I’d never had chess lessons from anyone else. It was my teacher, for example, who taught me to keep track of time. This was when I was twelve, and considered one of Brazil’s great talents in the world of junior chess, and I was about to face my first serious tournament, with a game clock and everything. One year earlier, my mother had taken the advice of my grandfather, who was no longer able to beat his grandson, and sought out a teacher for me.
It’s only now that I see the coincidence: I interrupted my lessons a month ago precisely because my concentration had been ruined by my grandfather’s death. Just the same, my teacher assured me, it would be better to keep practising. You’ve been at this for such a long time, Ricardo, you know perfectly well you’ll get your focus back soon enough. Now it’s my teacher who’s disappeared. It’s been nearly thirty years since I had my first lesson with him.
After that short interruption, I asked if we could resume our lessons with a study of a few historic games – those unexpected attacks my grandfather so liked. It was the only thing he knew how to do on the board. Once I’d learned to neutralise the deranged sacrifices he used to make of his pieces, I never lost another game. From then on, we never played again. Grandfather and grandson became a bit more distant simply because I’d learned to strengthen the centre in order to avoid an attack from the flank.
Our lessons usually last an hour and a half. That was how long I waited at the cafe. Then I tried to track my teacher down on his mobile, but the call wouldn’t go through. Since there was still some time before I was due to collect my son at kindergarten, I decided to stop by the building where he’s lived for as long as we’ve known each other.
‘His mother came by with some other guys last week and had him taken away.’
‘But did she leave any information?’
‘That’s all I know.’
I left my number at the reception and asked the caretaker to call me if there were any news. That night I contacted the chess people. Nobody had heard anything.
At first, my teacher would come to my house. It was the moment I most looked forward to each week. I spent about six weeks just learning the basic principles. Ricardo, you corner your knight, you’re in for a fright. Then I started to show up at a few junior competitions. We’re now in 1986, I think: in those days, unlike today, very few children played in the tournaments. Most of them were poorly prepared and only there to fulfil a wish of their fathers’. I beat them all, easily.
When I turned twelve, my mother started taking me to a chess club. My lessons were moved there. It was the place my teacher most adored in the world. At first, I didn’t like it. It was quite dark, and at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, deserted. People started arriving at the end of the day. That was the time my mother took me away. No doubt she had noticed what kind of people frequented that sort of place in downtown São Paulo.
Bit by bit, however, I began to win my freedom. My mother trusted my teacher completely. He promised he’d drop me at the metro once I’d played for a bit with the people who practiced at the club. The first time I arrived home late she threatened never to let me go alone again. I was already confident enough to answer back. And I ended up taking second place in Brazil’s under 14s. I appeared in the newspapers, to my grandfather’s great pride.
As I grew older I would stay later at the club, playing chess. Since I was still the youngest, my teacher would look out for me. The environment, however, wasn’t a hostile one. Though it was filled with the strangest guys in town, they were only there to play. The club housed a variety of exiles from eastern Europe; high school students who thought they were awesome but no doubt ended up there because they couldn’t get themselves a girlfriend; an ‘inactive’ paedophile who was murdered years later; and then there were the loners and the professionals, many of them there to win themselves enough money for dinner and the following day’s lunch.
Time in the chess club, with its local wildlife, marked the beginning of my youth: school in the morning and chess the rest of the time. In the gaps in between, I read the novels I came across at home.
There are eight of us after my teacher now. No one can find any information. Yesterday, during a tournament, J. came up with the only idea that, so far, seems reasonable: find his mother. We had already phoned all the hospitals in the city of São Paulo, F. looked into the police records and the morgue and even a few cemeteries received calls from us. No one knows anything.
I realised that I don’t even know the name of the parents of the person whom, with the exception of my own parents, I’ve had in my life for longer than anyone else. Just once, years ago now, we ran into his mother in the street. It was a coincidence: we were on our way to a bar to celebrate a good result in a tournament and she was on her way out of the cinema. She greeted us from a distance then immediately moved off, as though not wanting to invade some territory that was not hers. I think his mother was always aware of the depraved environment that surrounded her son’s profession, and even if it was just to protect him, she kept out of it. It’s as if she thought some portion of good sense needed to be preserved in the family.
Yesterday I told the story of my teacher’s disappearance to two friends. Their comments typify the misapprehension people have about chess players: Gosh, but someone so rational just disappearing like that! Nothing of the sort. Games of tactics and strategy more often than not involve more brutality than rational thought. You only have to get a look at Kasparov’s face on YouTube . . .
For many people, chess is the only possible way of getting along with others. All that matters is the ability to memorize openings, to be cooler and tougher than your opponent, to find combinations and have the patience to manoeuvre your rook with precision in an endgame that feels like a draw. They’re a very strange group of people, with all kinds of pitiful habits and tics, often self-centred and violent and with a somewhat distorted view of themselves and their own intellectual abilities.
Want an example? When you’re in Paris, track down the place in the Jardin du Luxembourg where the chess players gather. Naturally it’s in one of the less busy areas. If you have the nerve, stay and watch a while. You’ll see a guy with a bandage around his head, as though he had a perpetual, gigantic toothache, three others who are talking to themselves, some who stink, the boy to your left who won’t stop coughing, and two others, who’ve only just finished a game, exchanging violently racist insults. A gentleman’s game? Only to my grandfather, who only ever played in the family.
Before you leave, just one thing I should make clear: amid this whole heap of lunatics are two French champions and one guy who reached number four in the world in the 1980s. I spent a few hours with them the year before last.
In Brazil, the scene has never been better. When my mother finally gave me the freedom to decide what time I should return home, I became a part of the group of my teacher’s friends. I was the youngest. Not much older than me were two guys about to start college. The others were about twenty-five and underemployed, or living, very badly, off the game.
Back then, at the start of the 1990s, the old centre of São Paulo was a space shared between street children (who, quite unlike today’s crack users, spent their time sniffing glue) and run-down nightclubs. The chess club was opposite one of these.
At sixteen, I already knew that my talent at the game would not take me far. But as I didn’t have friends in any other sphere I still spent my time at the club. On the weekends we’d play till two in the morning, when the doorman, who was desperate to get home, kicked us out. I would then go with the other younger players to a hidden-away bar that stayed open all night and we’d keep on playing there. The owner was a fan of the game, too. The other guys in the group, my teacher included, would stretch out the night in some dive somewhere or other. A decent proportion of chess players are attracted to a certain decadent lifestyle. My teacher, for example, contracted HIV in a whorehouse during the world junior and youth championships held in the Philippines at the start of the 1980s.
Even though I did not yet have a very mature interest in sex, the route we took to the bar fascinated me: cheap prostitutes pressed up against transvestites, dealers and thugs. I was taking risks! But as we moved in a group, they never bothered us.
At four in the morning, if the police had decided to cause trouble, they could have fined the entire bar: at my age, even though I wasn’t drinking, there was no way I was allowed in such a place at that time of night. But night-time in São Paulo always follows the same rules: there’s only ever trouble in the periphery. In the centre, as long as everyone gets what they want for themselves, we all rub along very well. There were always some policemen among the chess players, though their particular style of play is a bit too aggressive for me.
I was exhausted, but I stuck it out at the bar, proud to be hanging with older guys, facing up to them as an equal across the board, and, above all, proud to be a part of the milieu. As soon as dawn broke, the subway trains would start running again and I’d go home. My teacher was undoubtedly drunk in some dive someplace.
When I started college, I went to live outside São Paulo and bit by bit I abandoned that life. For a few years I had no more chess lessons and only played sporadically. As I wrote, I lost touch with all the friends of my adolescence.
While I was away from the board, I did a doctorate in Brazilian literature and wrote four books. I was away for long enough that chess changed a great deal. Beforehand, we’d had to wait for the newspapers to publish reports of the duelling matches between Karpov and Kasparov. In the world of chess, the Cold War took its time. Today, it’s possible to follow matches online in real time. Domination of the game no longer belongs to the Russians: the world champion is now a young Norwegian.
It was one of those surprises of destiny that got me playing again. In 2009, I had published my novel The Book of Mandarins, and soon after the launch I saw a lady buying it in the bookshop of a cinema here in São Paulo. It was my teacher’s mother. I asked how he was and the lady, wanting no direct contact whatsoever with her son’s chess-playing friends, gave me his mobile number.
My teacher got quite excited about my books. He loved reading. Actually, he even suggested that my interest in literature had come from the time we’d spent together when I was a teenager. I’d just come back from a long trip abroad, I’d moved house, and I didn’t have much to do in São Paulo. I never managed to make close friends in the Brazilian literary scene. So I went back to taking lessons and playing in tournaments almost every weekend.
Thanks to my teacher, I joined a team. They are my friends. Now we’ve spent the last two days trying to remember his mother’s name. According to the calculations of a mathematician who plays with us, we’ve tried more than two thousand combinations on Google, but nothing has worked.
We only know one thing for sure: she likes going to the movies. J. suggested that we should wait till Saturday and then each stand guard at the entrance to a different cinema. It was a terrible plan, certainly, but it was our only option short of tipping over our king.
When the final screening ended, we exchanged messages on our phones: nothing. Nobody had run into her. In the early hours we met up in a bar to discuss what to do. Put an appeal out on Facebook? For that, we’d need a photo of her. Put up signs all over the city? São Paulo’s size made that idea unviable. There was no way out: my teacher has disappeared and we have no way of finding him.
As so often, we were defeated by the very truth we chess players so hate: life is not a game.
Photograph courtesy of Anders Eriksson