I still remember the day vividly. I was at my grandparents, a common occurrence despite living over an hour away, and I stared entranced at a set of hand-carved figurines. My grandfather, a Russian who had long since emigrated to Canada, said with pride he made them nearly 50 years ago. He didn’t tell me it was during his stint as a prisoner of war in WWII. I would learn that later. First, I would get my first chess lesson.
You can easily see how a child could be entranced by such figures.
Russians take chess seriously. He never called it a game. “I will teach you chess,” he said. Where others would say “Let’s play a game of chess,” he simply said, “Let’s chess,” or, “I think it’s time to chess.” Yes, chess was a verb. His intense ardour and passion shone through his heavy accent; I knew to take this seriously. I credit my quick chess advancement entirely to his gravitas.
Well, ‘quick.’ Within a year I could beat any of my friends, but that wasn’t saying much. To them it was a game, no different than Snakes & Ladders. This stunted my growth, for I played maybe 12 games a year that didn’t start some variation of 1.h4 and 2.Rh3. Indeed, the fact I improved at all playing so sparsely is a testament to my grandfather’s teaching ability.
He always had a calm demeanour and a slow, overpowering smile … until you set up the pieces. Then he glared down with the power to hew wood, his brow furrowed, a cigarette always near his mouth and a constant stream of smoke out of his nose. As I got better, I could gauge how well I was doing in a game based on how many cigarettes he went through. At first, though, I only knew that a monolith towered before me, and my only defence whatever ideas I could display on the board.
He never spoke to me during a game. He thought long on every move after 1.e4, and it was always 1.e4. Two games might last three hours. When he finally won, and he always won, he might say something. More often he leaned back and waited for my verdict, and only if I completely got it wrong did he offer a sentence or two. That’s it, and yet it made every word so important.
Our games became a ritual; every time we met we played. Over that board we connected. Looking back, we rarely talked to each other, as in talk talk. We had no idle chatter. We were too busy communicating across the board. He taught me chess, yes, but also endurance, pride, humility, perseverance (four years is a long time to never win a game). After every loss I redoubled my efforts, ready to win the next one. He allowed the barest hint of a smile, accepting my challenge. And then we did it again and again until someone pulled us apart.