Occasionally, in the game of Chess, a player fancies his chances and takes a risk, sacrificing a piece – a knight, a bishop, or sometimes even a rook. Bobby Fischer when he was only thirteen, in a famous game known as The Game of the Century, played against an American Master, sacrificed his Queen, and then went on to win with a series of stunning combinations that had the Chess World spellbound.
However, such sacrifices, such bold moves, are not always worth the risk. After my father told me this story with its pretty massive consequences, I started gaining more of an appreciation for his defensive game. He learned his lesson quite early in life.
The story takes place in Kaluszyn, the little Polish town 58 kilometres east of Warsaw, where my father was born and spent the first eight years of his life. He was five years old at the time, and together with his six-year-old cousin Chaim, acted up quite a bit. In fact, they were constantly getting into trouble.
There was a kid in town called Mayer (pronounced to rhyme with player). Mayer must have been about twelve or thirteen. He was a typical Orthodox kid with payos, those sidelocks that they wore, and, according to my father, always had “two candles under his nose”. You get the picture? Someone that two young secular hooligans couldn’t help but make fun of.
So, they composed a ditty in Yiddish:
Mit di lokshene ayer
Mit di glezene oygn
Mitn shvantz farboygen.
Anyone who knows Yiddish would know that this is virtually untranslatable, but I’ll try it. The literal meaning is something like this:
With noodle balls
With glass eyes
With a bent tail.
My father, with nobody around now to testify to the contrary, swears that Chaim was the main perpetrator here, and he (my father) was merely the follower. I don’t buy it, because when he tells the story, the cheekiest grin takes over his face – it’s a look of ownership, almost of pride.
So, on with the story.
They taunted Mayer with this ditty in the middle of the Kaluszyn marketplace, and when he heard it, he flew into a rage, and looked at them with murderous intent. They already knew enough to not stick around to find out what he had in mind, and hightailed it towards their house which was above the Bund Consumer Cooperative, the little retail store run by the Jewish Labour Bund to provide cheaper produce for its members.
Mayer set off after them, chasing them through the market, around stalls, under tables, and over rolls of fabric. They almost made it home, when my father tripped and fell face-first onto one of those iron bolts sticking up out of the ground, opening a one-inch horizontal gash across his forehead.
Well, that was the end of the Queen sacrifice. It hadn’t worked. My father lost that game badly. The wound got infected, and without any antibiotics, it pretty much stayed that way for half a year. He spent most of the six months in bed, being visited by the local doctor every Monday and Thursday before finally recovering.
Needless to say, they didn’t recite the ditty much after that. My father occupied himself with Kinder Fraynt (Children’s Friends), a Yiddish library series that my grandfather ordered in from Warsaw for him. With this, he read many of the Classics, not just Yiddish ones, but English ones, such as Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities and Greek ones, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey – all in Yiddish.
He now says that “words have consequences”. But not only that. Bobby Fischer tried a Queen sacrifice as a thirteen-year-old against a former US Open Champion. His gamble came off, and he became one of the best and most famous Chess players in history. My father tried one which didn’t come off. He became a good, dour defensive player who often beat me by just wearing me down, locking me in, and giving me nowhere to go, and he still sports a one-inch scar on his forehead.
Yes, he learnt his lesson, and never got chased by a noodle-balled, glass-eyed, bent-tailed payos-wielding Chassid again.