kid, my sister was a cute little girl, and they’d try to grab us and rub their black hands over our faces.”
Kaufman first sensed that something was up this particular day when two things happened: the mule boys ignored him and his sister — and went into the saloon through the front door. Soon the church bells began to toll, says Kaufman, and the population massed in the street, much of it going to the rabbi’s house to hear that the Great War really was over. The excitement lasted through the night. “The next day, November 12, 1918, the mule boys went to the saloon the usual way: through the back.”
Kaufman graduated from Yeshiva College in 1936 and from the School of Journalism in 1938.
He borrowed $100 from his father and bought a small money-losing newspaper in Pennsylvania, selling it shortly before he was drafted in 1941. He served as a chief warrant officer in North Africa and Europe. After the war, he worked briefly for the American Zionist Emergency Council as a publicity man.
“Almost everybody in Zionist history passed through our doors,” he says, “and the experience was one of the highlights of my life. Of course I was the lowest man on the totem pole. I really was. My biggest adventure was when I took Chaim Weizmann to the toilet. He wanted to know where the men’s room was, so they pointed to me and said, ‘Follow him.’”
The Day My Mother Changed Her Name and Other Stories is getting attention not only because of its charming author, but also because Kaufman tells his wise-guy stories skillfully, efficiently, and humorously. He brings us to a time when childhood was both tougher and more innocent.
“I wanted to give the book to our rabbi here,” says Kaufman. “He’s a wonderful man, something of a talmud chacham, and very orthodox. I was wary about how the hell he was going to take the whorehouse business that I described.”
But even that chapter, about running errands for the ladies in Scranton’s “second industry,”
had a kind of innocence about it, didn’t it?
“It did,” he agrees. “We weren’t there as customers, we were there as delivery boys. And they were terrific tippers.”
— Michael B. Shavelson
Texting, One, Two
With so much gloom coming out of the news business these days, panelists of a recent lecture on the state of the media industry tried something a little different.
At the annual “Changing Media Landscape” lecture, held November 11 at the journalism school, audience members were not only allowed to use laptops and mobile phones during the talk, they were encouraged to do so. Packed into a standing-room-only auditorium, the attendees, rather than queuing up at a microphone as in years past, were instructed to send questions to panelists via e-mail or by text message. PowerPoint slides were banned (too archaic), and the program was aired live on Mogulus.com, an online broadcast platform that launched in 2007.
The event was headlined by prominent Web journalists, including Sewell Chan, editor of the New York Times’s local news blog City Room; Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of the online magazine Slate; Adriano Farano, executive editor of an online European current-affairs magazine, Cafebabel.com; and David Cohn ’08JRN, founder of Spot.Us, a
site where donors can fund journalistic projects. J-school Dean of Student Affairs Sreenath Sreenivasan ’93JRN, who heads the new-media department, was the moderator.
“New media and traditional media are diverging fairly radically after a long period of relatively peaceful coexistence,” said Weisberg, who, until recently, believed that print journalists could acquire Web skills fairly quickly. Now he feels that “people who haven’t been transitioned aren’t going to make it.”
Underscoring the palpable sense of fear was a fifth panelist, Erica Smith, a Web designer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who created a blog that tracks layoffs in the print journalism industry. Recently, her site, Paper Cuts, tallied more than 15,000 jobs cut from newspapers in 2008, including 10 from the Bay Area News Group, 45 from the Poughkeepsie Journal, and 110 from the Orange County Register. “The layoff thing really affected my paper a couple of times in the past few months,” Smith said. “Really, I should have been laid off.”
Launched in 1912, a year after founder Joseph Pulitzer’s death, the journalism school offered its first new-media course, Cyberspace Reporting, in 1994. Today, all students get new-media training. In September, students reporting on a visit to campus by Senators John McCain and Barack Obama ’83CC filed stories on a blog and via Twitter, a social messaging system that allows users to post messages, or “tweets,” up to 140 characters long.
What would Joseph Pulitzer think? In the “Pulitzer Centennial Lecture,” delivered in 2004, Dean Nicholas Lemann outlined the publisher’s years-long quest to create a school of journalism. “Pulitzer did not envision a school that would train people in how to operate a newspaper, but, rather, a school that would, in a way then unspecified, adapt the University’s ideal of a liberal education specially for future journalists,” he said.
Amid the decline of Pulitzer’s preferred medium — newspapers — his vision is proving more flexible than perhaps even he imagined.
“Journalism is a process, not a product,” Cohn of Spot.Us said from the dais, arguing that experimentation is the key to the kind of innovation necessary to sustain the industry. “We should think of it as research and development. Journalism will survive on the shoulders of its failures.”
And indeed, despite the progress of the past century, there was at least one failure that night. One
of the last two questions from the audience came from a young woman, who stood up with a mobile phone in her hand and said, “I just want to tell you, technology doesn’t work. I tried to text my question, and it didn’t go through.”
After she read the question from her handheld, moderator Sreenivasan told the crowd that they had just witnessed a new way of communicating. “I think that’s a first, reading the text message to the audience,” he said.
— E. B. Solomont ’02JRN