The autumn years, their very beginning – seventy, seventy-five, life goes on. Many of the participants in this year’s tournament will live another fifteen, even twenty years, though of course these aren’t their salad days: everything is already determined, realized. Still, they are the lucky ones: men of means, they get by without outside help – a comfortable life, secure. At some point the decisive loss will come: every life must end in defeat (or, more bluntly, must end) – but that much is fair, necessary even, no? Routine, in any case. Death is not discussed in their circles.
But in the meantime, why not get the gang together, move some pieces around a board? After much writing and wrangling, they had pooled together some funds for an annual tournament. ’96 – Philadelphia, ’97 – Providence, ’98 – little Williamstown, northwestern Massachusetts: frankly, none of the shabbiest corners of their star-spangled land for a gathering of aging chess-lovers. This year it was San Francisco’s turn. One of the players arranged it all, from the accommodation to the venue. On their rest day they all went out to the Symphony Hall together, took a drive around the town.
The games were played at the Marines’ Memorial Club, the players their own spectators, arbiters and organizers, too. Of course, the odd veteran would also stop by for a look – Second World War, Korea, Vietnam: over the past century their homeland had had its fair share of wars. A great, powerful nation. Two rows of tables, sixteen players, everyone plays everyone, three rounds then a rest day. In previous years there had been as many as twenty players; some fall by the wayside, but others appear, just pay your entry and welcome to the club.
The muffled tap of pieces, soft lighting, the occasional quiet remark (chatter at the table is frowned upon); the smells of coffee and polished floors. Smoking is prohibited, of course, but no one smokes as it is – these men aren’t enemies unto themselves. In the evenings they fill in the chart together, determine the day’s most beautiful game, analyze it. The pleasant, understated world of chess.
But everything must come to an end, including the tournament, and its players fly their separate ways: north to Seattle, south to San Diego, to the East Coast. They part ways warmly, though this year’s tournament proved rather . . . unusual, shall we say.
The flight for New York leaves with a slight delay. Coach is around 70 percent full, while in first class there are only two passengers, both ours, from our tournament: Albert A. Alexander, former ambassador to Norway (the title sticks for life), and Donald, a businessman, call me Don.
Albert is wearing light chinos, a pink button-down shirt and a dark blue, single-breasted blazer. A diplomatic bearing, the image of a peacemaker, he is elegant, handsome, even. Though admired and loved as a man, as a chess player he is decidedly average.
Don’s life – or the first seventy-five and a half years of it, he jokes – was devoted to quite different pursuits: selling ball bearings. We Anglo-Saxons love to make light of things, play ourselves down: in actual fact Don was king of the market, scourge of his rivals, with factories in Malaysia, South America and other far-flung places besides. Pensioners in his position have a tendency to strut around the citadels of European civilizations in long shorts and baseball caps, visor flipped backwards for others’ amusement; clowns. Beefy Don is no such man. In addition to being one of the best players in the tournament, he is also its longstanding treasurer. And though his weight may be substantial, he runs every morning.
So what do these two men talk about? It is clear just by looking at them that on many matters (prayer in schools, single-sex marriage, gun control, what else? Oh, abortion, capital punishment, healthcare reforms . . .) their opinions will diverge. As Churchill put it: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Both men are acutely aware of this paradox, the diplomat especially so. But what is important is that Albert and Don have both served their families and their nation well.
This year’s tournament, however, had been pretty dispiriting for everyone involved. Two talking points – A and I – where to begin? A: Alzheimer’s. Poor old Jeremy Levine, all-around nice guy and keeper of traditions, was in a terrible state. At least he could still remember how the pieces move, thank God. His openings were instinctive, confident, but after that it would all fall apart. His opponents, eyes averted, would propose a draw at the first opportunity. Ten, fifteen moves, and then – Jeremy, what do you say?
Jeremy had always been an affable man, but at the tournament he had developed a constant giggle – a shy, quiet titter. Honestly, it was uncomfortable being around him, a gray-haired child. Yes, he still recognizes some people, but everyone knows that that, too, will end, the only question is when. The progression of Alzheimer’s is impossible to predict.
‘He did recognize me,’ the ambassador declares.
Don isn’t moved by such things:
‘That’s beside the point.’
What Don had found most galling wasn’t so much Jeremy’s presence – illness happens, what can you do? – as that of Carolyn, Jeremy’s wife: chess is no infirmary. And there had been rather a lot of this Carolyn around, with all her honeys and sweethearts. She was at Jeremy’s side relentlessly, from chess tables to diaper changes.
‘Her whole life she’s zipped the man around like a radio-controlled car. Ironic, when she can’t even use a computer! Just think, Al – I have to send her letters by snail mail.’
Carolyn believes that reimmersing her husband in chess will slow his decline. According to her, Jeremy was almost back to where he had been a year before.
‘The great fruits of our labor,’ Don chuckles. ‘Makes the whole long flight worthwhile.’
Their meal arrives. The conversation moves on.
‘But seriously, if you have no legs then don’t expect to ski,’ Don says. ‘I’m opposed to all those cripple Olympics.’
‘You can say that to me, Don, but I wouldn’t risk advertising those opinions to a wider audience.’
In any case, it would be inhuman to exclude their old pal from the tournament. And besides – here the ambassador flicks his hand – what’s interesting is the process, not the result.
No shit, thinks Don, with the form you’ve had lately . . .
‘Don, you did give Jeremy a draw, didn’t you?’
He did. In spite of his convictions.
In-flight conversations have their own stop–start logic. After the meal the old gents feel drowsy.
Would the ambassador mind if Don took a nap? After that they can hash over Ivy, the Russian: a serious matter, something has to be done. Don will shut his eyes, lower his blind for a while, have some time to himself. There, internally, he will see pieces moving across a chessboard, capturing one another, clocks ticking. One winner, one loser: in the world Don wants to live in, all is fair.
The ambassador dozes, too. Below the plane lies America: land of opportunity, leader of the Western world – its tuning fork, if you will. Soon, the ambassador knows, other countries will start to catch up with her, and though that European charm that he holds so dear will inevitably become a thing of the past, life on this planet will become the better, the more humane, for it. Their tournament is a model of rational self-organization, more so than any political party, any social movement: such pure, conflict-free, from-the-heart undertakings are a rarity in today’s world. The ambassador has seen a great many difficult, unpleasant things in his time. An awful lot of politics. His knowledge came at a cost.
If anything, the service in first class is excessive. The gentlemen are offered dessert, chocolate mousse. None for Don, thanks. Mousse? What’s mousse? Is it like jello? Don hates jello, he can’t stand anything that quivers.
‘That’s gotten me into trouble with the ladies before, believe me,’ Don chuckles.
Funny, yes. The ambassador, meanwhile, has loved one woman all his life: his wife. The same goes for Don, of course. But back in their college days . . . Oh, in college we were all polygamous.
The flight is bumpy, not conducive to sleep. The fasten seatbelt sign appears. There is a large river beneath them.
‘Just the Missouri or something,’ the ambassador suggests.
‘Not just Missouri,’ Don grumbles, who lived in the Midwest for many years.
The ambassador raises his palms – elegantly, like almost everything he does. The Midwest is Don’s fiefdom; the ambassador, meanwhile, has only ever lived on the East Coast – in Washington, New York.
So, how about that Russian? Matthew Ivanov, Ivy. Or as Carolyn, poor old Jeremy’s wife, had taken to calling him, Poison Ivy.
‘Been stung by the poison ivy yet?’ she had asked every player.
Yes, they had all been stung, every last one of them. Matthew Ivanov, new kid on the block, had won the entire tournament: fifteen matches, fourteen victories, one draw. And no, the issue here isn’t the prize pot – which the winner took outright – but the Russian’s attitude to the game, to his competitors.
No one had been able to speak to Matthew, beyond the bare minimum required of the game: before each match – a handshake and hi, and then at the end – that’s it, I resign. Matthew would nod, shake hands and then leave. He never took part in the post-game analyses, not to mention the excursions. And at last night’s dinner he had taken his check and framed certificate and ducked out with no more than a thanks everyone. Where’s that certificate now? Lying in a trash can, for all we know.
‘Al, tell me, do you think he even likes chess?’
‘The game certainly likes him, Don – more than you or me. Did you see our match?’
No, Don didn’t see it.
Albert sighs: when playing a stronger opponent, it forces you to raise your game. But in the ambassador’s head-to-head with Ivy, his hands were tied as early as the ninth or tenth move. In a bad position, any move is worthless.
‘Where did the kid even come from?’ Don wonders.
The ambassador shrugs.
‘An immigrant. They like it here.’
‘Sure they do – we keep them fed.’ Don is annoyed. ‘America, the freest country in the world. Too free, if you ask me.’
‘There are free countries in Europe, too,’ the ambassador says, with a conciliatory tone. He flashes one of his best smiles – the one reserved for his cohorts, allies.
Don has never been to Europe. The ambassador finds this strange.
‘You recommend it? What’s the point?’
What can you say to that? There are wonderful places.
‘But how about you, Don? How long did you hold out against Ivy?’
First off, it was the first game of the tournament. Second, Ivy was playing white. And third, the newbie spent twenty minutes on his opener.
‘So the clock’s ticking, and I’ve got this kid I don’t know just sitting there in front of me, thinking. His head’s down, I can’t see his eyes. I mean, what is that, some kind of joke?’
‘I imagine he was being entirely serious. He was probably tuning in to his thoughts, deciding whether he was in the mood to play aggressively or beat you in a positional battle. Ivy’s a master.’
In the end the youngster had gone with c4, the English Opening. Don responded with e5.
‘The Reversed Dragon?’ the ambassador asks in delight.
Don nods. It all went by the book. He quickly dictates the moves.
‘Know the system?’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ the ambassador nods.
Like hell he does. Back when Don was running his factories, his ability to tell when he was being lied to saved him from many a sticky situation. He is getting increasingly worked up:
‘Look, I can take a kicking, but at least give me something to show for it! But no, he just bleeds you dry, squeezes you like a machine! I’m seventy-five – I can’t compute like him! A master! I can see he made an impression on you . . .’
‘Yes . . .’ the ambassador says, as though searching for the right word, one clearly long-since found. ‘You know, he has a certain . . .’ He is planning on saying ‘audacity’, but Don interrupts:
‘Just say it straight: kid’s a hustler. I checked, and there’s no chess player by the name of Matthew Ivanov.’
‘Don, their alphabet is different. Remember those old sports kits, CCCP?’
‘Well I’m telling you, that CCCP of yours was in it for the money!’
‘Money? What would he want money for?’
‘Al, what does anybody want money for?’
Is this guy out of his mind? Don thinks. Like Jeremy?
Well, if it’s the money they’re after, the ambassador muses to himself, then why did they sell their politics so cheap?
‘Russians have suffered a great deal this century,’ the ambassador says contemplatively.
‘So you’re telling me the kid suffered?’
The ambassador continues:
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, but a few years ago the Russians sold their foreign policy for one million – yes, one million – times less than what we were willing to pay them for it.’
They both sit in stunned silence. Don – at the size of the sum, jeez, one mil, that’s six zeros, what kind of money were we sitting on? The diplomat – at having blabbed to Don.
‘I understand,’ says the ambassador, breaking the silence. ‘We have to protect the spirit of the tournament. How about abolishing the prize fund?’
‘We’re not an infirmary, Albert. We’re not against good players, God no. We just want them to behave properly.’
‘So,’ the ambassador sighs, ‘that means drawing up a code, some rules and regulations. And doing away with winner takes all’ – he mimes a staircase with his hand – ‘but instead eight thousand, five, three. First, second, third.’
‘Yup, it has to be done,’ Don nods. ‘Because you can bet on it, next time we’ll have three of those . . . Ivanovs showing up on our doorstep. Your beloved CCCPs.’
Don is right, of course: their tournament, their great project, their brainchild, is under threat. All this having to lay down the law . . . it’s everywhere nowadays, even in family life. Meanwhile, he and Don have done just fine with their old ladies without any such written binders. The four of them should meet up in New York sometime, go to Carnegie Hall or Yankee Stadium . . . then have them over, show them the collection.The ambassador collects owls – marble, clay. He even has a couple of magnificent taxidermies. The owl is a symbol of wisdom.
‘The Don, that’s a beloved river in Russia. Perhaps that’ll redeem them somewhat in your eyes? And Quiet Flows the Don?’ he says with relish. ‘It’s a book, it won the Nobel Prize. Not that you, Don, could ever be called quiet.’ The ambassador looks out the window, squinting. What is he hoping to find out there?
At this point there is a minor disturbance. Behind them – where the first-class restroom is – they hear a noise. A young man has quickly slipped inside and locked the door. The stewardess gives the passengers a guilty look, shrugs: what can you do? The other restrooms are occupied, someone has clearly had an urgent call of nature and burst into first class.
Soon – too soon, somehow – the sound of the flush is heard, and the young man steps out of the restroom: none other than Matthew Ivanov himself. On recognizing his recent competitors, the young man smiles. His teeth are a brilliant white, but the smile still comes out tense, sad.
Both Don and the ambassador make some bewildered movements, meanwhile Ivanov, who had almost recoiled when he first saw them, now takes a seat in the second row from the back, diagonally behind them. It is clear he hadn’t wanted to run into the old men, but that running away from them would have also felt wrong. The only one who can muster a welcoming gesture is the ambassador – not Don, and certainly not the stewardess, who had been on her way to shoo the uninvited guest back into coach, but hesitated on seeing that her wards clearly knew him. The young man, if he did show any aggression, initially showed it only to her.
He pre-empts her: is there really any reason why he can’t enjoy a wide, comfy seat for a while? Because his ticket is for economy, the stewardess says. And? Is he disturbing anyone? Is he depriving the others of even a fraction of the comfort they have procured? Still, the stewardess says, it’s unfair, wrong. Unfair to the others in economy, and especially unfair to those who have bought first-class tickets. Unfair and immoral.
What does this young man find so funny?
‘Mr Alexander,’ he says, addressing the ambassador, ‘do you also feel this way?’
The ambassador shrugs ambiguously.
‘I get it, we’re not supposed to, but immoral?’ The young man is inspired: ‘Whatever happened to the parable of the vineyard workers: Is thine eye evil, because I am good? – know that one, Mr Ambassador?’
Don – who has been strangely quiet so far – strikes his fist onto his table:
‘You heard the lady. It’s unfair and wrong.’ He is red and angry now, like he used to get back when he sold ball bearings.
The young man stands up. The ambassador says, stiffly:
‘We respect your aptitude for the game, Matthew, and we should be happy to continue our acquaintance. However, as you can see, this is neither the time nor the place.’ He tries to smile nonetheless. ‘How I wish I knew Russian like you do English! You had excellent teachers.’
The young man replies:
‘Yes, outstanding. And the textbooks were first-rate. As I recall: What is that noise in the room next door? It is my grandfather eating cheese.’
Albert, experienced diplomat that he is, knows how to take a blow. He’s thinking up a witty retort, but none is needed – the young man is already gone.
After the guest’s departure, the old-timers try to piece together the conversation he ruptured.
‘What fable was that – about wine?’
‘A parable. From Matthew, I think. Yes, very on the nose! My goodness.’
This latest incident has left them both thoroughly shaken. They’re elderly men, after all.
‘How did you come to know the Scripture so well, Albert?’
‘Diplomacy,’ the ambassador replies. ‘Like it or not, it makes a demagogue out of you.’ His charm is gradually returning.
The plane starts to make its descent. Soon after, the Statue of Liberty appears through the windows, a formidable woman holding a book and a torch. The seats are returned to their upright position.
‘God knows who we’re feeding,’ Don ponders, looking at the statue over his neighbor’s shoulder.
The ambassador, too, is gazing at the giant sculpture: this lady needs no one; no part of her quivers.
‘And you, Albert, what religion do you practice?’
The diplomat replies, a sudden sadness in his voice:
‘I don’t believe in God.’ Then, inexplicably: ‘Sir.’
Image © Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos