MY ANCIENT ENEMY
by Daniel Bailey
My Nijinsky bird-feet seemed to be going over well in our first conversation that fall afternoon in 1973. I called them that because my arches are so high my feet make four nearly separate water marks on a hard surface, like hot concrete beside a pool. I´d read similar feet might have accounted for belle epoque ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky´s uncanny leaping ability. In any case it appeared that my new college acquaintance was beguiled and might even like me; she looked very comfortable sitting there on her facing couch, and she was smiling. That felt good because I already liked her. She was 19 with brown hair neither short nor long, a body neither heavy nor light, and brown eyes so curious they made me want to come up with all the goods I could for them. She was cheerful and funny and already highly informative about all kinds of things. A young woman devouring culture both high and low at breakneck pace, clearly going places. For my part, I was a chess-hooked entrope. A suicidally depressed one seven months before. But that afternoon, Shannon and I seemed to be sharing an unlikely cocoon as cozy as her little yellow kitchen: two individuals unusual in different ways but alike in their singularity, thus happy to meet. Shannon was a lesbian. I was a lunatic. Or close.
So it seemed had been my hero Bobby Fischer. He lost the first game of the 1972 World Chess Championship, forfeited the second, and insisted on playing the third in a janitor´s closet. No Reykjavik stage for him (the one reserved for the match); no tv cameras (financially ruining the sponsors and even damaging the Icelandic government); no one present save the arbiter and World Champion Boris Spassky who, to the surprise and ire of his own delegation, agreed to play in the little space. Thus hermetically sealed, Fischer, even without the advantage of the first move, crushed Spassky flat for his first-ever win over the Russian in seven career tries. The janitor´s closet proved a calamitous cocoon for Spassky.
Shannon was on scholarship at the pricey liberal arts college we attended. She bought lumpy furniture at the Goodwill which she covered with gold- and burgundy-patterned Indian prints that glowed back the light of the candles she sometimes lit. She peeled stamps off letters to reuse if they had escaped the postmark. Most of all she read voraciously, swiftly organizing information with her inner schema and seeking more. Whatever she talked about was with surpassing clarity and insight. A class presentation she made about Alexander Pope seemed one prepared by a specialist twice her age.
I was on the “six-year B.A. plan” attending my third college, having dropped out of the first two. Nevertheless I´d managed to accumulate nearly a normal number of credits for the three years so far invested of mostly my parents´ money, for they insisted on my getting a degree. At 22 I still had no clue what I wanted to do in the eventual possible condition of being a college graduate. I was an English major because I´d been forced to major in something, and nothing else appealed as much. Or at all. I lived alone in a garret above an old woman in her Tudor home. There I monitored my moods closely because I´d read in A. Alvarez´ The Savage God (1972) that if the first year after a suicide attempt passes without another, the chance of relapse thereafter markedly declines. A small bottle of little blue “mood elevators” sat in my medicine cabinet.
Perhaps to keep me in her life, or take one last look at her sexual orientation, it was Shannon´s initiative to become lovers. Now the cocoon extended to her bedroom. We had sex four times armed to the teeth in the cause of contraception. I with a condom; she with a diaphragm; beside the bed, a can of spermicide. No Greek hoplite with horsehair headgear at Marathon was better protected than we, no armadillo scuffling through dry sierra leaves. She missed her period anyway. And there were other signs she was pregnant, but she kept them from me. If I´d been informed, she later explained, would I have thought I was entitled to a say in the decision she would have to make? Thus had a woman friend cautioned her, I learned after the pregnancy proved false. Her conclusion was No, I was not. I found this persuasive.
I found her persuasive about most everything, coming to turn over my critical faculties to her wholesale. D.H. Lawrence and Hemingway were to be condescended to? Check. Virginia Woolf was extraordinarily good? Check. The Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band had produced a fine, important album? I bought it and sent it to a friend in Germany though that person had never evinced the slightest interest in country music. Shannon identifying as gay was enough for me to write a paper about Lawrence´s Women in Love explicating every possible manifestation of homosexual attraction, overt and covert, between the two male characters—an effort failing to fulfill the slightest requirement of the class professor. I didn´t care; I´d made Shannon my professor. Her knowledge struck me as all-encompassing. Her explanations were poised and crystalline, shot through with the sunny light of reason. I agreed with most everything she said.
Fischer, no doubt soaring Nijinsky-like after that first win, agreed to play the rest of the Championship on stage where he continued to bash Spassky around the board. The six-year-old who´d contested many of his first games against himself and the 14-year-old on the cusp of winning eight straight U.S. Championships thus—almost in spite of himself (he´d barely consented even to go to Iceland, requiring a doubling of the purse and a call from Henry Kissinger)—became the eleventh World Champion. Whereupon he all but disappeared from view.
Disappearing from view is something boys of a certain kind do. For some of those, the enchanted wood of chess is haven and succor, a cocoon for one. There such a boy loses no sleep in torment of mind or urgings of body thinking about girls he´s too self-conscious to touch as he needs to do. Instead he devotes himself, like a Mediaeval knight, to an Ideal Lady: Caissa, the Thracian dryad made goddess of chess in a poem by Hieronymus Vida in 1527. With Caissa, no trembling hand too fearful to pin a gardenia on a prom girl´s swelling bosom, so that her sister has to do it for him. No woodland night lying beside the first woman he ever loved too unconfident—and more than that, too wrecked from preceding sleepless nights—to exit his sleeping bag and get into hers. Caissa does not ask these things of him. Her he can admire in his solitary room, his chessboard before him and his chessbooks beside him. There in complete control, at his leisure in a hundred variations, he can masterfully disrobe his love and execute upon her a dozen spectacular mates with his pulsing mind.
I was that knight. When my decade-older brother sternly taught me the rudiments at age seven, chess flushed my marrow forever. In one of the first games I ever played I was down a Rook and a Bishop to my friend Wally when my mother made me take out the garbage. “Don´t give up!” I told myself, lugging the black bag half my size. It had rained, and the long grass of our big backyard soaked my Converse tennis shoes. “It can still change!” On that chill fall afternoon in waning light, I moved towards a rotting white fence along a small-town alley in a walking meditation on the 64 red and black squares inside. But I was also walking towards my Ancient Enemy.
Namely entropy. “Energy existing in a system not concentrated enough for use,” as one dictionary defines it, was born in thermodynamics—the First Law of which proclaims that energy in a closed system no matter how transferred is never lost. And never gained. Therefore, in poker terms (for which we must thank C.P. Snow)—you can´t win. The Second Law announces, nevertheless, that energy in such a system does not quite stay at the same level; for friction and a tendency to relax into an inward slack sameness mean that no matter how you play your cards on the green baize, you can´t break even. Yet another irony soon skids up, inasmuch as the Third Law states that no matter how long a system slides down the entropic slope, the bottom (absolute zero, no energy at all) is somehow never reached. Therefore abandon hope, all ye who take a chair: you can´t get out of the game.
“For all its radiance, artistry and deep fascination,” as Martin Amis swaps in chess for poker, “it is essentially a trivial pursuit. It is without content. … [It refuses] to serve as a paradigm for anything else, as Freudians, Marxists et al., have frustratingly found. Chess is what it is and not another thing. It is only a game.” Which is to say: chess is, connects with, and evolves into—nothing. It is a closed system. A trap. At seven in wet sneakers I walked into it body and soul.
So how could it be that 15 years on and still besotted with chess, the antithesis of entropy—the soaring Shannon—was my friend, mentor, and even, once every great while, lover? Yet so it was. But if united in singularity, Shannon and I were hugely unlike otherwise. Which raised an old question: what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
The almost immovable object Pan, Robert Graves tells us, was, with his horns, tail, beard and goat legs so ugly at birth that his mother ran away from her newborn in terror. Easygoing and lazy, he loved nothing more than his afternoon sleep. Lust seems to have been the only thing to rouse him to action, though he did learn to play the pipes—useful for seducing nymphs, at a guess. In the end his acedia earned him the distinction of being the only god incompetent enough to actually die. Pan is a god I can understand.
In my case, I could bestir myself (at least at times)–but to what ends? At 16 in London, my parents bought me Horowitz´s Chess Openings: Theory and Practice. At 18 on my first day in college I went down to the study area in my dorm, set up my board and pieces in a carrel, and copied myriads of its most jejune variations into a little notebook. The point? There wasn´t one. The move sequences were right there in the book. Perhaps I was simply enjoying, to quote Martin Amis again, “The peaceful glow of scholastic futility.” Or perhaps the phenomenon went deeper.
Five years earlier I´d rolled a golf ball round our empty bathtub in a semi-trance so long my father, concerned, made me stop. Once I got stuck in a chord progression on the piano I repeated so many times, my dad—perhaps listening hopefully through the wall of his study for some new idea, for he was a music professor—came out to extricate me. In addition to such loopiness, I was the Teenage Boy of No. No to an opportunity to go canoeing in Minnesota lake country though I had nothing else to do that summer. No to a personal invitation from a high school teacher to join Model United Nations. No at 16 in Greece to running the 29-centuries-old oval at the exact site of the first Olympic Games. No at 18 to running the two-mile in my high school´s year-end intramural track meet (sinking us seniors to ignominious defeat). No to my seventh-grade math teacher´s offer to help me after school when my dad and I had stayed up until 1:30 a.m. doing all my homework wrong. Instead I´ve had as little as possible to do with math ever since.
Or perhaps it went deeper still. One August day in my teens, I was sitting on the bed in my brother´s upstairs bedroom after he´d gone off to college. Warm sunshine poured in the open window through an old screen. I looked out on the neighborhood houses, the quiet street, the sycamores and hawthorns and large expanses of lush American small-town middle-class grass. The screen, though, made everything that glorious afternoon a little indistinct. It robbed the world of vitality.
I suddenly realized I was my own screen, constantly separating myself from most everything in a subtle but crucial way, in an eerily passive way. And on that dreamy perfect afternoon there didn´t seem to be a damn thing I could do about it. The bounty of the world—the sun-splashed leaves, the friendly town—was mine for the embracing. But go downstairs and out the door? Mysteriously no, I would not. Then melancholy, like a sad fine mist, laid its hand upon me. It was a feeling I would come to know well.
Life burst from the fragrant earth and every vine and branch of my home town in the bounteous spring of 1972. I was sure the rest of the year would see the glorious dawn of Bobby Fischer´s life and mine. He at 29 would win the World Championship. I at 21 was about to have sex for the first time—the only remaining hurdle—with a woman named Gail whom I´d met in my second college. Both my wit and my gut told me that this was my life companion. Yet Gail, it turned out, was to be the woman in the other sleeping bag through all the horrifically chaste woodland night. Seven months later Bobby was a recluse and I lay in a hospital about to have my stomach pumped.
Celebrated by millions, the new World Champion went to a far place of the psyche. There were reports for years of a bearded solitary sometimes seen after dark on the streets of Pasadena. Rumors of a return to the arena never panned out. Then a burst of light in the night sky: more than 20 years after Reykjavik, his old foe Spassky agreed to play him again. The site was U.N.-embargoed Yugoslavia in a match therefore proscribed by the State Department. In trouble also for unpaid taxes, Fischer never set foot in his home country again. He insisted on calling this second series another title match, but the real World Champion called the two former ones a pair of pensioners. Quality of play, though stellar in the first game won by the American, soon collapsed. Then the once blinding light of Bobby Fischer´s public chess went out forever.
I too went to a far place of the psyche. The insomnia starting before the woodland night extended long beyond it. The person Gail had known in the spring became another, anxious and ill, with the same name. I only really slept when she left town for the state´s big city. After a number of 12-hour slumbers I followed her there. Not to make contact immediately—the plan was to rehabilitate myself first, make myself whole again, better than before. I lived a solitary life and read the Bible nights. Two months passed before I called her. She agreed to a stroll on the waterfront docks. There she was kind, but implicitly clear: she´d moved on.
My whole purpose, gone.
Endure. A man, if he is a man, doesn´t let problems with women get him down. So I thought my big brother believed. He was my model for masculine conduct though a shadowy figure I´d never known well. But what I thought he believed, I had to do: endure.
The first thoughts of suicide were like a mosquito´s high-pitched whine an instant in the ear. Then the mosquito started coming round more often. And staying longer. Suicide gradually lost its fright. From there it became nearly the only thing I could think about. Whether became how and when.
Looking back, I believe my clinical depression—for that´s what it was—only partly derived from failed first love. Environmental factors were hammering me down. No roommate. No sunshine (my apartment faced north in shortening winter days). No phone. No decent job (I worked a graveyard dishwashing shift, half of it alone, without even the sense to bring a radio in). No socializing with my few friends (my work schedule precluded that). But underlying all these things lurked my Ancient Enemy: entropy. Energy existing in a system not concentrated enough for use. I achieved no critical mass to change any of the bleak conditions in which I lived. Passivity, as in the woodland, mantled me once more. Melancholy again was laying its hand upon me—now gripping hard. The sad fine mist turned into bitter hard rain. But I believed that a man should bear up under such conditions indefinitely. I did try.
Letting my parents know I was coming for Christmas, I spent the last of my money on a taxi to the airport and a one-way flight home. A day or two later I met an old friend by chance on the street. Being a perceptive sort who´d known me since we were 12, he divined my project. And resolved to stick to me. Was this some sort of sign I was not to go through with my death project? It took a fair amount of trouble and a couple of hours to get rid of him.
My first plan was to walk into the mountains outside town on the night of December 24 and keep going until it was over. But on the way to my starting point, my dad´s car ran out of gas. A second sign? I walked through the blackness onto a farm house porch, knocked on the door and called my father to come out in the other family car with the lawnmower gas can. Christmas Eve then passed at home with neither of my parents the wiser about my condition. But all my adolescence I´d concealed my emotional life from them; nothing new on that score. Or perhaps they´d always known much about their second son, but respected his privacy to work out his problems by himself.
A few nights later with a full tank I drove well past the farmhouse, pulled over and started walking up a lightly wooded slope. There was a moon. After a few minutes, a loud sound close at hand almost stopped my heart. A frightened cow had exploded through a bush. Soon another did the same. The third time, I found myself facing off with the bull of the herd. He was staring at me from a dozen yards off, nothing between us. Though suicidally depressed I was suddenly afraid of being gored to death by a half-ton bovine or shot by its owner. I´d planned death by degree with the theoretical option of changing my mind late in the game should I learn something new. If I walked into a forest, maybe I could walk out again. If I took pills, there might be a phone. I wondered if one really “got away” with suicide—if there were not some price to pay I might near the end comprehend. Unlike 75% of men (The Savage God) I rejected guns, cars, leaps and other violent means for the passive ways favored by women. In case the bull charged, with my peripheral vision I picked out a small tree on my left to dart behind. Minutes later I´d returned to the car. Just possibly, though planning to die of starvation and exposure, I didn´t want to get hungry and cold.
Attempt number three. To recover a typewriter of mine, their high school graduation gift to their scattered second son, my parents had earlier obtained a key to the fraternity house in which I´d been a pledge at my second college. Learning this, I made a mental note of where they kept that key. We Delts had prided ourselves on being the “alternative” Greek house: doing some drugs, having a cross-dresser perform a lip-sync routine at a rush function, and racking up the lowest cumulative grade-point average of any living group on campus. Now it was winter vacation and not a soul was about. January had laid its hand upon the quiet college, blackening its trees and whitening its grounds. Under leaden skies I let myself into the handsome wood structure set lower than street level and further screened from the world by a gigantic weeping willow on a lane called Shady Rill. I chose a room on the lowest level near the one I´d lived in with my roommate Roger. In the adjacent bathroom, the disagreeable taste of the 18 Sominex pills registered more and more strongly as they went down in a swallowing process taking a surprisingly long time. Then I returned to the room, stripped naked save for my black sheep´s wool beret (a gift from my mother), lay down on the hard gray wall-to-wall carpeting, and began to read. The book I´d brought along to die to was Dostoyevsky´s The Idiot.
It was the only thing I´d been able to think clearly about the previous couple of weeks, aside from the plan to stop existing. When it came to everything else, my dropping i.q. was almost a physical sensation. Thinking had gotten steadily harder and slower. More and more it would stop altogether with the thought, “No reason to dwell on that—I won´t be here.” Who would win the Frazier-Foreman bout a few weeks off? “Doesn´t matter, I won´t be here.” And so on with everything but the book, as I spiraled ever more tightly—like a golf ball round a bathtub drain–into my death project. My eyes in the mirror looked filmed over when I bought the Sominex. The woman in the drug store, hesitant and afraid, nearly didn´t sell it to me. But when I got home the bottle was full of cotton. A third sign? Hell-bound trains don´t stop for signs. Next day I bought another bottle somewhere else.
The cold afternoon I lay in the bottom of the Delt House turning the pages of The Idiot was January 4th , 1973. Alvarez wrote it was one of the year´s three leading dates for suicide. The holidays over, the last hope for cheer and change past—any cheer, any change—people give way. That wasn´t my case. I´d already entered the vortex of suicide weeks before. The only change I´d wanted for a while was the permanent one.
Prince Myshkin, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia Ivanovna were dancing their intricate dance, and I was following it quite well. Then the lines of the text began to form into ranks and march down the page. Still I continued tracking fine. This isn´t so bad, I thought. This won´t be hard.
Then from the top of my field of vision I noticed the door suddenly swing open. I looked up. The door was shut. There had been no sound. So the door had not swung open. Unsettled, I kept reading.
After a while I heard a voice speak quite distinctly into my right ear. It was three inches away. It was Roger. He said, “Pick up sticks.” I sat bolt upright and looked that way. No one. I looked all over the room. No one.
Shaken, I lay down to read again. Soon other familiar voices, just as close, jarred me from both sides. More disconnected snippets—“don´t be late!”—“tie your shoe!” Each voice startled me utterly, wrenching my attention away from the book. It was happening more and more. Each time the voice seemed real. The speaker had to be right there. But no one was.
And then I knew. I knew as surely as I have ever known anything. I knew the voices would keep increasing in this chaotic manner. Then I would lose consciousness from the pills. When that happened, the voices would envelop me entirely because the evidence of my five senses would no longer be able to distract me.
Then I would die.
But far from ending the torment, death would make it permanent. The harrowing yanks to nonsense, the jolts of chaos shouted into my head at point-blank range would not cease but be my lot forever.
I knew this as certainly as I know the back of my hand. Then occurred the greatest mystery of my life to that time and to this. Knowing I was heading to a very real and eternal Hell, I did not act. Energy existing in a system not concentrated enough for use.
Perhaps two minutes passed. I have no good idea. Whatever that desperately dangerous length of time, I did not act. My enemy is an Ancient One, and powerful.
There was a telephone—surprise surprise—in the hall outside the room. I found I could walk. I found I could dial and talk. I called 911 and asked for an ambulance.
I dressed and went outside, bringing along The Idiot, wearing my black beret. I stood on the curb. The voices had stopped. An ambulance, wailing in the distance, approached through the cold dreary day. “An ambulance,” I thought. “I wonder where it´s going.” The siren grew loud. Then the vehicle hove into sight, turning right into a lane called Shady Rill. “It´s coming in here,” I thought. “That´s odd.” The ambulance stopped in front of me. “Oh!” I thought. “It´s for me.” I took a step forward.
The middle-aged driver leaned over, rolled down the passenger window, and looked me over. I was both on the street and watching from 10 feet above. He saw the title of my book and rolled his eyes: “That figures,” he might as well have said aloud. The me on the street was expressionless. The me in the air was exquisitely amused. It was the first time I´d found something funny in many weeks.
I got in. He took my name and address. Tiredly: “Well Dan, where do you want me to take you?” I named the hospital where I´d been born. There was almost no traffic but he stopped at every red light. No siren.
At the hospital, it was quite some time before someone took my case. Our family doctor was unreachable but the emergency room people didn´t give up. I lay by myself on one side of a large empty space listening to a faraway nurse tell an orderly about her problematic brother-in-law. I felt my body growing heavier. After what seemed like a long time I called the nurse over. “If you don´t pump my stomach soon, I will die,” I said. She looked at me for several seconds in silence. Then she returned to the orderly.
When at last the hospital found our family doctor, he said my case was not in his line and recommended another man. That person soon arrived. By the time my gurney finally started rolling, I felt like I weighed several hundred pounds smashing the mattress. Then it seemed I was sinking more and more deeply into the bottom of a well. I lay looking up at the multiple figures ringing the top. They were peering down at me, lowering a rope. It was unclear whether the rope was going to be long enough. They took my pulse and blood pressure at frequent intervals. Once I heard someone murmur “high” about the first and “low” about the second. I was asked to sign something; people pushed me onto my side for the purpose. But I saw two versions of some form and couldn´t tell which was the real one, or if I were writing anything legible, or remotely in the right place. “Do you feel nauseous?” they asked afterwards twice from the top of the well. “I feel numb,” I replied twice from the bottom.
Suddenly the emetic they´d given me twisted my stomach they were about to pump. I shot upright and vomited on the nurse my soul had fastened to—the only one who knew how scared I was, the only one scared with me. With the vomit went all my air. I couldn´t breathe. I tried so hard my drugged body clenched and I couldn´t. The seconds passed. One nurse pounded my back. Another looked at me in consternation. They couldn´t help because they didn´t understand that I was terrified.
After a while an unearthly sound began to escape me. A physically impossible sound not produced by air. It rose from the bed and swam above us like a tiny eel. It was the sound of a man pulling in with so much desperate strength he had instead sealed himself completely off. The nurse covered in my vomit was the only one who understood this. To me, that meant she was the only one who could help. “Relax,” she implored me. It was very difficult to trust her. In order to breathe, I had to stop trying to breathe? She stood close, bending down, looking into my eyes. “Relax, relax… please relax!” Finally—just slightly—I risked it. With a jagged rasp I fell heavily back on the bed. The doctor came in, saw the vomit, said “That will do,” and left.
It had been seven months from my best late spring to my worst early winter, and it would be seven more before I met Shannon. In the interim I went a dozen times to a bland psychologist paid for by my brother into whose home I had moved. Then I began at my third college. I could talk about things like Nijinsky´s bird feet and feel vague hopes for the future again. But I knew my Ancient Enemy was far from vanquished. As classes started, I put much faith in the little blue allies in the medicine cabinet. I took only one but carefully safeguarded the rest.
This was who Shannon was dealing with in the fall of 1973.
Meanwhile Bobby Fischer, if he was not to play in public again, sometimes held secret conversations with people who hoped he would. Mostly he was suspicious of being exploited and hid his identity. The safe confines of a dark strip club once served as venue with one such chess-world figure as we learn from Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan´s Chess Duels.
“So. What is it you do for a living?” a young performer asked Bobby. He straightened up in his chair.
“I am an International Grandmaster of Chess!”
“No! Really? I play chess too! I know the names of many Grandmasters. What´s yours?” Bobby felt very happy.
“My name is Robert James Fischer. I am the World Chess Champion!”
“Come on,” she said. “Stop making jokes. You are not Bobby Fischer! Yesterday we had Dali in here, today, now, we have Fischer.” Then she smiled. “But look, buy me another glass of champagne and I´ll call you Bobby for the rest of the evening.”
The chess-world figure, listening over his shoulder from the next table, convulsed with laughter.
Fischer was shocked. He ransacked his wallet and jacket trying to prove who he was. In vain. After years of concealing his identity, in that rare moment he was proud to assume it he could not.
Summer vacation 1974 was fast approaching. My old roommate Roger arrived on his Honda 150 from out of town with homemade wine he´d just proudly concocted. Next morning we woke more hung over than we´d ever been in our lives. With splitting headaches and queasy guts, we took soft little steps to a nearby fast-food joint and carefully downed a few fries. Soon he had to roar off—how he survived that I have no idea—but on the whole, despite the alcohol poisoning, I considered his visit a solid success. This was because I had a new plan. More precisely, I had a plan. On the basis of a single comment of Roger´s while we were getting baked that I later thought I remembered, I´d decided to accompany him picking pine cones for pennies in some unnamed forest.
Shannon refrained from expressing her view of this plan for something like two minutes. All I remember is the look on her face and how she edged the words, “… fucking around. Which is what you´re doing.”
With my graduation assured (amazing!) but feeling slammed by Shannon, I retreated to the enchanted wood of chess. The nutrients there, if few, are rich. I memorized a great mass of Queen Pawn openings which I called The Armada. I speed-walked to my rented garret from the city chess club many a late night through freezing cold burning to analyze the games I´d just played.
But Shannon´s comment burned as well. Pine cones? In time I admitted it: I was directionless—passive—to the point of being deranged. Energy existing in a system not concentrated enough for use. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed that I´d never attempted to shape that life.
And sensed that my Ancient Enemy was stirring.
A new idea occurred to me, the likes of which had never before swam into my ken. Instead of picking pine cones, could I run for editor of the regional chess magazine? This post, at a low-tech monthly printed on muddy pulp, was unpaid. I´ve only seen one other magazine like it—a rural chicken-fanciers´ circular in Tuscany. Never have black-and-white chess positions and Italian chickens borne such a striking resemblance. If someone had switched the mailing lists of the two monthlies, it could well have taken the subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic some moments to notice anything amiss.
If the chess magazine´s circulation reached four digits, it wasn´t by much. To any objective observer an almost-college graduate aspiring to put out such a rag for free—and thrilled to embrace such an anti-opportunity—had to be daft. Yet I did aspire, and I did thrill. The election was coming up soon. Was it really possible I could take responsibility for the beating heart of our regional chess community? Every month we waited in our homes to know who, in chess terms, we were. Then the magazinewould arrive and we´d eagerly search out our new ratings, calculated by unvarying formula to quantify our most recent tournament results. Had we risen or fallen? How far? Whom were we now better and worse than? We read about upcoming tournaments in the back pages. Friend called friend, rides were arranged, books were studied, boards were packed, sleeping bags rolled up tight. The knights assembled to joust in their enchanted wood.
I ran for editor and won. Won what? Outwardly, a handful of chaff. To me, a glowing jewel.
With a worthy cause to serve, I felt transformed. I moved to the big city once more, this time into a second-floor fifty-five-dollar apartment measuring 10 by 14 feet (“somewhat less than my minimum requirements,” drily observed my brother). I called it The Treehouse because big windows on two sides opened into the generous branches, like reaching arms, of large trees. Sun-splashed leaves all but fell onto my tiny half-moon desk. No screen between me and the world now. Tournament reports, ads, interesting games, and instructional articles filled my mailbox. I trimmed some with scissors, retyped others and cut and pasted the lot onto blue-lined layout sheets. I collected ad monies to give to the treasurer with a strict accounting. Wrote science fiction writer Fritz Lieber for permission to run his haunting chess story Midnight by the Morphy Watch. He consented, and my fellow knights loved this first-ever reprinting of chess fiction in our magazine. I taped, transcribed and published interviews with the eight State Championship contenders, an honor for me and another first for the magazine. I attended board meetings of the Federation. The magazine had appeared every month since 1947, so the legend ran, with the sole exception of the month Willi Skubi´s dog crapped on the layout sheets. Resolved to uphold that nearly perfect record I never missed a deadline.
For the game that had sequestered me now showed its Janus face: entropic behind, dynamic before. Where chess had isolated, it now connected me to the world and some who became lifelong friends. One is a many-time captain of the U.S. Olympiad team; another would counsel me into the Peace Corps. A third waits for our next six-game match in our home town, where I once went to die, whenever I can make it back. These are just a few of my chess brothers for life.
Because lives are bound with the thread of chess. Maybe the commonality of experience is what spins this thread. All who take chess to the arena experience the thrill of a tight win, the frozen shock of a game suddenly ruined. The warm feeling of hard-earned competence leading to success. The self-doubt and despondence after emotion floods the brain wrecking the dominion one had exerted just moments before.
And then there are those rare games when the struggle of sport (versus the other, versus the self) falls away because something else, something wondrous, emerges: a work of art progressively fashioned, or unveiled, by two transported minds. That is strong thread indeed. That is when awe gets into it. Two chessplayers can´t forget such a game—the feelings attendant or the one with whom it happened—any more than two lovers who have truly joined can forget the rapture and the other.
When I cast the net of memory back to Shannon, it´s clear her help was key. Her remark proved catalytic because it issued from her magnificent example of an eager soul in motion. She would go on to become what she presaged: a scholar mightily contended for by top universities, and then the author of landmarks in her areas of interest. Shannon´s irresistible force budged my immovable object. Her bread crumb trail led me out of Tuscan Dante´s wood of the suicides.
As for Bobby Fischer, a decade separates his life from ours. He once won 20 straight games against elite competition. That was considered impossible, like hitting a dozen straight big league homers. But he lived much of his life tormented in a dark wood of the mind. A passionate anti-Semite (though Jewish himself), he died at 64 in an Icelandic hospital of easily preventable degenerative renal failure because he´d refused surgery, and all medications, for a urinary tract blockage. Earlier he´d had all the metal fillings removed from his teeth (which then rotted) fearing Russian and American radiation attacks through them.
His life for me is a cautionary tale of a man overcoming all his foes save for the one within. To fight my own such foe, Bobby, the hero of my youth, helps me do what I´ve learned—as an existential matter—I must: despise the sad fine mist of passivity to do work that is good for my soul.
For I am under no illusions about my Ancient Enemy. His losses are not conclusive. No one is more patient or more alert. He stirs when I let things slide. Draws near when I flounder in procrastination and solipsism. Lays his hand upon me when I don´t prioritize and plan, or confront deteriorating conditions.
He tried to kill me once. He´s trying still.
And could yet succeed.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Walla Walla, Washington, Dan Bailey holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Theater Arts. He´s resided in seven countries, most recently Venezuela and Panama with his Venezuelan wife. He´s taught English to foreigners of all ages through the years and assisted foreign academics in the publication of their articles and book chapters in the language. He´s edited a chess magazine and copy-edited another.
His publications consist of two academic articles on foreign language acquisition and one on the Model United Nations activity´s effectiveness for that purpose. Five pieces he called “Notes from Another America,” four bitterly opposed to the gathering political darkness in Venezuela, were run in his hometown (Walla Walla, Washington) newspaper. The fifth gave intercultural dating and marriage advice to young Latin Americans and North Americans dealing with each other inside the U.S.
Last but not least, he´s been published three times on chess, the great gift his big brother gave him when he began grade school.