Suburban Soliloquy

137. Chess

We share the kitchen table, Ms Keogh and I. Outside a harsh wind blows on a cold winter night. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, has a small electric heater under the table and pointed at her legs. She is alternating between playing spades and Scrabble online, using her little netbook with its 11.1 inch screen. I'm composing this essay using my much larger laptop with its 15.4 inch screen, ruminating about chess.

In the middle of this round table is a chessboard, drawn there by us using Sharpies. Sharpies are felt tip pens, permanent markers. They were the writing instrument of choice for President George W. Bush. The official residence had been supplied with a special version bearing his signature and the words "The White House". Camp David had its own. I once had a Parker Jotter with Lyndon Baines Johnson's signature, a White House gift that my father received from a staffer. Also two decks of Presidential cards. The pen was stolen from me in high school. The cards just disappeared. But this has nothing to do with chess. I'm straying and not staying on topic, which is why I don't play chess much anymore. It is too difficult to stay focused, as demonstrated by these first two paragraphs.

We drew the chessboard because we didn't have one large enough for my new pieces. Ms Keogh had lost one of the pieces of my old olivewood set. "No," she exclaims, "it was boxwood and rosewood." She had borrowed the pieces to serve as models and produced a series of ink and chalk drawings. Anyway, she made amends by buying me a new Staunton-style set of chessmen from Drueke. It is their Premium Grandmaster set with a King 4.25 inches high on a 1.75 inch wide base, carved from rosewood and triple weighted. Although indelicately carved, the pieces feel manly and appropriate for a game of war.

We once had a Chinese set carved from ivory. I had inherited it from my father, who strangely never learned to play. I put it away after our daughter, having lost a game against her younger brother, knocked a chessman across the room. We sold that set during one of our financial crises. Still there remained a chess set in the house. There was always a chess set.

The game's appeal for me is its balance of complexity and simplicity. A finite number of pieces with a finite number of moves are few enough to be easy to learn. The diversity of the pieces are just enough to imbue them with character, each a distinct personality with its particular powers. The strategy is to employ them to the best of their abilities on a restrained battlefield of 64 squares. Within these limitations, the game can unfold into a number of permutations that are unknown to me. [According to America's Foundation for Chess, there are 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000 ways to play the first ten moves.]

I can remember my greatest successes at the board. Not like a champion who can recall every move. How the games unfolded I don't recall at all, I remember only the winning.

A dear friend, possibly the smartest kid ever to pass through the Neshaminy School District becoming a legend, hated the game. He owned a chessboard built into its own table and standing in his bedroom, but he wouldn't play. One day in the 1960s, while we were both in grade school, I talked him into a game and beat him. He became quite agitated, probably because I was far from being among the smart kids in school. We never played again.

I used to play chess regularly in a booth at Tom's Tavern in Boulder, Colorado. One night in the 1970s, I found myself playing against two lovely ladies who had formed a team to beat me.  Between moves, I drank beers, chatted with the other regulars, even played a little shuffleboard. The ladies would call out when it was my turn. I'd checked the board and made my move, then went back to whatever else it was that I was doing. To their astonishment, I beat them. They made me look good.

In the 1980s, I played a colleague at work. A giant fellow, broad at the shoulder and given to hilarious hyperboles. He bragged that he never lost a game of chess and had me play him during a meal break. He was a beginner. It was a slaughter. When it was obvious that I was the winner, he insisted that we continue to play. "I never give up," he exclaimed. It eventually reached ridiculousness. He refused to resign, even as I eliminated every piece of his, until only his King was left. I had most of my pieces, even pawns advancing to the eighth rank. "I might be able to get a stalemate," he insisted. I laid my King down and announced I was resigning the game and he had won. He was very annoyed and I couldn't stop laughing.

I'm finished bragging. What makes these games so memorable is that I usually lose. I don't think I could even be considered on an intermediate level by serious players. How many times have I been caught in fool's mate? I've played people who announced before the game was started that they would take me in so many moves and they always have. I once had a fellow place a slip of paper in the Bishop's hat before the game started and declared he would checkmate me with that piece. We played and he did.

Okay, so I'm better than a beginner. I know en passant. I know some strategy. I look at the board as a hill, highest at its center, and I try to control that hill. I try not to trap my Knights at the edges of the board. When a piece is in jeopardy, I know to start a second front elsewhere. One tactic that I employ, which usually upsets my opponents, is as soon as I have an advantage of a major piece or two, I begin swapping piece for piece until we arrive at a simplified end game, in which my extra piece is the inescapable advantage. Finally, there is that last desperate tactic I learned from Albert the cigar chomping alligator, who appeared in Walt Kelly's beloved comic strip, Pogo. When losing, Albert would kick the board and holler "EARTHQUAKE!"

In the winter of 1776, not far from where I write, General George Washington led a tattered army, on the verge of disintegration, in a daring crossing of the Delaware River at night. A local Loyalist observed them gathering on the New Jersey side and this Tory spy rushed to Trenton with the warning. As the Continental Army formed into two columns and advanced on Trenton, the Tory spy found Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, leader of the Hessian regiments that were bivouacked at Trenton.  Rall was at the house of a local merchant, Abraham Hunt. He handed Colonel Rall a note to warn him of the advancing army. Colonel Rall couldn't be bothered with reading it but put it into his pocket, because he was too busy playing - and here some histories say cards, yet others say chess.

I should think it was chess. A game of cards wouldn't hinder conversation or the reading of short notes, whereas chess can be all-consuming. Rall never read the note. Washington caught him and his troops by surprise. Rall was shot while retreating, the note still in his pocket. This historic victory was the turning point of our Revolution. It gave hope to what had been the waning faith of the American soldiery and the young nation. If this anecdote is true, it demonstrates the peril of this intensive game of chess and the dangers inherent to playing it.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"