Wednesday, 30 May 2007

I coulda been a contenda (at Chess)

When I was six years old, I was somewhat of a prodigy. I used to beat my brother within weeks of him teaching me the game. He wasn't a bad player, but for my age, I was magnificent...

I remember crushing the nurses with my cynical and effective strategies when I had my tonsils out at UCH, the towering presence of the Post Office Tower (as it was known then) casting a shadow over the board as my knights and bishops blasted holes through my medical opponents weak defences. It was a glorious time. If there was an under 7's world championship, I may have got past the first round I reckon, but probably then been knocked out by some Chinese 3 year old who was more talented than me. But as he was smaller than me, I would smash him in the face and break his glasses with my Rook and claim it was an accident, like an Argentine defender who shrugs and ruffles your hair after trying to cleave you in two.

Chess is a masterful invention, ancient and glorious. A game to suck your pipe to and stroke your proletariat beard whilst musing on the latest developments in the potato fields.

However, as with many things in my life, following a brief and brilliant flirtation, I got sidetracked. I would like to say it was by girls and booze, the George Best of the Chess world, an unfulfilled talent lost to the sport… However, I am ashamed to admit, it was my love for Dungeons and Dragons and ZX Spectrum games that took me away….

Through school and college on the occasions I would play (for I was not dedicated) I would still be in the upper tiers of my peer group.

I did have a brief renaissance, first at college, where I won the tournament we had in my class, secondly at Uni (or rather Hatfield Polytechnic….).

At Uni, I joined the "Harrier" pub chess team. The Harrier was a tough boozer on Hilltop in Hatfield. Somewhere students were not welcome and regularly got battered. For some reason, the locals left me alone, probably because I was such a snivelling wretch of a student it would have been no fun to beat me up. I played an "initiation" game against the club captain. He used to be 74th best player in England or something like that. He looked like a chess player, straggly hair, a beard, an eccentric English gent. I shocked him, I took his knight. A small crowd of nerdish folk gathered to watch this mysterious newcomer take on the old champ… could I defeat him? Of course, the answer was no. What I should have done once I'd gone a piece up, was to play a war of attrition, offer exchanges and sacrifices all across the board hoping that I could salvage a draw or by some miracle, snatch a victory in a messy end game….

What I did do, was knock back a couple of pints, give it large and then like Alex Higgins in his waning years proceed to play flamboyantly thinking I was about to put on a show… in the meantime my opponent ground me down, his superior knowledge of the game ultimately giving him the win.

It was somewhat of a pyrric victory for him though as that early blow showed he'd underestimated me. I was then welcome to join the team. He shook my hand vigorously thinking he'd uncovered a rough diamond, when in fact he'd uncovered a smooth turd. I was as shiny as I could get, because under the surface… my game stank!

I played two matches (because I was lazy and couldn't be bothered usually) drew one, lost one, and realised competitive chess can be quite aggressive in its own way. As we represented the Harrier pub, we had an air of violence about us. We were like playing Millwall away, I'm sure other teams were scared to visit. But we were nice really….

My problem was I couldn't play black, due to my lack of dedication I had no real understanding of opening gambits, so when white made the first move, I mostly lost when faced with someone of equal or greater talent. When playing white however, I used the English opening, a rarely used and antiquated opening move. I studied the theory behind this opening to give me an advantage, because I knew that the opposition wouldn't have much knowledge of facing this. Anyone with a decent knowledge of the game could of course take me apart, no chess player in his right mind would risk using the English opening, but it was its lack of use that was my strength. In a limited time game it pressurised my opposition into having to come off auto pilot very early in the match. It bought me thinking time……

I used to share a train home with one of the lads in the chess team. As he was more of a geek than me, I was his cool friend, which was a novelty. I don't remember his face or his voice. I only remember his anorak, and the fact he unleashed silent stinking farts on the journey home. The last time I saw him he was being harangued for fare evasion by a ticket inspector. He probably had to pay some sort of fine… I am sure I was witness to the most exciting moment of his life. Those are my memories of chess at Uni.

I gave up the game again… However, we had a chess tournament at work a couple of years later. We were a software company. There were two wings in the building, the pristine air conditioned section the programmers sat in, and the stinking warehouse which used to be an abattoir (it even had a disused blood gutter running along its length, stained with the entrails of long dead cattle). I was one of the hairy engineers, in the abattoir warehouse. A tournament was to be held at lunchtimes. I thought "why not". They (the programmers), the "haves" were surprised to hear that one of the grease monkeys wanted to enter their tournament. Oh how they chortled, it was a novelty, but like Victorian gentlemen, they of course would be delighted if a citizen from the British Commonwealth wanted to play cricket with them. Of course I had to get changed in the shed, and not be allowed a cucumber sandwich, but I would be allowed to play.

By far the best player involved was a chap called Chris, he was from Blackburn, an uncompromising hot headed northerner who supported Middlesboro. He was a programmer, but he hung around with the engineers like us, as he was a down to earth chap. Mild mannered mostly, unless someone took the piss or said something stupid. He was massive as well. We had a few practice games unbeknown to the others, he beat me every time, but I knew I would shock a few of them, and so did he. It was clear Chris would win the tournament, but I could be the surprise package. He was Mr Miyagi, I was the Karate Kid, together we would be supreme.

So the tournament started, a couple of my wins were put down to luck, I knew better….. I also lost to Chris, which was no surprise, so I was in comfortable mid-table. Then I played a blinder against this chap Mel (a different Mel), smashing him in about 15 moves. Somehow everything was coming together and I was then up against a programmer called Justin. He was second in the league, I was third. He was an intellectual, academic, bookish, a nice enough chap, looked like Shaggy from Scooby doo, slightly stooped, a bit posh, and he expected to beat me. And beat me convincingly.

How sweet it was to thrash him. To humiliate him. My best ever chess performance. It was a close battle in the opening exchanges, a small crowd gathered, I used the English opening, this threw him. We jostled for position, he lost time in the early exchanges, his unfamiliarity with my opening move giving me the advantage.

Then I saw a series of moves which would win me the game, an intricate exchange play, I ran the play though my head again and again, trying to avoid giving away my excitement. I confirmed to myself that it would almost certainly win me the game, I would sacrifice my queen for a knight and within three moves, check mate to me. Would he take my bait though…. Oh how my heart leapt when he greedily gobbled up my queen. Chris who was rooting for me, thought I'd blown it, he looked away, he hadn't seen the opportunity I had. Justin, in a sporting and somewhat arrogant way suggested I could take the move back as I would be losing my queen. I insisted he make his move, how dare he assume I'd made a stupid move, how dare he humour me, thinking he was toying with me. He took my queen.

I then made the devastating killer move… he realised he was doomed, immediately seeing the next two moves. The expression on his face, he realised he'd lost to an engineer, oh the shame for him! He toppled his King, I had won. He then asked me whether I made that move by accident… "If it makes you feel better about losing… then yes... young man" I said with a glare. I was Bobby Fucking Fisher, the maverick grandmaster for those few seconds!

Justin – no hard feelings, I did like you, and if we ever bump into each other again, I will buy you a lime cordial with cognac, or whatever posh shit you drink!

To summarise - this may seem like a bunch of shit to you, but at the time, it felt wonderful. We all need to be good at something, even for 5 minutes. And I was proud to represent the working classes that day. Take that Prince Charles you horse faced ****!

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