It is getting late. I am sitting across the table from a guy, our knees not quite touching. Around us, the room has gradually emptied and now we are alone. Our eyes meet for half a second; he looks away. I continue to study his face, searching for clues. He seems composed; my hands are shaking. I watch intently as he meets my eyes again and reaches slowly towards me.
As my energy has ebbed, however, my antipathy has grown; at this point, my need for food is compensated for by my desire to destroy my opponent.
Then he moves his rook two squares to the right and taps the clock, starting my timer counting down. I cup my chin in my hands, trying to overcome my exhaustion. We have been playing for four hours, and I have not eaten dinner; my headache has faded to a mental numbness. As my energy has ebbed, however, my antipathy has grown; at this point, my need for food is compensated for by my desire to destroy my opponent. I contemplate hideous chessboard revenges–first, I'll skewer him, then I'll fork his rooks; I'll finish him off with a vicious zugzwang. He resigns half an hour later, to my relief, and I feel my anger fading. No longer my opponent, he now seems likeable once more. As we pick up the pieces, I remember what it's so easy to forget–it's only a game.
My grandfather taught me to play chess when I was seven. We played at a local French café; I learned the rules over baguettes and crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. We must have made a strange sight, a seven year old and a seventy year old, his expression of fierce concentration mirrored on my pudgy face. We became regulars, arriving at 9:00 each Sunday and lingering for hours; slowly, I began to grasp the tactics and gain an intuitive sense of the game, though it would be years before I could beat him. On occasion, the owner of the café would comment on our game, asking who was winning. "She's a killer," my grandfather would say proudly, shaking his head and grinning.
I have played reverends and accused felons, football players and math prodigies, the young and the dying and everyone in between.
By the time I was nine, my interest had grown to the point that my parents were searching for other players. A man who taught at the U.S. Chess Center in D.C. destroyed me. Realizing my position was hopeless, I offered him a draw. He looked at me sternly. "That's poor sportsmanship," he said. Chagrined, I turned to go, but he stopped me at the door. "Who taught you to play?" he asked.
"My grandfather," I replied.
"Tell him that he did a good job," he said.
That summer I went to a camp at the Chess Center; in the years that followed, I have been there more times than I can count. The Chess Center was founded by David Mehler, a chess expert, polymath and Harvard dropout, in a crusade to improve children's lives through chess. His theory–substantiated by scientific evidence–is that chess improves concentration, memory, and general academic ability. Mr. Mehler is brilliant and caustic; he mocks adults and children alike. Although he can be a patient and subtle teacher, he swiftly rewards stupidity or arrogance with biting sarcasm. If I am playing when he enters the room, I will try to avoid moving until he has left, for fear of his reaction to a mistake. He does not tolerate troublemakers in his domain; pushups are doled out as punishment for mischief, and he even stuffed one miscreant into a trash can. ("Don't do it after lunch," he advised the boy, "It'll be full then and I'll stick you in upside-down.") His demeanor seems at odds with the philanthropy of his actions. The Chess Center is a non-profit organization housed in a basement, apparently kept alive through donations or bankrolled by Mr. Mehler. Whatever the reason for his crusade to save the world through chess, profit was certainly not one of them. Mr. Mehler's personality epitomizes the qualities that I find so often in chess players. The layers of sarcasm and introversion, the eccentricities and prickliness, often disguise a person well worth knowing.
There is no such thing as a typical chess player; I have played reverends and accused felons, football players and math prodigies, the young and the dying and everyone in between. In spite of this diversity, there are commonalities that draw us to the game.
Look out for part 2 tomorrow on Chess Tales.