Authors: David Klass
“What? I’m not trying to flirt with you.”
“Because I’m going to crush you.”
“Probably,” I nodded. “Who cares?”
“Not me,” she said. “I was supposed to go to a concert with some friends, but my mom made me come.”
“We’re in the same boat,” I told her. “I made my dad come. And now I regret it.” Liu looked intrigued, and I surprised myself by adding: “He may be a grandmaster but he hasn’t played in thirty years.”
A schlubby-looking man in an ill-fitting black suit stumbled out onto the dais from a side door, blinked in the lights, and took the microphone. “I am Shuvalovitch,” he said in heavily accented English. “Welcome, chess players, young and old, fathers and sons. As we say, chess is like a bridge. In order to get to the other side, you need to cross it. I wish good luck to everyone. Start your clocks.”
“Utter nonsense, but what do you expect?” Liu muttered, reaching over to start the clock.
“I understood it clear as a bell,” I told her. “Good luck, Liu. Don’t fall off the bridge.”
She couldn’t help smiling as she reached out to make her first move, and it was an unexpectedly pretty smile. “I won’t,” she said. “I’m going to thrash you.”
There is a moment at a chess tournament when the silence takes hold. Background noises continue—cars honk from outside, tournament officials pad up and down the rows, and there’s the steady
of pieces being slammed down onto new squares. But a few minutes into a tournament, the mass concentration of the participants seems to knit together into a heavy blanket that dampens all peripheral sounds. Four hundred and thirty-two people are thinking deeply and furiously. Minds are going to war with every neuron at their disposal.
Liu moved her queen pawn, and I responded with a slightly obscure variation of the Grunfeld Defense, as my father had suggested. Soon my king was safely castled behind my bishop in a wall-like pawn formation called a fianchetto, and we were moving into the middle game on fairly even terms.
This was one of the stronger games I had ever played. Liu had seen my low rating and was clearly surprised—she wrinkled her nose in frustration and dug her fists into her cheeks, and her black eyes never glanced up from the board. She may have been reading a novel when I walked up, but she was concentrating fiercely on chess now.
You don’t have to stay at your board during a tournament. You can get up and walk around, provided that you don’t give or get advice from anyone. Forty minutes into my game with Liu, I lost a pawn. It didn’t mean that the game was over, but she now had a significant advantage, and she was pressing it mercilessly.
I made a move, stood up, stretched, and headed out for a bathroom break and to regroup. I was sluicing some cold water on my face when I heard two players talking near me. “Did you see what happened on board three?”
“This grandmaster no one’s ever heard of is self-destructing. He just dropped his rook.”
“You’re kidding? Talk about choking early.”
“The rumor is that he’s some kind of a wacko. Who ever heard of a grandmaster dropping a rook in round one?”
I hurried out and saw that a little crowd had collected on the dais, around my father’s table. I walked up and stood behind him so that I wouldn’t distract him. Dad was sitting with his arms folded tightly, a look of intense ferocity on his face. He wasn’t moving even a muscle, but I could tell how tense he was. He looked like the slightest sound or movement might pulverize him.
I stepped closer so I could see the pieces. He was indeed a rook down. It was a complex position, but his opponent, Marciano—a rail-thin college-age supernerd wearing a
T-shirt—looked supremely confident. This was his chance to beat a grandmaster and he was going for it. As I watched, he lifted his queen and slammed it down so hard the table shook. When a supernerd attacks, it can be frightening.
My father didn’t hesitate. He slammed down a knight even more furiously in counterattack. “Check,” he said.
The supernerd shrugged and took Dad’s knight. Now my father was a rook and a knight down.
A shocked whisper went up from the small crowd watching the game. I saw George Liszt stand up from board two and walk over to take a look.
“Check,” my father announced again, this time moving a bishop far across its diagonal.
The expert took a little longer this time.
George Liszt smiled and sat back down at his game.
I felt someone walk up next to me and saw that it was Liu. I was surprised to see her there—her concentration on our own game had been total. But now she was watching my father play, and she threw a quick and curious glance at me, too.
Dad made two more rapid moves, and suddenly the geeky expert saw the trap he had fallen into. He might be up a rook and a knight, but he was about to get force mated and even I could see that there was no way out. He might get checkmated in two moves, or he could prolong it to five or six, but it was coming. He looked up at the ceiling, back at the chessboard, muttered something that sounded like a Klingon curse, and exhaled a long breath. Then he reached out and flicked over his king. “Awesome game, man.”
My father shook his hand.
There was a rustle on the dais. I realized that the small crowd was applauding. “Quiet, quiet,” a tournament official scolded.
“You must be silent.”
The applause quickly faded as the crowd began to break up, but not before George Liszt’s voice called out two words from table number two, in a tone straight from a horror movie:
I returned to my board and sat down, and Liu sat facing me. I fought hard for another thirty minutes, but she was just too strong. Our chess coach didn’t like us to ever resign. “Don’t give up,” he always said. “Your opponent can make a mistake up to the very last move. Sit and get checkmated.” But after more than an hour of tough chess, I knocked over my king. “Good game,” I whispered.
“Really good,” she admitted. “For a pushover, you played one hell of a game.”
We reported our result to the scorer’s table, and then we walked out the gaping doors into the ballroom lobby. “My mom’s still playing,” Liu said. “I saw her when we walked by.”
“My dad’s probably up in our room,” I replied. “Decompressing from that first game.”
“Who could blame him, after that?” she asked. “A rook sacrifice, and the forced mate was gorgeous. He really hasn’t played in thirty years?”
“Nope,” I told her. “I should probably go check on him. Nice meeting you, Liu. Good luck the rest of the way.” I held out my hand.
She looked back at me and took my hand. “Good luck to you.” Her hand still felt small and warm, and this time when we shook she gave me a little squeeze. “Can I ask you one question? You really don’t know why your father gave up chess?”
“I don’t have a clue,” I told her. “Whatever happened, he doesn’t want to talk about it. He did tell me one possible reason, but I don’t think he was being serious.”
“What did he say?” she asked.
I looked into Liu’s glittering black eyes. “That he quit because he realized that playing in chess tournaments was a really bad way of trying to meet a nice girl.”
She stuck out her tongue at me, and I turned away and headed for the elevators.
I let myself into our suite and heard the lowing. It was a low mooing chant that repeated itself over and over, and even though there were no words I could tell it was my father’s voice. It was coming from his bedroom. “Dad?”
The lowing stopped. “Daniel? Is that you?”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine. Come in.”
I walked into his bedroom. My father was lying on the rug on his back. He was wearing one of the hotel’s white terry cloth robes and he had a white towel over his eyes.
“What was that sound?” I asked. “It sounded like someone was strangling a cow in here.”
“That was a deep breathing exercise. It helps relieve tension and stabilize the heart rate. How did your game go?”
“Lost it,” I told him. “She was really strong. But I think I played well. What’s the matter with your heart?”
“Nothing. I just checked my blood pressure and it’s barely elevated. But when I play chess I can’t stop myself from getting tense.” He removed the towel from his eyes and looked up at me. “Did you save the score sheet from your game?”
I dug it out of my pocket. When you play a tournament game, you have to record all the moves using an algebraic shorthand, which they taught us in chess club. That way, if a disagreement breaks out about a position, the tournament referee can use the score sheets to settle the matter. Also, if you write your moves down, you can replay the game later and analyze it. “When you’re done relaxing, I’ll set up the pieces and let’s play it through,” I suggested.
“Hand it over.”
I gave him the score sheet, and he read it while lying flat on his back, his eyes flicking down the column of moves. “Good start,” he muttered. “Here’s where you went wrong. You should have challenged her for control of the center. Whoever controls the center of the battlefield makes his opponent fight on the wings.”
“Can you really play the whole game out in your head?” I asked, amazed.
“What’s so hard about visualizing a chessboard? There are only sixty-four squares.” He finished scanning the sheet and handed it back. “Not bad, Daniel. I’m impressed. Next time you drop a pawn in the middle game, counterattack. When you’re playing a good player and they get an advantage, you have to shake things up. Otherwise they’ll just trade pieces and grind you down.”
“I saw the end of your game,” I told him. “Two guys were talking about you in the bathroom. They thought you had blundered away your rook. They didn’t realize it was a brilliant sacrifice.”
“I don’t know about brilliant, but it got the job done.” He studied my face for a moment and then he asked, “What else did they say about me?”
“Nothing.” I looked down at the plush carpeting.
“Come on,” he said. “Out with it.”
I met his eyes. “One of them said he’d heard that you were a wacko grandmaster from long ago.”
“Wacko, huh?” Dad sat up.
“They were just a couple of fools gossiping in a bathroom. Anyway, you showed them a flash of genius.”
“‘Genius,’” he repeated softly. “‘Brilliant.’ Daniel, these are lovely words you’re coming up with lately … that you haven’t attributed to your father before.”
“Well, I never saw you play chess before,” I pointed out, my voice practically glowing with pride and excitement. “You really played like a grandmaster! That supernerd expert was going right for your jugular. He thought he had you cooked. And all the time you were waiting to spring your devious trap. It was just … so cool to watch.”
Dad stood up and nodded, looking grateful but also oddly sad. “Strange—I guess I never realized how important it was for you to see me do really well at something.”
“I did feel very proud,” I told him. “Is that a bad thing? I mean, I know you’re a good accountant, but I can’t really watch you do that.”
“I’m a better than average accountant,” he said. “But I was a
good chess player, for a wacko.” He said it with a smile, but then he broke off for a moment, deep in thought. “Daniel…” I could see that he was tempted to tell me his deep, dark secret—why he had given up the game he loved thirty years ago. I didn’t want to pry, but I was very curious to hear the real reason. Then he flinched and I saw him pull back, as if he had realized it would be too painful to talk about. “I’m going to take a shower,” he said. “Dr. Sam was stuck in what looked like a marathon game, so Randolph moved our dinner reservation back. We have about an hour to kill. You might want to check out the pool.”
“Isn’t it a little late for a swim?” I asked.
“Apparently not,” Dad said. “A friend of yours called a few minutes ago. She said she was heading down to the pool. She invited you to join her.”
“Liu?” I asked, maybe a little too eagerly.
“No,” Dad said, “I believe her name was Britney.” He shot me a grin. “For a young man who claims to have trouble with girls, you seem to have your share of female admirers.”
“You got that wrong,” I told him. “Britney is Brad Kinney’s girlfriend. She also happens to be the prettiest girl in our school. Believe me, the only thing she feels for me is pity.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, kiddo,” Dad said, heading into the bathroom. He turned on the shower, but his voice floated out above the sound of running water: “You ignore the insight of Grandmaster Pratzer at your peril.”
The Palace Royale pool was located next to the hotel gym, on the third floor. I pushed through the doors, wearing my bathing suit and a T-shirt, and saw that the pool was almost deserted. A family was in the shallow end—the parents playing with their two tots, who were equipped with balloonlike flotation devices on arms and legs. In the deep end, a shark swam back and forth from one side to the other, knifing through the water so quickly it left a boiling silvery wake.
Of course it wasn’t really a shark. It was the top swimmer at the Loon Lake Academy, Brad Kinney, getting his laps in before dinner. Perched on a lounge chair on the deep side of the pool, wearing a teensy-weensy purple bikini and watching him swim, was Britney. She was holding a stopwatch, and her eyes never left Brad as he did a flip turn and set off at turbo speed for the other side.
I walked over to her and tried not to stare. I’m pretty sure no one has ever looked that good in a purple bikini in the history of the world. “Hey, Britney.”
Her eyes left the swimming champion and focused on me. “Hi, Daniel. How did your first game go?”
“I lost,” I told her. “But it doesn’t matter. The rest of the team will pick up the slack.”
“You’ll win the next one,” she said. And then she added, “Your dad sounds nice. Thanks for coming down. When Brad swims his laps I have no one to talk to.”
In the water beneath us, Brad flashed by and was gone. “How many does he do?” I asked.