by Steve Lopez

Chess and food just don't mix.

Now I'm not talking about social games here. My friends and I eat barbecue wings and play chess all night long. We have just one rule: be sure to wipe the BBQ sauce from your fingers before handling the pieces.

But tournament chess -- that's a different story. Some players delight in using food as a distraction to their opponents. We always called such players "the candy wrapper guys". You know the ones -- the guys who go to the snack machine midway through a game (usually when they're in an inferior position), bring back some food in a plastic wrapper, and then make as much noise as humanly possible with the wrapper.

I remember one guy from the Virginia Chess Federation who was notorious for this stuff -- we'll call him "Donahue". This guy was an absolute fiend for snack cakes (and the messier the better). He'd always cut out for the snack machine at some point in the early middlegame and come back with some Hostess or Little Debbie goody. Then he'd "absentmindedly" finger the wrapper (always during his opponent's move) for about ten moves or so before loudly ripping open the bag (disturbing not just his opponent, but everyone in the room). Then Donahue would eat the snack cake with great relish, accompanied by lots of lip smacking. If the game was being played on his opponent's set, he'd make sure to wipe lots of gooey chocolate or creme filling on the pieces as he handled them.

Of course, distraction tactics are nothing new. Aron Nimzovich is well known for having said "The threat is stronger than the execution", but he didn't count on Milan Vidmar's spin on that saying. At a tournament with a strict "no smoking" policy, Vidmar took a cigar out of his pocket and laid it beside the chessboard in full sight of Nimzovich. Nimzo freaked out and ran to the arbiter to complain.

The arbiter was obviously baffled. "But how can this be a distraction? Your opponent isn't smoking."

"Of course not!" Nimzovich replied indignantly. "But he's threatening to smoke!"

One of the funniest things I ever saw at a chess event fell right along these same lines. One of my games finished early, and my wife and I were walking around the tournament hall looking over some of the games still in progress. We spotted Donahue playing a game against a Dutchman named Leeuwenhoek. I was greatly amused to see that Leeuwenhoek had an unlit pipe in his mouth, while Donahue had a pack of Twinkies on the table beside the board.

"Look!" I whispered, nudging my wife, "Leeuwenhoek's threatening to smoke!"

Without batting an eye, my wife shot back, "Yeah, but Donahue's threatening to snack." I had to slap my hand over my mouth and run from the tournament hall to keep from disturbing the players with my hysterics. I dang near died laughing once I got out into the corridor.

A couple of years later, I found myself playing in the "Tournament from Hell". One day I'll tell the complete story, but the main source of my misery was a little kid (about nine or ten years old) who was sent by Satan to torment the players in this event. He was a total pest for the entire day and (may God strike me dead if I'm making this up) he looked exactly like Howdy Doody. Had Buffalo Bob ever seen this kid, he'd have felt just like Geppetto after his wish had been granted: "My son is a real boy at last!"

Among this kid's many and varied offenses was the fact that he was a "candy wrapper guy". He always had one of those little packs of a half-dozen cheese crackers sitting next to the board during a game. The kid seldom actually ate the damn things -- he'd just sit there and fiddle with the wrapper throughout the whole game.

The last round finally came and Howdy was paired against my good friend Mike Gilbert. Howdy was even more zealous than usual with the cheese crackers -- he wasn't just fingering the pack, he was flapping it around like a 350-lb woman waving a fan on a ninety-five degree day. Everyone in the room was getting severely torqued at the racket. At some point in the middlegame, Howdy finally laid the pack down to think about his move. After moving a piece and striking the clock, his hand started back for the cracker pack lying beside the board. Mike saw his moment to strike. He stood up and slammed his open palm down like a piledriver right on the pack. BOOM! -- instant cheese cracker dust. I mean he pulverized them. All that was left was a powder that looked like freeze-dried chicken broth mix.

I saw the whole thing and almost gagged on my tongue, I was laughing so hard. The look on Howdy's face was priceless -- he looked like Clarabelle had just come along and cut his strings. His eyes bugged out, his mouth dropped open, and then he slumped down in his chair. Several players actually applauded Mike.

I'll tell the full story sometime (yes, there's more -- unfortunately), but the upshot is that there was an ugly scene with the kid's dad later, and the tournament organizer ended up banning Howdy from the site forever. And much of it was caused by a simple pack of crackers.

The weird part is that players who eat at the board are mainly hurting themselves, chessically. It's simple biology. After you eat, more blood goes to your stomach to help you digest what you've consumed. More blood to the stomach = less blood to the brain. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But some players think that eating at the board is a good thing. It's certainly bad manners, regardless, but if it hurts their play, I'll all for it.

I've never had too much trouble with the "candy wrapper guys". What they don't know is that I took a page from Botvinnik's book and trained myself to deal with noise at chess events. When I first got the idea, I started my "training" by playing chess at a local pub and always sitting as close as possible to the jukebox. The patrons of this particular watering hole were very partial to Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, and Judas Priest. If you can learn to play chess through that, you can play through anything. After a few evenings of this, I was able to completely tune out coughing, candy wrapper crinkling, whispering, and the other odd sounds you hear at typical weekend chess tournaments.

A couple of months after I started doing this, I had the chance to put it to the test at a tournament. It was a one day (Sunday) event and I was feeling a little peaked going into the last round (as I'd been "training" at the pub the night before -- wink, wink). The game's position ended up closed and very, um, "non-dynamic", so I actually fell asleep at the chessboard. My opponent (God bless him) chose that moment to pull a bologna sandwich out of his backpack, unwrapped the plastic (with much loud crinkling), and began eating it with much satisfied lip smacking. The noise didn't disturb my play, but it did disturb my sleep. Unbeknownst to the guy, he'd actually done me a favor. I woke up and was able to finish the game -- and anytime I'd start to nod off, he'd take another bite of ol' Oscar Meyer and start smacking his lips, instantly snapping me back to life.

As I said, chess and food generally don't mix. But if you're playing me, feel free to eat hearty -- just don't get any BBQ sauce on my pieces, please.

Until next week, bon appetit and have fun!

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