Authors: David Klass
“Right. So let’s try to have some laughs and good times together.”
“Sounds fine to me,” I told him. “And, since we’re being totally honest, I know you didn’t want to do this. Sorry I got you into it.”
“It still might be marginally better than going on a shopping trip with your sister,” Dad grunted, and then we passed a dividing line on the wall of the tunnel and a sign announced that we had entered New York City.
The Palace Royale Hotel was smack in the middle of Midtown, a gleaming new tower of glass and steel that rose high above Broadway. We drove past it and parked the car in a garage two blocks away. “Thirty bucks a day,” Dad muttered, tucking the garage ticket away in his wallet and shaking his head. “We should have taken the train.”
I didn’t get into Manhattan all that often, and the pace of the city was as dizzying as I remembered—people exploded off curbs when lights changed to green, insane taxi drivers honked at one another and nearly clipped pedestrians as they wove in and out of traffic, while crowds surged outside the glass doors of Broadway theaters. I hurried along next to my dad, listening to the sounds of the city and inhaling its scents: sizzling meat from a parked gyro truck, steam hissing up through a subway grate, and a lady in a fur coat sashaying ahead of us in four-inch heels that
off the sidewalk as if she were stabbing it with each purposeful step.
A doorman in a top hat stood outside the Palace Royale Hotel, helping people in and out of cabs, which he summoned with earsplitting blasts on a silver whistle. “Okay,” Dad said to me, “ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Then let the madness begin,” he said, and we spun our way in through the revolving door.
The lobby was brightly carpeted, with a chandelier glistening high above. A sign near the check-in desk read
WELCOME CHESS PLAYERS.
I could pick out dozens of them—sharp-eyed kids clutching sets and clocks, many of them nose-deep into chess books, as if in the next hour, before round one started, they were going to uncover a key secret that would mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Their dads hovered around them, and it was easy to spot the father-son resemblances—the hawk-nosed dad and the eagle-beaked son; the hyper kid who couldn’t stand still and his nervous dad who paced from side to side at the check-in line like a caged tiger.
We reached the front desk and a pretty clerk asked for my dad’s name. “Pratzer,” he said. “You should have a reservation for a standard room, two twin beds.”
“That’s been changed,” she informed him. “You’ve been upgraded to a suite and moved to our club floor.”
“I don’t want a suite,” Dad told her.
“Oh yes you do,” she replied with a knowing smile. “Thirteen hundred square feet, two luxury bedrooms, and a living area with spectacular views.”
“But I didn’t ask for that,” Dad pointed out. He looked a little embarrassed and lowered his voice. “I don’t want to pay for that.”
“Not to worry. It’s already been taken care of.”
He stared back at her. “By who?”
She studied her monitor. “Randolph J. Kinney. He’s on the club floor, too, right next to you. Here are your key cards. Suite 2207. Enjoy your stay, Mr. Pratzer.”
We took the elevator up to the twenty-second floor. “I can’t let a stranger pay for my room upgrade.” Dad fumed.
“Why not?” I asked. “He owns a hedge fund.”
“I don’t care if he owns his own bank.”
“He probably does,” I said. “Let’s check out the suite before you give it up.”
The elevator reached the twenty-second floor and we got out. The club floor was elegant and silent—a welcome change from the crowded lobby. “Not bad,” I said.
“Don’t get used to it,” Dad warned me. “I’m gonna get us downgraded right after our first round is over.”
We opened the door to suite 2207 and I sucked in a breath. The marble entry hall led to a spacious living area, which featured two leather couches, an enormous flat-screen TV, and floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views westward over Manhattan rooftops all the way to New Jersey. The sun was going down over the Hudson, and it gave the mile-wide river a dark purple tinge. The two bedrooms had king-size beds and their own TVs, the master bathroom had a Jacuzzi, and there was a fruit basket on the desk with the words
WELCOME GRANDMASTER PRATZER—THE MANAGEMENT.
“If you downgrade us from this room, I might have to kill you,” I told my dad.
He was contemplating the fruit basket. “How could they possibly know I was a grandmaster…?”
A loud knock sounded on our door, and I went to open it. A tall, handsome, and athletic-looking man in slacks and a sports coat was standing there, grinning and looking past me. “Is that you, Grandmaster? Randolph Kinney.” He stepped into our suite and a second later he was pumping my dad’s right hand in a grip that made my father visibly wince. “How do you like the spread?”
“It’s great,” I chimed in before my father could answer.
“Bloody hell, I think you guys got the better view,” Mr. Kinney said with a laugh.
“I can’t let you pay for this,” my father told him, extracting his hand from the viselike grip and tucking it into his pocket to give it a chance to heal.
“I appreciate that offer, Morris, I really do,” Randolph said. “But this one’s on me. I thought our team should all be together. It’s the least I can do to thank you for coming. It isn’t every day that I get to play on a team with a real, authentic grandmaster. It’s an honor, a real honor. I’m humbled.”
My father looked back at him, speechless.
Randolph Kinney turned to me. “And a big hello also to the grandmaster’s son,” he announced, stepping over and holding out his hand. “Daniel, right?”
I backed up half a step and hesitated, but there seemed to be no way of avoiding this. I reached out tentatively and he seized my palm as if he intended to wring blood out of it. “We’re gonna win this thing,” he assured me, grinning and doing his best to crush all the small bones in my right hand. “We’re gonna kick butt. We’re going to slay them. Right?”
“I hope so,” I gasped.
“There’s no ‘hope so’ about it,” he said, and for a moment his voice had an edge to it. “When we play, we play to win. And we’ve got the goods!”
He released my hand and glanced at his watch. “The first round starts in forty minutes. Let’s have a team meeting in my suite in ten minutes, and we’ll all go down to the tournament together. We’re in 2206. Grandmaster, given that you have the highest rating, I think you should deliver the team prayer.”
“The team prayer?” my dad echoed.
“Keep it short and sweet.” Randolph was halfway to the door. “An honor, Grandmaster, a real honor,” he said. “Oh, and don’t worry about dinner after the round. I booked us into a little Tribeca steak house that I know. We need to eat some red meat after we draw first blood.” Then he was gone.
My dad threw his arms into the air. “Daniel, this is preposterous. I knew this was going to happen. Chess tournaments lead you right down the rabbit hole. We should go get our car, drive back home, and wake up in our normal beds before the world tilts any more, which believe me it will. Let’s get out of here now.”
I glanced at the clock. “Eight minutes and counting,” I told him. “If I were you, Dad, I’d be working on the team prayer.”
My father wouldn’t come out of the bedroom.
“Dad, we’re late for the team meeting. They’ve already called twice,”
I shouted. There was no answer from inside. I stepped closer to the door. “Pop?” I opened his bedroom door a crack. “Are you okay?”
I hesitated and stepped inside. There was no sign of him in the bedroom, and then I felt cold air and saw that one window was open.
Then I heard something from his bathroom. It was a loud, unpleasant heaving sound. It let up and then came again even louder. I ran to the door and yanked it open and saw him on his knees, retching into the toilet. I stepped over to him. “Dad, are you okay? Should I call a doctor?”
He flushed the toilet and struggled to his feet, looking a little pale. “Don’t worry,” he gasped. He ran some cold water and wiped his face and toweled off. “This is normal … for me … before a tournament starts.”
“You don’t look so good,” I told him. “You can’t play in this condition…”
“The first round starts in twenty-five minutes,” he responded, checking his watch. He took a gulp of cold tap water, gargled, and spat it out. “Let’s go.” As we walked through the bedroom, he paused to close the window. “Just needed some fresh air,” he told me. “I always feel claustrophobic before round one.”
He led me out into the living area, walking more purposefully now, face tight but resigned, back straight and head held high—like a man marching bravely to his own execution. Seeing Dad on his knees, retching his guts out, had made me realize for the first time how torturous this must be for him. “Are you sure you’re
okay?” I asked. “Because if you’re sick and need to pull out of the tournament, I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“I’m sure they won’t understand,” he told me as we left our suite. “We’re in this now, Daniel, and the only thing to do is to keep going forward. Ours is not to reason why; ours is just to do and die.” He raised his right fist and rapped firmly on the Kinneys’ door.
Brad opened the door. “You’re late, Patzer-face.” Then he saw my dad and said, “Oh…”
“I’m Grandmaster Patzer-face,” my father told him, holding out his right hand. “And let me guess. You must be our team captain.”
“We don’t have a team captain,” Brad replied, looking a little uncomfortable as he shook my father’s hand.
“We do now,” Dad told him. “I’m appointing you captain. Which means you’re in charge of team morale and making sure that all team members treat one another with the proper respect.
Brad looked like he was on the verge of saying something rude back to my father, but then his own dad appeared behind him.
“You’re seven minutes late, Morris,” Mr. Kinney scolded.
“Yes, well, I was strategizing and working on that team prayer, and I also had to puke,” my father told him.
For a moment, the hedge fund king was knocked off balance. “What? Are you okay?”
“Never better,” Dad told him, walking by him into their suite. “Where’s the rest of our team?”
“Over here, behind the couch,” a voice shouted.
We stepped to the long leather couch and saw that behind it Eric Chisolm and his father were doing sit-ups. Dr. Chisolm was a wiry man with closely cropped graying hair and no visible body fat. “One hundred and ninety-nine, two hundred,” he counted and stood up.
Eric stayed on his back on the rug.
“You must be Morris Pratzer,” the spry doctor said. “Sam Chisolm. My son and I were just doing our cardio warm-up sets. Stand up, Eric.”
Eric was still lying on his back, holding his abdomen and breathing hard. Watching father and son, I started to suspect that Eric was the school’s biggest overachiever because his father was the world’s biggest ballbuster.
“Don’t let us stop you,” Dad said.
“We’re done,” the surgeon assured him, taking his own pulse. “Two hundred really gets the blood flowing. On your feet, son. Get vertical.”
Eric struggled to his knees, looking as if his large intestine had been ripped out.
“Here’s your kit,” Randolph Kinney said, hurrying up to us and handing out canvas tote bags. “I had an assistant at my firm put this together for us. Team shirts, score pads, pencils, bottled water.”
I took out the shirt. It said
. I pulled it on over my shirt, and my dad and I exchanged looks.
“We didn’t come here to meet future pen pals,” Mr. Kinney told us, picking up on our dubious expressions. “We came to conquer.”
I glanced at my dad. He shared the belief that chess was war. He should have been nodding. Instead, he was watching Brad’s dad carefully.
“There are more than four hundred players in this tournament,” Mr. Kinney continued. “Seventy-two teams—and at the end there will be one left standing. That one team will be us. We need to start fast and come away from the first round with five points. Anything less will be
“Six points would be even better,” Dr. Chisolm chipped in. “Even though only five will count. There’s medical evidence that winning is addictive. Let’s learn to expect success.”
Mr. Kinney nodded. “Expect success. I like that. Let’s make it our team motto.” He glanced at his expensive watch. “Seventeen minutes till start time. We’ve got to head down soon. Grandmaster, please deliver the Mind Cripplers’ team prayer. One knee, gentlemen.”
It seemed silly, but when Randolph Kinney gave an order, he expected it to be followed. All of us got down on one knee on the plush blue rug in his hotel suite. “Link hands,” he told us, and I found myself holding my father’s left hand and Dr. Chisolm’s right. Chisolm’s fingers felt wiry and strong, and it occurred to me that this was a hand that had saved hundreds of lives. However intense the doctor was, he was a miracle worker who took very sick and dying people and fixed them and sent them back to their families. My father’s hand felt soft and clammy and shook slightly. I gripped it tightly.
“A moment of silence, everyone,” Mr. Kinney commanded. Something told me that many years ago he had played football for the Loon Lake Academy, and this pregame ritual was left over from his locker room memories. Then he nodded to my father. “Go ahead, Grandmaster.”
My dad cleared his throat. It’s interesting how you can know someone all your life but not have a clue how they’re going to react in a new and totally freaky situation. Dad and I had never talked about religion, but I was pretty sure he was an atheist. I’d never heard him pray—even on a family trip to Mexico when our plane hit extreme turbulence and I started making pleas to the almighty, he had kept quiet.
Even if my dad did believe in God, he’s a fair and logical man, and I was positive that he wouldn’t lead us in the kind of team prayer Mr. Kinney wanted him to give. If there was a God, my father wouldn’t think it was fair to ask an all-powerful being to intercede for us against another team.