Kazamundo: vanquisher de los viejos y los jóvenes
My 9 year old granddaughter challenged me to a match. She’s been learning chess in school. I’ll cut to the chase; I kicked her butt, eventually.
She pulled a sweet move on me though. She forked me hard. It’s not that I let her. I had just forked her with my queen, then took her undefended bishop. I had puffed myself up and was pontificating, “honey, let me show you the power of the fork in chess.”
And that’s when she sweetly said, “like this granpa?” I’ll be damned, her bishop was a sacrifice left tethered for my enticement. She pounced with the knight she had hiding in the bushes, forking my king and queen. As you can imagine, this got my attention.
I recall my father teaching me; and then how eventually I won years later. As a parent, I taught my daughter back when she was young and earnest and didn’t yet know I wasn’t a god. I was the middle school chess team coach and she was my mini-me.
I’ve usually been able to find a game. In the Bronx during my 20s, I battled with my buddy in a loft above a mute kosher butcher. In Washington Square Park I pushed pawns in the twilight as the buskers caged tips beneath the sweep of the stone arch. I played chess all night and even worse, all day. I’ve played as if it was an itch that demanded scratching.
I’ve taken my pieces on road trips, playing outlaw chess and the chess of merchants. I’ve played with convicts and children, with the indigent and the gothic. When I traveled to Europe in ’73 chess was a big deal. It was Fischer vs. Spassky in Iceland to see who would be capo de capo and everyone was playing. An exciting game of chess transcends language. An ugly game is more like flaying a halibut.
Several years ago I left for an Oaxacan trip to see the stonework of the lost Mayan culture. But first I wanted to play the chess of expatriates and survivors. I yearned to conjure up an opponent almost as good as me and who hated to loose. It’s odd that in my search for real experience the first thing that I did was seek out the answer online. I found a Frenchman in Oaxaca who was up for a game. We arranged to meet at the zocalo. He was a young, small-boned, impeccably attired elitist. I was myself: disheveled, gray, and older than anyone he had ever spoken to who wasn’t a maitre’de. He gaped at me and then tried to cover for his gawk. “monsieur, I deeed not know zat you were zo eggzperienced ein life”. Yeah, that’s me; so experienced in life.
The Frenchman was full of himself, but lacked imagination. It’s rare to find someone who you really want to beat, who you actually can beat. And then it’s a good thing to beat them again and again, with witnesses. And so I did. Yet it was through him that I found the holy grail of Oaxacan chess: La Casa De Cultura.
La Casa is a colonial complex constructed by Spanish missionaries as a convent. It’s been transformed into the heart of the local arts scene. The Frenchman told me that’s where the old guys, los viejos, come to play once a week. The old guys! I walked through town to get there. It was not part of the usual tourist flow. I walked quicker; I hadn’t yet learned the lesson of the condemned.
My heart beat a mite faster as I went through La Casa’s open doorway. Interior balconies shaded the courtyard and worn stone tables anchored the shadows to the cobble walk. I was there early to scope out the scene. Soon a single elderly man came hobbling in, rough cane in one hand and open burlap pack over his shoulder. I could see the roll of a cloth chess board peeking out from his kit. He looked maybe 110 years old, was wearing worn-out hirachis, a frayed shirt, and pants belted by a length of rope. I mimed playing some chess. He nodded ok.
You can never tell about a chess player that you haven’t seen play. However, the tendency is to imagine putting together a killer combination that leaves your opponent gutshot. So I was pretty sure that I was going to whoop this old guy. We began. I was black. It was a routine opening game; a little jockeying for the center, nothing fancy. I figured that I would make my move in the middle game, but then he made a blunder. He left a pawn undefended and I leaped on it with my knight. It turned out that it was a poison pawn. A trap!
By this time several other local geezers had also shown up. They gathered around the board like buzzards, pecking over my limited options. The old guy was so thrilled he got up off his butt and did a little jig. Then he smiled real big. He only had three teeth and one of them was a huge golden molar. He beat me good, and grinned as if his gold tooth was made of ecstasy. I was ready in the second round. We played with the grace of knife fighters. I was white and found a way to win.
After playing we left together, walking arm-in-arm, now great friends of shared experience. Without language, we became tight through honest competition. Yet I know he could tell I wanted to play for his golden tooth, to yank it directly from his craw and wear it around my neck between a brace of gecko skulls - for I am Kazamondo: vanquisher de los viejos y los jovenes.
Published in Kingpin Chess