Chess is a strange, elegant, beautiful game, intricate, frustrating, exciting at times. Nada loves it. He taught his nephew, who became state high school champion a few years ago. These days he plays at least one game a day with a friend of his who was some kind of high-fallutin’ chemist and was able to retire in his 30’s with enough money to keep him through the rest of his life. This friend, Casey, lives an austere life in a small, sparsely furnished house in a college town. I have never seen it, but I imagine it, for some reason, to be filled with light. It will be older, with wooden floors and bare white walls. He has a car he rarely drives, preferring to walk almost everywhere. He’s a vegetarian, perhaps even vegan, and long and lean in build, with startling blue eyes and an intense gaze. And he loves to play chess. He’s rated about 1900, which, according to Nada, is quite good. A match between Nada and Casey is intense, driven. They don’t speak. The board consumes them. Nada can’t beat Casey, though he’s come close on a couple of occasions. Casey plays with scrupulous attention to every piece, his moves methodical, irresistibly precise. “He never makes mistakes,” Nada says. I wouldn’t know. I have a mixed relationship to chess. My mother taught us children the moves, and occasionally played with us when we were younger. I don’t remember learning anything technical beyond castling. I didn’t even know about en passant till Nada taught me.
After childhood, I didn’t play again for years, till Nada pulled me back in. These days I’m an uneven, unpredictable player, easily frustrated. I give away my queen and then give up. And it’s almost impossible to improve at chess, at least as far as I can tell, in any way that’s meaningful. It’s an incremental process, impossibly slow (or maybe that’s just me). I can’t possibly improve fast enough playing one or two games a week with Nada when he plays daily with Casey, sometimes annotating the game and getting tips. “Sure you want to do that?” Casey will say kindly, rarely, when Nada makes a mistake, and Nada will take it back, and forge on, till he’s annihilated in the end game.
When Nada and I play, we’ll talk through moves, play different configurations. He’ll warn me of impending blunders. But on Friday night, the day after Bobby Fischer died, coincidentally, something strange happened. We were playing, and talking, and not really being too serious, and suddenly I was ahead. And then Nada crept up on my king with a vicious attack, and he started to suggest how I might get out of it and I shushed him. I stared at the board. There had to be a way. And I saw it. A crazy sacrifice on my part, a kind of distraction, and a queen exchange, and then, suddenly we were even, and then I checkmated him. It was the first real, honest-to-goodness, unhelped game I’d won against him. And then I did it again, and almost a third time. The second and third games were silent, board-absorbing, reminding me of games between Nada and Casey. For the first time, ever, I was actually a real opponent to Nada, making him work, making him squirm at times.
And of course, the next day I was back to losing again, and today too. But something has changed. I think there are moments where I see the board differently, where I’m willing to take risks in ways I wasn’t before, where a move that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago becomes a calculated risk. Maybe, after all these years of feeling like a chess moron, something has clicked. Maybe I’ve been learning all along, and it’s just been imperceptible till now. Maybe Bobby Fischer left behind a little chess fairy dust, and I breathed it in. Even if I don’t win, just being able to play with purpose is a step forward, and I’m glad.