Welcome to the second episode of Over the Board! This week I have the privilege of interviewing my good friend, one who I’ve lost MANY a game to, Michael Gladis. While most recognized for his performance as Paul Kinsey in Mad Men, Mike has also made appearances on Law and Order, House, Eagleheart, and many…MANY more shows. Mike has also showcased his acting skills on stage and in blockbusters such as K-19 and Terminator Genisys. In short, you have certainly seen him somewhere, even a chess catalog! As if that’s not enough, Mike makes time to play guitar, work on projects with his fiancée (actress Beth Behrs), and continue to play a damn good chess game! I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time and I’m happy to share it.
I know you started playing chess around the age of 5 or 6, but what passion came first, acting or chess?
Definitely Chess. I didn’t start acting until I was in High School.
I also learned how to play from my dad when I was about 6, I think that’s one of the reasons why I love the game so much. Your goal was initially to beat your dad at chess, which you did around 15 years old. Do you two still play from time to time or talk about the game?
Yes, we still play occasionally, either online or when I’m at home. He gave me a beautiful wooden board and set when I first beat him, and bought me a USCF membership, which he still renews for me to this day!
That’s and awesome dad! In an interview you said chess isn’t just a game but “THE game,” a sentiment our readers and I can’t agree enough with. What do you think makes chess so great?
One of the things I love about the game is that it’s a conversation in the abstract- a language of its own. Whenever I travel abroad I look for chess players- whether it be people playing on a large lawn-type chess set in Amsterdam, a little old man with a board in front of him at a café in Paris at 2am, or some guys playing in the bitter cold and snow while drinking vodka on Arbat Street in Moscow- It’s always so satisfying to play a few games with someone who comes from a completely different culture, who might not speak the same language as you, but after a few games of chess you can look up at each other and feel like you just had a genuine interaction- a conversation- a debate. There are arguments, rebuttals, and even jokes on the board. You get a sense of that person’s personality from their play. I love that.
I love that explanation! Maybe not as deep a topic as the unspoken language of chess, but would you mind telling the story of how you modeled for the Chess Life catalog?
One time at a party in college, I got to talking to a woman my friend had brought with her and asked her what she did. She replied that she was the head graphic designer for a magazine, and when I asked which one she replied, “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it.” I pressed, and she replied, “Chess Life.” Well, of course I flipped and start gushing about how much I love playing chess, and how my dad bought me my USCF membership when I first beat him, and how he still renews it to this day, and on and on and on… and she tells me that she sometimes pays some of the other actors in the Theater Department (like her friend who brought her to the party) to model for the Chess Life catalogue, and that it doesn’t pay much but if I’m interested she’d love to have me come down. Well, $100 bucks buys a lot of beer when you’re a poor college student, plus it was a chance to go check out the USCF headquarters (which was in Newburgh, NY back then).
So I arrive at the photo shoot (I did a few)- and I had a plan in mind. The pics in the USCF catalog of people at chess sets always bugged me because they looked SO phony- the “player” was always sitting ramrod straight at the board, with a goofy smile on their face, holding a chest piece just-so above the board with one hand, and it looked so fake. So I wanted to bring some veritas to the photo shoot- some gravitas, even! I wanted to be hunched over, face twisted into agonized concentration, fingers tearing out my hair, they wouldn’t let me smoke but I would have if they had- etc.
So the photo shoot goes on and I’m modeling a Chess tie or some bullsh*t, and finally they bring up the board. This is my chance! So I set up a position from a famous game (I don’t remember which one) just in case there are fellow nerds out there who might appreciate that, and I summon all of my young acting abilities and scrunch myself up into position, face twisting and hair pulling galore, and the photographer says, “Michael, could you straighten up a little bit? And smile? But not raise your eyebrows too much? And pick up a piece? And hold it up just a little bit? And slide your elbow over?” and SNAP! The picture’s taken and it’s the same bullsh*t photo that I had been trying to avoid taking. You gotta laugh.
There was one photo they took of me at a board with my friend Laura sitting on my lap- y’know, how chess players always play chess, and I heard later they had to pull it from future catalogs because people were complaining it was too risqué!
That graphic designer, Jamie, became a good friend, though. She was always very kind, and I got to play some GM’s at the USCF because of her. I once brought Arthur Bisguier a bottle of Dewar’s and he played me all afternoon. I don’t think I ever gave him anything resembling a challenge. Eventually he was spotting me a rook and still crushing me so badly it seemed like a magic trick. Jamie later gave me the board and the House Of Staunton set we played on that afternoon- I still have it to this day.
Outstanding! So, why do you think chess has stuck with you for so long?
I love it because it never gets boring, it’s always a challenge, and I’m just good enough to want to get better, but never nearly as good at it as I want to be.
You and I play chess on just about a daily basis and I know you’re quite busy with your career and plenty of travel, so how does chess fit into your daily routine?
I recently started using one of those apps that tracks your phone usage, and I’m pretty much spending most of my phone time either on chess.com or twitter. I’m gonna try to wean myself off of twitter, but I consider Chess to be calisthenics for my brain. I play a lot of 3 min blitz, and then usually have a few longer daily games going. I play like everyone else. If I’m in the waiting room of an audition, or the dentist, sitting on the couch watching TV and a commercial comes on, or (sorry) at a long red light, I’ll pick up the phone and make a move.
I have the same habit, you’re not alone. What does your fiancée think of your chess obsession? Does she play?
I think she thinks it’s a healthy mental exercise. It’s a better way to spend phone-time than social media or candy crush (which I’ve never played). I was really flattered to learn that when we first started dating she made a stab at learning the game, without telling me, in hopes of being able to play with me, but it didn’t take and she let it go.
That’s awesome! My wife picked up the game when she saw how passionate I was for it. It really meant a lot to me as well. Now, thanks to you’ve I’ve fallen in love with Yasser Seirawan’s Play Winning Chess; it’s pretty much become my Catcher in the Rye and the number one book I recommend to all players I talk to or work with. Are there any other books or content you would recommend for players looking to improve?
That’s the chess book I’ve recommended to (and bought for) SO many people looking to learn the game. Yasser’s writing style is so accessible, and so readable, and his love for the game is evident on every page- so I’d go on to recommend all the rest of his books in that series (Winning Chess Tactics, Winning Chess Strategies, etc.) How To Reassess Your Chess by Silman is another great book.
So you had the opportunity to play with and learn from the renowned hustler “Russian Paul” in Washington Sq, NYC. What was that experience like and how do you think learning the game from a player of that caliber effects your own playing style?
I played with Paul every day in the summer of 2001, just after shooting my first big Hollywood film- so I had money and time. I’d make my way to the park almost every afternoon and sit with him for a while. I also played him and on and off the whole time I lived in NYC. I would pay him $10 for 3 5min blitz games, but eventually he’d ignore the clock and start analyzing positions as they came up, showing me possible moves/lines etc. He’s a really strong player- and very Russian about it. Very matter-of-fact, usually smoking a cigarette. I don’t know that it affected my style that much, I probably wasn’t that great a student. But I do quote some of the hustlers I used to play in Washington Sq. back in the day once in a while: “The pin wins!”
I still find Paul up in Union Sq. when I travel back to NYC, and pay him for a few games. He still slaughters me. He says I’m not as good as I used to be – which is probably true. I used to play over the board every day when I lived in NYC. Now it’s only on the phone, so when I play on a real board in person I make a lot of mistakes I probably shouldn’t.
I know we talked about it but I’ll be headed to NYC this summer to do a chess tour of the town. Where do you think people should stop in the city to get a game or learn more about the history of chess there?
There are still players in Washington Square Park, so go there just because it’s a pretty place to play, and a part of NYC chess history. Unfortunately a lot of the good hustlers (like Paul) all moved up to Union Square and play on milk crates and folding tables because there’s so much more foot traffic (and business) for them there – so go there, as well. Bryant Sq. has some strong hustlers, and that’s right near the NY Public Library, which you should also check out (not for chess, just because it’s cool). I also like to go up to the Chess & Checkers pavilion in Central Park, but it can be a little tough to get a game there. The same old crusty dudes have been meeting up to play each other there for decades, and they’re not always eager to include strangers, but you can ask. It’s a great place to play if you already have a partner. You can even rent boards/pieces there I believe. There’s some chess tables in the park area in the center of Stuyvesant Town- there are some surprisingly strong players in there (I used to play on one of their BAL chess teams). Also, definitely try to make it to the Marshall Chess club. It’s a beautiful, historical place. Play in a tourney there if they’re having one!
Any interesting chess stories?
I was living in NYC on 9-11, and, like everyone, woke up to a world in chaos. I had seen the 2nd plane hit the Towers on TV, and I was living just outside Times Sq. at the time, so I thought to myself “Where would I hit next if I was them?” and decided it wasn’t safe to stay in my apartment. I walked down 9th Avenue, saw the Towers fall, stood with groups of strangers around pickup trucks with radios blaring trying to get information, bought water for and tries to comfort the people covered in ash, covered my face with my t-shirt when the air got too bad to breathe… eventually I made my way to my best friend’s father’s apartment. Donald lived on Washington Place in the West Village. He was a dear friend himself, so it was the place I felt safest in the city. After 4 or 5 hours of staring at the TV, I had to get out and take a walk, get some air, clear my head and try to process what the hell was happening. Washington Place borders Washington Square Park, so, almost instinctively, I walked over to the SW corner of the park where the chess tables are. All the hustlers were there. Paul was drinking vodka, and I think I actually asked him if he wanted a game. He said no, but one of the other hustlers piped up and said “I’ll play.” So, I remember sitting down and playing this guy- playing a game of chess during the apocalypse- and of course we were playing badly and making all sorts of stupid mistakes and eventually we looked up at each other, and I think I actually said out loud “What the hell are we doing??” and we both stood up and abandoned the game and I took a swig of Paul’s vodka and went on my way, out into a different world.
Wow…that’s a powerful story. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. So, what’s your next chess goal?
I’d like to start playing in tournaments this year. Someday I want to do what you’re doing – actually take lessons from a Master or GM and really buckle down and study and try for a title.
I’ve also thought about competing in a Chess Boxing match (I like to work out at boxing gyms), but I’m a way better chess player than I am a boxer, and my face is so pretty, and I’m not in the best shape, and I just hit 40 so… sanity will probably prevail and I won’t.
Well, if you do take up Chess Boxing I’ll be right there in the front row! If you need a cutman, I’m your guy! So, outside of acting, chess, and playing guitar, any other hobbies or passions?
I recently acquired an old Toyota Land Cruiser that I’m working to fix up and using to explore SoCal and the South West- I love camping and getting off road. I also like to take photos, so those two hobbies go hand in hand.
Are you working on any projects presently that you’re really excited about?
Working with my fiancée on producing our own projects, which is very exciting, and potentially a lot more fulfilling than waiting around for acting auditions. I’m also starting to write, which is challenging, to say the least.
Mike, thank you so much for your time! We’ll definitely be looking forward to what comes next, on and off the board. I’ve had the honor losing many a match to Mike, but I always learn something and we always have a laugh – the whole point of the game.