Tag Archives: chess

Chess Moron

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.

Playing chess with my mother

My mother called me last night. I was preparing to visit a friend, and had chosen to wear a dress she’d given me, a silky flowing dress, very elegant, something she had worn often. It was a coffee brown, a perfect match to a coat I wear for work that she gave me before she died. It took me years to wear the coat, because it was too expensive, too consciously classic, for me to feel comfortable in it. And it was brown, my least favorite color, the color of my school uniform from the old days in Ireland. When I finally put it on, a few months ago, I was surprised at how good it felt, the expensive material soft and almost suede-like, though it was not made from any form of animal product. It was warm, and it fit me perfectly. So there I was, dressed in a coffee-brown, silk dress and my elegant coat, planning to visit a friend, and as I was trying to pass through the door, my phone rang. I fumbled to reach it, pockets, purse, backback. But I couldn’t find it, and it went to voicemail, and then I heard my mother’s voice. She was narrating a chess game. “Pawn to b3” she said. “Knight takes d7.” I threw my purse down, tore off my coat, ripped open my backback, desperate to find the phone. But every time I thought I’d found it it was something else, a book, a stapler, a turtle paperweight, my dog’s leash. And my mother’s voice droned on, part Tennessee accent, “nahn,” she said, “fahv.” Part Irish. “Tomahto,” she said. Not tomaydo.

And then the phone clicked off, and she was gone.

The chess game was good, though. I could see all the pieces, see the skewers and pins and forks. Color-coded lines mapped out the game, the best moves, the potential mates three or four moves down the line. It reminded me of a chess computer game my friend and I have been playing. I always liked chess, though for years I knew nothing more than the basic moves and how to castle, but my friend has taught a fair few people how to play, and last week he bought a chess set for the work release program where he works so the inmates can play. He’ll teach them, patient and thorough as he always is, and maybe some of them will learn something beyond the basic moves, will be caught up in the intricacy and challenge of it and pledge to work to become better.

My friend taught his nephew, who became state champion in high school and is now a more consistent and thoughtful player than he is. It’s a race these days, to see if my friend can improve his game enough to beat his nephew regularly, and as he’s learned so have I.

But why my mother? I’m unsettled today, thinking of how clear her voice was as she spoke those words that would have meant nothing to her. I was so desperate to talk to her, and then she disappeared, and I woke into a world dominated by chess sets. Then they floated away, and only the gray morning light remained, my sleeping dogs pinning me to the bed, and my hand reaching for a phone that doesn’t exist.