My head is full of sunshine!

From the New York Times crossword puzzle, August 8, 2015
59 Down  Chess champion of the early 1960's

When he was named world chess champion, Mikhail Tal, used the quote in the title to describe his elation at his new status.  The journalist who was interviewing him was delighted at the phrase, thinking it was original.  However the quote was from Yves Montand.  The realization did nothing to dim Tal’s enthusiasm.  In answer to the clue for today’s post, he was the world chess champion from 1960 to 1961.

Born in Riga, Latvia in 1936, he learned to read at the age of three and actually started university at the age of fifteen.  Reportedly, he learned chess by watching his father.  He was fascinated by Mikhail Botvinnik and actually went to a tournament with the hope of playing a match with the master.  While he did not have the chance to play him at that time, from that point on, he began to study chess in earnest.  After being tutored by Alexander Koblents, his progress soared, and he won the Latvian championship in 1952, placing ahead of Koblents.

By 1954, at the age of eighteen, he was named a Soviet master of chess.  In 1956, he qualified for his first USSR Championship and won it the following year, being the youngest ever, at the age of 20.  While he had not won enough games to be named Grandmaster, but because of his win of the USSR championship, the rules were waived – the USSR led the world in chess dominance at that time.


Mikhail Tal in 1982

Known for his aggressive style of play and characterized by many for his creative moves – even called the Magician from Riga, he went up against his idol, Botvinnik, and defeated him in 1960 at the age of 23, making him the youngest chess champion ever at that time (Garry Kasparov would later break that record).  In a rematch, Botvinnik regained his title, having analyzed Tal’s moves in the interim.

After being defeated by Botvinnik, he won a match against Bobby Fischer in the Bled Tournament in 1961.  He never did qualify to play for the world title again.  In part, his poor health played a role in his sporadic playing.  Having suffered from various ailments since childhood, his chain smoking (up to five packs of cigarettes in one match!), heavy drinking and bohemian lifestyle did nothing to help matters.  He died in 1982 at the young age of 55.

While his bombastic style of chess playing was dismissed by many in the beginning, it is notable that he beat almost every known grandmaster with this same style.  His final game with Botvinnik which gave Tal the championship was one in which he sacrificed his knight.  This move so unnerved Botvinnik that he was unable to figure out his strategy and lost the game.  Not surprisingly, many other Latvians have emulated his playing style, giving rise to a Latvian School of Chess image for some.


Happy Belated Birthday, Herman Melville!

From The New York Times Crossword, July 30, 2015


50  Whaling ship that inspired “Moby Dick”

A day late and a dollar short – I should have known better.  Even the New York Times Crossword tried to give me a clue with the above entry early in the week.  What did I miss?  Yesterday, August 1, was the birthday of Herman Melville, who these days is most famous for his novel, Moby Dick.  But wait, the clue isn’t asking for Herman Melville; it’s asking for the ship that inspired him to write Moby Dick.  Answer:  The Essex.

Now I realize that most stories about whaling ships are not exactly fairy tales, but the story of the Essex and its captain, George Pollard, is truly the stuff of nightmares.  It would be bad enough if his ship had been sunk by a whale, which it was.  It was this incident and only this one, that Melville used as the basis for his book.

After publication of the book, Melville actually went to Nantucket to promote the book and meet local residents.  He did at last meet with Pollard, but having heard bits and pieces about the events following the sinking of the Essex, he wisely kept further questions to himself.  Pollard had told his story to a few locals as well as a missionary – almost like a confession.

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

The story began on August 14, 1819, when the Essex left for what was planned to be a two-year whaling expedition.  Soon after leaving port, a squall damaged its topgallant sail, threatening the ship with sinking even at that point.  Eventually, the ship made it to Cape Horn, but the crew found the waters lacking in fish, so they made the fateful decision to sail on to the South Pacific in the hopes of better whaling prospects.

Stopping in the Galapagos to restock, one of the crew members set a fire as a joke, causing the rest of the crew to run through the flames to safety.  Days later, they could still see the smoke from the fire.  It is believed that the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird were rendered extinct as a result of this stupidity.

Fast forward to November 1820, when after having successfully harpooned several whales, Pollard and his crew were whaling once again while the remainder of his crew remained on board the Essex to make minor repairs.  Owen Chase, the first mate, was one who stayed on board.  It was he who spotted a whale – by his estimates 85 feet in length – coming straight for the Essex.  In short time, the Essex was ruined, and Pollard and his men returned to the sinking ship.

There were only a few boats remaining, and while the Marquesas Islands were nearby, Chase and his crew convinced Pollard that the islands were populated by cannibals, and they made the disastrous decision to sail south in the hopes that they would meet another whaling ship and be rescued.

Weeks passed, and soon the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive.  It was not an unheard of practice in those lost at sea, but when they drew lots to see who would die next, the lot fell to Owen Coffin, Pollard’s first cousin.  Pollard begged him and even offered to take his place, but Coffin would have none of it.  This particular incident, not surprisingly, haunted Pollard the rest of his life.

After another ship of his sank later on, Pollard was labeled as a “Jonah” and was never offered another ship.  He retired to Nantucket and became the village night watchman.  His story has been chronicled in many books and articles over the years, and Melville himself never could forget the man or his story.  For more of this story, check out: Smithsonian mag

Geography, state birds and Yogi

June 22, 2015

Former name of Congo

A better question would be – which Congo? On today's map you will find Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Republic of Congo is also known as Congo Republic, West Congo or Congo-Brazzaville – its capital is Brazzaville.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is also known as DR Congo, DROC, RDC, East Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, or simply Congo. From 1965 – 1997 it was named Zaire – the answer to today's clue.


Hawaii's state bird

The Hawaiian goose, or Nene (pronounced “nay-nay”) or Branta sandwicensis was named the Hawaiian state bird in 1957. Interestingly, it seldom swims and is not bothered by predators or cold temperatures. It does not fly as much as other geese so its wings are weaker. Its feet are less webbed with longer toes for climbing rocks.

Of note, the species has been endangered, and while it breeds well in captivity, it is still considered the rarest of the state birds.




Who said “Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours.”

From one of the most quotable sports stars ever, Yogi Berra. He was born in St. Louis, an area known as “The Hill”. He and Joe Garagiola attended the same school. Jack Buck, an early Cardinals announcer also grew up on the same block. He is considered one of the best catchers in baseball history, once catching for an entire 22-inning game when he was 37. He was also deemed one of the best hitters, able to hit almost anywhere in the strike zone. Besides baseball, he is well known for his “Yogisms”, but in his own words, he said, “I really didn't say everything I said.”