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Interview with a "Mad Men" Chessplayer Print E-mail
By Carl Aridas   
March 12, 2008
Michael Gladis

"You know who you just played, don't you?" a friend asked as I rolled up the chess board and put the pieces back in my chess bag.
"No idea," I replied, "but it's not like he was a GM or anything."
"You honestly don't know?", he screeched with a rising  combination of frustration and  bewilderment in his voice.
 I assumed I had just fought one of the "Masters of the Universe" to a draw.  This made me feel a little better since I had missed going up a pawn in a time pressure scramble.
I don't impress that easily, as the Banker's Athletic League is made up mostly of multi-billion dollar Wall Street investment banks. Several years ago while playing in this same chess league, one of the heads of the largest investment banks in the world asked me for an adjournment in the middle of a chess game.  He persisted: "I have to take this call," pointing to his cell phone,"I'm talking to the President of the World Bank and we're trying to refinance an Asian's country's debt to avoid default."  Note, I gave the adjournment - but only reluctantly. I'm not the only one to put chess ahead of business: Last year an investment banker was admonished by the Tournament Director for yelling into his cell phone: "I can't help you with that billion dollar underwriting now, I'm in the middle of a chess game and I'm losing, darnit!"
My TV-addicted friend then explained that I had just finished up a game with Michael Gladis, the young good-looking star of Mad Men, a smash-hit drama on AMC about an ad agency in 1960 New York.

Having never played an actor before, I was glad I tend to rely on the position on the board rather than trying to "read" the opposition to tell whether I'm winning or losing.  After the game, in addition to autographing my scoresheet, Michael granted me the following interview.

Carl Aridas (CA) :
When did you first learn the game of chess?
Michael Gladis (MG): My father was a club player in his youth and taught me to play when I was fairly young.  About four or five if I remember correctly.  We'd play once a month, maybe.  He never let me win, and would try and give me some insight into what I could do better, but I'm afraid I didn't really grasp the concepts until I was nine or ten.  Then I became obsessed with beating him.  I studied, and we played every chance we got.  As the games got closer and it became apparent that I would soon beat him we began recording the games.  Finally one night I did beat him.  I still have that game.  After that he bought me a beautiful full size wooden board and pieces that I hope to pass on to one of my children (the first one to beat me gets it), as well as a membership to the USCF which he still renews for me every year.
CA: I see you play in the BAL.  What do you like most about the club?
MG: After I moved into the Stuyvesant Town neighborhood of New York with a friend from college, Steve Williams (who was also a chess partner of mine) I discovered that Stuytown also had a chess club.  I ended up playing with a lot of the old guys there (many of whom had helped to teach Steve to play as a kid) and eventually they asked me to join one of their teams.
I very much liked the fact that on any given thursday I could be sitting in the commisary of Citybank or a Law Firm downtown playing a 45 year old computer programmer, or a 60 year old asian lawyer.  It was competition, but not for blood.  I'm not good enough to put that much pride on the line, but the competition did sometimes bring out the best.  One of my favorite games ever was for the BAL, and I was being crushed by a much stronger player, but, as he was about to decimate my exposed kingside I actually saw a beautiful combination (if I do say so myself) to take his queen and eventually draw.

CA: How did you get involved in acting?
MG: I had acted all through High School but never really considered it as a vocation.  I went to school for Fine Art (painting and drawing).  But after some time, and while I was doing a play, I realized that I was having much more fun in the theater than in the studio.  So I dropped out, enrolled in acting school, and here I am.
CA: What similarities do you see in acting vs chess?
MG: They'll both drive you nuts if you're not careful.

CA: What has your favorite role been?
MG: I've had a bunch.  On camera I'm prouder of Mad Men than of everything else I've done put together. On stage: My first play in NY was the title character in Brecht's "Baal".  Loved that show. I like the character I'm playing now very much.  It's called "The Main(e) Play" by Chad Beckim.  
CA: How did you get selected to play Paul Kinsey in "Mad Men"?
MG: I'd like to think that Matt Weiner just knew I'd be good.  At least, that's what he told me the other night, and I'm inclined to believe him.  I think my resemblance to a young Orson Welles helped a bit.  As I recall, we talked about that at some length in the audition.
CA: What are your goals as an actor?
MG: Quality.  I have no desire to cater to the dilitantes who champion the superficial in Hollywood. I'm banging my shoe on the desk with my right hand as I type with my left.  Mad Men is a quality show.  It says something, and it says it with style and wit and grace... and most importantly, the people who create it are genuine, intelligent, passionate, good people. I want to make great films and theater.  And to collaborate with incredible artists. Easy.
CA: How does it feel to walk into a chess tournament and know you're the best looking man in the room?
MG: Wha?  ask that guy over there... I'm a character actor.  Not so pretty.
CA: What rating would satisfy you?
MG: 3572...prime numbers rock...but seriously,  I dream of someday applying myself, getting a coach, and winning the unrated (prize) of the US Open.  I'd like to be a master. I might as well dream big.
CA: Do you ever take time to study chess?
MG: I wish I had the time to spare.
CA: How frequently do you play chess - either match, or on-line?
MG: It comes and goes- because I'm in the theater now I can't play in the BAL.  I have a chess date every Tuesday from 2am-4am at the bar next to my house.  The bouncer there, Morgan Kelly, is a surprisingly good player.  I play online a couple times a week as well.  I wish I still lived with another player- in Stuy Town Steve and I used to play every day.
CA: What is your on-line handle?
MG: I don't want to say because I'm embarrassed at how low my rating is on-line.  That's what I get for logging in at 4:30 am after a night of debauchery.
CA: What are your thoughts on living in New York vs. Hollywood?
MG: New York is the first place that I've ever felt was home.  I've lived here for 8 years I'm glad I'm here.  I live in a beautiful apartment and have great friends and a theater company (Partial Comfort Productions) with which I'm working.
BUT- working on such a great job in LA is nothing to sneeze at.  I have a very fulfilling life and good friends there as well... I'll be moving out there for the 2nd season, whenever that may be. A change of location is not a change of self.
CA: For our female readers - are you available?
 MG: Yup.  And I've always been fond of the image of an old, retired Vladamir Nabokov and his wife sitting by the side of a lake playing chess everyday.

You can read more about Mad Men on the official AMC website. Carl Aridas is the president of Banker's Athletic League, and works as a financial analyst for Bond Logistix, a boutique firm specializing in municipal bonds.  He lives in Queens with his wife and two children, both of whom will be chess masters, but first must get out of diapers.