Two Short Pop Pieces by Andrew Sacks

CHESS AND POKER

c/o chesshouse.com

I remember when, as a teenager, but already an experienced tournament chess player, I overheard someone say that a certain local chess master I was familiar with had not been playing in tournaments recently since he was now playing professional poker. I thought it strange, not to say somewhat heretical. Even treasonous. Poker? A gambling game? Abandoning chess, the premier game of logic and reasoning, the “Royal Game,” in order to pursue a living in the sometimes seedy word of casinos, card sharps, and Old West clichés? I was bewildered and immediately revised my opinion of the chess player significantly downward. 

I have learned much in the decades since. Not only have many strong chess players either given up the game entirely or simply taken a hiatus of a few years for professional poker playing, but a scrutiny of the skills and personal traits required for each endeavor provides a compelling argument that it may be, indeed, surprising that more chess masters have not taken that route.

At first glance, it seems that chess is a contest of pure skill and iron logic, and that any gambling card game must, inherently, incorporate so much luck that skill must play a small part and compare unfavorably with the Royal Game. But, in the final analysis, this turns out to be an oversimplified and naïve point of view.

There is no doubt that chess is, ultimately, a game of pure skill in terms of the board and pieces, the rules, and the moves made by each player; there is no element of chance, so to speak. But what are the personal qualities and entire skillset required of a master tournament player in addition to pure chess knowledge and acumen in choosing moves? They are numerous and essential.

Rated tournaments and serious chess matches each last hours, and a strict time limit is enforced. Decisions throughout the contest must be made with these factors, and others, in mind. Concentration, focus, time management, and stamina are all at a premium. Further, one is often playing a combatant familiar to the first party, and a knowledge of his or her strengths and weaknesses, preferred types of positions, and the like, may well be attendant factors in strategic decision-making. One may, even, at a key juncture, assay a move or combination of moves that one knows are not objectively the best, but should be most effective against this particular opponent, given his or predilections, the current time clock situation, tournament round considerations, etc. In other words, in these, as well as in other ways, psychology may well play a role, chess still being technically a game devoid of “luck.”

The principal variations of high-stakes poker require much the same set of skills and abilities in order for a player to be successful, despite the admitted element of luck. Intelligence, caginess, knowledge and use of practical psychology, focus and concentration, and discipline are all required.

It was not strange, after all, that the chess master in question took up poker and was successful at it, nor that many like him have, both before and after, followed suit.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT CULT MOVIES

The definition of a cult movie is as slippery as any eel. Around its boundaries are pure camp movies, hopelessly dated films, movies so bad they’re good, and the like. Authorities seem never to agree on one unambiguous definition of a cult classic. There will, apparently, always be fuzzy edges and movies argued for and against being categorized as genuine cult entries.

Yet there are certain films always mentioned right away when the discussion turns to the genre. Harold and Maude (1971) is perhaps the quintessential example. It is quirky in the extreme, funny as they come, and will always appeal to certain audiences and repel others. Indeed, the true cult classic speaks to a specific group of die-hard fans and leaves all others bewildered by the appeal, if not downright offended.

Although much could be said here about the glories of generally accepted cult classics like Reefer Madness, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Living Dead, and others almost all of us are now familiar with, my aim is to point out lesser known entries that should be more widely known by connoisseurs of the genre. These films may indeed have a small but devoted base of fans (as a true cult classic, by definition, must), but their circle of admirers should be much larger.

In 1966, many discovered King of Hearts, a French comedy-drama so singularly delightful and poignant that it attained almost instant cult classic status despite its poor showing at the box office (nearly always, by the way, a mark of the only later-appreciated cult classic). But much overlooked has been that year’s Morgan!, also known as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. See it and you will never look at either gorillas or communist symbols in quite the same way. Also, interestingly, it shares much of the same commentary on sanity versus insanity and on the ambiguities of what can rightly be classified as genuine true love that are found in the ever-fresh King of Hearts.

Almost completely unknown seems to be Liquid Sky (1982), and that is indeed a criminal oversight. This hard-to-find film features themes involving lesbianism and sexual ambiguity, matter-of-fact acceptance of hard drugs, and space aliens on a highly unusual mission. Now, you tell me: does that in itself not say enough? If it doesn’t, see it and you will soon be lobbying all your friends to follow suit.

In 1984 Repo Man came and went fast, but has since been elevated in most savvy circles to its valid place as genuine cult classic. But the next year Lust in the Dust was not as fortunate. It certainly made only the tiniest of splashes–standard for later cult appreciation–but where has that recognition been? This hilarious Western parody features faces we all know, actors who before played only in serious films, and we will forever applaud them for taking part in this riotous farce if we only give it the hour and a half of viewing it so richly deserves. The director, Paul Bartel, by the way, was already on the radar at that time because of his delicious black comedy of three years prior, Eating Raoul. In fact, all 11 of his variable-quality low-budget films are worth a look.

American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is another intriguing figure who has gained some fame but also tends to be underappreciated. His Stranger than Paradise (1984) can even be considered to have started the burst of American independent filmmaking that followed. This film, as well as his Down by Law two years later, must be savored by all true lovers of cult.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has likewise given us several delectable items—if we will only approach the table. His Turkish Delight (1973) and Spetters (1980) will provide a good introduction to his individualistic work and remind us that before he went mainstream with popular and profitable films like Robocop and Total Recall, his was a unique and quirky vision—to which he surprisingly returned in the deserved cult favorite Showgirls in 1995. Also, a review of early Verhoeven films, including The Fourth Man, will make many recast their views on the ultimate female film sex symbol as they discover Renee Soutendijk.

I’m tempted to run through many offerings by John Waters and Andy Warhol, but let those names simply be food for cultish thought, as nearly every film by the former, and arguably every single one by the latter, falls into the genre. For many of these, however, both a suitable sensibility for cult genre appreciation as well as a strong stomach may be required. Let the potential viewer beware.

Better should I close with a 1945 comedy that has been gathering dust for decades now, but will reward viewing with more, and more hearty, laughs than even the Marx Brothers or Mel Brooks can deliver in a typical film. It is Murder, He Says, and it could not have been more cleverly conceived or written, more well-cast, more eccentric–or more memorable. And after you see it, you will never forget: “Ain’t no jail that can hold Bonnie Fleagle.”

Somebody pass the popcorn.

XXXXXXX

“Two Stories by Andrew Sacks” was Andrew’s previous presentation for us.

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