Northern Stories
A Winter Reflection by John Waltersson

I have a hazy memory of chess from my childhood, of a slimmer, darker haired version of my father and a tall, lanky man, a family friend, posed over a chessboard, glasses of scotch at hand and thick pipe smoke hovering lazily over and around them. My father smoked yellow Sail tobacco mostly in those days, and in retrospect that may be the source of the haze that obscures my memory.

My father was a strong player, calculated, methodical, but as far as I know there was no chess club around then, or if there was my father never joined it. His rating – his recognized level of play – was a mystery then and is irretrievably so now. Mostly it seemed he played with that one friend from my brief memory, and when the man moved away, my father’s chess pieces in their classic Staunton design with lead shot in the bases for weight, slept in the soft foam that lined his folding chess board.

My father was a serious student of anything he engaged in, and although he taught me the game – the moves and the rules at any rate – my real introduction to the game came through the books he had collected, books filled with fascinating, fabulous names like Ruy Lopez and Queen’s Indian, Capablanca and Nimzovich.

I like to think that I beat my father once, that my natural brilliance shone through one time, but that is memory created from vanity. I never seriously studied the game, and I was afflicted with a child’s romantic view of the world. My parents encouraged reading, and among my favourites were books of squires becoming knights and tales of great adventure against impossible odds, books like Conan Doyle’s The White Company. In chess this translated into an affection for the seductive power of the fork and the pin and supplanted more mundane considerations of tempo and development.

I never completely recovered from that childishness. Occasionally, when I was older and playing against friends of mine, and when I paid attention – or, more honestly, when I forced myself to focus on the need to beat a friend to prove to myself that I was smart – I won more than I lost. But I was never a complete player, and those who had the measure of me psychologically could win by out-waiting me and, when I childishly supplanted strategy with tactics, beat me decisively.

Win or lose, however, I retained the romance of the game even to the point of having, for an achingly brief period from my own adulthood, a single shard of memory that rivals that of my father and his friend.

It is the dead of winter in a cold, northern Canadian city, late into a January night. Snow flies in a biting wind that tugs at the eaves of an old brick house, that rattles at the windowpanes, that whistles in the chimney and tosses sparks from the logs on the fire. We sit there, two of us still as a photograph, single malt whiskey at hand, liquid gold in the firelight; the two of us leaning over a board and pieces of pale onyx, staring down at the position as if we understand the intricacies of the game that has driven brilliant men mad.

Years have passed since then. No one I know now, no one close, plays chess, but for a few years while I ran a retail business, chess was discussed on a regular basis because a customer played the game. He had problems, schizophrenia, likely. His personal hygiene was questionable and occasionally deplorable. His moods were erratic though never erratic at the high, happy end that most of us experience. But he played chess, and we would talk about the game. Rather, he talked; I listened.

Joe was, it seemed, a strong player edging towards the elusive 2000 barrier although as far as I know he never made it. Tournaments are few in our corner of Canada, 400 kilometers or so north of Toronto, and travel is not commonplace for psychologically disabled person dependent on government support for the meanest basics of life. There are local players of course, and friends who could stand him a ride to this town or that one, whichever might be having an event.

There were some few events then, and chess by mail, and Joe did what he could with what he had. I was tempted at first to romanticize him, to put his psychological problems down to the capricious effects of genius. But Joe was no genius, no unheralded Bobby Fischer lost on the great white north. What he was was a troubled man who had found, in the middle of a troubled life, an oasis of safety, an escape from the outside world, a buffer against harsh reality.

In that escape, Joe unknowingly forged a commonality with my father. The two could not be more different: the one a debilitated man scraping by on the fringes of society, the other a successful doctor enjoying a comfortable life. Yet both for vastly different reasons were compelled to shrink reality down to the confines of 64 squares and the exercise of unyielding, merciless rules.

In his daily life my father faced off against the universe, and I think he found it wanting, both pitiless and insane. For no real cause the good, the bad and the indifferent would present themselves to him, and he would exercise his years of training, reach into the deepest wells of his accumulated knowledge and pronounce life or death. The indifferent would accept whatever the verdict was, I suppose, but sometimes the bad would dance free from death’s hand while the good would weep beneath its sudden crush. Against that madness chess must have seemed so purely sane.

How that purity must also have appealed to Joe whose own life was so harshly buffeted by that same universal insanity. He carried a small plastic travel set so that whenever he needed to he could reach into the game for comfort. I saw him do so in my store on occasion, and in coffee shops I would sometimes pass by.

The two never met. My father is long since gone, and I have not seen Joe for some years. Yet the two are occasionally resurrected in memory, on long January nights, or when I catch a glimpse of gold fire in a glass of single malt.

Chess itself has waxed and waned in those same years. For a while the game seemed everywhere. Sparked perhaps by an unlikely duel in Reykjavik, chess sprouted widely in popular culture with movies and television shows written around the game, and players became celebrities beyond the game itself. But it has all receded. Fischer’s mad genius seems to have become just madness, and computers have proven their power against the game’s elite.

The game may rise again or not in the public consciousness, but either way it doesn’t matter. It will always persist, and not just because of my own few memories or in an unexpected connection between two so very different men. It will persist because of its inherent sanity, a purely human creation in defiance of the universe’s inherent madness.

- John Waltersson, Sudbury