One of my favorite movies was on today, Searching for Bobby Fischer; Joe Mantegna is a sportswriter who is surprised to find out that his 11-year old son is a chess prodigy. It is a great movie: Mantegna, Ben Kingsley, Lawrence Fishburne, William H Macy.
Anyway, when I was in 8th grade 50 years ago, chess was a big deal. Bobby Fischer was a quirky chess grandmaster who was playing Russian Boris Spassky for the world title, and it got a ton of attention— for a couple years in the early 70’s, chess was a big deal.
A friend of my parents had taught me how to play; in May of 1973, there was a tournament of all the Catholic grade schools in Albany County, probably 50 or so kids on a Saturday morning. Two kids from our school went; I had never beaten the other kid. Ever.
So our 8th grade teacher picks us up at the other kid’s house to go to the tournament, but we played a game before he got there, and I beat him. This had never happened before.
We get to the tournament, played in a ratty old gym, and the games begin. I won my first game, but the other kid, who seriously was a much better player than me, he got beat and just like that, he was eliminated. He very rarely played sports as a kid, and the competition apparently wasn’t his thing. I sucked at sports, but enjoyed playing.
Thinking about it, it was a lot like the scenes in this movie; just a bunch of nerdy kids hunched over chess boards, studying their moves.
While my parents’ friend taught me how to play chess, I had my own ideas, which weren’t better ideas, but I was incapable of grinding out moves, playing patterns, the way great players do.
I just played fast, got my queen out as quickly as possible, tried to do damage with the queen, and it often got people off their games, because it was different.
So I win two more games, and now there are a lot fewer kids in the gym; my 4th game, the board is set up with plastic chess pieces. My opponent requests that we switch to a wooden chess set, a classic Bobby Fischer mind game move, which I had no idea of at the time.
He crushed me, not even close and my teacher took the two of us home. I was happy that at least I won a few games— had never played in a tournament before.
The phone rings in our house and it is a nun from the chess tournament; I had lost, but I wasn’t done playing yet, there were still games to be played to determine who won the championship, so my father drove me back to the gym and he had to sit there watching his nerdy kid play chess.
I won two more games, and the whole event came down to this: I was playing this girl in the last game of the tournament. If she won, she won the championship and I finished 3rd.
If I won, the jerk who beat me won the championship and I finished 2nd. (don’t ask, I can’t remember how/why they ran the tournament like this, but they did)
Seriously, I didn’t like that kid after he beat me; I went over to look at the 2nd/3rd place prizes. If the 3rd place prize was good, I was considering losing on purpose so he wouldn’t win the tournament, but the 3rd place price was cruddy, and the 2nd place prize was this small plastic scroll that at least looked like a trophy, so I tried to win.
(This is where I realize that I was an over-thinker, even at age 13)
Anyway, we sit down and play the last game; my opponent was very nervous; her hand was shaking when she moved her chess pieces. It didn’t take long to beat her, and the jerk won the championship trophy.
50 years later, the small plastic scroll is still hanging in my living room. That was a fun day.