May 9th, 1968
It was my birthday party today.
As expected, I found the whole business extremely frustrating and irritating.
Still, I hope I managed to put on a good enough act to convince everyone, especially my mother, that I had had a wonderful day of fun and excitement.
We played Pin the tail on the donkey, Blind Man’s Bluff, Musical Chairs and Simon Says.
My mother had made me a chocolate birthday cake in the shape of a steam locomotive. On the tender at the back she had arranged 9 candles in three rows of three to form a neat square.
It was strange, almost surreal to gaze down upon those 9 burning candles. My thoughts must have wandered off somewhere because my mother had to repeat, “Come on, blow!” I got them all with a single blast of air. The traditional singing followed and my mother asked, “Did you remember to make a wish?”
What does a person with a mental age of 58 wish for when he’s turning physically 9 for the second time?
I think it was more a prayer than a wish:
Please give me the patience, tolerance, fortitude and determination to endure through times like these.
In the late afternoon, just after the last noisy, obnoxious brat had been carted off by his folks, my grandparents, on my father’s side, arrived.
After finishing a slice of birthday cake my grandfather called me over and presented me with a gift.
It had not been wrapped, and I immediately recognized the small wooden box with the sliding panel on top. I had still kept it in a draw in my study in 2014.
It was...is my very first chess set. Somewhere along the line one of the white pawns had gone missing, and I had replaced it with an old bottle cap (The cap would always be replaced by the first white pawn to be taken).
My grandfather is a bombastic, but likeable old fart. And although he’s the type of person who always calls a spade – a spade, he always calls me boy. I guess he would probably find it strange or uncomfortable to call me by my name because it’s the same as his.
“How old you now, boy?”
My father answered, “He turned nine today, pop.”
“Shut up, Claude! I was asking the boy!”
“Nine, grampa,” I quickly chimed.
“Nine! Hell, that’s more than…”
“Mind your language around the children,” reprimanded my grandmother.
“Quiet, woman!” He waved a hand at my grandmother and mother. “Don’t you two have socks to darn or something? The men are talking now!” We all laughed. Then he stared intently at me. “That’s right ain’t it? You’re a young man now.” I nodded. “Damn right!”
“Grampa!” chided grandmother.
He ignored her and continued, “It’s time to put away all those silly games you always play. No more Tiddlywinks or Chopsticks or Ludo or Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders or whatever they call it these days? None of that silly childish nonsense for you anymore. It’s time for a thinking man’s game now.” He handed me the box.
I slid open the wooden panel and peered inside. “Wow!” I exclaimed pretending to be surprised. “A chess set.” I emptied the pieces out onto the coffee table.
“These aren’t toys, you hear!” said my grandfather picking up one of the pieces. “So don’t let me find out you been using them to play toy soldiers or whatever.”
My grandmother chipped in again. “I wanted to get him one of those Monopoly sets, but he insisted on the chess set.”
“Bah, the boy needs to stimulate his brain. There’s no thinking in games that revolve on the luck of a thrown dice. With chess, the only way you can win is by out-thinking your opponent. They say the great chess masters are able to think twenty moves ahead. Twenty!”
“You’ve got a checkerboard in your Games Compendium box,” said my mother. “Go fetch it, and let grampa teach you how to play.”
I rushed off.
He explained the chess pieces and their moves to me. He was very serious when he got to the knight and rook.
“This is the knight. I don’t ever wanna hear you calling it the horse. And this is the rook – not castle. It comes from the Persian word ruhk meaning chariot. So try to think of it more like a chariot riding forward to trample the enemy, ok?”
After much explanation, advice and threats we were finally ready.
“Right,” he said packing the pieces for both sides. “How about a game, then?”
It was difficult making all those foolish moves that had him swiftly winning the first three games.
In the fourth I made a terrible blunder. After moving the pieces between my King and Rook forward, I proceeded to castle.
He looked sternly at me and asked, “What was that?”
I suddenly realized that he hadn’t explained the castling move to me yet. I quickly tried to smooth over the mistake.
“Is it wrong?” I asked innocently. “I think I saw it on TV once.”
“And I think you know more about this game than you make out.”
My mother came to the rescue, “No, dad, this is the first time he’s ever played.”
“Well, that’s just so darn typical of Claude. How come you’ve never taken the time to teach the boy?”
“You never taught me! Ever!” said my dad struggling to conceal his anger and annoyance.
“That’s a damned lie.”
“Yeah, one time only! And when I kept making all those idiotic moves, you said I was a real useless case without any hope.”
To calm the situation my grandfather suddenly said to me, “Do you know that I once played ten chess champions all at once?”
It was an old joke that he loved to tell over and over. As this was the first time I was hearing it, I played along.
“I kid you not.”
“Wow! That’s…absolutely amazing!”
“You betcha!” Then he added the punchline with a dry expression on his face. “I lost every single game, of course.”
We all roared with laughter.
My grandfather is a hard man. Fair, but hard. Never once, in my first life, in all the time that I played him did he ever let me win. In a way it was a good thing, because a few years later when I did finally manage to beat him for the first time, the feeling of triumph was inexplicable.
And he knew it too!
Gramps, as I later called him, also had an irritating way of constantly talking during a game. I guess it was his way of trying to psychologically break down his opponent. The most irritating of all his bad chess habits was the fact that he would constantly say the same old thing every time he was about to make, what he considered on his part to be a rather brilliant move; a move that normally resulted in the taking of one of his opponents major pieces.
“Watch this closely now,” he would say with a wry smile. “It is a thing of absolute beauty.”
It was during the fifth and final game that I decided to turn up the pressure. About halfway through he made a foolish and fatal mistake that would allow me to move my knight into a position placing his King in check and threatening his Queen at the same time.
I took an extra long time to decide my next move. My dilemma was between purposely losing or miraculously winning.
I decided to hell with it! Let me knock the wind out of the old fart’s sails.
I lifted the knight slowly and looked him in the eye. “Watch this closely now,” I said unable to conceal my smirk. “It is a thing of absolute beauty.” I placed the knight in position and added, “That, I believe is check.”
His eyes flashed between me and the board. “Don’t be getting smart with me, boy! The game ain’t over yet.”
But it was, he just didn’t know it yet.
A short while later I moved my Rook across the board and said, “And finally the Persian chariot moves forward trampling the enemy to death. Check and mate!”
He sat there stunned for a few moments before asking, “Are you quite sure you’ve never played this game before?”
“Well, that’s just plumb amazing! I was going a little easy on you, but I won’t make the same mistake again.” He looked over at my father. “Thank God the boy’s got his mother’s brains. This family don’t need another sales clerk. You better start saving some serious money for his university education.”
My father was instantly peeved. “A few games of chess, and you decide my son is Einstein?”
“Well he certainly got more brains now than you ever had at his age.”
“Yeah, and what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Did you go to University?”
“I went to a college at least.”
“Oh, yeah! That’s right! And?”
“Where are all your diplomas then?”
“You know I never finished. I told you…”
“Well aren’t we the hypocrite! You couldn’t finish!”
“You know darn well that I had no choice in the matter. I left because my father couldn’t afford…”
“Yeah sure! That’s what you always say. That’s your side of the story. Seems to me the Great Depression is just a reason for your great excuse against your incompetency.”
I suddenly recalled an interesting fact, and said, “Did you know that Bobby Fischer dropped out of school when he was only sixteen.”
“Who?” asked my father frowning.
Before I could reply my grandfather said, “I might not have any diplomas hanging on my wall, but I still done pretty darn good for myself and my family considering. A lot more than you’ve ever…”
“It’s getting late!” blurted grandmother. “We should be going?”
I managed to overhear the following as my parents were seeing my grandfolks off:
At the door my mother kissed my grandfather’s cheek and whispered in his ear, “Thanks for letting him win a game. It’ll do his self image and confidence the world of good. He’s so withdrawn lately.”
“The bright ones normally are, Beth. He’s a quick learner that one. You be sure he gets a good education, hear?”
“Of course, dad. Of course.”
It’s great to have a chess set again. It’s been ages since I played a game. Even though I beat my grandfather, I can sense that I’ve become quite rusty. I need to get myself back on form again.
I just remembered that the great and controversial clash of minds between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer will only take place 4 years from now. And although it will come to be dubbed as the Match of the Century, it won’t be as exciting for me as I already know that Fischer will take the World Champion title after being 2-0 down.
Hmm, maybe I can make a little cash out of it once the odds are raised in Spassky’s favor.
I’ll only be 13 in ’72 when the tournament takes place, but I’m certain that I can figure out a way by then to get a bet placed.
My folks bought me a green plastic WWII Tommy Gun for my birthday. I remember as a kid that I absolutely loved playing with it as it makes this terrific rata-tata-tat sound. This time round I was pretty disappointed though – I had specifically asked for a wristwatch. I hate always wondering what time it is.
I guess kids just aren’t obsessed with time as much as adults are. When you’re a child, there seems to be so much of it ahead that it almost seems to stand still or slow down. It is only much later that Time becomes an important issue - and an enemy.