Thursday, May 15, 2008

A cure for hiccups

Some time ago my girlfriend, much to my hidden amusement, developed hiccups. Much to my unhidden amusement, she announced that she was going to terminate them using the "eggbox technique". So, right there, in the middle of the kitchen, she closed her eyes, let her hand dangle in front of her as if it were about to pick up an imaginary egg, then picked up that imaginary egg and deposited it in an imaginary box.

She then picked up another imaginary egg and placed it in the imaginary space adjacent to the original imaginary egg, and so on until the imaginary box was full. After that she took the imaginary eggs, one by one, out of the imaginary box and started arranging them in a second imaginary box: until she stopped and announced that her hiccups had gone. Which, indeed, they had. I was impressed.

She thereupon proposed that the next time I develop hiccups, I might care to do the same. I might, I said - but then again, I might not. Because it's silly. But I wondered if instead, if I'm going to move my hand about in front of my face for long enough to distract a bout of hiccups, I might as well play a game of chess - which wouldn't be silly at all - rather than act as warehouse man for a couple of dozen non-existent eggs.

Why not? I shouldn't say so, but I've sometimes used chess as a cure - or not - for insomnia. I got the idea from Snoopy, who once sent himself to sleep by playing an imaginary round of golf at Pebble Beach: he fell asleep during the second hole. Some people count sheep: I've tried to play a game of chess in my head with the same idea in mind.

I never understood how counting sheep was supposed to work. I mean I understand the concept of sheep, and I think I've mastered counting - but I didn't understand why it was supposed to send you to sleep. Whether it was supposed to make you forget what was bothering you, or whether you would establish a rhythm that would lull you to sleep...I don't know.

Anyway, it doesn't seem to work: not the counting, not the chess. I usually start off e4, e5, knight f3, knight c6 and take myself through a Ruy Lopez...but either I lose track, half-asleep as I am, and forget what move I was on, or I run out of moves towards move twenty of a Breyer variation. Or I start running through a current correspondence game in my head, and that's the last chance for hours that I get of any sleep.

You can see how it might be a way to sleep, or be a aid to concentration, but not how it could be both. Clear your mind, then fill it with one thing: years ago, I learned a little transcendental meditation and when I think about it now, my mantra was supposed to do just that. I could, I suppose, try and meditate my way out of hiccups. But I still think I'd prefer to try a nice game of chess. If eggs can outlast hiccups then a game of chess might do the same.

Provided it's the right game, a logical game so one remembers how it goes, without having to recall any complicated tactics. Not too long to remember, but not too short either lest the resignation come before the hiccups have departed. A favourite game. A game I've seen many times before, making it easier to commit to memory and easier to recall.

I thought about it and came up with the sixth game of the Fischer-Spassky match from 1972. The one in which Fischer took the lead, the one in which he opened 1.c4 and played the first Queen's Gambit, as White, of his career. It doesn't hurt that I often begin with a flank opening move and transpose into the opening of the game: for this reason, the moves seem natural to me.

There are forty-one of them, or eighty-one half-moves: at the time, they took, as far as I know, five hours to play. How long should I make them last? As long as it takes, I suppose, but what would be the ideal balance between playing them too fast, and getting through the game before I have banished the hiccups - or on the other hand, leaving too big a space between the moves and thus risking the interruption, by hiccups or by anything else, of my concentration?

I'm not sure. I'll have to memorise it first: and practice. See how it goes. Shall I lay the pieces out before I start, or take them, too, just like the eggs, out of their imaginary box? Shall I walk, like an imaginary Fischer, onto an imaginary stage? And shall I punch, for both players, an imaginary clock?

Hand stretched out: let us begin. Fischer opened 1.c4: Spassky answered, 1...e6. Fischer played the king's knight, 2.Nf3: Spassky played the queen's pawn, 2...d5. Fischer likewise, 3.d4: Spassky also played his king's knight, 3...Nf6. And so it proceeds: like a mantra, like the progression of sheep, smoothly and logically, unbroken, without the irruption of thought or of hiccups.


Jonathan B said...

I couldn't sleep last night. Somebody call Jim Plaskett.

ejh said...

The last ilustration, by the way, is from Rob Scotton's superb Russell The Sheep. Possibly influenced by Daniel Kessler?

Tom Chivers said...

My girlfriend also has an unusual cure for hiccups (involving having another person push her ears whilst she downs a pint of water) which makes me wonder.

ejh said...

Did she learn that as a student, do you think?

Tom Chivers said...

Ha! I'll ask.

Jonathan B said...

What if nobody else is around? What does she do then?

Tom Chivers said...

Then, she hiccups.

ejh said...

But do the hiccups happen, if there is nobody else around to hear?