Saturday, August 13, 2005

Searching for Bobby Fisher

I love chess like I love baseball and football. I enjoy watching a game of chess being played as I would those two other sports. Curiously, my proficiency in chess rivals my ability to play baseball and football. In other words, I am barely competent. Any ranked chess player should avoid playing me like a professional major league hitter roils at the thought of facing knuckleball pitching, as the experience in the latter’s case is reputed to ruin one’s swing for a number of games. So a talented chess player would be better off taking a pass on squaring off against me, because my fumbling play might throw his precisely-tuned mental mechanics completely out of whack. I can instantly cite an example of this: I have a friend who used to play tournament chess. He’s out of practice now, but this guy out of practice is better than me having undergone two weeks of solid training. He consents to play me from time to time more as a favor than anything else. A victory for me usually means making him work extra hard to put me in checkmate. It’s obvious that playing against the likes of me puts puts him off his guard, which is a very bad thing. One time he made a move against me that, at first glance, meant the loss of my queen. I studied the board hard for five minutes, then took his bishop with my knight, placing his king in check. The look of astonishment on his face was priceless. Forcing him to spend a move to get his king out of check immediately lead to the loss of his queen! From there on I steadily picked him apart. The game stood as an unfortunate lapse on his part while, for me, it was my most brilliant victory.

It began for me years ago when my nephew got interested in chess and asked me to play him. In a short while he began beating me regularly. Soon he grew so impatient with my habit of interminably studying the board only to blindly walk into an obvious trap that he once offered to play me without one of his rooks to even the odds. I took great offense at this, and straightaway went to a bookstore to purchase the classic book on chess by Edward Lasker. The book started off very easy, explaining the rules of chess and some general principles to keep in mind while playing. Lasker showed a few basic openings, talked about the “pawn skeleton” and so on, and then, using old-fashioned chess notation, took the reader through fifty or so games with commentary. I found it absorbing and reading this book did indeed improve my game to the point where my nephew didn’t win all the time. Victory was no longer an assured thing.

A few years later, a coworker of mine named Bryan asked me to teach him chess. The next day I brought in my chessboard and I taught him the rules of chess. We played a few practice games and I showed him what I knew of chess strategy, which wasn’t very much. It amounts basically to this: when white, my opening is invariably the King’s Pawn Opening, or, as any experienced chess player would derisively put it, the “schoolboy’s opening.” The idea is to push up the two center pawns in order to free the bishops, so that in the shortest possible time all of the more important pieces (i.e., those that are not pawns) can come into play and help you control the center of the board. Other basic tactics I strictly adhere to are: castle within the first ten moves; never bring out the queen too early; if matched up against a stronger player, trade queens if I get the chance; screw up the opponent’s ability to castle if I can; make him “double” his pawns if possible; harass his queen if the opportunity arises; and few other things I can’t think of right now.

So I taught Bryan everything I knew and then we started playing during our lunch breaks in complete earnest. I showed him no mercy and mostly made short work of him. He never became discouraged and, after a while, would throw a scare into me from time to time. Naturally a good deal of badinage went on while we played; I was always sure to say the most obnoxious things when putting him in checkmate. This scenario went on day after day until finally the unthinkable happened and Bryan won a game. I was left flabbergasted. Taking great delight, he said in his Darth Vader voice: “When I left, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”

I could have killed him.

Day after day, we played and played. I redoubled my efforts and punished him for his effrontery, but he continued to steadily improve and soon we were more or less on a par with one another. We used to celebrate birthdays where I worked back then, and for my birthday that year he and Maria, another colleague of mine, pitched in and bought me a chess clock, a device speed chess players use to bring the element of time into the game. Then the action really heated up. I would arrive at work every day not necessarily to work, but to beat Bryan at chess during lunch. When he finally left the company, I asked him plaintively, “But what about the chess?”

As I say, I am not a terribly skilled player, but I know enough to be “dangerous.” I can cause an accomplished player to pause and think from time to time. Studying the games of the masters may not have necessarily transmitted their brilliance into my play, but it has given me an appreciation of the game. Which leads me to tell you about one of my favorite things to do.

In Harvard Square in Cambridge, in front of the Au Bon Pain restaurant, there is a line of tables made of concrete in a small public square. Ingrained into the surface of each of these is a chessboard, and there, during good weather (and sometimes foul) the street chess players meet and play for hours and hours. Most often they play five minute games and watching the best of them play is something near to a religious experience. Sometimes I get lost as they make the little chessmen dance all over the board, but most of the time I can see what they’re doing and thrill to a neatly-done sacrifice or gasp at a deadly knight fork the unfortunate victim didn’t spot ahead of time. There is a group of regulars who I always see. They are mostly all male, middle-aged chain smokers, haphazardly dressed and, if one can make a natural assumption from observing a bare ring finger on the left hand, bachelors. Some are intense while others are laid back. Some poo-poo a killing stroke made by their opponent and play on like they still have a chance, while others glower and gather up the remaining chess pieces with one hand and thump the clock to a stop with the other. Their absorption in their games is compete. Coffee often goes cold and the ashes of their cigarettes grow to an inch before they petulantly flick them away. Some move with authority and hit the button of the clock as if to say, No one could have played that better! Others push their pieces almost apologetically and brush the clock’s button lightly with their pinky. Some play for money while others simply for the sport. Some have Ukrainian accents, while others Spanish and still others French. Some are black and others are white. But there is a distinct fellowship one is instantly sensible to, a palpable brotherhood that’s felt when people of disparate backgrounds are drawn Siren-like to a certain place, somewhat like a dutiful congregation answering the village church’s bell. They heed the call.

The most interesting of them is a fellow who calls himself the Chess Master. I first noticed him in 1986, when I worked for a year in the advertising department of the Harvard Coop, which is across the street from the Chess Master’s base of operations. In good weather, I took my lunch breaks in front of the Au Bon Pain and there he always was, taking on all comers for a dollar a game (now it’s two). He was much younger and thinner then of course. He was a smoker naturally (although now he’s switched from cigarettes to cigars), and he always wore a wide-brimmed hat like he does today, which I suspect he uses to help keep him from being distracted by the crowd. There was always a squirt gun lying next to the chessboard. I found out later he used it to keep the pigeons away.

I have never spoken to him, but I’ve always wondered if that’s all he does, play chess for money. There seems no other observable means of subsistence. His clothes have always been shabby, worn as if in a grudging bow to our society's laws requiring us not to appear naked in public. Over the years he’s gained weight and his face is now flushed in an unhealthy way. But one thing hasn’t changed: he always, always wins. Ordinarily, he gives his opponent eight minutes while allowing himself only four. Often his time ticks down alarmingly close to zero, forcing him to make rapid moves that frequently leave his pieces sloppily placed on their squares, rocking back and forth. It’s sheer artistry what he does, no different from a neatly played arpeggio on the piano or subtlest stroke of a brush on canvas that magically makes the whole image cohere. It’s an elegant union of math and art, an Anschluss of right brain and left.

I leave you with the Chess Master’s picture:


Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

You certainly wrote very eloquently about a subject that many people would find difficult to get passionate about. :)

I used to play chess for teams. I wasn't up to much, either, I suppose. Your tactics and strategies actually sound very familiar somehow... LOL

I played for the local Ukrainian club, and one night the team we were up against was the Police C team away, which meant that we went into the depths of the Police HQ to play against them. For a boy of 12 it was an amazing buzz, and even more amazingly I won!! I was sure they would arrest me on the way out...

I watch chess too. My wife thinks that this is ridiculous. What can you do? :)

12:15 PM  
Blogger Bible_sponge said...

How is the graphic design business? I've wanted to be an artist my whole life but see that too many people take graphic design and its a common job you might say. Did you ever try selling your artwork? I plan to sell mine some day...but for now I'm 17.

heres my art site.....

dont steal any ideas now. LOL

11:27 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I watch chess too. My wife thinks that this is ridiculous. What can you do? :)"

My whole family feels that way! But watching good chess is very exciting.

For twelve years of age, you certainly sounded more than competent, Spirit.

Bible: I'll check out your blog soon. The short answer is, I wanted to do something "artistic" and this avenue at least promised a weekly paycheck. I do enjoy it for the most part. I mainly give my artwork away (or practically do.)

5:19 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

My husband taught my son chess. My son began beating him soon after. Even after watching all these matches, I still don't get it. lol

6:31 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"My husband taught my son chess. My son began beating him soon after."

That reminds me so much of "Searching for Bobby Fisher"!

4:52 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

The hardest thing to get through to my son---who asked for a chess set for his birthday--is not to move just for the sake of moving. He just sort of makes a move--looking around the house while I study the board.
Thanks for inspiring me to double my efforts with my sons skills.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Now I want to go out and read that book. I have the amazing ability to look one move ahead, so naturally I get spanked every time. My son wants to learn how to play ever since we saw an episode of Franklin, who becomes the champion of his school. I have a friend who is great at Chess, but then he is good at all strategy based games. Man would I love to put him down in Chess.

6:41 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Henry, I tried to get my kids interested in playing me at chess by offering a dime per move after twenty moves until I put them in checkmate. In other words, if it took me thirty-two moves to put them in checkmate, then they got $1.20. The better they played, the more money they got. AND, if they put me in checkmate, then they would get $20.00!

It worked for a while.

"Now I want to go out and read that book."

It's been a while since I've looked at it, but I believe that somewhere on the cover of the book several chess masters endorse it, calling it a great primer on chess. If you can get your son to play chess with you, that's a wonderful father-son activity. It's quality time.

You might be interested in the strategy described above addressed to Henry.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Now that is a great strategy!

7:26 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

On my lunch hour I usually watch repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think I need to move to Boston.

I play chess... sorta. :P
My first apartment I shared with my best friend and her boyfriend. In the living room I had set up my chess set that another friend bought me as decoration. One day I came home from work to see a pawn had been moved. So I made a move. Next day, same thing. This went on for weeks till boyfriend and I got impatient and finished the game while waiting for the girlfriend/bestfriend to finish making lasagna. I just barely beat him.

7:41 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Now that is a great strategy!"

Scott, one thing I forgot to mention is, under these rules, you're actually allowed to try!

Nypinta, that's a nice story. I'm glad you won! Maybe when I win the lottery and fly all my blogger friends into Boston for a big get-together, we'll play some chess!

8:27 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I played chess once - badly. I got frustrated, vowed the board would face a trial by fire, and never played again.

9:30 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I got frustrated, vowed the board would face a trial by fire, and never played again."

Sounds like you're more the type for Wizard's Chess (as in Harry Potter, The Sorcerer's Stone, the big chessboard).

10:24 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

oooooooo! I want one of those. Except for the pieces that will actually try to kill you.

Is that a challenge Mr. Schprock? Accepted!

2:24 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Is that a challenge Mr. Schprock? Accepted!"

Ha! The gloves are coming off!

2:37 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Bring it! :P

1:17 PM  

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