The Chess Match
I went over to the Dixons’ one Sunday night, as I often do, to eat steak and drink red wine. When I got there Rob started to get busy making steaks, but as he did he summoned Graham with a bellow. A few minutes later Graham made his appearance, dressed in green, as ever. He didn’t say hello. Graham wasn’t one for forms.
“I’m gonna make steaks, and you’re gonna play Rob chess,” said the father. I had known this might happen – we’d talked about it once or twice. I hadn’t been playing a lot, but I wasn’t worried. I knew from Rob that Graham hadn’t played a ton of chess yet. He was starting to get more into it though, and that was what was behind tonight’s match.
For Graham’s part, he wasn’t worried either. For background, I had often tried to make conversation with Graham. I had asked him questions about his likes and dislikes, taking pains to point out all of the places where we overlapped. Graham wasn’t one of these kids who looked away and swallowed his words. He’d speak up and say what he thought. Sometimes I could even get him to smile, when we had areas of strong agreement. But he hadn’t really warmed up to me yet, and he wasn’t going to pretend he had. So you might think, given that, that Graham would not have been thrilled at the prospect of staring across a chess board at me for an hour. After all I am a bit intimidating – three times his size, thirty years his senior, and known to be a strong player. “I’ll go get the board,” he said, without missing a beat.
Graham quickly got out the pieces and held a pawn in each hand. At least I think that’s what happened. What I most remember is that, as we decided who’d play first, Graham already had a slight grin on his face. The game had started. I got the white pieces. Graham was undismayed.
I was pleased because I could now play E4 and I was pretty sure Graham would play E5. Then I’d go into King’s Gambit and there would be all kinds of pitfalls for Graham. I would catch him somewhere and that would be the end of it and there’d be no embarrassment for me. I played E4. Graham played C5.
Everything changed. I didn’t remember Sicilian well enough to be confident with the white pieces, and now there were all kinds of pitfalls for me. What kid just learning the game played Sicilian? I asked Graham. His slight smile got a little bigger. “I like it.”
We got into it. I played as vanilla a Sicilian as I could, hoping to avoid any catastrophic blunders. But Graham didn’t blunder either. He kept developing. I thought he might have gotten the order of a couple moves wrong, but if he did, I couldn’t remember how to take advantage. As we moved out of the opening, towards the middle game, there was no clear edge for either side. Graham no longer had a smile. He was concentrating deeply, knowing that he was right in the game and intent on winning.
Once he had some choices to make, he started playing very aggressively, not at all what I would expect from a kid. And it had me sweating a bit, because I didn’t know the stock replies to those moves and a mistake could be really costly. But salvation came in the form of a too aggressive bishop. I can’t seem to remember the precise sequence of moves, but I know that Graham exposed himself to a fork by a pawn. I showed Graham what was about to happen and he looked annoyed. Trying super hard not to sound condescending, I said that I thought the position had been pretty even, but now it was pretty much over.
I have struggled trying to remember Graham’s reaction. I don’t have as clear a picture as I’d like, but some points are clear. One, he was not petulant. He wasn’t happy but he didn’t make excuses and he didn’t deny the reality. He knew it was over. I’m not sure if he thought I was condescending. He listened to what I said and took it seriously; it just wasn’t news to him.
We played out the game. Graham didn’t resign, and he kept trying to find something, but down a minor piece is a lost game. I was able to force exchanges. It would be wrong to say Graham hated to lose so much that he fought ferociously til the end. He didn’t want to lose, but he knew it was over. He was just a good enough sport to play it out.
I remember thinking very clearly that we would play again, and that pretty soon I was going to lose.