THE CHESS MATCH

 

Many years ago, in a previous century, in fact, a chess match took place between an American player from Boston and another from New Orleans, who it was also presumed was American, although his complexion was unusually tan and his stovepipe hat extraordinarily high. This one wore fine suits that had a silken quality to them, and smelled of an exotic cologne not favored by Americans. But his English appeared impeccable, although he preferred to cast nervous glances all around, as if on the lookout for some tireless enemy who he was desperate to elude, than to speak to his fellow man. Only when he sat before the chessboard did calmness return to him; somehow, the board soothed him, as the lyre of Orpheus soothed the savage bears and lions of other ages. The air of the awkward fugitive deserted him, and something almost regal seemed to invade his veins, transforming him into a personality of historic proportions. What the piano did for Mozart, the chessboard did for him.

The great match occurred in New York City during a major tournament which had attracted some attention, and chess enthusiasts, as well as young and idle men intrigued by the mysterious game which was said to be able to mold and elevate the powers of the human mind, flocked into the stark but receptive chess club in the Greenwich Village part of town, which was the site of the contest, to benefit as they could from it. The young dilettantes hoped to convince those who had urged them to attend that they were serious about sharpening the slumbering edge of their logic, which pleasure had dulled, while they took advantage to observe the intelligent and open-minded ladies who came to witness such spectacles. The chess enthusiasts, for their part, had come to see a great chess match: they respected the solid skills and strength of purpose of the player from Boston, but hoped that the unorthodox player from New Orleans, who alternated between mesmerizing brilliance and a pitiful state of distraction which spawned innumerable blunders, would give them something to remember. The one, like a patient man sawing down a tree, was admirable; but the other was riveting, sometimes like a comet blazing in the sky, sometimes like a man falling off a horse.

"Youíre a chess fan, then?" one of the enthusiasts asked a young, poorly-dressed man who stood beside him in the room, at a slight distance from the table where the two fine players sat pitted against one another.

"Not much," the young man replied. "But Iíve been told itís good for the mind. If I can learn something that can help me to get out of the jam Iím in, itíll be a day well spent."

"A jam?" the enthusiast asked, his curiosity piqued.

"Well, just a little jam," the young man said. "I shouldnít even mention it." The expression on his neighborís face required that something more be said, so the young man concluded: "My head is filled with ideas, but Iím living in a friendís basement across the river. New Jersey," he admitted. "I like mechanical things, but the world seems to demand instant results. The future is stunted by the obsession with the present. Employers wish their workers to die for them, and have no interest in what they might do after hours with a few drops of leftover energy. One look out the window strikes them as an act of treason."

"So youíve had hard luck with employers, have you?" the enthusiast asked him.

The young man shrugged. "I suppose theyíve had a harder time with me," he mused. "The time I damaged the bossí desk, quite by accident. Well, no need to go into details."

The enthusiast noted that he had to speak rather loudly in order for the young man to hear him, and was rather surprised, because usually only men of sixty or seventy years have such a degraded auditory capability, and must lean their ear close to one in order to carry on a conversation. As inevitably happens when speaking to the impaired, oneís whispers soon ascend to the volume of regular speech, and that is as blasphemous in a chess hall as it is in a church. A referee for the match silenced the two members of the audience with a piercing look, as an attendant moved giant pieces on a chessboard on the wall, replicating the moves being made by the two grandmasters on the smaller chess board on the table. The pieces on the huge vertical board, which hung like a painting from the wall, were attached to that board by a mild yet effective adhesive.

"A basic kingís pawn opening," the enthusiast noted. "The Ruy Lopez." He glanced over at the young man, and whispered, twice: "The hearing? You have poor hearing, or is it that my speech is unclear? My grandmother is almost deaf. She used to be able to hear a pin drop."

The young man answered him by clenching his two hands into fists, lifting them up to his head, and making the short, fierce motion of boxing his ears. "Never enrage a train man who is behind schedule," he explained.

"You were a child?"

"Of course. Men are able to fight back."

"Iím sorry."

Now, it was the young manís turn to ask a question. "And you Ė you know the game well? I know the rules, but, at this point, not much more. They say itís great training for the mind."

"I do know it well," the chess enthusiast informed him. "Without intending to boast, I play it quite well; not well enough to beat the likes of these, but well enough to appreciate them. I am like a trained jeweler, who, by looking at a stone with my glass, can assess its value; but they are like the earth, itself, which makes the jewels."

"Who will win?" the young man asked after a while, looking at the pieces changing positions and spreading out, like petals opening on a flower, on the great observation board above them.

"So far," the chess enthusiast replied, "the position is pretty even."

"Based on their histories?"

"Based on their histories, the edge would have to go to our friend from Boston. He is more consistent. But our good friend from the South is a more audacious and exciting player. His great weakness is his insistence on winning with style. He would almost rather lose a thrilling match, than win a boring one. He is like a cook who will not make oatmeal; he must prepare a banquet of exotic and difficult dishes from around the world, or else he will not cook at all. He is known for his daring combinations, his brilliant sacrifices, and his questionable gambles which both astonish and horrify us. We never know how they are going to turn out. Once, I saw him put his queen en prise."

"I take it thatís bad?"

"Itís only like sinking the most powerful ship in your own fleet. But another time, I saw him promote his pawn into a knight to achieve a most dazzling checkmate."

Observing the young manís puzzlement, the enthusiast explained: "The pawn is the weakest piece on the board, the foot-soldier of chess. But if you can succeed in pushing him all the way down the board to the enemyís back row, you can trade him in for any piece you wish to; typically, you transform him into the queen, which is the most powerful piece on the board, the most mobile and hard-hitting of all. In this way, your weakest piece suddenly has become your strongest."

"It sounds a bit like Heaven. The last shall be first. Though Iíd rather be first here and there."

"However, according to the rules, you can change the pawn into any piece," the enthusiast explained. "And in the particular game in question, it served him better to promote his pawn, not into a queen, but into a less powerful knight, simply because the knight, alone of all pieces, is able to jump over other pieces, and to exert its influence on the board through the air, as it were. By converting his advanced pawn into a knight, he was able to concoct, with the other assets he had in the vicinity, a most brilliant checkmate, which would not have been possible with a queen."

Without fully understanding, the young man comprehended the cleverness of the act, and the clout of the free mind which had produced it. Observing the enthusiast shaking his head, the young man asked him: "Whatís wrong?"

"A mediocre move, now, by our dear Southerner," the enthusiast replied, staring at the giant board on the wall. "He is so easily distracted. He seems to tire of the ordinary, to punish what does not interest him by withdrawing his attention from it."

"He will hurt only himself."

"He will also hurt the potential of this match. He is like an artist throwing a bucket of paint over a work which still might be a masterpiece. He will never be the best, because he is not satisfied by victory alone; trying to make victory artful, he slips and falls! Just like a careless man in the bathroom, who cracks his head open on the tiles." Disappointed, the enthusiast shook his head again.

The young man stared at the great board, attempting to discern the mistake.

Seeing that he could not find it, the enthusiast explained the consequences of the bad move. "It is not a disastrous move, but it is a weak move. Our friend from Boston will not let it pass by unnoticed. He will pounce on it. Like an eagle drawn to the shaking of a bush on the ground below. The poor rabbit who is inside the bush has just given himself away." And the enthusiast demonstrated to the young observer just how easily the methodical Bostonian was about to dismantle the Southernerís position.

Sure enough, the Southernerís ramparts of pieces began to crack, to reel backwards; even the untrained eye could sense the otherís power beginning to penetrate and threaten, the bastions of characters that mark the chessboard breached, insinuation giving way to assault. But this, once more, made the game interesting to the Southerner, who suddenly lashed back like a wounded tiger with a move that seemed perfectly innocuous to the young man, but which made the enthusiast gasp as though a spear had just been hurled into the spectator standing right beside them. "The Southernerís fighting back!" the enthusiast tried to whisper. It was more of a shout, but the referee was distracted by a round of cheers which the crowd could not suppress, and he had to remind them that this was not the kind of sporting event in which boisterous behavior is tolerated. By the time the audience was quieted, he had forgotten to reprimand the enthusiast, who told the young man: "The position is no longer anchored; it is wide open and dangerous for both players. This is the medium our friend loves best! Anything can happen now!"

To the delight of the spectators, the Bostonian, so unlike himself, chose to respond to the counterattack not by pulling back and regrouping, as was his norm, but by pressing his attack more vigorously than ever; so that now, it seemed that both of the grand masters were rushing towards the otherís jugular, utterly oblivious to their own safety. It was like two pugilists going toe to toe, each of them throwing devastating knockout punches without any regard for their own exposed jaws.

"Someone is going to have to back down soon," the enthusiast said.

"Your friend has miscalculated," another enthusiast, who seemed to know even more, told the enthusiast who had befriended the young man. This new expert ran off a series of moves, a likely development generated from the current position, and demonstrated that the Bostonian now had a decisive edge in tempo. "He will win the race up the Matterhorn. He is one move ahead. His knife will strike first." When the young manís enthusiast offered a counter-scenario to the speculative progression discovered by the other, the other quickly dismissed it with a new set of probable retaliations.

"Youíre right," the enthusiast agreed. "The Southerner is on his way to being a day late and a dollar short." A moment later, however, the enthusiast took hope again, as the Southerner seemed to put together a strong defensive position around his beleaguered King, the piece that is the heart of the game, whose capture Ė or, more accurately, inability to escape capture, for his capture is never actually allowed - spells defeat. "Our friend is going to hold out, and in the meantime, heís going to queen his pawn!" the enthusiast exclaimed.

But once more, the superior chess expert came in to burst the bubble. It was not that he was an iconoclast, he was more of a doctor who specialized in curing false expectations. "The defensive position may be broken through if the Bostonian sacrifices his bishop and rook," he pointed out. "It will be an impressive checkmate, full of drama, and worthy of our friend from New Orleans, who will this time be on the losing end of the brilliance which he admires more than victory itself."

Reluctantly, the young manís enthusiast had to agree with him. "Well Ė itís been an exciting game," he said, licking the wounds of having identified too much with the maverick. "At least heís made a fight of it."

"He should resign," the expert complained, as the moves, now drained of their mystery, rushed quickly towards the inevitable. "Heís still barreling along like it matters if he queens his pawn. Heíll queen it, and next move will be checkmate. Heíll never get the chance to use his new piece."

All of them watched the great, theatrical sacrifices of the Bostonian as though a meteor shower were passing through the room, as he hurled his bishop and rook against the ramparts of the Southerner, battering open his position and setting up the inevitable checkmate. "Mate in one," the expert griped. A gentleman, as men from the South are supposed to be Ė but perhaps he was not an American, after all Ė is supposed to gracefully resign when the situation is so hopeless, and to offer a handshake, in the place of continued resistance, to his conqueror.

But no, the Southerner pushed on, he made what was certain to be his last move before hearing the inevitable word "Check mate!", and pushed his surviving wayward pawn forward to the final row of his opponentís side, ready to queen it, to mightily increase its power, but one fatal move off tempo.

But that is when time seemed to stop. The spectators observed the look of amusement on the face of the Bostonian and the puzzlement of the referee, who seemed to become embroiled in some kind of debate with the Southerner, then backed off and merely scratched his head. But since a chess match could not end in this way, he finally went over to another finely-dressed gentleman, a sort of superior referee, who came over to talk to the Southerner, then withdrew in an equal state of confusion. Agitated, the crowd looked to the giant board on the wall, but no new move appeared. Instead, a third official of some standing appeared, after a brief discussion with all concerned left the hall, and returned about five minutes later holding a copy of the rules of chess in his hands, which he took over to the eccentric Southerner, who was now standing on his feet, and pointing to the pages with great avidity. His rival stood up behind him, appearing to protest and to grimace in disbelief.

"Any idea whatís happening?" the young man asked the enthusiast.

"Not a clue," the enthusiast said. "Except that it appears to me that there is some dispute about the rules, themselves."

At last, whispers of what was happening drifted back to the place that the young man was standing with the enthusiast, from spectators who were much closer to the game table, and in a position to hear what was happening. One of these spectators had his own set of rules out and was frantically turning the pages, as though what he were holding were a treasure map and he might be on the verge of becoming rich.

"My God! It canít be! What a mad idea!" exclaimed the enthusiast. The chess expert who had constantly bettered the enthusiastís imagination throughout the night merely stared, in shock, at the board, then thrust himself into the middle of the crowd poring over the rules.

"Whatís going on?" the young man asked. "Am I allowed to know, or is it only a secret for the initiated?"

Although the rules of chess have subsequently been changed, or it might be said, clarified - specifically because of this amazing match - in those days the rule books clearly stated that the King was "a piece", and that "the pawn which reaches the back row of the opponentís side may be promoted to any piece." Usually, as previously stated, that piece was the Queen, who is the most powerful character on the board; but in a previous game, the Southerner had converted his pawn into a Knight, to facilitate a most remarkable victory. Now, he had decided to outdo even himself. "Clearly, the rules permit him to convert his pawn into a King!" the man holding the book of rules exclaimed.

All throughout the hall, there were isolated clusters of great commotion grouped around the most perceptive minds, not all connected to each other at first, but gradually beginning to spread outwards like waves, as speculations traveled across the room, until they finally established contact with each other to engulf the entire venue, denying a single spot of tranquility to the mind which craved peace. At this moment, it seemed that the chess hall had become something very much akin to a racetrack, filled with boisterous, drunken crowds who have placed large bets, cheering on the galloping horses. "He has the right! He has the right!" someone was shouting. "He has lured his opponent to throw away his advantage in pieces by creating the opportunity for his opponent to checkmate him with a decisive combination based on sacrifices. But now, just as he is about to be checkmated, he has created a new King, in a new place, out of danger! His position is superior, and he is now leading in material Ė he is going to win the match!"

"Not so fast," someone else protested. "He can make a King out of a pawn, very well. Whoever heard of such a thing, surely they must rewrite the rules! But for now, it is permitted. But, the rules also state: The game ends when the King is placed in check (threatened with capture) and no remaining response allows this condition to be overcome. Therefore, it does not matter that your friend has created a new King: the master from Boston can end the game by checkmating the original King. Your friend from New Orleans, by spawning a second King, has not evaded his demise, he has only doubled his vulnerability!"

But now someone with good ears was objecting. He had heard the arguments flying around the game board, itself. "It is the contention of our friend from New Orleans that the creation of a new King renders irrelevant the term the King. As soon as there are two Kings, each one of them becomes a King. Therefore, the rule which states that the game ends when the King is mated, cannot take effect until there is only one King left on the board."

"Is this law or is this chess?" someone protested angrily. "I lost a great deal of money due to a clever lawyer! I have no interest to see them invade the holy land of our beautiful chessboard, to set up camp in the midst of our 64 sacred squares."

"Bah, this has nothing to do with lawyers!" another retorted. "It has to do with the gift which the genius has to smash through old assumptions, to liberate himself from the customs and habits which constrain the ordinary, to discover the enormous unused space which exists within our human limitations. Our true borders are not physical, they are mental. When we expand the way we think, the little hovels we live in becomes continents. This is not like a court case, this is like sailing around the earth which others still believe is flat, itís like discovering America. And our friend, here, is no lawyer: he is Columbus; he is Copernicus!"

As the crowd pondered and sought to digest these thoughts, another exhilarated witness explained: "The Southerner is quoting ancient history to the referees. The two kings of Sparta. His contention is that chess is a game based upon the idea of war, and that in reality, the kingdom does not fall if one of two kings die. That is the point of having two kings in the first place Ė to preserve the empire in the face of the death of one!"

"This is unknown territory Ė unknown territory!" gasped another. "Like the Amazon Ė like the Belgian Congo! There is no map!"

"But there are two great masters, a disputed match, and a tournament which hangs in the balance! How can the referees make an objective ruling under such heated conditions?"

"The Bostonian is raging that he cannot be denied victory by what he is calling a pure Ďmagicianís trickí; that the organizers of the tournament have no right to reinvent the rules in order to dethrone him, just to please the crowd. The Southerner, on the other hand, counters that the rules are not being reinvented, but followed, as no one before has ever thought to follow them. The Bostonian is saying that if the referees allow the move, anarchy will result: chess without rules. The Southerner says that if the move is disallowed, chess will have chosen to crush the imagination and to stunt the gameís growth forever: turned it into a static and timid wasteland of predictable outcomes and exhausted possibilities. He should be a statesman, the Southerner: he proclaims: The choice which you face is this: to suppress a revolution which could beautify chess and forever ennoble its lore, or to clip its wings with caution, and send it marching in the direction of all conservative regimes, towards irrelevance and extinction."

By now, the passions were as deep as rivers, the entire hall was shaking, in fact, and the architect of the place, who happened to be in attendance that day, was fearful that the ceiling might collapse. He tried to warn the audience about the danger of the vibrations which their pounding feet were imparting to the structure, but finally decided that his best option was to leave. He was the only one who did so. Only his special knowledge of physics was able to tear him away from the thrill of history in the act of being made.

At last, the troubled referees, who seemed to have aged ten years in the turbulent twenty minutes which separated the Southernerís intended move from their decision, stepped forward to announce that the passion of the moment could not be resisted. Before anyone could actually hear them speak, the decision was made clear by the furious departure of the Bostonian, who seemed to leave behind him a deluge of words more to be expected from the sailing captains of his region, than from a chess player. He threw his arms up over his head in exasperation, like a poor actor in a Greek tragedy, although his rage was undeniably genuine, and then he was gone, and there was only the smiling Southerner standing up and taking bows, and the somewhat frightened attendant placing the figure of a second King on the great board on the wall.

As the Bostonian did not officially resign, he lost via disqualification. News of the victory became official only ten minutes after the general celebration had started: for although Boston had much more in common with New York than New Orleans, chess lovers are patriots of genius far more than they are of city or state.

The young man accepted the huge embrace of the overwhelmed enthusiast who had befriended him, even though he was almost squeezed to death as if he were in the coils of a python; and he thanked him for explaining the subtleties of the game to him. "You have witnessed history! You have witnessed history!" the enthusiast told him, patting him on the back, with actual tears coming out of his eyes. "You have seen the apple fall on Sir Isaac Newtonís head!"

"You have seen Napoleonís victory at Austerlitz!" shouted another.

"You have witnessed history," concluded the chess enthusiast.

The young man, whose life was disappointing and not easy, staggered out of the tumultuous chess hall back into the fresh air, greatly moved by what he had seen.

He heard someone else complaining, as she stepped into her carriage: "So much commotion, over such a little chess board!"

"The board extends outwards in all directions; the whole world is on it!" he told her. She thought he meant to strike up a conversation with her and did not like the way he looked, so she told the driver "Iím in a hurry", and they were gone.

"Will it help you Ė help you to deal with your troubles, to think more clearly about your problems?" the enthusiast asked him, staggering out of the hall without one of the buttons on his coat, and with his hair in utter disarray; he was determined to invite the young man, who did not seem to be doing too well, to dinner, as a reward for his interest in the game.

"Oh yes," the young man said. "In fact, I am certain that this game shall change my life. Games are trifles, but they give rise to mountains. They suggest to us courses of action in the world." He nodded, with light in his eyes, a whole awakened world now inside of him. The tiny chess board had whispered something grandiose in his ear.

The partisans of the Southerner were disappointed to hear, some months later, that the higher authorities appointed to oversee the conduct of the game of chess throughout the lands in which it was played, had revoked the brilliant playerís victory and transformed his win into a draw, in an effort to satisfy all parties. By so doing, they removed their support for innovation, and blurred the meaning of one of the greatest games ever played. They took the most brilliant jewel from the crown of chess and cast it away into the abyss of tradition (thereby excluding it from tradition). And to insure that nothing of the sort would ever happen again, they rewrote the rules of chess to clearly state that: upon reaching the back row of the opponentís side, the pawn may be promoted into a Queen, a Rook, a Knight, or a Bishop. Thus, they destroyed the context of chessí greatest moment, as the ocean rolling up onto the shore erases footprints in the sand.

To this day, chess remains an extraordinary game, blessed, it seems, with as many possible moves as the innumerable grains of rice which the wise man of the fairy tale extracted from his ingenuous monarch, who vastly underestimated the ability of the chessboard to magnify the infinitesimal. Though hundreds of thousands of games have been played throughout the centuries, chess has not yet run out of variations and surprises. And yet, because of the subtraction of this one great game from the history of chess, chess is no longer what it was, and will never be all that it could have been. The sky, with a million stars in it, but without Venus blazing like a torch, would be a lesser sky.

And yet, the brilliant withdrawn game served its purpose. It was not in vain. A young man, surrounded by obstacles, saw it before it was trimmed, and learned that by liberating ourselves from the paths our thoughts most commonly take, we are sometimes able to get to places we could not reach before; places which we may never even have imagined existed. He learned that along with determination, pushing forward with its iron resolve, we also need flexibility. Although genius may be 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, what is often overlooked is the fact that a great deal of that perspiration is channeled into the service of an inspiration. The 99% is the scout of the inspiration, and provides muscle and back to the inspiration; it does not stand apart from the inspiration or replace it.

Thanks to this amazing chess match, now revoked by history, which the young man was guided to by instinct and by the friendship of Destiny, he learned the power of inspiration, and detected its great force lying dormant within his own mind and his own heart. Returning across the river to his impoverished abode in New Jersey, he set to work to make the dreams that had caused him to be such a failure in the world bear fruit. He would go on to invent the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture. He was Thomas Alva Edison.

 

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