Championing Chess Why A Sixth-century Game Is Thriving In The Age Of The Video

November 25, 1990|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

You want to know why chess is still around after all these years? Because chess is a game of stories. Like this one from a recent tabloid: Man loses chess game, becomes enraged, grabs his opponent's queen, swallows it and dies. Wow. Can you see anyone getting so worked up over a Monopoly game that they eat the little flatiron?

And can you imagine any other game spawning so obviously apocryphal a yarn as this one: It's a sunny day in 1492 and Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain are brooding over a thorny chess problem. They are confounded and at wit's end and in no mood to talk to anyone, especially Christopher Columbus, who comes tiptoeing in with a teensy, weensy request for a king's ransom to finance a voyage to the edge of the world and beyond. They give him the royal treatment and tell him to beat it. For a moment it looks like America will never be discovered and no school child will ever get Columbus Day off. Then, the man bold enough to believe the world is round and not flat, peeks over the chessboard and says something like, "Uh, knight to queen-six, mate in three." The king and queen look up, astounded. They exchange glances. They are thinking the exact same thing: Lose the Italian. Moments later the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria are weighing anchor and Cathay is just over the horizon.

There's more. Napoleon, who loved chess, was very, very bad at it. And yet, for some reason, he seldom lost. That's because his opponents, showing profound chess wisdom, always opted for "The Waterloo Gambit," whose chief tenet was to resign as soon as it appeared they were about to beat the world's worst loser.

And please, let's not skip over the instructive story of my college roommate, a lumbering math major named George who loved chess and thumped his massive chest regularly on his way to checkmating every student and proctor in our dorm. He was three moves into a game with Carlos, a scrawny freshman from Puerto Rico, and he was clearly enjoying his mastery over the game, over life, over his friends. Carlos spoke up, in a soft, polite voice: "George, how long you been playing this game?" George flicked ash from his cigarette and chuckled expansively to the little circle of reverent observers, "A long time, Carlos. A long time." Carlos shook his head, sighed, pushed a queen into place and announced checkmate.

No one tells this kind of story about Tic Tac Toe or Chutes and Ladders or checkers.

"Checkers?" scoffs Virginia Baker, the colorful head of the city's Office of Adventures in Fun, which offers chess lessons and promotes the game as if it owned stock in it. "Boop, boop, boop and a checker game is all over. Chess, you got to use your mind."

Boop, boop, boop. Could Napoleon have said it any better?

"I'm not a great chess player," adds Miss Baker, who, as a city recreation leader, has promoted the game for almost all of her 69 years. "But I know this: Kids who play chess won't be out snatching pocketbooks. People who play chess read books. Kids who play it don't have their minds anyplace but there."

EIGHTEEN YEARS AFTER THE young American genius Bobby Fischer beat the Russian Boris Spassky for the world championship in Iceland, chess is back. True, it may not be back as big and as glamorous as those heady days of 1972 when Mr. Fischer became the first American ever officially to hold the world chess title. During and after that match, chess soared in popularity like never before. The United States Chess Federation, a staid body that promotes chess and rates players, added thousands of members to its ranks; chess commentary was added to newspaper columns and television stations hired chess critics. Three years later, when the eccentric Mr. Fischer abruptly chose not to defend his world title and retreated into obscurity, the game did the same. The USCF lost 20,000 members and people at cocktail parties stopped dropping names like Ruy Lopez, and Giuoco Piano and the Falkbeer Counter Gambit.

But now, with champion Garry Kasparov defending his crown against fellow Russian Anatoly Karpov in the first world title match held in America since 1907, public attention has once again focused on chess. The question, of course, is how a game like chess, said to have originated in Persia in the sixth century and spread to Europe by Byzantines and Moslems, can compete in an age of glitzy, finger-blurring video games dominated by the likes of the Super Mario Brothers who, if not Byzantine in origin, are certainly bizarre.

On the trail of that answer, I found myself at the Recreation Pier in Fells Point, a dark, massive building, transformed in recent years into a site of aerobics classes and basketball games and anything else that Virginia Baker thinks is fun.

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