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Jewish World Review June 16, 2004 / 27 Sivan, 5764

Neil Steinberg

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Consumer Reports


How 8-year-old made dad a pawn in his own game


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Usually, I have no trouble blurting out the most alarming details about myself. Call it a gift. When today's subject struck me, however, I felt chilled. Dare I confess? Have I the fortitude to utter the word?

Chess. I like chess. There, I've said it. I half expect the metro editor to come bursting into my office, plant his palms on my desk, stick his face too close to mine and sneer, his voice dripping with South Side sarcasm: "Chehhhsssss? You like chehhhsss, ya limp-wristed pantywaist North Sider. We don't want any chehhhssss in our newspaper!"

The door remains empty. The heavens did not crack. Liberating — chess chess chess. I'm free.

Sure, a number of readers — perhaps most, perhaps all — are at the very mention of the word hurrying toward Phil Rosenthal's column.

I am speaking to the shamed few, those who, like me, have spent their lives pressing games on their indifferent pals, accepting their glares of hostility.

Somebody must speak up for the maligned game of kings. Does chess get bad press? No, actually, it gets no press. We all know the image the game has. I barely have to outline it: a complex, boring ordeal endured by brainiacs and oddball losers. A pastime whose greatest hero — Bobby Fisher — is a world-class nutjob straight out of a psychiatric textbook. All true.

Beauty despite the slander

True, but only on the surface. There is so much more to chess than rules and openings. I wouldn't recommend becoming one of those who surrender to learning the Kotov-Robatsch and the Queen's Indian Defense and all the rest. I can hardly think three moves ahead, but attempt a strategy built around a few tricks and traps, blundering forward as best I can. Sort of how I live life.

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That'll have to be enough. I'm alarmed at the number of people who don't know how to play and don't care to learn. The game is not difficult — indeed, it is simplicity itself. Sixty-four light and dark squares. Two sides (one black, one white, talk about a classic Chicago situation) of 16 pieces. Half are pawns, the other half pairs of rooks, knights, bishops and a single king and queen. The bishops move diagonally, the knights hop a little L shape — and so on.

Chess has a beauty so deep I barely know where to begin. The pure lines of the pieces — the crenelated rooks, the flared nostrils of the knights, the enigmatic cross atop the king. The two armies face each other, perfectly balanced except for the slight advantage of white going first (an advantage so great that at advanced levels it is thought that black can't win.)

That may be what sours people to chess. The idea of it being a game of smarts — that if you are brainy enough, you'll win — seems almost anti-American. There is no luck in chess, no burst of wind, no soggy field. That's why people avoid it. No one to blame but yourself. To lose to someone in chess is very close to admitting they are just better than you are.

Believe me, I know. I taught my 8-year-old to play when he was 3, and after years of gently indulging him, suddenly — with the help of a weekend class and lots of tournaments — he has grown into a wicked strategist who can dust me at will. It's shocking. I wish this limited form could convey the bottomless surprise I go through when he beats me. We are playing at the lovely Italian chess table in my office — say early in the morning, as I nurse the first cup of coffee of the day. Or late in the evening, with a brandy.

Ross starts his typical way — the standard king's pawn. He is, like his old man, a creature of habit. I try to throw him, to rock him back on his heels. Try anything new and halfway defensible. And it seems to work. I'm moving in for the kill, happy, confident, thinking about the naivete of little boys, when next thing I know it's over. I'm checkmated. A trap; the little Dickens allowed me to unfold my pathetic plan, knowing that his would bear fruit exactly one move ahead of mine. "The boy's a brick wall," I tell my wife.

Losing is bad. And as much as I hate it, I realize, if it is the cost of playing, so be it. If every minute he spends on computer games is a minute wasted, then every minute we play chess is a minute preserved. I can't tell you how many times I've narrowed my eyes, and tried to absorb him, sitting there. I try to store it away, for retrieval on those days certain to come when his mom and I are rattling around the big empty house wishing one of the boys would call.

Checkmated again

There is a cost. He once beat me six times in a row. I should have been proud. The stripling, surprising the sire. But I wasn't. I was shocked and almost angry. No wonder people don't want to play. It was frustration itself to have my attacks brushed in a way almost like judo. He would leave a soft spot open, I would rush my forces into it, thinking "candy from a baby'' and a move or two before my trap is sprung, he springs his.

Finding myself checkmated again and again by an 8-year-old inspired me, for the first time in decades, to study the openings again, and that helped. Age and guile, as P.J. O'Rourke says, beat youth and a bad haircut. Lately I've been winning games again. It's a ruthless business. Just don't let anyone tell you chess is for sissies. Chess rocks.



JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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