SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 8, 2015

The Scotch Gambit

 

When I was a kid, see? When I was a kid people told me I was smart. That was their mistake. The problem was I was stupid enough to believe them. I got it in my too-large head that I should do all those things that smart people did. I thought I should be good at math, for one thing. Trouble is, I wasn’t. Simple arithmetic still slows me down, and trigonometry never made the slightest bit of sense to me, then or now. Still they kept pushing me along and finally, for some incomprehensible reason, things finally clicked there for awhile when I got to calculus, but by then it was too late, and then it was over.

            Because I thought I was smart, I decided I wanted to be a theoretical physicist like Einstein or Neils Bohr or Robert Oppenheimer. So I read every popular book I could get my hands on about relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and the background to the Manhattan Project. I could even say that I actually understood the concepts, which was something. All those analogies about trains and rice pudding helped. But then I found myself in my first physics class, where I learned almost immediately and to my horror that the basis of everything in physics, and I mean the absolute fundamentals of first-year physics here, long before you got to The General Theory of Relativity, was trigonometry. That was pretty much that, though it took me a little longer than it should have to accept it.

            There was one thing, though, one thing smart people did that I bet my life I could do, too. I decided I wanted to become a good chess player. Smart people are always playing chess, right? Walk through the park, there are smart people playing chess. Watch the movies and there they are again pondering the table. Hell, in 1972 when Bobby Fischer played Spassky for the world chess championship, they televised it live like the damned World Series, and I watched it like millions of other smart people did.

            I’m thinking I was maybe twelve when I did what I thought I should do to achieve this goal of mine, namely I went to the store and picked up a fifty-cent paperback called, yes, How to Play Chess.

            It was probably a premature move on my part, given we didn’t even have a chessboard in the house (just Scrabble, Yahtzee, and the Bermuda Triangle board game). It didn’t stop me, given I figured I could imagine things just as well.

            One day I was reading the book at school when my friend Robbie saw what I was doing and stopped.

            “Learning how to play chess from a book is stupid,” he said bluntly. So that weekend I went over to his house and he taught me all the fundamentals, as well as a few endgame strategies he preferred.

            Funny thing was, though Robbie was a bright, mathematically-minded kid, I never really saw him as a super-genius. He never put on any airs about it anyway, preferring heavy metal, bowling, Chuck Norris movies, and the pulp novels of Don Pendleton. But he obviously knew his way around a chessboard, and we became regular opponents. He even had a small magnetized traveling board so we could play in the back seat when one of our parents was driving us someplace.

            Now that I knew how to play, my parents even picked me up my own board for my birthday. It wasn’t your typical chessboard, though, the cardboard job with the plastic pieces that you could flip over if you gave up and decided to play checkers instead. No, this was a monstrous and insane thing. It was made of polished black and white onyx, it must’ve weighed fifteen pounds, and instead of the usually recognizable figures of the Knight, the King, the Queen and the Rooks, the carved stone figures resembled Mayan monuments. In fact it took some real doing on my part to determine which piece was supposed to be which. Still, I set it up in the middle of a table in the basement, where it would be ready should anyone ever say, “Who’s up for a game of chess?”

            No one ever did. Except Robbie, who was over often enough to make it worthwhile. For all the games we played, I never, ever won a single one. I knew his strategy backwards and forwards, knew exactly what he was going to do and when, but could never stop it. Problem was, since he was the only person I played, I’d never really had the opportunity to develop any strategies of my own. In fact I never developed any strategies at all apart from the Scotch Gambit—a random move in some direction for absolutely no reason at all, save that you can make that move. I guess there was a rare and distant hope that it might somehow help down the line, but it never did. Only a few years ago did I learn this was called The Scotch Gambit, and that Fischer had used it to his advantage in his match with Spassky. This somehow made me feel smarter after the fact. At the time I was just playing randomly, same as I did most everything else.

            Every now and again (this is back in the late seventies) I’d find myself (usually with my parents) at someone’s house when I’d notice our hosts had one of those new-fangled electronic computerized chess games, where a blinking red light would indicate where I was supposed to move the machine’s piece after I’d made my own move. Whenever I saw an opportune moment, I’d excuse myself and sneak off to some side room for a quick game or two, just for practice. It never lasted long, as the fucking machine neatly and efficiently destroyed me in four moves or less.

            Even though I’d never won a game, I could still proudly tell myself I was a chess player, and that was almost enough.

            There was a twenty-year-old named Brendan who sat in front of me in my tenth grade German class. He was loud, he was obnoxious, he was dissolute, and he tended to smell bad. I never knew why he was there. No one seemed to know why he was there. I never saw him in any other class and never passed him in the hallway. Most everyone in class (especially the teacher) despised him, but he always struck me as a frighteningly intelligent kid who simply didn’t give a damn. I admired that.

            One day he leaned his head backwards over his desk chair and looked at me upside down. “You a chess player?” he asked out of the blue.

            “Yes,” I told him, finding the whole thing a little odd, but not that odd.

            “Well then, you’ll have to come over to my place sometime and we’ll play a few games.”

            “Okay,” I said.

            Never got the chance, though, since about a week after that Brendan and his three roommates were arrested when it was discovered they’d been keeping a retarded man in a closet in their apartment, and had been conducting cruel psychological experiments on him.

            Another dissolute friend who was much smarter than anyone ever gave him credit for, Bob, approached me early one morning at school when we were the only two hanging around the third-floor hallway. This was eleventh or twelfth grade.

            “You play chess?” he asked.

            “Sure.”

            “Yeah, I figured. Wanna play a game?”

            He returned to his locker for a minute and came back with a board.

            We set up on the bottom step of a short staircase that led to the roof, I think, or maybe nowhere at all.

            By that stage, I still hadn’t come to fully recognize how bad the eyes were becoming. None of my eye doctors had told me anything more than I was nearsighted, had astigmatisms in both eyes, and might well be night-blind. So sitting at the bottom of those steps over a chessboard, it never occurred to me that half the board was in shadow. I couldn’t see it, didn’t think about it, and completely forgot it was there as I concentrated only on the right side of the board, the one that was still in the light. So I never noticed that Bob was swooping down the left side as I fumbled my way up the right. It was over in about six moves.

            I think that may well have been the last time I played chess with another human being.

            About a decade back Morgan gave me a chess program to play on my computer. Fancy thing it was, with top notch graphics. By then, however, it was a lost cause. Fancy as those graphics were, I couldn’t see them well enough to know what piece I was moving, let alone where I was moving it or what the other pieces were doing. Even with the computer voice spouting chess shorthand, I was lost. So I filed that away with everything else.

            They -- those people who are good at it anyway -- say that chess is like life. I’m thinking they might be right about that, because as with chess, I’ve never been much good at life, either.

 

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