I learned to play chess when I was eight. My uncle, have just returned from a POW camp in China at the end of The Korean War, taught me. I think he learned to play in the prison camp. He once said someone had carved a complete chess set from scrap wood. He didn’t say how they made the chessboard.
I became a pretty good by-the-seat-of-the-pants player. I didn’t know about standard openings or basic strategies. I just knew to protect my valuable pieces, sacrifice pawns as needed, and go for the jugular. I got good enough at a young age to consistently beat my uncle, who soon stopped playing with me altogether.
I played on occasion when I was in the Air Force. Once, an opponent came up to me full of swagger, claiming he’d play me and clean my clock, although he used a much vulgar phrase for what he would do. Then he sat, played Black to my White, and went wide-eyed and dumb founded when I used the four-move checkmate scheme to set him straight.
I spent time in the 1960s on a kibbutz in Israel. I played chess every night with others in the group of American and British visitors living and working there. I rarely lost a game. One of the Israeli kibbutz members was known as a champion, so a match between us in the community center was set up one night.
We came to the chessboard like gladiators intent on proving something. After about seven moves, my opponent sighed and opened his Hebrew language newspaper, which he read while I pondered my next move. This was a sure sign of disrespect. I wasn’t as worthy an opponent as he’d hoped, that all I’d achieved playing others was mere hype, that my skills were lacking when compared to his.
Still, I played on. Doggedly so. And lost. Badly. After that, I stayed within my circle, amongst my peers, and the Israeli champ and I never played again.
I still play chess, but not as well as I did when I was in my 20s. Yet, I enjoy the game and the challenge. I know about standard openings, midgame strategy, and endgame tactics, though I don’t always execute these tactics with the finesse I’d like.
Win or lose, I keep playing. Just for the fun of it. Because I like the game.
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