First Words — 05 February 2021
My checkered past, before ‘Queen’s Gambit’

by Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

We all have stories about chess. Even if we don’t play the game.

The teacher who tried to get us interested in chess because it might help us with math or reading or just sitting still and being quiet for two minutes, please! The friends at summer camp who pulled a board off the rec-room shelf because they were so bored it was either chess or lawn-dart roulette. The custodian at the orphanage who taught us to play down in the basement when we were supposed to be cleaning the chalkboard erasers …

No, wait. That’s the story of The Queen’s Gambit – the series about chess millions of us watched this pandemic, about an orphan girl who masters all 64 squares on the board – and 63 countries on Netflix – on her way to fame, fortune and, apparently, some fierce fashion sense.

“Tell the readers of Life how it feels to be a girl, among all those men [chess players],” a reporter requests of Beth Harmon, played by South Florida’s own Anya Taylor-Joy, subject of our cover story this issue.

“I don’t mind it,” she says. “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be …. beautiful.”

It can. Even if our chess stories are not all the same.

Mine began in my grandparent’s three-room cabin in Hinsdale County, one of the highest – and least populated – counties in Colorado. We had no TV up there, no phone, no internet (that invention was still 20 years away). Just books, a radio that could just catch the 50,000-watt signal from KKOB-AM Albuquerque (weather permitting) – and my grandfather’s chess board.

I spent most of my time that summer outdoors – hiking, fishing and exploring the old ghost towns above Creede, Colorado. But every so often, a storm would smother the mountaintops – and flashes of lightning spooked me indoors.

My grandfather Boyce was one of six siblings, from a family that always had a book open, a piano playing and a chess game going in the house growing up. He and his brothers would play mostly for fun – but also, more seriously, to settle family rivalries. He lit his pipe that stormy day and said he’d teach me the game the way he learned it – until I could beat him.

And I tried. I sat across from him at the kitchen table, eating my grandmother’s gooseberry pie, as he showed me how the pieces moved on the board. It was confusing – I could see why so many people give up on chess before they get very far.

I adored my grandfather, but I had questions about his dumb game. The queen was the most powerful piece, but lose the king and you lose the game? The pawns could move two spaces in the beginning, but only one after that? And what was the deal with the knights, moving across the board in curious L shapes that made no sense whatsoever?

But I kept at it – even after the storm passed – learning lessons about playing by the rules, planning ahead and the way things work in the world. I mean on the board.

My grandfather patiently watched me push my pieces – my own private custodian watching Beth Harmon in the basement of the orphanage – then pounce on my mistakes. I was terrible, and our earliest games often lasted only four or five moves before he beat me. Then we’d reset and start over again.

Slowly over the many summers I spent with my grandfather, our games got longer and more complex, as I began to understand how the pieces moved, how to protect them – and how to attack. By the beginning of my fourth summer in the mountains, I noticed my grandfather was taking a lot more time responding to my moves – his face disappearing behind clouds of pipe smoke as he considered his response.

Then, just before I left for my senior year in high school, I beat him – barely. He pushed over his king, smiled – and that was the last time we played.

I was on my own now. He’d taught me everything he knew.

I remembered those summers learning to play chess as I watched The Queen’s Gambit in quarantine, like millions have done this pandemic. “The show also appears to be responsible for compounding an ongoing, pandemic-induced chess boom,” The New Yorker reported in December, “as measured in online chess activity as well as sales of chess sets and accessories.”

It’s true. I always have a game going now, too – thanks to the internet – and a grandfather to thank for getting me interested in a game that didn’t help me in math, or reading or even sitting still.

I don’t mind.

Chess can also be … beautiful memories.

 

If you’re looking for a friendly online game, look for me on gameknot.com. My handle is mwgrfbmatch – a combination of my initials and my grandfather’s.

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