In the summer of 1982, I was eleven years old. For one day, I garnered the unofficial title of Chess King. No one called me that, and it wasn’t even that I was unseated after that day. It just ceased to be relevant, as many things are wont to do amid the breakneck pace kept by young boys at the height of summer.
I’d started to learn chess from my old man on the little travel set he had. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with that set, a nifty contraption about the size of a book that sat on the top of my parents’ console stereo. I would ask him what that box with the checkerboard pattern on it was (probably on innumerable occasions). When he told me that it was a chess set, his answer seemed to bear some mark of exclusivity, something beyond me. I knew that this game, chess, was harder than checkers, a game I knew with a similar board. Even my mother didn’t know how to play chess. Despite being an apparently complex sort of a game with many life prerequisites, at some point, I was ready inquire further. When I reached an age at which my old man had deemed the acumen of my reasoning to be sufficiently on par with my highly advanced and unshakable persistence with any object of my curiosity, he began to teach me the rules.
The travel set was actually two wooden trays that were lined with felt on the inside. The leaves were held together by two hinges on one side and a gold-plated clasp on the other. When the box was closed, the trays formed the cavity in which the tiny wooden pieces were stored. You could hear the soft chock chock chock sound they made when you shook it. Opened and placed felt down, the box formed the chess board. The hinges never allowed the board to lie completely flat on the table, so you could say that I learned the game of chess on an angle.
The pieces were all wood, hand-carved, albeit primitively, and each had a felt footer glued to the bottom. The largest of them were no longer than two knuckles of your index finger, but with their felt bases, they slid silently from square to square on the shiny surface of the board. In my estimation, this tactile difference alone immediately set the chess player apart from the plebeians endlessly scratching their plastic checkers across cardboard squares, half of which were never even used in the game.
I was a quick study on all the chess pieces and their idiosyncratic rules of movement. I got the old man to play with me as much as I could. This was a game that men played. It was exclusive. Skill at this game could imply a great deal about your intelligence and your very worth on the figurative battle field. Chess requires that you watch all things at all times. You think slowly. You move deliberately. You don’t jump your opponent, as they say in Checkers. You capture him.
By the summer of 1982, I had evangelized about the game of chess in my little group of friends, among them Jason, 10 and John, 11, who also learned the game. It was around this time that I recall even broaching the subject to an enemy in the neighborhood, Brian, 12. That was probably an attempt to prove my superiority to him by any identification with the game at all. It could be quite a boast to play a game your mother seemed unable to grasp, but you were always on the lookout for ways to prove how stupid your enemies were. I remember a heated discussion with this questionable Brian character about the movement pattern of the knight. Nonchalantly and even dismissively, he claimed to know very well that the knight moved in an “L” shape. I was quite certain the pattern was a “half Y” as my old man had explained. Both patterns landed the piece in a legal place on the board, but the assumption of such sacred knowledge leading to such wanton imprecision – for that I simply would not keep still.
It soon became obvious that I could not be a serious chess player without a set of my own. It wasn’t as if my old man would ever allow me to take his wooden travel set from the 60s out on my bike to play chess with my grubby friends. When my grubby friends and I rode our bikes in town, we would frequently stop at Gould’s, a stationary store next to the post office that also sold candy and gum. While stocking up on Bottle Caps and Big League Chew one morning, it appeared in one of the aisles: a chess set with plastic pieces and folding board, put out by one of the major board game companies. It was in a shrink-wrapped yellow box with a picture of its contents on it beneath where it said “Chess” in big black letters. It was out of my price range that day, but with a singular sense of purpose, I put together the bread, and went back and bought it for myself. It was a key moment, not unlike when I bought my first mixdown deck years later. There’s a certain pride in being laser-focused on your own intent, purchasing something that few people you know would ever even want.
My chess board had tan and brown squares. It unfolded with a crack the first time and it lay flat on the table. The pieces were black and white molded plastic, in the classic forms, huge in comparison to those miniature wooden representations I had become familiar with. There was no felt, but the fact that I no longer had to ask permission to play was worth forgoing the perceived luxury. My friends and I spent many days on the battlefield that summer. I learned a couple of check mates that I still use today. I can’t really say I ever had a game, but I knew how to win and could move the pieces around impressively according to some semblance of strategy.
“There’s this kid you have to play. I told him about you.” Jason said on the phone.
“What kid?” I thought I knew everyone he knew.
“This kid on my street. He thinks he can beat you.”
A gauntlet had been thrown down. I didn’t even know that I had a chess reputation. I certainly didn’t hate the idea. I left the house at 10 am, which was the earliest I was allowed to leave. My mother had it in her head that if I were to be traipsing about the neighborhood any earlier, it would disturb people. I headed two blocks up and three over to Jason’s house, where I was met by Jason and his younger brother, an annoying little kid who didn’t realize he was annoying. John arrived soon after. Jason led me to their neighbors’ house.
I thought about this kid who didn’t even know me claiming he could beat me. Should I be nervous about this? Who was this guy anyway? It was a real Little Rascals moment, kids on their own arranging a serious contest of skill, bringing on their guy. This felt to have all of the weight of what existed of social standing and consequence at that age. I’d seen West Side Story. This was close to a street challenge as I’d ever experienced.
We walked up the driveway to a tall, unfinished stockade fence with a gate that led to a back yard. There were some other kids milling around, looking pensive. We stepped through the gate, and the challenger appeared, looking relaxed. I had never seen him before. Did he live here? You don’t ask these things when you are being presented as a chess legend. You have to be cool.
This kid was shorter than me, and immaculate. He was very much a little boy, but one that it appeared never got dirty. His sneakers were new. His luminescent white socks were pulled up evenly to mid-shin. He wore blue linen shorts with pleats, the kind that came with their own stretchy belt. His shirt was what my mother used to call a polo shirt, which was a scratchy polyester number with a collar, three buttons and stripes, often with an alligator on it. It was tucked into the shorts, revealing the slightest roundness of a belly. His brown hair was cut short against his sizable cranium and was still damp from a shower. He wore a watch with the band rather tight. He had pale blue eyes and large straight teeth. His skin was tanned to a gold but with no sign of a burn or peeling. He smelled like soap and dryer sheets. Essentially, he looked like a ten year old boy who never left the house but was ready at any time to assume the role of a very square 35-year-old golfer who wasn’t rich, but would attest to being “comfortable” every time you got stuck next to him at a barbecue.
He didn’t say anything. He was eyeballing me with a soft smirk. My clothes had been through the laundry, my hair had been cut by my mother, probably poorly, and I was huffy from my bike ride up the hill. Recalling the scene from this distance, I can’t decide whether the contrast between us would tend to paint me as a sort of archetypal underdog, even though it would add to the drama. I leave that to your interpretation.
We got straight to the game. The board had been set up on the picnic table. Nothing fancy, but respectable. This kid knew the game, meaning that he knew how the pieces were supposed to move. Some of the kids watched. Some, like Jason’s little brother, just ran around the yard yelling and being annoying. He had no idea how annoying, but my opponent and I both resented the distraction. I respected my opponent for that.
Move after move, his little tanned chubby hands pushed the pieces around with confidence, until he started to screw up. He just wasn’t watching. In claiming that he could beat me, he had overplayed that chess player superiority thing that I knew all too well. He didn’t think that some other kid in the neighborhood could possibly play the game like he did. His mother spent so much time dressing him like a model for the Sears catalog that I’m sure she didn’t play either. He obviously made too much of that. The game ended like so many of mine did. Rook blocking the king from leaving the back row followed by the queen moving into the back row to check mate.
I did not gloat. My friends might have, a little. After all, they brought me in after talking me up and I did not disappoint. I knew I wasn’t that great a chess player, but I still won the game. Was it because I had a year on the kid? Had he just not been playing as long? His soft smirk had become a wan smile, but he still didn’t say much. We might have even shook hands. I admit to enjoying the moment as I strode back through the tall stockade gate. I want to believe it was held open for me. When it sprung into the latch behind us, I was the Chess King. We got on our bikes and took off somewhere to start fires or sharpen pocket knives. I never saw the kid again.
That was it for chess in the summer of 1982. It climaxed with a dramatic match up, but I suppose nothing could really compare after that. I kept playing for fun when I could. Sometimes with my old man, then later, with my daughter. I never did study the various games or strategies. However, I can say that my daughter learned on a proper set. In my twenties, I acquired a fine, full-sized chess set with large wooden pieces and a sturdy chestnut board you could use to ward off an intruder. I treasure it still.
I can’t really say I ever had a game, but I was the Chess King once.