My father started teaching me to play chess when I was around seven. He had been playing most of his life and was a pretty good player, especially when he was younger and was able to concentrate and focus for long periods at a time. He knew most of the openings, played conservatively being very fastidious with his defense, and would occasionally create a brilliant attack combining a strategic piece sacrifice with a meticulous onslaught that would leave me speechless.
And to top it off, to teach me to play with intent, he never let me win. Consequently, when I did finally beat him at around the age of twelve or thirteen, I knew I had done so on my own merits. It was a true victory, and I’m not sure which of us was prouder.
Over the years we would go through phases where we played each other quite regularly interspersed with long periods where we didn’t play at all. And then we’d start up again, and much to my chagrin, he’d taught himself a new opening like the King’s Gambit, and would beat me mercilessly for the next few games, until I managed to work out how to counter it.
In recent years, we played using the smartphone app Chess with Friends, but obviously at the beginning, we used to play in person over a succession of boards and chess sets. The first was a traditional board which folded across the middle with a small set in a plastic box. We then graduated to a larger set in a wooden box, which he recently gave to my five year old grandson Austin – his great grandson – so he could teach him to play too.
When I was fifteen, together with my grandfather, I made him a whole chess environment as a surprise 45th birthday present. It was quite awesome. First, there was a table about 800 millimeters squared. It had brown borders about 20 millimeters all the way around a beautiful board, slightly inset with black and white linoleum squares. Given that both of us were smokers at the time, each corner of the table-top had round holes which housed little metal ashtrays, which could easily be taken out and emptied.
The piece de resistance was a plastic chess set, with the pieces represented by Roman political and military figures. The king was Caesar, the bishop was a senator, the knight was a centurion, the pawns were ordinary legionnaires, and so on. And to make sure that they didn’t fall over, my grandfather, who was quite the handyman, opened each piece and inserted a small metal weight before closing it up again.
The whole thing looked a treat. My father loved it, and used it for years playing both with me and with whomever else he could cajole into a game. It had pride of place in the living room, and I remember coming in often and seeing him at that table, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, poring over a particular setup with an open copy of An Introduction to The Chess Openings or The 50 Greatest Chess Games or Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.
Neither of us has any idea what happened to that table and Roman chess set. It disappeared into the mists of time during a spring clean or a house move or something. But I have such warm, if fleeting, memories of the games I played on it and the many conversations I had with my father while we were playing.
I daresay that some of the games didn’t actually pan out the way I remember them – time does strange things to memory. I also think that some of these conversations might have taken place in different circumstances – not over chess games, but rather around the kitchen table over lunch or dinner. Indeed, some of them probably transpired very recently on one of my visits to my parents’ house without a chess game.
I’ve enjoyed remembering them and recording them. I hope you enjoy reading them!