The Doo-Wop Gambit

          During an all-night meeting with poet/rock musician Patti Smith, chess champion Bobby Fischer alarmed a bodyguard waiting outside by singing the falsetto chorus from “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

The Wall Street Journal

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“Down dooby-do down-down, comma comma down dooby-do down-down.”


1997 was the year, and Garry Kasparov was the hope of humankind as he took on IBM “supercomputer” Deep Blue.  Many American humans decided to abandon their national rooting interests and instead take the side of Kasparov, a Russian, against the local box of wires and solder.  Species sympathy apparently ran deeper than patriotism.

Kasparov had bested the computer in their 1996 match by a score of 4-2, but after four games the re-match was tied.  Kasparov used the Caro-Kann defense, but Deep Blue made a daring sacrifice of a knight and sat back smugly, humming on all circuits.

“Your move, dissident-boy,” the Machine said to the Man.

Kasparov, who had accused the computer of cheating in Game 2, lowered his head to concentrate.  He had used only twenty moves so far–how had things come to this apparent impasse so quickly?  He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and reviewed the thousands of games he had memorized since he first played the game as a boy.  He felt an insight coming, but it disappeared like a bunny into the underbrush of his mind without a trace, leaving not even a glimpse of a cottontail butt in his frazzled synapses.  He was having a hard time thinking.  Why, he asked himself, couldn’t he focus?  And then, as if waking from an annoying dream, he realized what the problem was.

“You!” he snapped at Deep Blue.

“What, human?”

“Would you please stop humming the chorus to Da Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals?

Grandmaster Marc Esserman was reminiscing at Greenwich Village’s Marshall Chess Club and, as is common among men who’ve had a drink or two, he began to brag–just a little.

“You guys think you’re sooooo smart,” he said as he sipped at his vodka, which had been distilled from seed potatoes that were direct descendants of tubers from the garden of 19th century Russian chess master Ivan Butrimov.  “I once played–and defeated!–thirty-five ranked players in a simultaneous chess match.”

From across the table, one could detect his long-time rival Anatoly Karpov fuming with indignation.  As the former droned on and on about the high quality of his numerous opponents, one could see the ear hairs of the latter waving like a field of wheat in the wind; the force of his anger was so strong steam was coursing out of his head!

“Marc,” Karpov finally said with a tone of repressed fury varnished with a thin veneer of civility.

“Yes Anatoly?”

“Your humble accomplishment pales next to a simultaneous match I once played in Barysaw, Belarus.”

“Oh, really?” Esserman replied coolly, lifting an eyebrow in disdain.  “And what was your match–more difficult, more of an accomplishment than mine?”

“Because I was matched against players who were whistling the Top 40 Doo-Wop Hits of All Time, which as you may know–are available only on cable TV–not in stores!”

I have accompanied sixteen-year old U.S. Junior Chess Champ Aleksandra Nebolsina to the World Chess Championships to see if you can make the jump–in one fell swoop, as it were–from the Little Leagues of chess to the Big Show, as dumb people who play baseball call the major leagues.

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“Give me gravy for my mashed potatoes!”

I have prepped her over a long summer of Spartan training:  playing games behind her back, using a mirror, using a magnetic chess board in the shower–I feel confident she can overcome any obstacle!

But as we are about to walk into the grand auditorium where she will play her first match against reigning Indian Women’s champion Harika Swaminathan, I see a look of insecurity pass over her face like a summer thundercloud scudding across a hayfield.  I know that look–it’s the look that first marred her pretty face when I challenged her to play on a magnetic board while waterskiing across New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.  I must do something quickly, something that will restore her sense of confidence before she blows her opening by moving pawn to king three rather than pawn to king four!

“Aleksandra!” I whisper forcefully so that she will hear me over the crowd’s roar.

“What?” she asks, her eyes beseeching me to give her some talisman by which she can recover her former state of grace.

“Do you know Lesley Gore’s It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To?”



State IOUs “A Godsend” to Illinois Lottery Winner

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.  It was only a week ago that Debra Canistota had to make hard choices every day between putting food on her table and paying the rent on her mobile home in rural Alma, Illinois, a town of 312 with a median family income below the statewide average.  “It was so bad I tried to pawn my tattoos,” she says to this reporter as she wipes tears from her eyes in the offices of the State Lottery Commission.  “They wouldn’t take ’em cause I couldn’t prove I didn’t steal ’em.”

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But all that changed in an instant when Debra’s Pik-Six ticket, which she purchased with the proceeds of deposit bottle returns, came up an exact match with the winning number in the Illinois State Lottery Thursday night.  “Finally I can breathe easy and get out from under a crushing mountain-load of debt,” she says as she gives what she describes as “the hairy eyeball” to a repo man who has followed her here from her trailer park with an eye on her 2006 Pontiac Torrent.

Debra had the option to take her million dollar payout in a lump-sum or in what cynical lottery players in heavily-Polish Chicago call a “Polish Payout,” namely, a dollar a year for the next million years.  She opted for the lump sum as most winners do, and is here today to pick up her jackpot: $962,500, after taxes, in official Illinois State IOUs, a quasi-currency the state has resorted to since its ability to pay its debts is hampered by public pension obligations, graft and corruption.

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“Will you take an Illinois IOU to fill up my propane tank?”


“Stand right over here,” says Public Relations Director Sue Casey as she leads Canistota to a backdrop with the commission’s logo emblazoned on flocked wallpaper and hands her an oversized check.  “Now smile real big!” she says as a photographer snaps her picture for publicity purposes, a form of cooperation all winners agree to in the small print on the back of their lottery tickets.

“Where can I cash these things?” Canistota asks Lottery Directory Virgil “Gus” Lampu, a career bureaucrat who will be able to retire next year with a six-figure tax-free pension following twenty-five years of service in various jobs ranging from Assistant Curb-Cut Commissioner to Department of Wildlife Taxidermist.

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“You might try Ogilvie’s Bait & Tackle Shop, on the right-hand side as you drive out of town on State Route 29,” Lampu says as he finalizes Canistota’s paperwork.  “They sell night crawlers.”

“But I don’t fish,” Canistota replies.

“I meant to eat,” Lampu says.  “They don’t taste bad if you fry ’em up with Hamburger Helper.”


How Many Must Die Before Baby Showers Are Banned?

The news this morning was grim.  Another day, another no-holds barred fight at a baby shower.  Two hundred people involved in a bottle-bashing, chair-smashing brawl.  A two-month-old child hit in the head with a table.  When will the violence and the competition to see who can give the nicest Snuggli end?

I know what the hard-core baby shower advocates will say.  When baby showers are outlawed, only outlaws will have baby showers.  So much talk, you say, but the baby shower-industrial complex owns Congress–and your state legislature–lock, stock and Thomas the Tank Engine teething ring.

My experience with baby showers is limited, as I’m male.  But just because the “Jack ‘n Jill” format is more popular for wedding showers doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of the fact that baby showers are a seething cauldron of envy and female hormones, just waiting to boil over into a stovetop mess of strained carrots.

“Orange dynamite”

Because women, like adolescent males, run in packs, the prospect of gang violence is never far beneath the surface at a baby shower.  One innocent remark to another guest whose twins are now four months old–”When is the baby due?”–and BOOM.  You’d better be ready to dive under the bassinet.

Baby shower violence is an issue that neither political party has been willing to face squarely.  Throw more money at the problem, say the Democrats.  Provide more pre-natal counseling and expectant mothers and friends will revert to their innate better selves.  Yeah, right.  Fuzz-brained liberals.

“Well, my baby couldn’t possible be as ug–I mean as cute as yours, Sara Beth!”

Cut people’s marginal tax rates so they have more disposable income to hire private security guards, say Republicans.  Either that or give a tax credit to manufacturers of diaper disposal bins.  More of the same old, same old trickle down.  Which, with babies, is usually not a good thing.

“You little stinker!”

No, what we need is a bi-partisan solution that brushes aside the old categories and comes up with a new paradigm.  One that will bring together ancient enemies that have been warring with each other since the first baby shower in 1541, for which Anne of Shrewsbury sent out invitations with a little green dragon on them.

“You couldn’t wait until we served dessert?”

That is why I am today calling for a National Summit on Baby Shower Violence, at which the best and brightest minds in government, academia, business and maternity wards will be brought together in one room, locked up with a buffet lunch and gallons and gallons of bottled water, and kept there until they solve this critical problem.

Or they run out of poopy diaper jokes, whichever comes first.

Condo Associations Dump Lawyers for Paramilitary Death Squads

BOSTON.  It’s the second Thursday of October, the date scheduled for the monthly meeting of the 375 Marlborough Street Condominium Association, which governs a 15-unit brownstone on one of the most prestigious streets in town.

Marlborough Street, Boston

Sally Tyng, condo association president, offers this reporter a cup of mulled apple cider and a congo bar, joking that her position–”the highest elective office I’ve ever held”–doesn’t excuse her from taking a turn making snacks for meetings.

This month’s session is important because the association is facing a major expenditure–repairs to the roof needed to fix leaks caused by ice dams last winter–and yet attendance is less than 100%.  “We’ve got a couple of scofflaws,” she says, referring to unit owners such as Tyler Watkins III, an aspiring writer who purchased his ground-floor unit with a gift from his parents, but who is chronically late with his monthly condo fees due to the irregular nature of his freelance income.

“We could set a leg trap for Tyler, but one of the cats might step in it.”

Ordinarily, the matter would be referred to the condo’s outside counsel, The Law Offices of Alan Lipshutz, P.C., but the firm has just notified the association that the hourly rate of Rachel Schultz, the associate who handles their collection matters, will increase to $250 an hour in January.  “I’m sorry,” says Mort Zucker, a crusty, retired CPA who functions as the association’s treasurer.  “There’s no woman in Boston worth that kind of money with her clothes on.”

Low-priced alternative

So Zucker has brought a competing offer to the table; a three-member team from the Caravan of Death, a Chilean Army death squad that dates back to the early 1970s, has offered to put Watkins under round-the-clock surveillance for $250 a day, with a bonus of 10% of any overdue condo fees collected.

“The only weapon I’m carrying is my iPhone.”

“Personally, I think it’s a no-brainer,” Zucker begins as he hands out photos of the squad’s victims over the past four decades, “but we do things by consensus here, so I invited the guys in to make a little presentation.”

Unused to public speaking due to their clandestine mode of operations, the group’s anonymous leader greets the assembled members through his black mask.  “We can’t understand you,” says Peggy McClaren, a Social Security actuary who lives with her two cats in a basement unit.

“I apologize, senorita,” the man says, removing his mask to reveal a face that is both sinister and placid at the same time.  “Honorable condominium association members,” he begins.  “I apologize for not having a PowerPoint slide show for you tonight, but me and my muchachos–we travel light.”  He allows himself a little smile, and a few members respond with laughs.

“Come with me–you have illegally parked in Unit 2A’s space.”

“You people,” he continues, “you are good, hard-working people.”  McClaren nods, as does Zucker, while Tyng maintains a non-committal expression, since her objectivity will be on the line when the matter comes to a vote.

“Why should you, who pay your dues on time, month after month–why should you suffer because some trust-fund beneficiary of America’s ruling class would rather spend his disposable income on Eurotrash women he meets in Back Bay bars?”

The group’s sympathies begin to sway, but debate on extraordinary expenditures is typically open and robust.  “What if he doesn’t pay?” asks Nadia Weston-Weiss, a mutual fund accountant.

“We have ways of making him pay, senorita,” the leader says.

“Are they loud?” McClaren chimes in from the sofa.  “Because the one thing I hate is noise.”

“C’mon–I vote we waste the dude!”

The leader barks a command in guttural Spanish at one of his two colleagues, who steps forward to show the white-haired McClaren a semi-automatic rifle with a silencer.  “It is quiet,” the gunman says in a voice that is barely a whisper.  “As quiet as the grave.”

“You have to agree the price is right,” Zucker interjects, hoping to steer the conversation away from the more colorful aspects of the potential vendor’s menu of services.

“We are ready to serve you,” the leader says by way of peroration.  “We are prepared to die,” he adds, bowing low before putting his black mask back on.

“Thank you very much for your informative presentation.  Would you like a congo bar to eat while we deliberate?” Tyng says pleasantly.

Ed’s double drawer file cabinet keeps condo records safe!

Si, senorita, this would be fine,” the leader says as he takes one of the snack squares and pushes it somewhat awkwardly through the mouth slit of his black mask.

The three men step outside and take seats on the third floor landing, where a tasteful padded bench is located next to the elevator.

Once the door is closed, the floor is opened up for discussion.  “I don’t know,” Weston-Weiss says, brushing her hair back off her hyphen.  “There’s something about them that seems a bit–unusual.”

“Sure it’s unusual,” Zucker says.  “But the ‘usual’ is going to court.  Death squads specialize in extra-judicial remedies.”

McClaren, who functions as the group’s informal parlimentarian, consults the condo by-laws.  “Since it’s not a capital expenditure, it only needs a majority vote, not two-thirds.”

“Will someone make a motion?” Tyng adds, hoping to move the meeting along with several items remaining on the agenda, including a trash removal contract.

“I move that we hire the Caravan of Death on a trial basis and if they get good results with Watkins, we put them on retainer,” Zucker says.

“Second?” Tyng asks the group.

“Second,” McClaren says.

“All in favor?” Tyng asks.

A chorus of ayes is heard, and the vote is unanimous.  Zucker turns to Weston-Weiss, whom he was afraid would vote against the novel proposal, and thanks her for coming around.

“I appreciate your support, Nadia.”

“No problem,” she says.  “They are very frightening-looking men, but then I remembered what the lawyers look like.”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

World Series of Dog Poker

LAS VEGAS, Nevada.  Capitalizing on the runaway popularity of the World Series of Poker, Harrah’s Entertainment today expanded its franchise contest from men and women to man’s best friend as the first World Series of Canine Poker opened with 120 dogs plunking down their “buy-in” stakes at the Lucky Dog Casino.

“People think that dogs only play poker on cheap wall hangings you buy in strip mall parking lots, but we’re for real,” said Fritz, a Doberman pinscher who has traveled here from Flint, Michigan.  He motions to Fifi, a comely French poodle waitress who is raising her mutt son by herself.

“What’ll you have?” she asks Fritz, whose eyes drift southwards to her décolletage.

“Just some Iams MiniChunks and a bowl of water, sweetie,” he says with a smile.  She turns and walks back to the kitchen and not even his gambler’s instincts can tear his eyes away from her hindquarters as she goes.

“Play poker, would you?” says Ernie, a fat dachshund from Sweet Springs, Missouri sitting in the “button” or dealer’s chair whose belly is covered with carpet lint he picked up on his way to the tables.

“Sorry,” Fritz says, as he pitches the “small blind” bet–five Milkbones–onto the table.

The “big blind” player to his left, a well-groomed collie from Stillwater, Oklahoma named “Buffy”, moves ten Milk Bones across the felt.

Ernie deals two “pocket” or “hole” cards face down, and each player scrutinizes his hand with as little emotion as possible.

“I’m in for ten,” says a cautious Sheltie named Max from Oak Ridge, Tennessee as he bets the minimum.  “He’s sitting on a pair,” thinks Fritz.

“See ya,” says a gruff Boston terrier the other dogs know as “Beans”, a nickname the prodigal scion of a family of Beacon Hill Brahmins has adopted as his nomme du poker.  His real name is Terrence Wentworth de Groot Hollings, III.

Ernie matches the minimum bet.  This hand is wipe open, Fritz says to himself, as Ernie deals the “flop”–the ace and deuce of clubs and the King of Hearts.

Fifi returns with Fritz’s snack, allowing him to camouflage his excitement as amatory.  “Here you go, sugar,” he says as he tosses a Milk Bone on her tray.  His tail is wagging like a metronome on espresso–he’s holding a deuce and the King of spades.

He could go all in, but he thinks there might be a bigger fish to fry if he plays it coy.  “Fifteen Milk Bones,” he says to open the post-flop betting.

Buffy studies his hand and tries to psychoanalyze Fritz.  It’s early in the tournament–Fritz must not have much of a hand if that’s his opening bet, Buffy thinks.  “See ya and raise five,” he says as he tosses twenty bones on the table.

It worked, thinks Fritz, as Max, Beans and Ernie stay in the hand.  It’s time for the “turn”, the fourth community card.  Ernie stretches his chubby belly out onto the table and turns over-the four of clubs.

Hmm, Fritz thinks.  Could somebody hit a straight or a flush on the river?  Better not get in over my head.  He clears his throat–Buffy thinks it’s a “tell”–and barks “Ten bones.”

Buffy looks at his hand–a bunch of dogs and cats, he decides.  “I fold,” he says.

Max raises an eyebrow, and just as quickly forces it back into place.  He hasn’t peed since he was walked this morning, and he’s feeling a little jumpy.  “I’m in,” he says.

Over to Beans.  He’s lost more money in his life than the rest of these mutts have ever seen, he says to himself.  The night is but a pup, he thinks, recalling his prep school Shakespeare, mewling and puking in its mother’s arms.  “I’ll raise ya ten,” he growls.

Back to Ernie, who doesn’t like the sound of Beans’ bark, and decides to roll over.  “Too rich for my blood,” he says with a whimper.

Time for the river to flow.  Ernie places a paw on the deck and, with more than a little ceremony, lays down–the King of Diamonds!

Ohboyohboyohboyohboy!  Fullhousefullhousefullhouse!  A drop of drool forms at the corner of Fritz’s mouth, and Beans takes note of it.  What a slobbering fool, he thinks.

“I bet–30 bones!” Fritz says.  Max’s bladder is about to burst, and he doesn’t like Fritz’s enthusiasm.  “I’m done,” he says before running out the front door and relieving himself on a potted palm.

And then there were two–Fritz and Beans–mano a mano, or more precisely, perro a perro.  Beans looks at Fritz with contempt, as if he’s a can of Friskies Fancy Feast Savory Salmon Cat Food someone has given him by mistake.  “I’ll see ya and raise you twenty,” he says with an icy glare.

Fritz clamps his jaws shut in shock, biting into his wagging tongue.  He realizes he may have underestimated Beans–beneath that purebred demeanor beats the heart of a pit bull.  But there’s no turning back, and he’s not about to let someone steal a pot from him.

“I, uh–I’m in.”

“Whadda ya got?” Beans snarls.

“Full house, kings high,” Fritz says.

The color drains from Beans’ mug.  “Flush,” he says, flipping his hole cards over to reveal two clubs.

Fritz lets out a howl that can be heard in Lake Tahoe, and Fifi comes running.

“Congratulations!” she yelps, and allows him to sniff her more freely than the highest roller in the joint.

“You were my good luck charm, baby-I owe you big time!”  He takes out a 1,000 bone chip and drops it into her apron.

“Thanks,” she says, tears forming in her eyes.  “You don’t know what this means to me.”

“You gonna be here all week?” he asks, looking for more than information.

“Yes–and I’m hotter than the Mojave Desert.”

“Sheesh,” says Ernie as he rolls his eyes.  “Can we cut out the puppy love and get back to business?”  He passes the deck to Fritz.  “Your deal, dog.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

Put Down That Poem Before You Kill Yourself

Lunch Food Markets in Turmoil as Speculators Dump Fishsticks

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Mark Ehrensmyer is an experienced day-trader, but his customary poker face shows signs of stress as he readies himself for the opening bell today.  “It’s going to be a wild ride,” he says grimly as he pops a handful of home-made trail mix into his mouth.  “Hold on to your hat.”

But Ehrensmyer isn’t waiting for the latest news from the Federal Reserve, or word of volatility in world currency markets before making his first move this morning.  “I’m long on peanut-butter crackers,” he tells this reporter, who has been allowed to observe Ehrensmyer’s trading activity in exchange for an expensive bag of yogurt-covered raisins, a major upgrade in the snack supply he will use to sustain himself until the market closes.

Ehrensmyer is a professional lunch-trader, a wheeler-dealer in cafeteria food who some decry as a vulture while others view him as necessary intermediary who is merely providing liquidity to students saddled with unappetizing home-made sack lunches, or forced to eat mysterious meat products prepared on site here at Pumpsie Green Middle School.


“We are seeing the effects of unbridled capitalism reach down into what was once an innocent break from tedious classroom instruction,” says Carolyn Spretzel, who is running for re-election to a second semester term as class president on a platform that includes a ban on lunch trading.  “I will fight for the right of my classmates to be forced to eat what’s put in front of them, since I always have to.”

Ehrensmyer rejects the accusation, saying what he does is perfectly legal even though it would run afoul of federal securities laws if he were trading in stocks instead of fishsticks.  “I see kids come to school with a Ziploc bag filled with celery and carrots, and I have to ask myself–what kind of mother would punish a child like that?” he says, shaking his head.  “With leverage and an appetite for risk, I can help them parlay that little stake into a tapioca, maybe even chocolate pudding.”

“How are we gonna unload all that tuna noodle casserole?”

But school administrators say Ehrensmyer and two other boys, Jay Nyquist and Teddy Pfeiffer, are “acting in concert” in violation of the Massachusetts School Lunch Consumers Protection Act, a law modeled on “unfair and deceptive” acts statutes around the country.  “They assemble a ‘dark pool’ of peanut butter crackers in premarket trading, then walk into the cafeteria and disrupt our wholesome, nutritious lunch menu,” says Assistant Principal Norris Byrum, a charge that Nyquest categorically rejects.  “Who’s doing the kids of this school more harm,” he asks.  “Us, or somebody who forces them to eat tuna noodle casserole?”

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