The game of chess no longer carries the prestige it did when our uncle taught my older brother and me to play when we were still in grade school. I still don’t know where my uncle learned to play. Nobody else in the family knew how. And I can’t imagine that he learned it at his favorite tavern in Chicago’s Polish neighborhood. In fact, to this day, I doubt you’ll find a chess set in any tavern in Chicago.
The important thing is that learning to play chess put us light-years ahead of all our classmates. We were playing the “Game of Kings.” They were still playing checkers. Chess made you feel like you were in some London gentlemen’s club. Checkers was definitely Mayberry R.F.D. Chess was James Bond. Checkers was Barney Fife. Being listed as a member of the chess club in your high school yearbook was a certification of intelligence. There was no checkers club.
My uncle was still a beginner when he taught us to play, and it wasn’t long before we surpassed his meager skills. Or to be more precise, my brother soon surpassed his skills. I was just along for the ride. My brother didn’t just play the game, he studied it. He analyzed the matches of the grandmasters. He read books on the subject. I was not about to read any book with more Russian names than a Tolstoy novel.
But, for my brother to improve his skills, he needed a sparring partner. Guess who that was? I was seldom able to beat him, but at least I was willing to keep trying not to lose. Like all good chess players, my brother was always thinking several moves ahead. I was always one move behind. While he was thinking “only three more moves to checkmate,” I was thinking, “Why the hell did I make that stupid last move?”
They say all the great military leaders in history were excellent chess players. Clearly, I was not destined for a military career.
It’s not surprising that I eventually grew to dislike playing the game. It’s no fun being the designated loser. After my brother went on to college, I never asked anybody to play chess. But on the few occasions where some friend or relative insisted, I would fall back on the most unbelievable chess opening my brother had ever dropped on me. It’s called “Fool’s Mate.” Look it up. You can actually win the game in just two moves. That’s less time than it takes to set up the pieces on the board. It only works against beginners, but that was fine with me. It established my totally undeserved reputation as a chess expert, and none of the victims ever asked for a rematch.
My brother, however, continued to rise in the chess community, becoming a local champion in the large company where he worked. This was the era of the great chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer. In 1972, he had become a national hero of the Cold War by defeating Russian grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It was called the “Match of the Century.” It was the first time a chess match was broadcast on primetime American TV. Bobby Fischer even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Those were the glory days of chess.
It all kind of went downhill after that. The computer age came along, and in 1996, the IBM supercomputer called “Deep Blue” defeated Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov. It wasn’t long before there were computer websites that could outplay the grandmasters. Pretty soon, anybody with a smart phone could instantly find out the best countermove to whatever their opponent did. Where’s the fun in that? My brother gave up playing the game completely, and took up duplicate bridge. Though I must admit, I’ve always suspected he did that because there were more women in bridge clubs than in chess clubs.
It wasn’t long before even the world championship chess tournaments were being adversely affected. Judges were getting suspicious when a member of the audience, cell phone in hand, began gesticulating like a third-base coach. No sooner had officials managed to put the kybosh on such overt signaling from the audience than they noticed that many competitors were suffering from weak bladders. Sure enough, they were checking their cell phones during bathroom breaks. One was even caught on camera cheating at the “Game of Kings” while seated on the throne.
Today, nobody pays much attention to chess competitions. Even my brother couldn’t tell me who the current world champion is. Turns out, he’s a Norwegian named Magnus Carlsen. Although he’s won the world championship five times in a row, he’s never made the cover of Sports Illustrated. I only know who he is because of a recent news article saying he refused to play a 19-year-old American grandmaster named Hans Niemann. This wasn’t a world championship match, and it would never be described as the “Match of the Century.” It’s not like during the Cold War. There are no geopolitical points to be gained by an American defeating a Norwegian. Norway hasn’t invaded anybody since the 11th century. They have been our loyal allies in NATO from its very beginning. They are the home of the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s not to like about Norwegians? They are like the Canadians of Europe.
Carlsen refused to play because he thought Niemann was cheating. He didn’t know how, but no matter how unorthodox a move Carlsen opened with, the kid quickly responded with the exact countermove that appeared on a popular computer-chess website. There was no obvious signaling from the peanut gallery, and it was too early for a bathroom break.
So how could that be? Nobody knows for sure. But in this day and age, when there are conspiracy theories for just about everything, there’s even one for chess cheating. It apparently started as a joke, but has since gained momentum. He may have been signaled using a sex toy—vibrating anal beads. Yep, it’s come to that.
If you Google “chess cheating,” you’ll get tens of thousands of hits that mention vibrating anal beads. And just in case you don’t already have any, there is even a DIY website showing how to make your own. It provides a whole new perspective on improving your endgame.
I feel sorry for all the youngsters who are just getting interested in the game and looking for role models. Who will be their Bobby Fischer? We’ve gone from the era when an American grandmaster was hailed as a national hero, to the present, when a grandmaster is suspected of pulling the winning moves out of his behind.
Sorry, kids, but maybe it’s time to give checkers a second look.
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