A Shameful Christmas Memory

A Christmas Day chess match in London leads to social disaster

Some part of me cringes internally with the approach of Yuletide because it reminds me of an inexcusable social gaffe I committed on Christmas Day a few years ago. They say confession is good for the soul, so perhaps if I write out what happened my sense of deep embarassment will be relieved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt all started here, in the smoking room of my club, normally a place of complete contentment for me. The smoking room has been non-smoking for some time and is thus comfortable for hosting many events, including the London club chess championship. Each club has a team of 6-8 players, and we round-robin compete each year to determine who is London’s best.

I co-captain my club’s team along with Professor Lucy Warriner of Imperial College. She is one of very few people who ever beats me at chess, and I am one of very few people who ever beats her. I suppose that sounds smug and I confess to that. Indeed my arrogance about my chess playing abilities was in retrospect at least partly the underlying cause of the social disaster I am about to describe.

In 2010, the Oxford and Cambridge Club joined our chess league. Cockily, with little investigation, I challenged their co-captains to a Christmas Day afternoon match at our club. I assumed that Lucy and I would make short work of them, thereby getting a psychological advantage over their team going into the coming year’s tournament.

Little I did know that their co-captains were Professor Sir James Blandings, author of a celebrated analysis of the Steiner-Lilienthal matches of the 1930s, and Professor George Kerby, coach of 10-time British champion Malcolm Trevor, among many others.

While sipping tea and seemingly half-paying attention, these two chess wizards annihilated us. While telling stories about their favorite world championship matches, they pulverized us again. Lucy and I switched opponents after two quick games, but it didn’t help. To put it mildly, it was humiliating.

club foyerAs it was beyond debate that no number of re-matches would change the basic result of our contest, I thanked them for their time, said I would see them out, and walked them down to the club’s magnificent entryway. I think if they had just left promptly I would have been able to keep my composure after being so soundly thrashed. But I suppose because of their being OxBridge Dons, they couldn’t help but rub it in.

Blandings opined that defeating me was easy because I made mistakes very similar to those of Kasparov — before he was any good. Kerby offered that beating Lucy felt ungentlemanly to him, given his obviously superior talents. They mentioned that they expected the chess club season to be a joy because they knew they would roll over every team as easily as they had dispatched us.

Maybe it was my bruised ego or maybe it was the irritation of the icy winter breeze coming in as people left and entered the club while Blandings and Kerby stood bragging in the entryway, but in any event I did something truly unforgivable of which I remain ashamed today.

My face burning, I blurted out: “All right you won, you pompous blowhards, now shut your gobs and go home!”.

Blandings was not even mildly disconcerted by my outburst. He looked at me calmly and said “Really, Professor Humphreys, it’s Christmas. There is no reason for you to get so upset about

Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.

Ho Ho Ho! Did I get you on that one? Or did you notice that all the character names in my fictitious tale were from Cary Grant movies?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “A Shameful Christmas Memory”

  1. Sorry, no, you’ve fooled me before but now I’m on guard. This kind of thing can only work once or twice. “My club” indeed!

    1. Indeed, my mental reaction to the first paragraph was “Oh no.” Then I was looking for puns on Warriner.

  2. i have a comic strip for you dr. humphreys. it’s called “pearls before swine.” the punchlines aren’t all puns but many are. here’s one of my favorites–http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2009/06/14#.UrlgtfRDv4s

    i love this strip with a passion reserved to the pun aficionado.

  3. The joke works because the underlying situation is believable. Chess, like other games ans sports, has well-defined levels of skill, and the chance of a player of level n beating a player of level n+1 are small.

    Aerial combat has the same pattern. No challenger ever beat the American fighter guru John Boyd in simulated combat. A Christmassy story on the same lines – I can’t source it – comes from Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet and other Warsaw pact forces. Among the many refugees was a pilot trying to reach Austria with his family in a small unarmed plane of the Cessna or Piper type. The Migs caught up with him just before the border, and tried to force him to land. There the story would normally end. The “but” here is that the pilot was the world aerobatics champion. Even in an ordinary plane not designed for the stresses of competition aerobatics, he was easily able to outmanoeuvre his foes and reach safety. I would not have wanted to be a passenger.

  4. It’s an old punchline, but a shiny new setup … which I should have been looking for, but confess (to my shame, on Christmas Eve 2013) I was not. A swing and a miss for this reader. Happy new year!

  5. The way I heard the story about the Prague pilot was that he did evade the Migs, he landed across the border, left his plane, and started walking. Thanks to his small stature (about 140 cm), he was able to avoid being seen, but eventually, fearing that he would be caught, he sought refuge at a farmhouse where he might hide. He knocked on the door, and when the farmer asked him what he wanted he said, . . . . (but I’m sure Keith and others are way ahead of me here), “Can you cache a small Czech?”

    1. I’ve only heard about his retirement, and trip to America. Where along with his guide he was unfortunately attacked by a family of grizzlies while visiting Yellowstone National Park. Czech’s in the male said the ranger’s report.

    2. I heard that he went to a bar and become very drunk and rowdy. He was thrown out by the doorman, who was immediately arrested for bouncing a Czech.

  6. I’m glad my (seems like a) lifetime of reading journal articles has taught me to scroll ahead for the parts that look important, like those that are italicized. Once again, a great time saver.

  7. This time of year always – of course – makes me reflect on the king of kings. Born in a manger, revered by millions, his like will not come again.

    RIP, Seabiscuit.

  8. Argh. No, I did not see this one coming … despite the fact that I myself posted the “chess nuts boasting” line in the previous pun thread right here.

  9. I saw this one coming.

    The line is too well-known, and you have a nasty reputation for this sort of thing.

  10. Did I get you on that one?

    At first, but then I sensed you were playing a rare variation of the Ruy-Lopez opening known as the “Wry-Lopez”…

  11. I like to refer to the period when a certain former member of The Who was in his prime, musically peaking, as “Peak Townsend”.

  12. I suspected this was a set-up when you used the name Blandings, and it didn’t make sense that anyone active a few years ago would have written an analysis of a seven-decade old match between second-level chessmasters unless he was so old that he did it when it would have been topical – in which case you probably would have mentioned his great age. But the pun was worth the wait.

  13. I caught on when you used James Blandings and George Kerby in the same sentence. Only because Topper and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are among my favorite Cary Grant movies. Otherwise I would have read to the end without a clue. Well done sir.

  14. Don’t scare us like that! The very notion of you being bested in some kind of intellectual pursuit, much less having to admit it… impossible, of course, yet still horrifying to consider.

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