Armageddon

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In 1997 researchers rediscovered a 16th-century variant of Japanese chess called taikyoku shōgi, perhaps the largest and most challenging chesslike game ever devised. Played with 804 pieces of 209 types on a board of 1,296 squares, a single game might require a thousand moves played over several long sessions.

“The first difficulty lies in deciphering the minuscule characters identifying a nearly endless crowd of pieces,” write Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton in A World of Chess. “The players must have long arms, tiny fingers, microscopic vision and a huge memory.”

Only two sets of pieces have been restored, and the known rules sets disagree and have yet to be reconciled, but even Wikipedia’s summary of the rules reflects the jaw-dropping complexity of the game.

Table Talents

Born in 1870, George H. Sutton lost both arms below the elbows in a sawmill accident at age 8, but he rose to become one of the foremost billiards players in the nation. In reporting on a Brooklyn tournament in 1903, the New York Times wrote:

Sutton’s handicap in having lost both hands and forearms about three inches below the elbows, gave a novelty to the game, and the ease and rapidity with which he executed the difficult shots was astonishing. His strongest forte seemed to be in the hard massés and draw shots. In all his cue work, Sutton uses no artificial device, and the stick rests either upon the hollow of the left arm at the elbow, the ‘bridge,’ or table rail, the ‘bridge’ being supported by holding the handle on the right knee slightly elevated. The force of propulsion when shooting with one arm comes from the flexible muscles below the elbow joint at the stump of the arm.

He kept this up for 35 years. “Many armless men and women have learned by painstaking practice to make use of their feet for writing, piano-playing, etc.,” marveled Popular Science Monthly in 1918, “but there are probably no parallel instances on record where a man deprived of both arms has become an expert billiard-player by the use of his arm stumps.”

In 1930, he made a run of 3,000 points at straight billiards, which billiards author Robert Byrne calls “one of the most astounding records in any game or sport.” He died of a heart attack at age 68, still on tour.

A Wand’ring Minstrel

Gilbert and Sullivan gained fame around the world for their operettas. But where W.S. Gilbert could be impatient and irascible, Arthur Sullivan was full of lively good humor. Vernon Blackburn remembered a curious incident from his travels:

It so happened that I journeyed to Rome almost immediately after my hearing for the first time The Yeomen of the Guard. I was full of its melodies, full of its charm; and one night walking through the Piazza di Spagna, I was whistling the beautiful concerted piece, ‘Strange Adventure,’ whistling it with absolutely no concern and just for the love of the music. A window was suddenly opened and a little face looked out in the moonlight, while a thin voice exclaimed in apparent seriousness: ‘Who’s that whistling my music?’ I looked up with astonishment and with some awe, and told the gentleman that if he were Sir Arthur Sullivan it was his music that I was whistling; and, said I, I thought that the copyright did not extend to Italy. I remember how he convulsed with laughter somewhat to my discomfiture, and closed the window to shut out the chill of the night. I never dared at that period of life to make any call upon one whom I considered to be so far above the possibilities of intercourse.

In his 1908 memoir, baritone Rutland Barrington remembered: “There was invariably enormous competition for seats at the Savoy premieres, and it was difficult to find room for all friends. On one occasion a great personal friend of Sullivan’s, Mr Reuben Sassoon, had applied too late, and backed his application with a piteous appeal to Sullivan for help. He at once said to Carte, ‘If he’ll change the first letter of his name, I’ll give him a seat in the orchestra.'”

Do Your Best

Rules of the ill-understood East Anglian pub sport known as dwile flonking:

A “jobanowl,” or referee, is chosen (preferably a “dull-witted person”), and the two teams toss a sugar beet to decide who flonks first. The jobanowl begins play by shouting, “Here y’go t’gither!”

The flonker stands in the center with the “driveller,” a three-foot hazel pole topped with a dwile, or cloth. While the opposing team joins hands and dances in a circle around the flonker (“girting”), the flonker spins in the opposite direction and, at a chosen moment, flonks the dwile at them. He scores 3 points for a “wanton” (a direct hit on a girter’s head), 2 for a “morther” (a hit to the body), and 1 for a “ripper” (a hit to the leg). 1 point is deducted from either team for each person who remains sober at the end of the game.

If the dwile hits no one (known as a “swadge”), the girters (well, the opponents, who have now ceased girting) pass the dwile from hand to hand chanting “pot pot pot” while the flonker drinks from an ale-filled chamber pot.

The game ends when each team has had a chance at flonking the dwile (an interval known as a “snurd”). During play the jobanowl can choose to change the direction of the girters and can order any player to drink who is judged not to be taking the game seriously enough.

The Lewes Arms sponsors an annual match between its regulars and the thespians of the Lewes Operatic Society. “The rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested.”

Three Predictions

In Season 8, Episode 7 of Penn & Teller’s magic competition show Fool Us, magician Hans Petter Secker appears to predict the outcome of three successive rounds of rock-paper-scissors, though Secker oversees the game remotely from Norway and the players are invited to exchange items before each round. How is this accomplished?

Click for Answer

Out, Out!

In 1990, University of Houston English professor Earl Dachslager wrote to the New York Times “to settle once and for all the debate over the first references in print to the game of baseball.” He had found 11 in Shakespeare:

  • “And so I shall catch the fly” (Henry V, Act V, Scene ii).
  • “I’ll catch it ere it come to ground” (Macbeth, III, v).
  • “A hit, a very palpable hit” (Hamlet, V, ii).
  • “You may go walk” (The Taming of the Shrew, II, i).
  • “Strike!” (Richard III, I, iv).
  • “For this relief much thanks” (Hamlet, I, i).
  • “You have scarce time to steal” (Henry VIII, III, ii).
  • “O hateful error” (Julius Caesar, V, i).
  • “Run, run, O run!” (King Lear, V, iii).
  • “My arm is sore” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, v).
  • “I have no joy in this contract” (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii).

“I trust that the question of who first wrote about baseball is now finally settled.”

The President’s Mystery

Franklin Roosevelt was a voracious reader of crime novels. “Hundreds are published every year, but even in the good ones, there is a sameness,” he complained over lunch to Liberty Magazine editor Fulton Oursler one day in 1935. “Someone finds the corpse, and then the detective tracks down the murderer.”

Oursler asked him whether he had any better ideas. He did: “How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own money in negotiable form and not be traced?” Roosevelt said he had carried that question in his mind for years but had not solved it himself.

The editor knew a marketable idea when he heard one, and he recruited six of the period’s top mystery writers to work on a chain novel that appeared serially in the magazine beginning that November. (The writers were Rupert Hughes, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Anthony Abbott, Rita Weiman, S.S. Van Dine, and John Erskine.)

A year later the story was made into a film, above, with the memorable credit “Story Conceived by Franklin D. Roosevelt.” FDR remains the only president to earn a film-writing credit while in office.

A Feathered Nest

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Characterizations of Scrooge McDuck’s wealth in the drawn stories of creator Carl Barks:

  • 250 umptillion fabulatillion dollars
  • 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.16 dollars
  • Fantasticatrillionaire
  • Five billion quadruplatillion umtuplatillion multuplatillion fantasticatillion centrifugalillion dollars and sixteen cents
  • Five billion quintuplatillion umptuplatillion multuplatillion impossibidillion and so forth dollars and extra odd cents
  • Five hundred triplicatillion multipludillion quadruplicatillion centrifugalillion dollars and sixteen cents
  • Hyperfantasticatillionaire
  • Nine fantasticatillion, four billionjillion, centrifugalillion dollars and sixteen cents
  • Nine hundred fantasticatillion, seven hundred doubledecadecillion, eight hundred kumquatmafrillion …
  • One quadrillion amplifatillion dollars
  • One umptillion uncountabalillions of dollars
  • Seven hundred and eighty-eight billion, four hundred and twenty-three million seventeen dollars and sixteen cents
  • Ten skyrillion dollars
  • Three cubic acres
  • Three skyrillion dollars

In Forbes‘ estimation, McDuck’s wealth rose from $28.8 billion in 2007 to $44.1 billion in 2011 due to a rise in gold prices, but his total worth is notoriously hard to estimate. The famous money bin, he once told his nephews, is “just petty cash.”

The Wilcoxon Speech

The war drama Mrs. Miniver dominated the box office in 1942 and won six Oscars, but it’s remembered today chiefly for its final scene, in which a town vicar gives an inspiring speech in a bombed church, exhorting his flock to “free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.”

The film was made before America had formally entered the war, and director William Wyler had rewritten this speech repeatedly on the night before shooting, in hopes that it would sway public opinion. “I’m a warmonger,” he said simply. “I was deeply concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver obviously was a propaganda film.”

It succeeded beyond his hopes. Churchill claimed that the speech was “propaganda worth a hundred battleships,” and after a private screening at the White House, Franklin Roosevelt asked that it be translated into French, German, and Italian, broadcast throughout Europe on the Voice of America, and air-dropped in millions of leaflets into German-occupied territories.

Henry Wilcoxon, the actor who delivered the speech, must have had his own feelings about this — his only brother had been fatally injured at Dunkirk in 1940.

Playing to Type

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When we see Tom Hanks in a film, we think of him as a decent, honest everyman in part because we’ve seen him play decent, honest everymen in many other movies. Casting directors choose him in part for this reason — they know that the audience has established a sense of his persona from previous films, and that this affects their perception of him. We all know this; actors are hired deliberately to elicit these effects.

But a movie is fiction, and enjoying it requires restricting our attention to the fictional world in which it takes place. As experienced moviegoers, if we see the hero dangling from a cliff early in the film, we know that he’ll survive, but we repress this knowledge in order to enjoy the suspense that the filmmakers intend. We put our knowledge of movie lore on hold.

But isn’t this precisely the same sort of movie lore that we use when we let a star’s persona fill out the character he or she is playing?

“Why is it appropriate to put our knowledge of star personae to work when watching a movie, but not our knowledge of how popular plots go 99.9% of the time?” asks CUNY philosopher Noël Carroll. “Why is access to one kind of movie lore legitimate and access to the other kind not?”

(Noël Carroll, “The Problem With Movie Stars,” in his Minerva’s Night Out, 2013.)