This may backfire quickly
Ah! The May Two-Four weekend. Victoria Day. What Canadians young and old laughingly associate with the start of spring, that mythical time when snow stops falling and people wander into the garden to initiate hernias. Is it any wonder that at times like this, a man’s thoughts wander to barbecues and beer?
Miraculously, this year, in addition to palpably not taking place anywhere near May 24, the May Two-Four weekend has actually coincided with the start of the vernal season. The buds have appeared on the trees, the birds have been roused from their slumbers, and the sound of lawnmowers (mowing what, exactly?) is carried on the gentle breeze. For Ottawacker Jr., this season has also been synonymous with an introduction to chess.
Chess. Oh My God. I used to fancy myself a bit of a chess player. As with my downhill skiing prowess, this notion came from the complete impossibility of measuring my ability against anyone else. As I zoomed down the artificial slope at Bebington in May, passing the hapless four year-olds and assembled geriatrics with something approaching aplomb, I could see myself representing Great Britain in the winter Olympics. I might not win gold, but I might conceivably make the podium.
This notion lasted until I went on my first skiing trip with the school (to a place near Malcesine in the Dolomites, if you are interested). I can remember the exact moment; I was working away on the green slope, feeling pretty confident that I had mastered the technique of snowploughing (after only six days of intensive lessons) when I was passed by a woman pushing a stroller. This, not unnaturally, caused me to fall over. But there was no mistake – a woman on skis was pushing a stroller with a toddler in it down the green slope. Quicker than me. My hopes of Olympic glory disappeared in a flash, never to return.
It was the same thing with chess. In Liverpool in the late 70s, those that played chess were an élite band of intellectuals (or so we liked to think). In my school, there were only two of us that admitted to playing and I was comfortably the second best. Nonetheless, when the headmaster announced there would be a Chess Congress, I signed up with all the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old being told he had to go and represent the school or resit the extra chemistry test my appalling exam marks had warranted.
The Congress itself – always capitalized, no idea why – took place in a technical college somewhere in Liverpool city centre, so off I went on a Saturday morning to bring glory to my school. In the first game, I was paired with someone so fat his arms couldn’t reach the board (he must have had a lunette cut out for him in his school to be able to play) so I won by default. This was going to be easy. Similarly, in the second game, my opponent took his allotted 15 minutes deciding on his opening gambit. So I made it out of my qualifying group with ease.
It was in the second group phase that things started to get a little more difficult; now, I was playing against people who had some rudimentary knowledge of the game. I struggled to a draw in the first game, but had been somewhat distracted by the clash going on at the next table between the other two participants in my group. It wasn’t so much that they were loud, it was the speed at which they were playing. Move, slap the clock; move, slap the clock; move, slap the clock… While I was sitting there with my tongue firmly clenched between my teeth pondering which of my pawns I should move first, they were both moving up and down and around the board with ease, capturing pieces and nodding heads as they assessed the board with the same look of respect for each other’s strategic intelligence that I imagine Rommel and Montgomery had for each other in the desert.
They too managed a draw. So when the second game came, all four of us were in a tie to progress to the knockout phase of the congress, taking place that afternoon. The second game was over in under five minutes. I still don’t know how I managed to lose without taking a single piece, but I did. Still, that was a triumph compared to the final game. That lasted six moves. I could feel my cheeks burning in shame as I scarpered out of the Congress, dreams shattered.
Worse was to come. In assembly, the headmaster announced the results of the Congress to the congregated school. The two participants were called up to the stage to be congratulated on their efforts; one of us had done well and reached the quarter final. The other one was me. Still, I had managed two wins and a draw and had been beaten apparently by the losing finalist. I slunk back to my seat well aware that my results did not sound impressive and were in fact a lot less impressive than they sounded. And I have never forgotten the difference between someone who can play chess, and someone who can play chess well…
So, when Ottawacker Jr. mentioned casually that his friend wanted to play chess against him on ZOOM, it was with a certain reluctance that I blew the dust off the chess pieces and set up the board to teach him the basics. It’ll only be a matter of days before he beats me.