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Addicted to Chess

What makes it habit-forming? Is it dangerous to our youth? Why aren't there any women in this picture?



Two dozen kids piled out of the cars and into the church basement, sprung from confinement after our three-and-a-half-hour trip to Terre Haute. Within minutes, the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had covered every available surface with big green-and-white vinyl chessboards. It was 10 PM, and everyone had to be up at 6:30 the next morning for the state chess finals. But no one rested until our top seventh grader (rated 1458) had beaten all comers in an impromptu speed-chess tournament.

By a little after midnight, everyone had unrolled their sleeping bags and bedded down on the floor. The insults and pillow fights subsided; outside we could hear the weekend shouts and traffic. I found a side room with a carpet not quite thick enough to do mattress duty and fell into the kind of drowse in which you dream of being awake and from which you wake unrested.

Then through my doze I began to hear an occasional soft ticking from the main room. At first I rolled over and covered my ears; every strange place has its night noises. But this one persisted--a sound halfway between the click of dice and the drip of water, now and then punctuated by a rustle or half-whisper.

Finally, still semicomatose, I scooted out of the sleeping bag and peered through the vent in the bottom of the door. It was about 1:30 AM, and outside, in the big room, bathed in the gray light of the pop machine, half a dozen junior-high schoolers were sprawled on the floor around a chessboard. The plastic pieces collided in capture. Click. Click. No one said a word.

Is this fascination commendable--or vaguely sinister? Sooner or later, someone is bound to point out that chess, after all, is only a game.

"Then they don't know what they're talking about," says a grinning Albert Chow (2418), who at 24 is one of Illinois' half dozen strongest players, and its only full-time professional player. "But I'd like to enlighten them. That's like saying, 'It's only music. It's only sounds.' I wouldn't want to criticize someone else's way of expressing themselves that way."

A composer makes music out of sounds by arranging them so it seems they had to be just so. Instead of a randomly twanging string, you have the theme from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (or, if you prefer, from Chariots of Fire). Instead of arbitrary blobs of paint, you have Monet's Houses of Parliament. Instead of etaoin shrdlu, "Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root . . ."

Likewise, instead of a scatter of tokens on a 64-square board, you have "Nf3 Nf6, c4 g6, Nc3 Bg7 . . ." leading to Bobby Fischer's immortal queen sacrifice on the 17th move of his 1956 "Game of the Century." "If music is the art associated with the science of acoustics," says former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, "then chess is the art associated with the science of logic." Every game moves from a symmetrical and equal opening position--pure possibility--to a conclusion of ironclad necessity, with one king hunted and trapped by its opponents.

An artistic game requires two well-matched, antagonistic creators. Even so, later generations of players may seek to refine their creations. Chess masters often refer to "a new move"--meaning not that the rules have changed, allowing pawns to go backward--but that someone now believes (for instance) that white's ninth move in a given game can be improved upon. It's somewhat as if a symphony orchestra played a composition over and over, trying subtly different notes each time.

It may seem strange to describe a knock-down drag-out fight as "art," but not if you know the language. Once mastered, this odd tongue turns out to be more nuanced and personal than chess's arid intellectual reputation would suggest. In the opening few moves alone, no experienced player can mistake the pugnacious challenge of Alekhine's Defense (e4 Nf6) for the cool, conservative Caro-Kann (e4 c6). The swashbuckling King's Gambit (e4 e5, f4) contrasts vividly with the prim maneuvering of the Indian defenses (d4 Nf6, c4), the playful bounce of the Orangutan (b4 e5, Bb2), or the calculated sneer of the Saint George (e4 a6).

"I think the way people play tells you a little bit about their personalities," says Chow (although not all masters agree with him). "Dr. Eugene Martinovsky" (2451)--a perennial rival of Chow's at the pinnacle of Chicagoland chess, and a professional psychiatrist--"you can see from his play that he's refined, not rash, in control. Also, he's super-dangerous to play against because of his knowledge of human beings." On the other hand, Ben Finegold (2457), a 19-year-old player Chow encountered in a recent tournament, "is very hyper, always talking. He comes up and asks me lots of questions and leaves me no time to answer. His game is also like that--he throws a lot of stuff at you, and you wonder what he means, but you can't take it for granted." On the other hand, Chow's own shoulder-length black hair and all-black clothing, while unusual for a chess player, is not reflected in any particularly outlandish play over the board.

"I consider chess one of the international languages," says Jules Stein, 72-year-old graphic artist and proprietor of the Chicago Chess Center, the only place in town where you can be sure of finding a game any evening and a tournament almost every weekend. "I've had guys come in here who spoke German, Hebrew, French, Spanish. The one language they all speak is chess." Chess-as-communication is Chow's rationale for refusing to play against computers (except for practice). He doesn't think there's anyone there to communicate with. "I enjoy playing a human being--the exchange of ideas. But a computer is like a streetlight turning from red to yellow. I don't think it's fair to enter them in tournaments. It's like entering a calculator in a math contest.

"When I was 12 years old, there were established businessman types who would respect me on a certain level because on the chessboard I was communicating with them almost as an equal. You both start off equal, the same pieces, the same squares. There should be more things like that."

Another player, another time:

"I don't like Fischer's games. They're too classical. I like baroque positions. To me, an ideal game is one in which both players have made 20 moves and haven't exchanged any pieces yet. I like complications."

"So . . . you prefer Faulkner to Hemingway?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"My dad was the chess champion of Westphalia, Germany," says Fred Gruenberg (1698). "He taught me when I was six. The first time I beat him, I was 21. The board was balanced up on a ladder where he was painting the side of a building. When I won, he was pissed. He knocked the ladder down and chased me around the building. He claimed it was because he'd been painting. But then I beat him again."

Gruenberg is now a successful businessman (Rae Products and Chemicals on South Western) and a popular chess organizer known for "making chess fun" and including freebies in his tournaments. (For the 1989 U.S. Open, scheduled for Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the founding here of the U.S. Chess Federation, he expects to offer "free breakfast for every player every day--not just rolls, but a sit-down gourmet breakfast.") "It's a beautiful game," he says. "It's the only game that is not 90 percent, or 95 percent, but all skill--not like backgammon or bridge.

"I know all the masters. I help them financially, and I make them play me one game a year. So I'm playing Igor Ivanov [2637] last year--he's the chess champion of Canada. He's standing up--he can beat me doing a thousand other things. I'm sitting down, playing hard. He moves all his pieces out--bishops, knights, the works--and then he moves them all back to where they started. He's only got the two pawns out. I say, 'Look, I'm winning.' He says, 'Uh huh.' And eight moves later he has me in a forced mate.

"Oh, but wait--I forgot the best part of the story. After the third move, he looks down and says, 'You're going to play the same shit you did last year?' I say, 'Huh?' I don't even remember what I played in our last game. But he does. That's how good these guys are."

"The best games," says Albert Chow, "are when you are controlling your opponent's pieces. He tries to do something else, but he has to go where you want him to go."

Artistry may come later, but what gets people started in chess is the prospect of ritual combat--the chance to control, to win. A win proves something since your opponent can't claim to have drawn a bad hand or rolled nothing but snake eyes.

Like all games, chess is an abstraction from life--seemingly clearer, purer, and more fair than the real world. No wonder it's most popular in schools and prisons, places whose inmates want to prove something, escape from their surroundings, or just pass the time. You may outmaneuver a wily opponent in office politics only to have him or her return to the fray next week; you may replace a leaky pipe and have it start dripping again tomorrow. But once you understand the principle involved, with a rook and a king you can always finish off an opponent's lone king. There are no evasions. "On the chessboard," said former world champion Emanuel Lasker, "lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."

Chess ratings offer a similar appeal. Calculated from players' wins, losses, and draws in officially sanctioned tournament games, they range from the abysmal 500 to the current top, world champion Gary Kasparov's 2750. Not unlike SAT scores, they provide a semblance of precise measurement. It could take years to get to know a person, but if you know that person's rating, you know a great deal about him or her as a chess player.

However, neither the rating system nor the game itself can live up to these expectations: a rating of 1539, for instance, really means "somewhere between 1489 and 1589, unless you've improved or gotten worse." And while nothing is hidden or left to chance on the chessboard, you or your opponent may be sick, discouraged, hurried, or simply blind to the obvious.

Arpad Elo, the venerable Milwaukee physics professor who devised the current rating system, points out in his book The Rating of Chessplayers: Past and Present that these seemingly univocal numbers "are measuring a quantity undergoing continual change from day to day, even from game to game, in both a random and possibly a systematic fashion. Furthermore, this measurement is just a comparison to the performances of the opponents, which are also changing in these manners. The process may be compared to using a meter stick waving in the wind to measure the position of a cork bobbing on the surface of waving water."

Even with these imperfections, chess remains a seductive abstraction. "You can let it become time-consuming," chuckles veteran Chicago player and organizer Richard Verber (2376), who put together last month's enormous National Open in Chicago. "Your wife divorces you, you're fired from your job, you spend 60 hours a week studying it," and there is always more to learn in its infinitely receding depths. Albert Chow says, "It's not the kind of thing I get bored with because I've learned all the possibilities."

The game also gets a kind of reverse endorsement from its ardent critics. Alexander Cockburn's Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death portrays it as "a process of suicide; a mime of despair." "Chess is par excellence the pastime of a disinherited ruling class that continues to crave political dominion but has seen it usurped. Just as, in psychoanalytic terms, chess is a way of sublimating Oedipal conflicts, so, in social terms, it is a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by the player over his pieces is consolation for lost power." Who would lavish such denunciatory attention on checkers or canasta?

In theory, chess and ticktacktoe belong to the same family of games: those with a finite number of possibilities. But while there are at most 256 possible games of ticktacktoe, the number of possible games of chess has been estimated at 25 x 10 115--a figure that, as Brad Leithauser pointed out in the New Yorker last year, "vastly exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe."

More than 30 years ago--shortly before his brief reign as world chess champion--Mikhail Tal was playing for the championship of the Soviet Union. One night, he adjourned a difficult game and went for a stroll around Moscow with his date. A policeman caught them jaywalking, discovered that Tal had left his internal passport at the hotel, and took them to a Soviet police station. There the lieutenant on duty was passing the time studying--a chessboard. "Tal glanced at the board," writes Soviet journalist Viktor Vasiliev, "and couldn't suppress a smile. The police officer was analyzing the adjourned game . . . Obviously the adjourned position had been dictated in the evening sports bulletin on the radio." Tal and the officer worked over the position until 7 AM.

It's a long way from Moscow to the Holiday Inn O'Hare, I'm thinking on March 18, as my daughter (1516) and I (1539) pull off the Kennedy and drive down River Road to the National Open Chess Tournament. No Chicago sportscaster has mentioned chess recently, although those in the know have been abuzz for weeks with the news that Tal will make his first U.S. appearance here.

At $60 a head--the price for six chess games in three days--what are we doing here? It's not for glory: only a few of the topmost players will sit across the board from Tal. (Chicago's highest rated player, James Rizzitano [2573], will in fact succeed in holding the ex-world champion to a draw.) It's not for money: the top prize in our section is $1,000, but we have no realistic hope of that. It's partly for companionship, a chance to greet friendly adversaries we've met in smaller and cheaper local tournaments.

More than anything, I suppose, it's a test. Am I improving? Did I study enough--and the right stuff? Few players have come here without studying. The enormous technical literature of chess--most of which seems to be on sale outside the tournament playing hall--includes books on openings, middlegames, endgames, tactics, strategy, positional play, pitfalls, traps, swindles, and sacrifices. Still, the best way to study is the oldest: follow the moves of a game, yours or someone else's, and try to pick out the logic. Why this move and not another? Why not take that pawn? Would it work to go on the attack here?

National Open organizer Richard Verber will be happy if enough players show up (and they do; 709 entrants make this the largest Chicago chess tournament in 15 years). We players will be happy only if we succeed in enough of our games.

What am I doing here? I get a glimpse of the answer while wandering around waiting for the first round to start. Two men are playing "blitz chess," in which each player's turns must add up to no more than five minutes on the clock. (A chess clock has two faces and two buttons on top, so each player can start the other's time running after making his or her own move.) I stop to watch this fast-forward version of the game. One player is making routine moves: "pushing wood." His opponent, though, obviously has a plan. First one piece, then another, threatens the same key pawn in the opposing position; one piece captures it and is captured in return by another pawn. Then the attack resumes against the new pawn. Move, punch; move, punch; the objective of the attack seems to shift but really remains the same. I can see the pieces moving, black and white plastic on green and white squares--but for one brief, speeded-up moment I see the serene, irresistible logic driving them. I can look right through them into the mind of someone I don't know and will never see again.

"A lot of lawyers in my firm are golfers," says 39-year-old Ken Marshall (1750), "and one is a marathon runner. They say, 'You just kind of sit there for hours?' And I say, 'You just run for hours?'

"When [former world champion] Boris Spassky stayed in our home, most of them recognized the name, but they didn't understand what it meant. I just said, 'Look, you're a golfer. What would it be like for you if Jack Nicklaus came to stay in your home?' Then they caught on."

For such an allegedly attractive muse, chess has seduced remarkably few. Of eleven and a half million Illinoisans, just 2,755 (that's .024 percent) are card-carrying members of the United States Chess Federation, and even that number hides at least a 25 percent annual turnover. The largest adult tournament ever held in Chicago was the 1973 U.S. Open organized by Richard Verber at the height of the "Fischer boom," which drew 777 players; his recent National Open here attracted 709. Even if (as Verber estimates) there are six or seven devoted players for every formal member, the numbers remain quite small.

This may be no great concern to average players, who can usually find each other. But it is a continuing bafflement to the evangelists of chess--organizers and top players who would like to earn a living from the game they love. "Anybody who understands the game knows it has great beauty and great interest," says Jules Stein. "Those who don't understand it see a guy sitting for 20 minutes and then moving a pawn one square." Kevin Bachler (2116) recalls a Kafka story about a hunger artist. "His art is to starve himself, but nobody understands, and he finally decides to starve himself to death. I read it and I said, 'This is me! This is the story of the chess master!'"

In the 500 years since the rules of chess reached their current form, the game has moved from an aristocratic pastime to intellectual cult to minor mass sport. Current hopeful thinking in pro circles is that chess may be about where golf and tennis were just before they took off commercially. ("Until the late 60s and early 70s," says Ken Marshall, "it was tough to find a tennis partner and easy to find a court.") But there are deep differences of opinion as to how the game could move from its current obscurity to a position where Pepsi would seek an endorsement from top U.S. player Yasser Seirawan (2678).

There's the trickle-up school, which holds that teaching and promoting chess in the schools ("scholastic chess") will eventually produce a critical mass of enthusiastic players. The catch, as USCF president and scholastic-chess advocate Harold Winston of Naperville observes, is that "a lot of kids learn the game as kids, play it, and never connect with organized chess afterwards."

There's the trickle-down school, which holds that the key is providing more big-money events at which chess masters can play each other for substantial prizes ("master chess"). Ken Marshall: "The golfer who finishes 87th in the Bob Hope Desert Classic--some guy you never heard of--gets almost as much money as the best chess player in the country. You can't expect talented young people to stay with the game on a professional basis that way."

And there are the synthesizers, like Verber, who says, "Scholastic chess and grand-master stars are the perfect mix to attract media attention."

There are those who say the game itself is the problem--not that it's too hard; anyone can learn the moves quickly, and then it's just a matter of finding a roughly equal opponent--but that it's too slow.

One perhaps apocryphal story has two gentlemen meeting each evening and sitting for several hours over the same game, without any conversation and without any action on the board. Finally, after a week, one bursts out in exasperation, "Aren't you going to move?"

"Move?" replies the other. "It's your move!"

Organized chess's latest attempt to break this stereotype is "Action Chess," in which each player gets just 30 minutes to play his or her game. The results can be officially rated just as are the usually longer games played in weekend tournaments.

The idea is for Action Chess to draw in people who don't enjoy spending all day at the board. Many established players, like Albert Chow, are dubious ("I like the idea of thinking ahead, instead of just making a move and seeing how it works out"), but Jules Stein likes the timing of Action Chess: "In some cases, the more time you get, the more time you take. It doesn't necessarily mean you play better. There's a similar thing in drawing: sometimes in fast sketches you can get something you don't get in the larger ones."

Despite some misgivings, Chow concludes, "Anything that makes chess popular is good." Not all players share his generosity of spirit, as Morris Giles (2449) learned. "Chess could become popular," speculated Giles, a computer programmer at Sears, "but the chess community would first have to be open to being popular. Strong players have survived by themselves. They don't need to be popular." Giles says he began taking the game less seriously about ten years ago, when he traveled around the country and found that "a lot of people on both coasts were very arrogant. It was not as friendly an environment as I'd hoped." It still isn't, since Verber finds it necessary to say things like, "I have a lot of friends who are [rated] 1300 or 1400, and they are just as wonderful human beings as people rated 1200 or 1300 points higher." He hopes to fuel a Chicago "chess renaissance" by establishing a combined chess club and bookstore with a welcoming atmosphere.

And finally, there are those who doubt chess will ever be as big as golf or tennis. USCF policy board member Helen Warren of Western Springs organized an Action Chess event in January. Though it drew an unexpectedly large field of 112 players ("some of whom hadn't played in a tournament for years"), these were returning apostates, not converts. Warren, most of whose organizing focuses on master chess, does not expect a lot of converts anytime soon.

"Americans are notoriously lazy. Their idea of recreation is not recreation but escape, and chess is too hard an escape. For the same reason, Americans are not concertgoers and give less support to the arts. Our culture is an Andy Warhol culture. Some things can be done to popularize the game, but for a breakthrough you're talking about a real cultural shock."

"I remember going to high school matches when I was starting out," says Vivian Schmucker (1754). "I'd be beating a guy, and his friends would come by and say, 'Oh, are you letting a girl beat you?'"

As both a frequent player and chair of USCF's Women's Chess committee, Schmucker often tries to fathom the reason why the chess world so resembles a stag party. Women make up at most 5 percent of USCF membership, and a smaller proportion of active players--fewer than 20 of the 709 National Open entrants. Unlike physical sports, there seems to be no biological reason women can't compete on an equal footing. But they don't usually want to: "My girlfriend Mara's told me she doesn't like to beat people," says Albert Chow. "She feels sorry for them when they lose."

Schmucker suspects that math, engineering, and chess are alike in this respect--our culture still encourages girls less at an early age, and as the chess crowd becomes gradually more overwhelmingly male, fewer and fewer girls are likely to care to enter. And so when they grow up, "Few women play chess because few women play chess."

This may be changing as cultural sexism subsides (if it does), and as organizers tax their ingenuity. Some start separate school clubs for boys and girls; some tournaments offer separate prizes for women, and there are a few women-only tournaments. And if the media catch up with star players like Hungary's Zsuzsa Polgar (2502) and U.S. women's champion Anna Achsharumova (2498), girls may have someone besides Bobby Fischer, a known misogynist, to emulate. Says Schmucker, who is often the only female entrant in weekend Chicago Chess Center events, "I wish there had been role models like that when I was starting out."

Once you get the knack, checkmating a lone king with two rooks is as easy as tying your shoes. But time and again, I've watched a nine-year-old chase the king down the board, then let it escape at the crucial moment. This basic exercise taxes her powers of attention just as severely as a four-hour game does mine.

Does chess make kids smart? There is no clear-cut evidence (USCF plans to request $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Education this spring for a study), but at the beginning level it at least offers a powerful incentive to concentrate on one thing longer than you otherwise would. "Our culture focuses on too short an attention span," says USCF assistant director Vincent McCambridge (2576), and he believes chess offers a good antidote to Pee-wee's Playhouse. At higher levels, where already accomplished high schoolers refine their pattern-recognition skills and memorize opening sequences, it may be harder to find benefits transferable to other subjects.

But at least one local institution of higher learning thinks there are some. Shimer College (enrollment 100, tuition $7,550) in Waukegan is offering two scholarships of up to $2,000 each to members of the class entering this fall, depending on chess and academic potential, says recent alumnus Kevin Bachler. The scholarships reflect the school's openness to offbeat ideas. Bachler says he thought about writing his senior thesis on "a collection of my games from the point of view of what it meant to me to be a chess artist." Other schools, he says, wouldn't even consider such a topic.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that chess makes kids narrow or worse--the best-known case being child prodigy Bobby ("All I ever want to do is play chess") Fischer, who won the world title in 1972 at age 29 and then three years later forfeited it for a paranoid existence in a far-right fundamentalist cult. "One reason I stopped playing tournament chess," says Chicagoan Pat Graham, "is that it seemed like all my leisure time was being used to play. Studying chess four, five, six hours a day was something I really wanted to do. I was losing weight and losing sleep"--he claims to have lost seven pounds in one day of tournament play--"but it was almost painless. It had this terrific hook, and it still does, but there are so many other things I like. I just don't let it hook me as much."

That hook has to be even stronger for those within shooting distance of the world championship, like current U.S. cochampion Joel Benjamin (2676), now in his early twenties. Ken Marshall is well acquainted with Benjamin and says he doesn't fit the Fischer stereotype. "He has a degree in history from Yale, he has a lot of interests outside chess." The question in Marshall's mind, however, is whether a well-rounded chess player can make it to the top of this semiprofessional sport. "It's kind of sad. He's a better human being because he's not just one-dimensional--but . . ."

"I've never regretted the decision to drop out of high school. Not yet," says Chicago's only full-time chess player. "But I don't recommend it to anybody."

Albert Chow left Lane Tech in the fall of 1981 in his senior year in order to turn pro. "A lot of people in my family didn't like it. But I was doing poorly, and when I saw people like Jeremy Silman [2471] I was so impressed and fascinated by what they could do. I wanted to be like that. That knowledge seemed so much more interesting to me than drafting and wood shop. I knew I could do those things if I wanted to, but I really felt I just wanted to play chess."

Chow says he's always made more from chess each year than the year before. Teaching (at $10 an hour) is his most dependable source of income, but he says too much teaching doesn't help his own game. Tournament wins are more lucrative but less dependable, and from time to time he has worked "real" jobs.

"I was a telemarketer. I sold Time over the phone, at Fullerton and Sheffield. I sold wine samples. Once I worked at a grill, flipping burgers. It was right next to Wrigley Field, and I hated it. After games there'd be lines of people, and they'd be rude and some were even drunk. But I wanted to see what it was like." He concluded he'd rather not have a boss. "I'd rather try to satisfy myself, set my own hours, go to the tournaments I want and dress as I want." For the last two years that's been his livelihood, although not a very substantial one.

Is a game less fun when it becomes a job? "In some ways. Let's say I need some money to pay a dental bill. When you get to the last round, it makes the game almost too serious."

Being one of the city's top players also takes some fun out of the game for Chow. "When I started studying full-time, my rating kept going up and I saw no reason it shouldn't keep going up. But it was really hard to break 2400. I thought I wasn't studying enough."

That had been his problem before. "I'd hit other plateaus. I was 1700 for a long time, 2100 a long time. In each case, I took long periods off and studied. It's hard, because you don't want to criticize yourself or admit your weaknesses, but you have to in order to get better."

But at 2400 Chow's problem was not only lack of study. A player gains few or no rating points for beating a lower-rated opponent; the quickest way to rise in the standings is to upset someone 100 points or more higher--and Chow has almost run out of such people in Chicago. "I enjoyed chess more when I wasn't the one everyone was trying to beat, when I had nothing to lose and more to gain."

If Chow moves away, that will be one big reason why. Chess, it seems, is even more bicoastal than the usual occasions of midwestern envy. There are 174 players in the U.S. rated 2400 or higher, the top one-half of one percent. Seventy-four of them live in New York or California--fewer than 20 in Chow's midwestern playing circuit.

"The real professionals travel all over the country, going to the big events. If you can just go anywhere you want, there's a big tournament every weekend"--ideal for earning prize money, for losing instructive games, and for pulling those essential upsets on the road to grand-masterdom. "But I don't have enough money to fly. I'd do it if I could."

Statistics show that players usually improve most during their teens. What about the alternative to riding the chess circuit? Has Chow considered hanging up his pawns?

"If four or five years from now I have the same rating, then I'm going to start considering serious alternatives, like going back to school. But I'm not discouraged easily. When I couldn't get better before, I still managed to find a way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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