This House battle is all in fun

Chess: A months-long match has the majority leader and a GOP freshman putting aside their ideological differences -- most of the time -- to focus on different strategy.

April 04, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Ideas pulse through the night in the delegate's cluttered third-floor office just across the street from the domed State House.

Adversaries lean their heads in debate, inching toward compromises that might someday become law. Staffers come and go, dropping papers on the desk. Framed documents incline against the baseboards, awaiting a lull when someone will find a moment to hang them.

Amid it all, a king stands guarded in the corner.

Five inches tall, delicately carved of blond wood, the king, and the chessboard he anchors, awaits two Maryland legislators -- one a shy, untried freshman, the other a veteran, powerful and notoriously cheeky.

The light pieces belong to the by-the-numbers Republican, the black pieces to the Democrat who seems lefty in comparison.

Twelve weeks into their languid game of chess, one of them is a few moves closer to victory.

But despite fermenting partisan conflicts over slots and assault weapons and taxes, and the typical flurry of end of session activity in the General Assembly -- the game's pace ... is ... just ... as ... slow ... as ... ever.

So it is remarkable to find Dels. Warren E. Miller and Kumar P. Barve sitting across from each other so close to sine die, the legislative version of the last day of school. After a working lunch, there are floor votes to cast and so much negotiating to accomplish that the day won't end until the late night talk shows begin.

But for a moment, none of that intrudes.

Both men lock eyes on the board: Miller, the Howard County backbencher appointed last year to finish out the term of Robert L. Flanagan, who resigned from the House of Delegates to become Secretary of Transportation; Barve, the majority leader from Montgomery County who has spent thirteen years honing the art of political longevity in Annapolis.

A challenging offer

It was happenstance that Miller noticed the handsome set on the coffee table when he came by to introduce himself at the start of the session.

"I saw the chess set and offered to play him," says Miller.

He used to be a serious chess player, winning a spot on Glenelg High's seven-member chess team in the 1980s and playing throughout his years at Towson University. Now 29, the last time Miller had played was against a 6-year-old cousin. But Barve smelled a challenge.

Barve is also the product of scholastic chess, joining the chess club at Burtonsville's Paint Branch High, he says, "but then I got my driver's license and started asking girls out."

At 45, he is the House wit, a whip-smart, Georgetown-educated accountant and the nation's first state lawmaker of Indian-American heritage. ("Indian-American, that's turbans not feathers," is how he introduced himself at his first Democratic caucus meeting in 1990.)

The match takes place in his office, where a Kandinsky poster hangs between two windows and where, on a side table, sits a picture of Barve and a cow on a grid-cut field at a charity event. There is a story, of course: "I was the judge in a game of cow plop bingo."

He hadn't played chess since taking office. Still, when a relative vacationed in India a few years back, Barve asked him to bring back a wooden chess set carved by artisans in the city of Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. The folding inlaid board sat on the coffee table until Miller's request gave it life.

It was a rusty game that the two political foes sat down to one blustery January day, neither keeping score of the points or exactly sure which opening sequences they followed.

Miller might drop by Barve's empty office to make a move on a Tuesday, approaching the majority leader on the House floor to say, "Your turn."

Barve might respond with his own move a few days later, which is how January became February, then March, but the game continued.

One fruitful morning last week, Barve and Miller, face-to-face for a change, take six moves apiece. Progress, and not only on the game board. The lawmakers hold polar opinions, which the game seems to bridge.

"Where do you stand on abortion?" Barve asks Miller.

"I'm pro-life."

"OK, I believe in a woman's right to choose. What about the death penalty?"

"For it," says Miller.

"Me, too. You're anti-taxes in all circumstances, right?"

"Yeah, things would have to change drastically for me to vote for taxes. That's why I'm here, because I said I was against taxes."

Miller lifts a black rook and lines it up alongside the board. His spoils outnumber those of Barve, who winces. "Ummm," he says. "You support the war on Iraq?"

"Certainly," says Miller.

"Well we definitely disagree on that one."

Theirs are regional differences, too. Barve represents the central Montgomery County towns of Gaithersburg, Rockville, Garrett Park. His constituents are mostly upper middle-class, moderate Democrats.

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