The Chess Instructor

“Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates,and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”

Omar Khayyam

I learned to play checkers before I learned to play chess.

My grandfather taught me checkers when I was six. He taught me in the way an expert would teach the game: the emphasis at first was on the endings. I remember his teaching me how two kings winkle one king out of the double corner.

I asked my father about this years later, whether grandpa had been a competition player. He answered, “I don’t know, he never played checkers with me. I didn’t even know he played!”

It was my father who taught me at eight years old to play chess. I was trapped in the home with one of those childhood diseases they inoculate against nowadays: measles. It did some small damage to my eyesight. Dad gave me something to do with my eyes while recovering other than read or watch television.

I remember my tremendous frustration at losing. When checkmated, I would make another move, say, putting my queen en prise hoping Dad would take that desperate offering instead of the precious king. The worst part of it was Dad’s childish giggle at my futile attempt to ward off defeat.

Reuben Fine theorized that chess is sublimated father murder. I’ve noticed that many of the best chessplayers I’ve met in the 55 years since I learned the game had unsatisfactory relationships with their fathers. I would characterize my own relationship with the paternal antecedent as difficult but hardly extraordinary for my generation.

If my chessplay possesses a freudian abnormality, the evidence may be found in the nightmares I had in the last feverish nights of measles: I repeatedly dreamed the white and black king suddenly flying from their squares on the board towards each other and colliding with a crack! in the center, waking me from sleep.

In any case, this morning my chess instructor himself woke from this checkerboard of days and nights and, at 95 years of age, quietly passed on.

Jacques Delaguerre