Can Reality TV Tricks Make Chess a Hit?

My story for TNR about the dream of making chess into a spectator sport.

It’s an enduring frustration to chess fans and players alike that their favorite game is not, to put it mildly, a spectator sport. Apart from the rare, comet-like appearance of a figure like Bobby Fischer or the Mechanical Turk, the game has struggled to gain a lasting grip on the popular imagination. The crowds at matches are skimpy; chess columns in newspapers have mostly died off. World-championship matches make nary a blip on the mainstream media’s radar. As a public spectacle, chess now ranks well beneath poker, pool, and ping pong. Continue reading

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The TED Talk as Propaganda Vehicle

My favorite piece from another series I did for Global Post; this one’s titled “The Fight to Save Communism.”

HONG KONG –  Apparently the TED-talk format is so seductive that it can even make Leninism sound sexy.

In June at a TED talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, a flawlessly groomed venture capitalist named Eric X. Li stood before an elite Western audience. He spent 18 minutes defending China’s authoritarian political system, praising its “adaptability, meritocracy, and legitimacy,” and claiming its superiority, in several respects, to democracy.

“Winston Churchill once said that democracy is a terrible system except for all the rest,” he said. “Well, apparently he hadn’t heard of the Organization Department.” Continue reading

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The Rust Belt Victim Turned China Hand

Another in the Go East! series.

HONG KONG — An Ohio man born and raised, Doug Smith, 54, never expected to end up doing business in China. Throughout his 20s and 30s he worked for a variety of Midwestern manufacturers, overseeing the production of car parts and industrial tools. By the early 2000s, he had his own machine shop.

But then in 2002 a downturn came, and he, like thousands of American manufacturers over the last decade, had to shut it down.

It was a twist of fate that brought him to China. Shortly after his factory closed, a former client that made water pumps asked him to help them set up a plant in the Middle Kingdom. Without hesitating, he said yes.

“Before I came to China, I knew nothing about it and didn’t think about it,” he said. “I was just like any manufacturer and was fat, dumb and happy.” Continue reading

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Go East! Profiles of American Entrepreneurs in China

Part one of a five-part series for Global Post on the struggles and triumphs of Americans looking to make their fortune in the Middle Kingdom.

HONG KONG — For Richard Robinson, 46, there’s no question where the world’s most vibrant tech startup and entrepreneurial hub outside Silicon Valley is to be found — it’s in Beijing.

“There’s New York, Boston, LA, Boulder, Chicago all competing now, but really Beijing is number two behind Silicon Valley. There’s this huge ecosystem in place: large companies, lawyers, VCs [venture capitalists], startup organizations, conferences, universities. It’s unquestionably here, but people really don’t seem to process it.” Continue reading

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Asian Whisky Heats Up

My piece for United’s new business class in-flight magazine, Rhapsody.  Continue reading

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Blackwater on the High Seas

My story for New York Magazine online about the real legacy of Captain Phillips. 

Life has gotten a lot harder for Somali pirates since they kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips in 2009. Back then, Phillips’s vessel, the 14,000-ton Maersk Alabama, had a crew of twenty, but not a single gun onboard. Despite some courageous resistance by the crew, four Somali teenagers armed with nothing but AK-47s and a long ladder were able to board the ship and take Phillips captive. As everyone knows (and as depicted in Tom Hanks’s new movie, Captain Phillips), the captain ended up spending days in a lifeboat with the pirates until a team of Navy SEAL snipers killed his captors in a high-risk operation approved by the president.

Continue reading

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Searching for Luck in Hong Kong

My feature on luck and gambling in Hong Kong for Esquire.

I’m not a lucky rabbit-foot kind of guy. Warnings to jump sidewalk cracks, dodge ladders, and hold my breath while passing graveyards never found purchase here. I earned this skepticism the hard way: through childhood disappointment. When I was young, I had a little strategy where I would wish for a full minute every time the clock ticked past 4:44, 5:55, or (best of all) 11:11. I observed this ritual faithfully for several years. Eventually I realized it wasn’t going to work and, deflated, gave up. It turned out to be a good thing — otherwise I’d be working as a magician today — but still. Continue reading

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Why You Could Have Fallen for Scientology, Too

My review of a new book on Scientology by Lawrence Wright for Esquire.

The question at the heart of Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear, is obvious, yet seldom asked: Why would anyone in their right mind become a Scientologist? Some would say, “Nobody in their right mind does.” But I don’t think that’s quite fair, or accurate. Plenty of sane, accomplished, otherwise ordinary and intelligent people have at least dabbled in Scientology. Leonard Cohen did. So did Jerry Seinfeld. Even Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet legend, took courses. So what is the appeal? Why do reasonable people continue to tie themselves to a church with a reputation for ruthlessness? Continue reading

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Classical Music with Chinese Characteristics

My first story for WSJ’s Scene Asia.

In Europe and North America, classical music concerts are typically a subdued affair, with a half-empty sea of gray heads quietly suppressing coughs and clapping politely at the appropriate moments.

In China, things are, well, a bit different. Continue reading

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China’s France Fetish

My first freelance story for The New Republic.

Au revoir,” said the grocer.

“Au revoir,” said the man in chic little canvas shoes. He had a bottle of champagne under one arm, and a bottle of “C’est la vie” chardonnay sauvignon blanc in hand. One elbow cradled a three-foot baguette. With an artful little pirouette, he piloted his cargo out the door. Continue reading

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