WASHINGTON--I once met a physicist who as a child had been something
of a chess prodigy. He loved the game and loved the role. He took
particular delight in the mortification older players felt upon losing to a
kid in short pants.
``Still play?'' I asked.
``Quit when I was 21.''
``Lost to a kid in short pants.''
The Pariah Chess Club, where I play every Monday night, admits no one
in short pants. Even our youngest member, in his 20s, wears trousers. The
rest of us are more grizzled veterans numbering about a dozen, mostly
journalists and writers, with three lawyers, an academic and a diplomat for
ballast. We've been meeting at my house for almost a decade for our weekly
Oh yes, the club's name. Of the four founding members, two were social
scientists who, at the time we started playing, had just written books that
had made their college lecture tours rather physically hazardous. I too
sported a respectable enemies list (it was the heady Clinton years). And we
figured that the fourth member, a music critic and perfectly well-liked,
could be grandfathered in as a pariah because of his association with the
three of us.
Pariah status has not been required of subsequent members, though it
is encouraged. Being a chess player already makes you suspect enough in
polite society, and not without reason. Any endeavor that has given the
world Paul Morphy, the first American champion, who spent the last 17-odd
years of his life wandering the streets of New Orleans, and Bobby Fischer,
the last American champion, now descended John Nash-like into raving
paranoia, cannot be expected to be a boon to one's social status.
Our friends think us odd. They can understand poker night or bridge
night. They're not sure about chess. When I tell friends that three of us
once drove from Washington to New York to see Garry Kasparov play a game,
it elicits a look as uncomprehending as if we'd driven 200 miles for an
True, we chess players can claim Benjamin Franklin as one of our own.
He spent much of his time as ambassador to France playing chess at the Cafe
de la Regence, where he fended off complaints that he was not being seen
enough at the opera by explaining, ``I call this my opera.'' But for every
Franklin, there is an Alexander Alekhine, who in 1935 was stopped trying to
cross the Polish-German frontier without any papers. He offered this
declaration instead: ``I am Alekhine, chess champion of the world. This is
my cat. Her name is Chess. I need no passport.'' He was arrested.
Or Aron Nimzovich, author of perhaps the greatest book on chess theory
ever written, who upon being defeated in a game, threw the pieces to the
floor and jumped on the table screaming, ``Why must I lose to this idiot?''
I know the feeling, but at our club, when you lose with a blunder that
instantly illuminates the virtues of assisted suicide, we have a cure. Rack
'em up again. Like pool. A new game, right away. We play fast, very fast,
so that memories can be erased and defeats immediately avenged.
I try to explain to friends that we do not sit in overstuffed chairs
smoking pipes in five-hour games. We play like the vagrants in the park--at
high speed with clocks ticking so that thinking more than 10 or 20 seconds
can be a fatal extravagance. In speed (``blitz'') chess, you've got 5 or 10
minutes to play your entire game. Some Mondays we get in a dozen games
each. No time to recriminate, let alone ruminate.
And we have amenities. It's a wood-paneled library, chess books only.
The bulletin board has the latest news from around the world, this month a
London newspaper article with the picture of a doe-eyed brunette
languishing over a board, under the headline: ``Kournikova of Chess Makes
Her Move.'' The mini-jukebox plays k.d. lang and Mahler. (We like lush. We
had Roy Orbison one night, till our lone Iowan begged for mercy.) Monday
Night Football in the background, no sound. Barbecue chips. Sourdough
pretzels. Sushi when we're feeling extravagant. And in a unique concession
to good health, Nantucket Nectar. I'm partial to orange mango.
No alcohol, though. Not even a beer. It's not a prohibition. You can
have a swig if you want, but no one ever does. The reason is not ascetic
but aesthetic. Chess is a beautiful game, and though amateurs playing fast
can occasionally make it sing, we know there are riffs--magical symphonic
combinations--that we either entirely miss or muck up halfway through.
Fruit juice keeps the ugliness to a minimum.