Authors: David Klass
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To my two favorite patzers, Gabriel and Madeleine, and to my grandmaster of an editor, Frances Foster
“A mind saturated with one idea to the exclusion of all others is necessarily predisposed to mania, and if a man allows himself to regard Chess as the one fact of existence, thereby starving his mind, which, like the body, requires a variety of food, then the texture of the strongest brain must become weakened, and the reason sooner or later be overthrown.”
—William Norwood Potter,
The City of London Chess Magazine
Chess club was done for the day, and so was I. I had played three games that afternoon, two of which I’d managed to lose in the first fifteen moves. I tried to remind myself that I had just taken up the game six months ago and was still learning the basics, but there were times when I wanted to heave the nearest chess set out the window and never touch another rook or pawn again.
I pulled on my coat and headed out the door. Suddenly a hand yanked me back into the empty room and I found myself alone with the two senior co-captains of the chess team, Eric Chisolm and Brad Kinney. “We need to talk to you, Patzer-face,” Eric said as Brad locked the door.
A “patzer” in chess speak is a beginner who barely knows the moves and is a pushover to beat. It’s like being called a combination of chump, rookie, and dufus. Given the unfortunate similarity of my name to “patzer,” I had been called it many times since I first walked in the door of the chess club. But “Patzer-face” was a new twist by the co-captains that I didn’t particularly like. “Actually my name’s Pratzer,” I stammered, glancing from one to the other to try to figure out what was going on.
Eric Chisolm was senior class president, a turbo-charged student and a superachiever with intense black eyes who had never gotten less than an A in his life. He was a grind—maybe not brilliant but he outworked everyone else. He literally could never sit still—even when Eric played chess he was always fidgeting, getting up for water, and pacing behind his chair, probably doing his calculus homework in his head while figuring out a next move that would destroy his opponent. He was the son of a heart surgeon, and everyone knew he was going to be the valedictorian, go to Harvard, and discover the cure for cancer.
Brad Kinney was less intense but more naturally talented. He was tall and rugged, with a grade point average that glittered as brightly as the huge trophies he won as captain of the swimming team and contributed to our school’s trophy case. For fun, and maybe to make us all even a little more jealous, he dated the prettiest girl in the freshman class. He was the best chess player in our club—a master at eighteen who regularly won local and regional tournaments.
At another school the two of them probably wouldn’t have been caught dead on the chess club, but Loon Lake Academy had the oldest and strongest chess team in New Jersey—the Looney Knights—and it was cool to be on it, especially if you were Eric Chisolm or Brad Kinney.
I was not Eric or Brad—I was Daniel Pratzer, apparently also known in certain circles as Patzer-face. I was not tall or brilliant or rich. The admissions office must have accepted me because it was a weak year and my combination of mediocre scholarship and undistinguished extracurriculars was just enough to pass muster.
My grade average hovered above C
, resisting all my attempts to lift it into the B range like an airplane that has reached its operational ceiling and can’t gain a few more feet of desperately needed altitude. I could play a bunch of sports reasonably well, but the electrifying soccer run and the diving baseball catch forever eluded me. I had decided to join the chess club on a whim. The school sports teams practiced for more than two hours every day, and since I was still struggling with the homework load I didn’t have enough free time or ability for them. Chess met every Tuesday, and I thought the club might be a good way to make some new friends.
“We know what your name is, Patzer-face,” Eric said. “That’s why we need to talk to you.”
“What about my name?” I began to ask.
“Sit down and shut your trap,” Brad advised with his usual charm.
I sat at a desk and waited nervously. Was this some kind of freshman chess club initiation? Would they do something awful to me with rooks and bishops, leaving scars that would last for the rest of my life? I had only been at Loon Lake Academy for seven months, and had so far managed to fly under the radar of the cool-and-cruel crowd.
I glanced from one senior co-captain to the other and tried to figure out what these two towering school icons could possibly want from me.
“What are you doing this weekend?” Eric asked.
“Nothing special,” I told him. “Staying home. Watching some junk on TV. Rethreading my sheets.”
“Rethreading your what?”
“It was a joke,” I explained.
“His sense of humor’s worse than his chess playing,” Eric grunted to Brad.
“You’re not going to be rethreading anything this weekend,” Brad told me. “Don’t make any plans.”
“What’s this about?”
Brad plunked his big frame down on the desk next to my chair and folded his arms, staring at me with his bright blue eyes. It didn’t seem fair that a guy who could swim fifty meters in thirty seconds and had the physique of a Viking raiding-party chieftain was also a chess master, with a rating well above the 2200 norm. “We know about your father,” Brad announced.
“Huh?” I gulped. What was there to know about Morris Pratzer except that he was the shortest, baldest, and no doubt poorest father to ever send a child to Loon Lake Academy? He was practically mortgaging our house so that his only son could go to this fancy private school.
I don’t mean to be critical—my dad’s a good guy who works long hours at his accounting firm and sacrifices everything for his family. He also has a lighter side and some notable hidden talents that he sometimes reveals at parties: he can wiggle his ears, arch his eyebrows in opposite directions, and do a half-decent Elvis impersonation, but he’s not the sort of “A-Lister” that people suddenly dig up revelations about.
“There’s a chess tournament this weekend in New York,” Eric said, as if that explained everything.
“Didn’t see it on our schedule…” I replied cautiously. The truth is I rarely looked at the tournament schedule because I wasn’t on the five-member travel team. Nor was I on the seven-member backup team. I was on the euphemistically titled Regular Reserve Roster, which meant they would use me when necessary—which was no doubt never unless a comet struck Loon Lake and killed the dozen players ahead of me.
“That’s ’cause it’s not a regular school tournament,” Brad cut me off. “It’s a new kind of tournament. A father-son tournament. Each team needs six players to enter—three fathers and three sons. It’s at the Palace Royale Hotel in New York City. There’s twenty thousand dollars in prize money. Ten grand for first place. Do you understand now?”
No, I didn’t understand. Eric and Brad were strong players and I knew their fathers were both experts, but I was a patzer and my dad had never played a game of chess in his life. When I joined the club and brought some pieces home, I offered to teach him how they moved. “No thanks, Daniel,” he said, laughing. “I don’t have the mind for it.”
I looked back at Eric and Brad and shook my head. “I don’t get it. I won’t help you much and my dad doesn’t play.”
Eric dug out a piece of paper. I saw that it was some kind of computer printout. “Your father is Morris W. Pratzer?” he asked, like a prosecuting attorney nailing an evasive witness.
“We needed one more father-son to join us so we ran the dads of all club members through the Chess Federation ratings database, going back three decades.”
He showed me the paper. My father’s name and rating were there with an asterisk because his rating hadn’t changed in almost thirty years. I stared at it. According to the printout, Morris W. Pratzer had been a grandmaster, rated well over 2500. “This is a mistake,” I said. “Don’t you think I’d know it if my father was a grandmaster?”
“Apparently not, Patzer-face,” Eric said.
“Go home and have a father-son chat,” Brad urged, handing me a sheet with info about the tournament. “Find out the source of this little misunderstanding. Tell your dad we humbly invite him to join us this weekend in Manhattan, and if Grandmaster Pratzer doesn’t show up we’ll wring his son’s neck.”
My mom had cooked a meat loaf that night, with broccoli and rice pilaf. She isn’t a very good cook, but there are a dozen or so meals that are family favorites that she’s made so many times over the years she’s perfected them. Meat loaf is high on the list, and we were all digging in.
My sister, Kate, sat across from me, trying to eat as little broccoli as possible and get away from the table fast so that she could gab with her friends on her new cell phone. She went to the same crummy public school I had gone to for years. My parents were planning to send her to a private high school, too, when she finished middle school.
With the prospect of two kids in private school looming, my mom had gone back to work as an assistant teacher in the local elementary school. She worked in a first-grade class, and even though she was home by three p.m. most days, she now wore a perpetually tired and harried look, as if platoons of six-year-olds had been attacking her nonstop for hours, bellowing war cries and firing paper wads at her till she was ready to raise the white flag.
“I don’t hear anyone talking so I guess the dinner is okay,” she said.
“It’s delicious, Ruth,” my father told her, carving another slice of meat loaf for himself. He wasn’t a big man, and he sat in a chair all day doing people’s taxes and figuring out their books, so he probably shouldn’t have been eating so much. His paunch was expanding into a sizable potbelly. “Kate, chew with your mouth closed, please.”
She rolled her eyes at him, but so slowly that it was hard to tell if they were circling in irritation or just moving around the room in an innocent round-about pattern. “Can I be excused?” she asked.
“After you finish your broccoli.”
She picked up a tiny floret, broke it in two, and put half of it in her mouth. “Yum,” she said. “Can I be excused now?”
“No,” my father told her. “And if you roll your eyes at me again, that new phone is going to disappear for a week.”
“Great,” she said. “Threaten me. What parenting book have you been reading?”
My father let out a sigh, as if to say “I work hard all day and come home to this.” He looked at me. “How’s school, Daniel? Tell me something fun.”
“We dissected rats in bio lab today.”
Kate lowered her fork. “That’s it. I’m out of here.”
“Not till you finish your broccoli,” my father told her. “Daniel, that’s not suitable dinner conversation.”