Check, Please!



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.

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)

He’s a sly fox, Sophie. But so am I, hiding my black Bishop in the corner. I look at his hands.3 (0:59)

Welcome to the endgame, dear. This is where the structure of the game is simplest—King vs. King—and where I always lose. If they want to teach “Winning Chess,” why don’t they teach it backward? In the end, a player always remembers what he forgot in the beginning—he can sacrifice everything save the King.

Spielmann once said, “In the opening, a teacher should play like a book; in the middle game, like a magician; and in the end, like a machine.”

I’m no machine, Sophie. I’m a fish.

But the combination is here. Somewhere. Six moves ahead if I trade the Knight, then push the pawn. No, that doesn’t work. Ah! Yes: Sacrifice the Queen. (0:45) Is it worth it?

Spielmann: “The magic of the sacrifice grips us and we care nothing for the accompanying circumstances. . . . ‘

I offer the Queen, then look to Walter’s hands. (0:30) They’re not on his face. He’s smiling like a goon.

“Fire in the hole!” he says, denying the sacrifice and discovering the open line to the King on G3.

“Oh, waiter,” he says, blowing smoke in my face. “Waiter . . . check, please.”

The King must take one step to the side. He needs to breathe, nap, vacation. Walter won’t have it. It’s too much fun. He mounts an attack and starts to shoot down pawns.

“Jump, fish!” he says, capturing another pawn. “Jump!”

I look through the shop windows and see the faces of curious tourists peering in, like they’re watching the monkeys at the zoo. Sometimes, Soph, I think I see you.

“Oh, waiter?”

(0:20) More checks. (0:19) More tourists. (0:18) More faces. (0:17) Where are you?

“Here, fishy-fishy.”

I tip my King. It’s over. Walter’s chortling, burping smoke. I think about Spielmann. What makes a “real sacrifice” real? “Risk is the hallmark of real sacrifice,” he writes, “the result lies in the laps of the gods.”

Sophie, ask yourself: Was it worth it?

1 Sophie, a secret: There are no winners in chess, only losers. Chess is not fun. If you want fun, try checkers. We don’t enjoy playing; we have to play. Chess may seem to be about solving problems on the board, but it’s really about avoiding the ones in a fish’s head. Like you.

2 The capturing of a piece must always be done with excessive flair. Tourists always use two hands. Don’t be a tourist. Grasp your piece between thumb and forefinger, and snap it down onto the head of the opponent’s piece. Make him hear it—clink!—while in the process sweeping away the plastic corpse underneath, between ring and index. One motion, one hand, one kill. A game of chess, if played properly, should sound like broken glass.

3 Where are they, Sophie? On his face? The higher up, the more damage done. A delicate knead of the chin, nothing; a soft rub of the mustache, slight puzzlement; a curious itch of the nose, consternation; a frantic scalp-scratch, possible meltdown; a desperate yank of the hair, he’s fucked. See the follicles and dandruff on the board? Smart chess players sit on their hands.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2001

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