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Check and Mate

By Lewis Clayton

There are really only two types of chessplayers. There are the masters, grand, international and otherwise, and then there are the patzers. The patzers are the people who fill out the minor leagues of chess--people like your kindly old uncle who taught you the moves when you were eight years old. People who claim to play for fun, not blood.

I spent part of my childhood expecting to be a master, but I turned out a patzer all the same. At first, I thought chess was some strange ritual, played only by my father and the close relatives who visited us on special occasions. But once my father saw fit to teach me the moves, I began to progress rapidly. My book learning was limited to a book by Fred Reinfield, which outlined the moves, and a few of Reinfields's favorite mates.

To compensate for my shallow theoretical background, I played with sheer guts. From a king pawn opening, undertaken on Reinfields's advice, I would launch into an attack trying to win a few pieces. By third grade, I had mastered the rudiments of the knight fork. By fourth grade, I was pondering the implications of the pin. For a while, I met with success--chess became a way for a runt to get back at the world.

In elementary school tournaments, in playgrounds with plastic pieces and foldaway cardboard checkerboards, I began to get the recognition I knew I had always deserved. I knew that there was no need to compromise: I could be both a grandmaster and President of the United States. I could beat people two and three times my size. Even adults--especially my parents--began to marvel at my abilities.

But even with my attacking instincts, and my ability to upset my opponents by clever psychological tricks (my favorite was to say "that stinks!" every time they made a move) I began to drop behind the other prodigies on the block. While they were plumbing the mystical depths of Reti's opening, I still thought the Sicilian Defense exotic. And my parents were no help--never providing a proper home environment for chess study.

It was only when I reached junior high that I became aware of my ignorance. I made captain of the Simon Baruch Junior High School 104 chess team with ease, but when we began to participate in city-wide tournaments my bubble burst. In eleventh grade our team--me on first board and my friend Harry Chun on second--met down at the roomy old McAlpin Hotel on 34th St. and 8th Ave. in New York.

Chess players are usually precocious small hairy people who never know what to do with their hands or knees. Unless chained down, a teen-aged tournament player will pinch his nails together, rock back and forth, and in the presence of other players, begin to mutter and giggle about opening variations and to tell juvenile jokes. As far as appearances went, we were golden. Our problem was that we weren't very good at chess.

I tried making wild moves to throw my opponents off the track. I tried making faces, or opening up a New York Times to its full expanse and holding it in front of my opponent's face, just to speed him up. But by the end of the first day, Harry and I were at the bottom of the pack, never to inch up. Chess tournaments can build a lot of character.

Not everybody goes through that kind of awakening. Sammy Reshevsky was a master by age eight, and at the same age Bobby Fischer was astounding people by playing speed chess at the Brooklyn Chess Club. These lucky types are the subject of Harold C. Schonberg's latest book, "Grandmasters of Chess." Schonberg, the top music critic for The New York Times, a patzer and Pulitzer Prize winner, has written "Grandmasters" for a general audience, including failed patzers. It is an immensely entertaining book, lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings. Schonberg traces the history of grandmaster chess, beginning with Philidor in the 1740s and moving to Morphy, Steinitz, Marshall, Capablanca, Alekhine, contemporary Russians like Petrosian and Spassky, and ending with Bobby Fischer.

Writing personal histories, but not evaluating specific games or chess theory, Schonberg displays arresting personalities and tells dozens of famous stories. There is the remark with which Tarrasch began his 1908 match with then world champion Emanuel Lasker: "To you, Dr. Lasker, I have only three words, check and mate." He lost. Or Paul Morphy, the American who was acknowledged as the world's best player during a career of only a year and a half in the 1850s, and who died insane, a hater of the game. And the Cuban Jose Raul Capablanca, arguably the greatest player of all time. His government gave him a permanent position as a roving diplomat, transferring him to a post in whatever city his next tournament was scheduled for.

Schonberg dotes on his masters, sympathizing with their troubles, seeing them through difficult times, paternally chiding them for their faults. He cannot resist the music critic's temptation to liken them to composers, setting both grandmasters and musicians in parallel hierarchies. Capablanca--"pure, classic, elegant... yet capable of demonic force in his great moments... the complete technician" is the Mozart of chess, and Alekhine, "a nervous tiger who stalked his prey with involuntary physical twitchings and psychic lust" is Wagner. Fischer, Schonberg asserts, surpasses even Wagner in terms of "monomania."

But in touting them all, Schonberg strains his expletives and his description. Steinitz, "born lame, heroic above the torso and a cripple below... had a grudge against the world, and the world returned it." Pillsbury "was genuinely admired as a human being as well as one of the chess geniuses of the day."

It is Fischer, however, whom Schonberg sums up as "a strange boy who grew up into a strange man," who is the hero of the piece. Schonberg was a New York Times correspondent at the Fischer-Spassky title match in Reykjavik in 1972, and he devotes nearly 50 of 300 pages to Bobby. Schonberg is more a victim to Bobby than Spassky. Fischer, he writes, was "party to the most hysterical theatrics since the great days of King Lear." Fischer represents "psychic murder." Part of a player who loses to Fischer "has been devoured, and he is that much less a whole man."

For all its theatrics, "Grandmasters" is engrossing reading for any patzer. But after all is said and done, the grandmaster stories, the tales of prodigies and madness, all blend together. Someone ought to write a book about us patzers. After all, I once lived next door to the guy who taught Bobby Fischer.

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