Tonight's GEEC dinner, despite being a great example of the pitfalls of remote collaboration as a meeting planning tool, was a great time. The pitfall: one GEEC with knowledge of Cambridge geography suggested a barbecue restaurant called Jake & Earl's, but none of the remote collaborators bothered to check whether the restaurant actually still exists under that name. Fortunately, there was a restaurant at the location where we thought Jake & Earl's would be, and though it had a different name, it did still includ much of the same barbecue menu. It appears to have simply morphed into a seafood restaurant that also does barbecue And all of the GEEC attendees managed to figure it out.
Disaster nearly struck me along the way, though. I decided to get an early start, and drive into Alewife Station, take the Red Line into Harvard Square, and then walk to the restaurant... a distance of about a mile, maybe a mile and a half. Traffic was light, so I decided to hang out in Harvard Square for a while. Harvard Square is one of my favorite places. If you've never been there, I think the best way to describe it is that it has it's own eccentric character and therefore it attracts eccentric characters. One example is a fellow who, on just about any given day with reasonable weather for the past twenty years, sits at one of the outdoor tables outside of the Au Bon Pain restaurant, with a sign taped to the table that says "Play the Chessmaster, $2." Rumor has it that he's technically not a "master" according to the way that works in the official world of tournament chess, but he's plenty good enough to easily beat most casual passers-by who take up the challenge. Perhaps the only reason that he may not be officially ranked as a master might be that he spends most of his time playing against inferior players who don't challenge his skills. In any case, he earns his living playing pick-up games for $2. He puts twice as much time on his opponent's timer as he puts on his own, to help even the odds, and if you beat him, you don't pay.
In all the hundreds of times over the past twenty years that I've been in Harvard Square, I've never stopped to play against the Harvard Square Chessmaster, but today I had ten minutes to kill. He sets the clocks to 3 minutes for him and 6 minutes for his opponent. His game was just ending. There was no one in line to play against him. So why not? I sat down.
I held my own for about five minutes, giving up a pawn early to gain just enough of an advantage in mobility for my pieces to keep him from being able to launch an early attack. As he slowly worked to improve his position, I managed to mostly pick the right moments for making defensive moves and the right moments for positioning my pieces to launch my own attack. My position wasn't improving much, but he was contained and time was on my side. Along the way, though, we didn't trade off any pieces, so the position we ended up in had a lot of pent-up complexity. Complexity was on his side. It proved to be too much for me to handle in a timed game. After a move that he made toward the flank, I got it into my head that I needed to fend off an attack on my queen-side pawns, and that by moving one of those pawns to fend off the attack it also looked like I could strengthen the attack I was slowly trying to build up in the center of the board where I had both my rooks and my queen positioned... but that's where I fell apart. I realized that the move I wanted to make would open me up to a special type of pawn capture called en passant that a lot of amateur players don't know about, and I figured that he might be reluctant to do that since he'd very likely have to interrupt the game to explain it to a lot of casual opponents. Thinking about that distracted me from considering any other moves. As I moved my pawn, I said "I do know en passant" to him, figuring that he'd appreciate knowing that no explanation would be necessary. He answered, "Ok, but that's kind of beside the point because that's not what I want to do". In my obsession with the pawn attack, I had totally missed the fact that he was also attacking my queen. Down she went, and he cleaned up quickly.
Losing the game wasn't the near disaster. It was expected. I'm a pretty bad chess player by comparison to anyone who is even close to master rank. I did play a game to a draw against a chessmaster earlier this year, but that was really the one and only time I've ever played well against an opponent that good, and the game wasn't timed. Master players have a much bigger advantage over average players in fast games than they do in slow games where the average player has time to double and triple check before actually making a move. He was well on his way to winning, but he got greedy and made a mistake. I actually got into a position where I could have tried to play for a win, but I was definitely not going to get greedy and when I saw an opportunity to force a draw by perpetual check, I took it. But really, I'm not a good chess player, and I did expect to lose the game today.
Anyhow, the disaster was that when the game against the Harvard Square Chessmaster was over, I got up from the table, and started walking to the restaurant... forgetting that I had put my camera bag down on the ground next to the table. I had walked more than half way to the restaurant before I noticed. I doubled back, and my camera bag was still exactly where I had left it. The chessmaster and the fellow who he was playing against had, in fact, just noticed it and were wondering who had left it there.
There wasn't time to walk to the restaurant after retrieving my camera, but Harvard Square is one of the easiest places in greater Boston to pick up a taxi, so I did manage to get to the right place on time. It did take me a few minutes to figure out that I really was in the right place though ;-)
Details of the actual dinner will be posted in the morning.
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