Thursday, September 26, 2019

My recent encounter with a rock star

These days, it's so difficult to get a sense of the kind of person somebody is. This is true of people in general, but I recently found out the hard way that it's even more true of famous people or celebrities.

But this is neither here nor there. Let me start from the beginning. A couple of months ago, I met this older gentleman in his 70s who had just moved here from Boulder, Colorado, in order to be closer to his two daughters in his retirement. It turns out that I actually know one of his daughters; she took my Intro to Philosophy class a couple of years ago. It also turns out that this gentleman is something of a celebrity, at least in rock-climbing circles. He's a retired rock climber who pioneered a number of rock-climbing techniques back in the 60s and 70s, and has written a number of books and articles on climbing. In 2013, he was inducted into the Boulder Sports Hall of Fame, and one city in Colorado (can't remember which one) named a day of the year after him (as in, " I thereby proclaim July 11th as "[insert name] Day"). One of his fans even proclaimed online that Modern American Climbing owes everything to this gentleman. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he is a legend and a star among rock-climbers in this country, possibly even internationally; in other words, he's a rock star (Ha! Got you with the title of this post, didn't I? 😛) I'm not going to mention him by name here; I don't want this post to show up on a search of his name. But I have dropped enough factoids here that you can probably identify him on a google search of your own if you so desire.

In addition to being a rock star, this gentleman is also something of a polymath: He's an award-winning song-writer, published poet, as well as a master-level chess player. If this doesn't prove the non-existence of God, I don't know what will: If a just and all-powerful God exists, how can He ever allow some people to have so much more than their fair share of gifts while others come into this world with bodies that barely allow them to live?

Anyway, it was in his capacity as a chess master that I got to know this gentleman. Soon after he moved to Pocatello, he started coming regularly to the local chess club and schooling all of us in the finer points of this beautiful game. I was happy to be schooled; I like learning by getting beaten. Generally, I found my games with him to be quite enlightening. He did have a rather annoying habit of breaking into poetry in the middle of a game; a habit which I found somewhat pretentious, but which I quickly brushed aside as a small prize to pay in return for learning from a master. Outside of chess games, he had a tendency to keep going on and on about his past accomplishments, which I also found annoying, especially in light of the fact that he is currently physically out of shape and suffers from some health problems, and is therefore in no position to replicate any of the physical feats of his youth. The disconnect between his accounts of his past exploits and his current physical form was pretty jarring, to say the least. But then again, I told myself, the man has done all these things and has clearly earned bragging rights, so who am I to judge? At least he's not a scammer or anything, right (see previous post for more details on this aspect of my life)?

Which brings me to the meat of my story. A few weeks ago, I suggested to him that he play in an upcoming chess tournament here in Pocatello. At first, he seemed open to the idea. He then asked me if he would need to renew his United States Chess Federation (USCF) membership in order to play. I said yes, and told him that the annual membership fee is around $50. He flipped out, and sent me a bunch of long emails complaining about how the USCF is a money-grubbing organization that just takes money from its members without doing anything for them. I didn't agree with him, but I decided that he is entitled to his own opinion, so I just acknowledged what he said, and I thought that was that.

But then a few days before the tournament, he sent a text to everyone in the chess club suggesting that we pitch in to help him pay the $50 so he could play in the tournament. As far as I know, nobody responded to his request, and he got even more pissed. He sent me another long email complaining about how people here in Pocatello are so "ambivalent" (whatever that means; I suspect that it's code for "heartless and uncaring"). He also told me that he actually could afford the $50, but he didn't want to pay, because he didn't want to give the money-grubbing USCF more money than he had already given them over the years. He said it's not a matter of money, it's the principle.

I responded by asking him: If you think that the USCF is gouging people with their membership fees and you don't want to pay the $50, what makes you think it's okay to ask other people to pay on your behalf? Aren't you basically asking other people to take the fall for you? How is this ethical?

I didn't think he would take my response well, and I was right. Earlier this week, he sent me another long ranting email in which he accused me of being arrogant and self-righteous. I responded with a brief email in which I politely repeated the same questions. He replied that he's actually a person of rock-solid integrity (no pun intended), and that I just didn't understand him.

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What's the takeaway from all this? Well, for starters, I think I'm done with responding to his emails; takes too much energy and time. I'm just going to ignore his emails from now on. I can't stop him from coming to chess club, so I'll probably have to continue seeing him and interacting with him on some minimal basis. But other than that, I plan to have as little to do with him as I possibly can. Who knows what other shenanigans he might try to pull? Maybe I'm being overly idealistic, but I really have trouble understanding how someone who has lived so long and done so much can fail to understand basic ethics. I mean, I think you would agree that not asking people to give money on your behalf to an organization that you think is a scam is basic-level moral decency. This is not rocket science, just normal human decency, right? Makes me wonder how many other celebrities or supposed legends/rock stars out there are also people who somehow managed to get through life without any basic ethical sense. 

Actually, I sometimes wonder if people who are so gifted may not be in some way blinded by their own gifts. Perhaps because of their gifts and some good fortune, things came to them really easily, so that, unlike ordinary folk like me, they never had to learn the value of being responsible and accountable to others around them. So in this way, perhaps, their gift became a kind of curse that prevented them from being human. Maybe, from their point of view, morals and ethics are only for mortals like me. Gods are beyond good and evil, and have no need of ethics, since whatever they desire simply appears before them quite naturally. But even gods eventually have to suffer the five marks of decay...

I see I'm getting a bit preachy here. Probably a sign that it's time to wrap up this post. I really have no idea how to end this post. What should I even say? Be careful of rock stars?

Friday, August 9, 2019

Yoga: The Ultimate Anti-Fraud Device (a.k.a. Fraud Alert: Don't Fall for This!)

Those of us who have been practicing yoga for a while will know that yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind (Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah). At crucial moments, this stilling of the mind can give us just enough space to reflect before doing something that might have disastrous consequences. In my case, this little space that the yoga practice gave me narrowly prevented me from becoming the victim of a fraud.

As with all good stories, we have to start from the beginning. A couple of days ago, I got an email from this gentleman I don't know, asking me if I could give chess lessons to his 8-year-old son. I was a little mystified; although I am known in some circles here in Pocatello as a decent chess player, I have never advertised myself as a chess coach. I asked him how he knew about me, and he said he got my email through a friend of his.

I was still a bit mystified: My US chess rating is not very high (1377, to be exact), and it seems to me that he would be getting a lot more value for his money if he were to find a higher-ranking player to teach his son. But then, I told myself, this out here is the boondocks, and believe it or not, I am actually the second-highest ranked active tournament player in Pocatello, probably because most of the people who live here are honest blue-collar folks who cannot be bothered with bourgeois pursuits like chess.

So I set my doubts aside, and agreed to give his son lessons twice a week, starting next week. I also decided to charge him the exorbitant price of $25 an hour. He agreed immediately, and said he would send me a check soon for $200 for 8 lessons. Wow, this guy sure has a lot of faith in me! He purportedly wants me to turn his son into a professional chess player, he has never even met me before, and he's willing to give me $200 upfront just like that. Note to non-chess-playing readers: In order to make it as a chess professional who teaches and plays chess for a living, one would have to be rated at least around 2400. I am highly doubtful that I will achieve this rating in my lifetime, at least not without some serious brain-enhancing surgery. And this guy wants me to help his son to get to that level. You see the disconnect here? But then I remembered that ancient advice about not staring a gift knight horse in the mouth. So I decided to just go along with it, and see how long I can fake it before he discovers what a poor chess player I really am, and fires me.

Little did I know that this gift horse would turn out to be a trojan horse.Yesterday afternoon, he sent me another email saying that he needs to mail me the check quickly because his attorney who handles all his affairs is going on vacation soon. Wow, not only does he have a lot of faith in me, he is also some kind of bigshot who is so busy that he doesn't even have time to write his own checks! I really must be moving up in the world, aren't I, if I am rubbing shoulders (or about to rub shoulders) with such high-value people? So I gave him my address, and I thought that was that.

Then this morning, when I was in the middle of Parsvakonasana B, I heard a knock on my door. I decided to ignore it and continue with my practice (full disclosure: I have this questionable policy of ignoring all and any interruptions I can ignore when doing my yoga practice. If somebody wants to get my attention during yoga practice, they would probably have to knock the door down!). Even so, my mind was a little jarred by the interruption, and it took me a few more poses before I could really settle back into the flow of second series. Well, at least he didn't knock when I was in the middle of getting into Kapotasana. That would have been really jarring to my nervous system.

After my practice, I noticed that somebody had sent me a text message. It was Mr Bigshot. He said that he had received confirmation that FedEx had delivered the check. I opened the door, and sure enough, there was an overnight FedEx package sitting at my doorstep. I opened the package, and in it was a check for $1700. WTF! I was only supposed to be paid $200. Even 8 lessons with a chess grandmaster is not worth that much money!

I looked at the text message again, and got the full story: Apparently, in his hurry to leave town for his vacation, his attorney had made a mistake, and had written a single check that covered both my chess teaching fee and the fee that he was going to pay his son's caregiver, when he should have written two separate checks instead (Personally, I think he should fire his attorney if he can't even write two separate checks...). So what Mr Bigshot wants me to do is to go to the bank, deposit the check, keep $200 for myself, withdraw the remaining $1500 in cash (yes, cash!), and mail it to the caregiver! If this doesn't ring any alarm bells yet, you seriously need to take a course in basic consumer protection. But there's more: I looked at the check again, and saw that instead of being issued by a law office or by Mr Bigshot, it came from some construction company in Washington state! I looked at the number that Mr. Bigshot is texting me from, and saw that it is a Chicago number (Area code 630, to be exact). Wow, this guy is really all over the place: He apparently lives in Chicago, owns a construction company in Washington state, and has a son and caregiver that lives in Pocatello, Idaho! Boy, am I moving up in the world!

I called the construction company, and spoke to their office manager. Turns out that the company is legit, but the check is written from a checking account that the company no longer uses. The office manager thanked me for alerting me to this fraudulent use of their account, and I texted them a picture of the check for their record-keeping purposes.

Needless to say, I did not go to the bank. Instead, I went to the police department to file a police report. The detective who took my statement congratulated me on my sharpness and presence of mind; according to him, this is a very common form of fake check scam, and many people have fallen for it in recent years. He also observed that many people fall for it because they just go ahead and deposit the check without verifying its authenticity. Banks are required by law to make funds available to customers as quickly as possible, so they would often clear a deposited check quickly, and agree to a customer's request to immediately cash a check. However, it normally takes the bank a few days to verify that the check is authentic and not fraudulent. By the time the bank does that, the scammer (in this case, this would be Mr Bigshit Bigshot if he had succeeded in scamming me) would have gotten the money, and would be enjoying a pina colada on a beach somewhere in Hawaii while the scammee (this would be me) would be stuck with having to pay the bank back for the bad check. Which meant that I would have ended up having to pay the bank $1500!

Anyway, I'm convinced that it was my yoga practice (specifically, the fact that I did not get out of Parsvakonasana B to answer the door) that gave me the presence of mind to pause before going to the bank, thereby saving me $1500! I may not be making any money from yoga, but it sure is saving me money!

I am writing this post because, having narrowly dodged the scammer's bullet, I see it as my duty to pay it forward, and inform all of you loyal readers (does anybody still read this blog?) about this danger that lurks out there in this impure world that we live in. I mean, seriously, what is the world coming to when even low-ranking chess players are being scammed? But then again, given the presence of our scammer-in-chief (you know who I am talking about), perhaps none of this should be surprising. But let me try to end this blog on a brighter note. Do you know that there is a song about both yoga and pina coladas? Enjoy!


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Are all Eastern Europeans and Russians good at chess?

Obviously not. But if I'm not mistaken, that general part of the world has the highest number of chess grandmasters per capita. So maybe, just maybe, I can be forgiven for assuming this.

Why am I even talking about this? Last night, I drove up to Idaho Falls (about 40 minutes from where I live) to play at the local chess club. My opponent was this late-30ish/early-40ish gentleman who spoke with a thick Eastern European/Russian accent, and whose name was Yuran; sounds Russian or Ukrainian to me, although I cannot be sure.

Anyway, I immediately assumed that since he is Eastern European or Russian, he must be a strong chess player who has come to the local chess club to assert his dominance over us puny Idahoans and teach us a thing or two about the royal game. Adding to this perception was the fact that he carried himself with a certain self-assurance in his body language. So I sat down and buckled down for a tough game.

I had the white pieces, and he played the Dutch Defense. Which made me even more apprehensive, since the Dutch requires quite a bit of daring, panache, and careful study to pull off. After the first 6 or 7 moves, however, it became clear that he had no idea how to play that opening. His pawns were getting in the way of his pieces, which were in turn tied up in knots in his first two ranks. I quickly made short work of his army, and sent his king to the gallows (i.e. checkmate, from the Persian Shah-mat, "the king is dead"). To his credit, he graciously accepted the loss, and we played a second game, which I won as well.

So what's the moral of this story? Not much, really. I had subscribed to a stereotype, and that stereotype led me to overrate the strength of my opponent.

To all of you haters out there who think that I am being shallow in subscribing to stereotypes, well, consider this: While stereotypes can often lead us astray in our judgments of people and things (like it did here in my case), it is nevertheless a fact of life that most people employ stereotypes as a representativeness heuristic: When you are in a situation where you have very limited information to go on and have to make quick decisions, there is a tendency to latch on to a handy mental tool to quickly process what limited information there is and come to a decision quickly. Sometimes, this leads to tragic consequences (think police shooting), sometimes less so (think chess game against Eastern European/Russian man). But it is a fact that people employ stereotypes in navigating through life.

As you can see, this post has nothing to do with yoga. But I don't have any other venue to write about my random musings on life. So I write about it here.