Thursday, October 13, 2011
Morning chess match before the five-minute first grade bell/Bartholdt
NORTH IDAHO—We have this thing going, he and I.
He waits for me all scrubbed and hair wet in his shirt or sweater with the logo embroidered above the chest pocket like a little man ready to take the bus to boarding school.
But it’s North Idaho, and his school is just down the road and his mom goes to work early.
So, he waits for me to do my morning work at home, a bit of research, maybe write a letter or two while he pokes at his hot cereal in the kitchen upstairs listening to the cartoons quietly hubbub on the television.
When he cannot stand it longer he thumps down the steps to ask, when are we going to play?
I showed him his first chess set at 4 and he was taken by the armor-clad knights astride horses in courbette, elephants with towers on their back reminiscent of Hannibal, swishing bishops, gallant queens and the plodding pawns like dour legions set to make a mark or die uneventfully.
He is 6. It is 8:04 a.m. Rain paints the concrete a new gray. Leaves joust with an autumn wind, some falling blood red to the glistening grass. His school starts at 9, plenty of time for a game or two.
I am white, he says, scrambling up the stairs to the board he has laid out on the kitchen table with the white and dark pieces facing each other across the checkered battlefield.
White is allowed the first move, which gives him an edge, he figures.
His is a cracker jack board that folds into four pieces, made of glue and paper. It came from the dime store in a tinny box with a checker set and tic-tac-toe, but he never uses those.
Let’s play chest! He announces often after rolling from bed, showering, dressing and staring at his breakfast.
I go first!
Lately I have won easily like foul hooking a fish.
Oops, you’re in check mate.
It shows my lack of education at this game. I too learned as a small boy and I taught my daughters to play, but they have other things now on their minds.
Teaching children to play chess is as good as I do.
By 8, they have me on my heels and sometimes painted into a corner, which is to say I know little about the game having learned it young and never caught its intricacies like some do.
I had an instructional paperback once that I found on the bookshelf at home where I grew up and read it when I was 11, but the opening chess moves it taught, aside from a few, have long since dripped into the swarm of past like rain in the rock garden.
I remember names only vaguely, they stem from places I found interesting then, Catalan System, the Sicilian Defense – something I equated to a stiletto or a small revolver, and the dreaded Kings Indian Defense which must have something to do with Gurkhas, I surmised and still do for lack of any proper instruction or interest.
Petrov’s dance – likely a Russian defensive move to an offense I may blunder into – remains too, although I only remember the name and equated it with ballet because Baryshnikov had entered the American scene at the time.
That was in northern Minnesota and he had sequestered one of The North Woods' favorite daughters in Jessica Lange.
On these mornings, my boy lashes out decisively taking pawn after pawn with a wide grin and a shy flitting of his eyes as if he is a pine marten ready to pounce on a bird.
Aw, he says. I didn’t think you would see that!
Sometimes usually with a few minutes to spare for the drive to school, and weedling between traffic in the lot for a parking spot, and walking him to the door, I slip the noose and say check mate and he sees it too.
Why do I never win? He asks.
You will, I tell him. And know there is more to this game than that.
I won a lot as a kid, and got drubbed when I moved to the rainy cafes of Southeast Alaska where men sat all day drinking coffee, smoking, waiting for the weather to work, with their nose pointed at a chess game.
There’s more to it, I could point out didactically, but he wouldn’t get it.
He won’t know until time allows him some backward glances.
And that will be soon enough.
Check mate, buddy.We have to go.
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