Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Chess Grand Poobah

As a kid, I wanted to play chess like Garry Kasparov. His mastery of pins, forks, and skewers excited the nascent pawn-pusher in me. I studied his annotated games, printed in the newspaper and stayed abreast of his doings in my Chess Life subscription. What impressed me most about Kasparov was that he treated chess as a sport— he cross-trained for it. I latched onto him before he was champ.

In 1984, Kasparov was a top contender vying for the crown. Anatoly Karpov was then the Champ. The rules of title matches were much different than they are now. Some head-to-heads turned into marathons and could last a month. The Karpov/Kasparov matchup of ’84 seemed like it was going to be a washout. Karpov was already up 4 – 0. The combination of 2 draws equals a win didn’t count for their title defenses so the wins had to be outright. Karpov only needed 2 more wins, but Kasparov hung in there and kept drawing. Seventeen in a row. The Champ could taste victory but it eluded him. Finally, in the 27th game Karpov won his 5th point. He only needed one more; the contender stuck to his guns. Five more draws followed and then Kasparov took a game. The dynamics had shifted. Frustration ensued. It was like Jake Lamada taunting Sugar Ray Robinson. “You can’t knock me down Ray.” Lamada was losing, but wouldn’t kiss the mat.

Kasparov hung on, the federation called the contest a draw, and the next year Garry would rise to the top of the chess world.

He paid homage to the Ancient Greek maxim, “Keep a healthy mind and body. In addition to sparring with fellow players and his computer-based program, he put together an intensive workout regimen that included running miles and weightlifting. He wasn’t planning to run the Boston Marathon or bulk up into Nikolai Volkov, but he was steadfast in his belief in keeping fit.

Kasparov was innovative. Whereas other players stuck to book openings that accepted classical chess wisdom, Kasparov shattered tradition. He was notorious for what is called theoretical novelties— strong moves that run against the grain of established chess theory.

I’d copy some of his lines up to a point then made my own variations. Sometimes to test the waters on moves I found intriguing, but other times, frankly, because I’d forgotten what to do in certain positions. Before I moved my own piece, I loved to snatch my opponent’s knight off the board and watch his look of incredulity. I’d make a slight pause to mess with his head then slide my bishop to the captured square. Was this a Kasparovian thing to do? Not really. His captures were handled with kid’s gloves, but the way he launched his attacks was genius.

When my chess club skittled we’d each play the part of a different Grand Master kind of the way jocks pretended they were different ball players. But, instead of choosing to see who would be Don Mattingly, Pedro Guerrero, Cal Ripkin Jr., Kirby Puckett, or Mike Schmidt we’d take turns being Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Nigel Short, Lev Alburt, Mikhail Tal.

Hak-bin, a third-grade wunderkind, would pick Bobby Fischer. He carried a paperback that had pictures of the great American Phantom King of castling. Hak-bin was good enough to be on the varsity team. He suckered many kids in my class with scholar’s mate— kind of a thumb-wrestler’s sneak attack, but for chess. He’d bag his opponent’s king in four moves. No remorse. His crushing tactics elicited a myriad of curses from glass-jaw opponents.

Mr. Kushing, our coach, collected quarters for bastard and shits and fifty cents for fuck and one dollar for the uncensored motherflower. The proceeds went for equipment: new vinyl boards, felt-bottomed pieces, game clocks, and sometimes for soda and chips.

Hak-bin and I had many draws like Karpov and Kasparov. This would’ve been fine if I was eight like he was, but I was thirteen, a foot taller and I had matured into a young man who carried a plain green Trapper Keeper instead of a bunch of Thundercats and Voltron folders. I had also moved onto paper bag lunches instead of the lunchbox and thermos combo.

Hak-bin’s mom picked him up after practice. I could see her pressed up to the classroom window, peeking in to see her four-foot-tall pride and joy. I could almost feel her boundless glee fogging the glass pane. Sometimes I was a coward and hoped she’d snag her boy when I was wallowing over a losing scenario. There I’d sit slumped forward, hands folded in prayer to nobody and jiggering thoughts whirring in my mind. Sweat dotted my forehead and I had this nervous bounce in my right leg. I crossed them, but that never seemed to do the trick. Hak-bin would wipe his palms on his trousers then bring his hands to his nose and smell them.

We’d sit like that for hours. The good thing about our practices was that we didn’t have clocks so we could take our time. The bad thing about it was that we could take our time. Without clocks we really didn’t prep ourselves for the true time-fleeting conditions.

During my college years, I phased out of chess. I played a few games here and there with friends or I logged onto a Yahoo Game Room. I allotted myself thirty minutes max. And I preferred two-minute blitzes.

Coincidentally, Garry Kasparov stopped playing. A bit later then I did, but still— he decided to tackle politics. Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, and Veselin Topalov would go on to rise to the top of the chess world.

Two years ago I had the chance to see Garry Kasparov give a lecture on Russian politics. He gave a decent canned spiel, but was underwhelming with his glib responses during the Q & A. I had a few questions about Russian politics and International Relations in general that I wanted to share with the audience. There were maybe two hundred people tops in the auditorium.

I wondered if it was better tossing out a question about the anarchical structure of global societies. I’d reading up on Hedley Bull. The other thing I wanted to bring up was the mysterious disappearances of journalists and elected officials in Russia. Three people revisited that very question. Each time I cringed because I knew I needed to come up with something good and time was running out. I imagined my red chess flag popping up which I hadn’t seen in forever.

A short man in a crumpled olive suit asked Kasparov what was his fondest memory when he competed in the Chess Federation. Kasparov pinched his left brow and said, “Let’s stay on topic.” Then he pointed to a young Asian woman in the front row. I forgot what her question was because the MC briefly interrupted her to say there would only be one more question, but that the lively banter would continue in the private room reserved for hors d'oeuvres and drinks.

For a moment, I went blank. One point 21 Gigawatts. I had this stupid notion that by the end of the night, I’d be able to call the Grand Master by his first name, Garry. I wanted him to think that even though he could wipe the board with me in chess in matter of politics I could hold my own.

Well, I never got called on during the open forum, but Garry was kind enough to wait a while on stage. A few dorks-on-the-pond lined up to bend his ear. Some people straggled onto line with canapé, crackers, a few slabs of gouda, and a glass or two, God help us, of Pinot Grigio. At least I had the willpower to take care of the business I had come for. Personal satisfaction. Ten minutes later I shook hands with Kasparov. It wasn’t a firm shake as I’d expected, but it wasn’t a dead fish either. He tucked his arms to his chest before I said anything, perhaps to mess with my head. Shock of shocks I proffered a bit of eloquence. I was too conscious of myself and I let Garry ponder my question. Less a question and more of an observation really. I had no idea what I said, but the vein above Garry’s temple twitched.

He offered a serious response and I nodded when he spoke. I was too excited. I was ready to jump out of my skin. And then a budinsky leaned into my comfort zone. I stayed quiet and Garry held his stoic pose. He offered his hand again. I was lulled by the fact that he’d taken his time to consider my political observation. I turned to leave the stage, my stomach already grumbling. And then I stopped short. A wild rush of words rolled to the tip of my tongue, what I imagined Tourette’s syndrome to be like. Gary’s eyes narrowed and I said it louder, what I thought I’d previously said.

“What if you played again?”

“No more.”

“You could use your political currency,” I said. “Like Bono.”

“I’m done.”

And he threw his arms out as if he were a spoiled brat refusing to play the game he was about to lose. I slipped off, dumbfounded, my head eight sizes too large and nowhere to hide it. I accidentally smacked into a piece of canapé. The cool greasy guck splotched onto my hand. I don’t know what made me do it, but I licked it off and kept walking. I waited a little while in the reception area but Garry never showed. I wondered how he left and if anybody else had flustered him or if he was so miffed by my remark that he stormed off stage. Probably not though. I’m sure one of the hosts would’ve had me escorted out.

I stood around, noshed. Really, I’d lost my appetite but I needed to keep my hands, my mind busy. I wished I’d never met him.

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