Not bad for a boring crack slum

Apparently Ottawa is not just drab, it’s also a crack den. I trust I will not be accused of mindless civic boosterism if I say things aren’t that bad in the Ottawa I inhabit, which is mostly pleasant, with excellent stores and ready access to the outdoors. Maybe it’s because I sometimes leave Parliament Hill and City Hall behind. By that very method I witnessed a singular success story last weekend, the Canadian Open Chess Championship, which followed the equally successful Canadian Youth Chess Championship held here the week before. Though not the largest Canadian Open ever, the 2007 event attracted a record 22 grandmasters including British former World Championship contender Nigel Short, who shared second place with four other players, including Canadian Thomas Krnan, the highest-finishing non-grandmaster. That’s cool. And there’s more. The Citizen’s own Peter Hum helped organize the open. Like a fool, he also decided to play in it then, quite unlike a fool, did so well he was in the elite top-40 game room on the last day. And thanks to a Canadian company’s wireless chess technology (see I could come home for lunch yet follow every twist and turn of Peter’s final game online. He seemed to be winning until, I’m sorry to say, time trouble caused his attempt to infiltrate on the h-file to go horribly wrong.

Now it may not be your habit personally to infiltrate on the h-file and perhaps you wouldn’t enjoy watching someone else attempt it. But isn’t the definition of a diverse, even vibrant city one where all sorts of people enjoy all sorts of different activities without pestering others? Plus the event was highly cosmopolitan, ending with Chinese grandmaster Bu Xiangzhi taking first prize with a top-board victory over a Russian-born Swiss grandmaster from Israel. Drab? Hardly. And the only crack I saw was in a pawn wall.

Isn’t chess dingy? I hear you cry. OK, it lacks the glamour of at least one other notorious obsession scorned by non-practitioners; this tournament’s $20,000 in prize money can’t match the millions golfers earn for what Chesterton, in a rare lapse in judgment, called an expensive way of playing marbles. But chess has come a long way in the decades since my meteoric rise to mediocrity at a Toronto club so seedy boxers would have refused to enter its premises, where bathing was considered an eccentricity and the tobacco smoke was so thick an archeologist could not have told you what colour the walls were originally painted, not that you’d have wanted to know anyway.

By contrast the 2007 open was at the Ottawa Marriott (one of the sponsors, along with this newspaper, and others listed at, in well-lit, stench-free surroundings with ready access to latte and cool digital clocks on loan from two chess federations. I thought I must be in the wrong place. But no. The organizers just did a really good job.

Such events don’t get as much publicity as they deserve in Ottawa. Nor do local martial arts, where I declare a small conflict of interest because having long since traded mediocrity at chess for mediocrity at karate, I train at a club that has produced a number of world champions, including my teachers Domenic and Fortunato Aversa. True, martial arts have too many federations, so their titles are not quite like winning the Stanley Cup. But let’s give our hometown heroes, and our home town, some credit.

There are a lot of good news stories here. There are also bad news stories and I firmly defend the press for having always considered “Sabre-tooth tiger outside village” a more useful front-page headline than “No sabre-tooth tiger outside village.” But it is also worth noting how often the bad news concerns government.

The litter might be our fault. But from policing to urban planning, Ottawa’s failures are overwhelmingly in the public sector, which couldn’t win a pawn ending with three protected passers (inside joke there). Its roads are even lousy places to cycle, though that doesn’t excuse the idiots zooming down sidewalks in ways I’d want the police to deal with if they weren’t so understaffed.

I think Ottawa’s major failures happen because too many Canadians, especially intellectuals, give politics too much attention but too little scrutiny. Many aspects of governance in the United States give me fits, but the core of Washington, D.C. is architecturally breathtaking and culturally dynamic in part because Americans keep a jaundiced eye on their public institutions. The core of Ottawa is drab, when not menacing, because we trust government to make it nice.

Still, for a boring crack slum, we play some pretty mean chess.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]