Check, Please!

••• Love and Loss in 64 Squares

Sophie,
Call me a fish. Because that's what we've been calling ourselves here at the chess shop. Fish. Not the kind in the ocean, but chess fish. Patzers, bunglers, men who practice clumsy moves, botch artists. No one knows where it comes from. Some people say Jacques Cohen. He was a French Jew from Egypt who owned a taxi he never drove and had three girlfriends. And a wife.

"Come to me, you stupid little fish . . . come take Jacques' little hook. Fishcake!"

Jacques disappeared five years ago. Nobody's seen him or heard from him or really cares anymore. But that happens around here. Fish, I suppose, like to swim.

Photo by Bryce Lankard; Corset Provided by Gaelyn Designs

Today I'm playing Walter, on the clock. Speed chess. He's a stout guy, always wears headphones. But I don't think they're plugged into anything (his pocket?), because he always hears what I'm saying. We play five minutes. Blitz, you call it. I open with the King's gambit.

P-Kb4: the silly, boggling offer of the King's Bishop pawn, teasing away control of the center, vertigo on the second move. Eighty years ago, practical players like Capablanca figured out how to eke wins from minute advantages in position; the world masters soon stopped pushing this dummy pawn. Except Rudolf Spielmann. He was the "Last Knight of the King's Gambit," and when he died, the romantic school of players died too.

Sophie, there are only two schools of chess theory today, the positional and the tactical. The fancy uptown instructors, the positionalists, will charge you $100 for a lesson and point to the center of the board. Control the center, they'll say, never lose control of the center. Feh. They're the same scholarly hacks who tell you to count squares, to behave on the board like a waitress reading the menu du jour—but they serve the same thing every day. Pawns, arranged in neat little chains, with the boring sauce. These teachers tell you not to talk, to never play with a clock, to shake your opponent's hand, to make the right move, to be patient.

Patience? There is no time. (4:55) The right move? (4:52) There are no right moves. A strategy they tell the kids in the schools: Say to yourself, How do I win? What will it take to force a win from this position? Win. Win! But really: Win?1 They teach you to win because they think victory means you're good. (The other school, the tactical—conjuring sacrifices, combinations—cannot be taught. The admission fee is instinct.)

I push the dummy, P-Kb4. And Walter hungrily accepts the gambit, PxP.2 (4:45)

"Now, I haven't seen that move in a long, long time," Walter says, lighting a Newport. He sees that move everyday. He's a fish, too.

Next to me is Spielmann's book, The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, from 1935. Spielmann was a lawyer from Austria turned chess vagabond, drifting around the world, teaching for money, demonstrating his maneuvers. "The beauty of a chess game," he writes, "is usually appraised . . . [by] the amount of sacrifices it contains." A sacrifice, Sophie, is a move that seems to make no rational sense. It initially appears to be a blunder, the work of a fool, like trading a house for a car: a poor economic decision. Then, a few moves later, the sacrifice reveals itself as a tactical ploy—bait for a fish.

"The magic of the sacrifice grips us and we care nothing for the accompanying circumstances," writes Spielmann. He sacrificed his legal career to push pieces on a grid. When the Nazis invaded the Rhineland, he fled to Stockholm, where he died, broke. "Sacrifice—a hallowed, heroic concept! Advancing in the chivalrous mood, the individual immolates himself for a noble idea."

In 1923, at the world tournament in Karlsbad, a frustrated Spielmann began to entertain his imagination with wild combinations. The ludicrous moves began to annoy the competition. Before the final match, legend goes, Spielmann was up late in the hotel lounge, nursing a beer, when the great Reti, another player in the tournament, approached him.

"Aren't you ashamed?" he said. "Don't you realize your indifferent attitude is practically ruining the tournament? Where's your famous sportsmanship?"

Spielmann yawned. "All right, so I'll win tomorrow."

"Be serious," Reti said. Do you know who your opponent is tomorrow?"

"It doesn't matter."

"But it does—you play Alekhine," he said. Dr. Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine was chess world champion for 17 years—it's even written on his tombstone. Alekhine held the record for winning the most blindfold games played at the same time, 28 games: 22 wins, three losses, three draws. He was married four times, all to older women. (Memo to the Viennese delegation: His mother taught him how to play.) Alekhine was a Russian, a spy, and a Nazi.

"So much the better," Spielmann said.

"But you play black!"

He finished his beer. "So much the better."

The next morning, to keep up the tempo of his attack, Spielmann sacrificed his Queen —and won. Alekhine went back to his hotel room and destroyed all the furniture.

Walter taps the tiara of his Queen and sneaks her behind the ranks.

"Here, fishy-fishy," he says. (1:45)

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