May 10, 2021

I learned to play chess 77 years ago.Yes, sir.

By John Guy LaPlante

+Sorry, that’s not true. I began playing 77 years ago. I’m still learning.

Here I am, struggling to figure a winning move. Is this really fun?

Way back then I learned a painful feature about the game.

Most board games played by two people involve luck.   Sometimes it’s good luck. Sometimes bad luck.

When you lose, you have a nice excuse. You can say, “Dammit! I had bad luck today.”

Not so in chess. There ain’t any luck. You beat your opponent because you played smarter. You lost because he or she played smarter. That’s the brutal reality. That’s assuming you are evenly matched.

Oh, some say there can be two teeny weeny bits of good luck.The first? If you lock minds with a weaker player. But that’s true in any kind game, isn’t it?

The second? Well, at the start of the game, if you get to make the first move. But that really doesn’t amount to much of an advantage.

Maybe you are not familiar with chess. If not, I’ll explain the game a bit.

Chess involves two warring “armies.” Each with 16 troops, so to speak, including officers and soldiers.

In chess they’re all called “pieces.” One army has white pieces. The other black pieces. Not racially. No, no. Just to tell them apart.

At the start of the game, on one side of the cheeseboard all the pieces are white and on the other side they’re all black.

As you’d expect, the most important piece is the king. You win the game by “getting” your opponent’s king. He wins by getting yours. It’s called “checking” the king, and you do that until he has no way of escaping. That’s called “checkmating” the king.

You start the first game with a ritual. It could be by you, or your opponent. Doesn’t matter. Let’s say it’s by your opponent.

He or she will hold a white piece in one clasped hand and a black piece in the other. They’re clasped so you won’t see which hand has the black and which has the white.

You must tap one. If you tap and get white, that means you will make the first move. If you tap and get black, your opponent will start the game

Let’s say you got the white. So you make the first move and he makes the next one. That goes on until one of you checkmates the other’s king. Game over.

Anyway, I’ve played the game off and on since I was a teenager. “Off” at times for many, many months for one reason or another.

How good am I? I’m sorry you asked. It’s embarrassing. I have been a mediocre player.

I wish I could say a prayer to strengthen my game, or take a pill, or smoke something, but none of that would work.

That doesn’t mean that playing hasn’t been worthwhile, or that I haven’t enjoyed it. Just the contrary.

I play chess these days in a different set-up. I don’t play against another person. I play against players long dead. Sounds crazy, I know. Stick with me. I’ll explain in due time.

And I must tell you that works out nicely. It could work out for you also even if you’re a raw beginner. Sound good?

So in my games now, there’s zero possibility of an opponent rubbing in my defeat or humbling me.  I love that.

Win or lose, I reap a fine double pay-off. I enjoy it. And I’m exercising my brain.The same would be true for you.

But first, let me tell you about my experiences playing over the years.

Way back in prep school, my classmate Roland Blais taught me the game. We were freshmen. He had a chess set. We played now and then right until we graduated.

In the beginning he beat me all the time of course. I got better and better. But at the end, overall he had the edge.

As I look back on the long years since then, I believe I lost more games than I won. Losing hurts even when you’re  playing for fun.

By the way, in those four years Roland and I were pals. I might never have taken up the game if he had not offered to teach me.

Oh, later I found out that he did not come back to start college because his mom didn’t have the money. That was a black day for me.

All that was back in Worcester, Massachusetts. But home for me was Pawtucket, Rhode Island. That was some 40 miles away.

My uncle Emile, my mom’s brother, lived a mile from us.  He was an immigrant from Quebec also.  He was a short-order cook in a diner. A big man and big-hearted too. He smiled a lot but didn’t say much. Easy-going. I liked him a lot.

One day at the beginning of my summer vacation, he brought up the subject of chess. He told me he hosted a chess club at his house every Thursday evening. That was news to me.

He lived a few blocks away in a nice, neat little white cottage with his wife Yvonne.

“Come play with us, Jean-Guy,” he told me. Just the way Roland had invited me. He brought it up more than once.

But I didn’t want to. I’d be way out of my league. But he was my uncle. No way could I say no. So  I showed up one Thursday evening. I was the first to get there. He took me upstairs. Up there was one big empty room.

He had a lot of folding card tables set up, each with two chairs.

His friends began to arrive. French fellows like us, but also Irish and Polish and Italian and whatever. A plumber and an accountant and a salesman and so on. What brought them together was they loved to play chess.

I found out that on those evenings Aunt Yvonne would go visit one of her friends.

Uncle Emile introduced me around. I was the only kid.  I just sat by this table and that table and watched games going on. I enjoyed watching.

They were all good players. Later I began playing a bit.  I was out of my league but that was okay.

Everybody was nice. They all knew how come I was there.

After a month or so, one Thursday I got to see something brand new. A chess master showed up to play all of us. Yes, all of us. Even me. Simultaneously.

Each of us set up a chessboard, but with no player opposite us. All of us would play white against him.  We’d make the first move, starting with whatever piece we deemed best.

Mr. Chess Master would take a few steps to one of us players. Let’s say it happened to be me. He’d look at my move, then make his move.

Then he’d go to the next player and do the same thing.  He’d keep going around and around. Eventually he’d beat one player. Then another. By the end of the evening he’d have beaten all of us except maybe one. If so, we’d all clap nice and loud for our successful colleague.

Then, following my uncle’s lead, we’d all applaud the chess master.   He deserved that. He’d smile and say, “My pleasure!” or something nice like that.

Oh, at the start everybody had dropped money into a cigar box. Whatever we felt like. My uncle gave it all to the chess master.

No way could he make a living at this. He just happened to be a player who had become extraordinarily good, doing this mostly for the pleasure and challenge of it. I never found out what he did for a living.

My uncle Emile dreamed of becoming a chess master, I think. He was a strong player. I had heard he had beaten the chess master once or twice. I was proud of him. But he never made it to master.

I wish he had. That would have given me big bragging rights.

One day he amazed me by saying he played correspondence chess. I didn’t know what that was. When I found out, wow!

A number of men all over the country played correspondence chess. It was called that because they played by mail.

At that time he played with three men in different locations far away. I never found out how he got the meet them.

He would start a game with each one. He’d make the first move, jot it down on a penny postcard along with a few friendly words, and mail it off. And keep a record of that.

In time he would get a postcard back with his friend’s move. And note that down. Then send off another penny postcard. He said it could take forever to complete a game.

How astonished he’d be to see how people nowadays play correspondence chess by computer now.

They may be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, but they can complete a game as quickly as if they were sitting facing one another.

They can also play against the computer, choosing an easy, moderate, or hard game.

Well, speaking of myself, as the years went by and as I lived here or there, I’d play now and then as occasions came up. Sometimes I’d win. Sometimes I’d  lose. It was just a very nice game.

When I married and our three kids came along. I taught them the game. Just as I taught all three how to type, how to sail a small boat, how to drive, how to do this and that.

I mentioned that to my daughter Monique as I was writing  this. And she corrected me. She said no, no. She had learned the game, yes, but not from me. Well, things must have been very busy or something.

In my years of wide traveling, in the United States and in many other countries, I would play now and then.

I would often stay at hostels. Hostels are wonderful. A hostel is a natural place to meet other travelers. Often from other parts of the world. Lots of hostels have a chess set as standard equipment.

I’d invite somebody to play. Or one would invite me. Some hostelers would have limited English.  No matter. Not a word of English was needed. People all over the world know the game.

Win or lose, by the end of the game I often felt I had made a new friend.

Well, in my years living in Deep River, Connecticut, there was a senior center nearby and it had a chess club. Again, all men, all red-hot enthusiasts.

A man named Roger told me about it. Invited me. He’d play five days a week.I would go one day a week and would play a game or two with him. And would most often lose.  We became good friends.

One day I said to him, “Not today, Roger, I just don’t feel up to it.”

“Okay. But you’re getting better, pal. Come back tomorra and we’ll have a helluva good time.”

Know what? Roger had never even graduated from high school. He couldn’t even spell tomorrow.

It just showed that schoolbook learning had nothing to do with it. It was all about having a certain type of IQ.

For me chess really became regular week in and week out fun when I met milady Annabelle.

She would live with me for six months in Deep River, Connecticut and then I would live with her in Newport Beach, California for six months.

The senior center there also had a chess club. Again all red-hot enthusiasts. As in Connecticut, I would win a few, but lose most. Not much fun.

Well, it turned out Annabelle loved the game. Played well. And we were quite evenly matched. Very nice.

Oh, she also played Scrabble. Was good at it. Taught me the game. Scrabble is a great game. Often we’d play chess one evening and Scrabble the next.

That became part of our way of life. We also played a lot of ping pong. I loved to ride a bike. She did, too.

By the way, chess seems largely a men’s game. Why is that?! It shouldn’t be. Would one or two of you women out there please explain that to me.

Milady Annabelle and I were together for some 25 years. Yes, that’s what I always called her, Milady Annabelle. As some of you know, she died earlier this year

Now in my very old age I play a game now and then.  But as I told you I no longer play against a live opponent. I play with men long dead. That’s because now I do chess puzzles.

What the heck is that? Well, a chess puzzle consists of the last, or the two last, or the three last moves made in some famous game,  perhaps played 50 or 100 years or even 150 years ago.

I have two such puzzle books. My favorite is “Chess: 5,334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.” By Laszlo Polgar. Yes, 5,334!  The book has 1,104 pages! Can you imagine that?

Enough puzzles here to keep you busy for a lifetime. Interested?

Basically all of  them are puzzles, regardless of the words Grand Master Polgar uses in its title. They consist of the windup of the game, so usually there are only a few pieces left on the board.

The puzzles start easy. The first are under the heading, “Checkmate in one move / white to start.”

Well, it sounds easy, but it isn’t. Takes concentration. The book has 306 “Checkmate in 1 move” puzzles. Then it has 3,717 “Checkmate in 2 moves.” And then 173 “Checkmate in 3 moves.”

Each of the puzzles is numbered, starting with number 1 and going up and up to number 5,334.

Let’s say I’m struggling to solve Puzzle 334. I’ve been struggling for 20 minutes and I still haven’t figured out the solution. I give up. But I want to know what the two correct moves were.

I look up Puzzle 334 at the back of the book. That game was won by E. Szentgyorgyi in 1928. The year before I was born. He won by using his knight to take the pawn on e6. There are 64 squares on the board. Each is coded. That pawn was on square e6.

But know what? His opponent is not even mentioned.  For sure he was a very strong competitor. Poor guy! That is true of every loser. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Now here is an astounding thing. If  every day you did just one of the puzzles in this book, yes, just one seven days a week, week in and week out, it would take you 14 years and 164 days to work your way through the whole book.

Maybe there’s somebody out there trying to do that.

Oh, the last big question now is, why do I do these chess puzzles? Yes, why?

The simple answer is that it’s fun. It’s challenging. It doesn’t cost a penny. And best of all, it’s a terrific brain exercise.

I believe that the brain is a muscle. And like our other muscles, it needs a regular workout. Mine definitely does.

There are other ways of doing that, of course, but chess is super.

What’s also nice is that if I fail to solve one or two or three of the puzzles, which happens at times, I’m the only one who will ever know that humbling fact. Never have to blush.

If you’ve never sat down to a chess puzzle, do give it a try. There are numerous chess apps out there. You can download one to your computer or smartphone. You won’t even have to buy a chess set. You can program it to Easy, or Moderate, or Challenging.  Work your way up.

In case you’re interested,  I do two other types of brain exercises. Variety!

The New Yorker, as we know, is acclaimed as a good and very serious magazine for its content. It’s also famous for the wacky, crazy, silly cartoons with captions that it sprinkles through every issue.

I enjoy them. Often what I like to do is look at a cartoon, ponder it, and write a new caption for it. Just for my pleasure. Sometimes I chuckle at my own caption. Now and then I’ll show a few to a friend or two. If they chuckle spontaneously, and not because they feel I’m hoping they will, that makes my day.

I have dozens of such re-captioned cartoons.

Another brain exercise I do is writing poems. Especially limericks, which by definition must be humorous. I’ve done lots of them.

As for serious poems,  I insist that they make sense. If one isn’t easy to understand, it just ain’t a true poem. My opinion. A lot of garbage out there.

I find all this very challenging. A lot of fun. And a good way to keep out of trouble.

Writing something like this is also a pretty good brain exercise. Well, I think so.

Of course, daily physical exercise is also essential.  These days old age is taking its toll on me. Normal. Expected.

Very difficult to get physical exercise. I’m hard put to walk a hundred feet. And that’s haltingly, and with a walking stick. Which I always do with a Great Call Medical Alert hanging on my chest, plus a whistle, in case I take a spill and hurt myself and can’t get up.

Thank goodness I’ve got my tricycle.  Every day I pedal it for the exercise, but also for fun and my errands. Love it. It’s a bad day when rain keeps me inside. Sometimes I won’t use my car for a week or so. Never thought that would ever happen.

I had no intention of telling you this personal stuff. But then I thought, gosh, it may help one or two of you out there. That would be nice.

Oh, an amazing PS about Laszlo Polgar!

He’s the author of my favorite chess puzzle book, as you know. What an incredible, impressive, fine man.

Not only a chess genius! A psychologist who believed that any child, yes, any child of normal intelligence, can become a genius.

And by all accounts, he and his wife did that, proved that, with their three daughters, who remained very nice gals despite their eventual great fame.

If they had had sons, he and his wife believed they could have achieved that same thing. He married her only when he was convinced she’d be the perfect teammate.

They thought of adopting a black child very young. Wanted to prove that race is not a factor. It’s all about upbringing.

Do look him and her up on Wikipedia.

Hey, they might have made me a stronger player.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Emile, great guy, great chess player

By John Guy LaPlante

Mon oncle Emile is what I called him.  Like my Papa and Maman, my Uncle Emile was an immigrant from Quebec, the heart and soul of French Canada.

My memories of him go back more than 80 years. He was great at many things, especially chess. The game was a passion. This memory was triggered, would you believe, by my discovering and downloading a Scrabble app. I’ve loved Scrabble.

In Pawtucket, R.I., my hometown, he worked as a short-order cook, a house painter, a furniture repair whiz, at this and that. That’s how immigrants got on their feet. He was a  hard worker. Big and strong and clever and genial.

His favorite pastime was chess. A kid at boarding school had taught me the basic moves. My uncle took me under his wing.

He and his wife Rosalie lived in a modest Cape Cod. Upstairs was one big room. That was where the  Chess Club met once a week. Tuesdays, as I remember it.  My uncle was its organizer and self-elected president.

If he happened to meet some fellow who liked to play, he’d sign him up. French, Italian, Irish, no matter, though most of his players were French. Any guy who didn’t have booze on his breath was welcome. No women, of course. Rosalie never came up the stairs. Thank God some things have changed. The big thing was their liking the game.

When I came home from boarding school—I was 15 or so—at his behest, and not wanting to say no, I’d show up. I was the only kid. They were all patient with me, all nice.

The big event came every two or three months, what he called Maestro Night. My uncle would hear of some good player and invite him to come be the maestro.

We’d arrange all the folding card tables in a big U. We’d sit one to a table with our chess board set up, facing the maestro.  We’d chat with one another and catch up. Then the Maestro would arrive and in a minute or two we’d hush up. Notice I capitalized Maestro here. Sometimes he was known from a previous session. Sometimes a  stranger.

My uncle would give him a great big intro and we’d clap and cheer.  He’d smile and say thank you. That applause was his pay, I believe . Maybe the members chipped in for a gratuity for him, I’m not sure.

All of us were playing the white pieces and he the black. In a tradition of unknown origin, a player with white has the advantage of making the first move.

The Maestro would stand throughout. He’d step to the first table, glance at his opponent’s initial move, and make his move. Then he’d step to the next table, and the same thing. Once he had gone all around, he’d start  the circuit again. As things progressed, he would pause longer before making his move.

On and on. Finally some pieces were being given up. Some players were better than others, of course. Finally one player would knock over his king, admitting defeat. Checkmated! End of game  for him. Eventually there would be only two or three  still playing. We all stayed seated at our tables. No kibitzing allowed! We’d crane  to catch the action.

I was playing out of pure charity from these guys. Sure, I was making moves, but puny moves. I was doing my best. Guaranteed I’d be  the first to give up. But it was exciting and I enjoyed learning.

Sometimes one of the fellows would beat the Maestro and then the clapping was loud indeed!  What was nice is that the Maestro would join in applauding the one who beat him.  A good sport. But I never saw that. It was hearsay I picked up. Every time I played, the Maestro, whoever he was, licked everybody.

But at the end of the evening there were always lots of Have a Good Nights and See You Next Week. It was a very nice evening though for sure some fellows went home crushed.

They played every week. I played only when I was home from school.

But what does this have to do with my downloading that Scrabble app?

You’ll see soon. I never found out how, but my Uncle Emile would locate  people that he could play with far away, maybe  50 miles, maybe 500, maybe up in Quebec. Correspondence chess! What’s that? Long-distance chess. The two never got to meet.

My uncle would open the game by making the first move, noting it on a card with the date, write it down  on a penny postcard and mail it to his opponent. In  a few days or maybe a week or two, he’d  get a postcard back with his opponent’s move.

My uncle would decide his next move and send it off. Every time he got a card back was a highlight for him.  I recall that he’d be playing more than one opponent at a time. Every day he’d check  what the mailman had brought.

I never saw  how he recorded the progress of the games, or how often he won.  I was back in school. But he was a strong player. I’m sure he did okay. I’m not sure whether he ever got to know these players as more than just a name and an address.

But in time, the postcards coming back  must have  included  personal words,  it seems to me. Maybe they played re-matches.

Now about my Scrabble app. As you may know, Scrabble is usually a two-person game. With this app, you can line up another player anywhere who also has the app. Or the app will match you with one.  No difference whether it’s somebody nearby or in Chicago or Miami or Anchorage.

Then you start a game, just as my uncle did.But these Scrabble moves  can go back and forth in minutes, in a single session. Not weeks. Sure, you can drag out a game as long as you like, several days or longer. The games can be set up by appointment. Tuesday at 9 p.m., or whatever.

And no penny postcards needed. None of the out of pocket expenses my uncle had.

If you’re interested, the Scrabble app comes free from Google Play. Your only investment is your time to play a game. No stamps needed. If Uncle Emile could see that!

I just checked. It’s also possible to play chess free online.

I’m no champion at Scrabble but I find composing words  easier than plotting chess moves. But I did teach my kids to play THE game, as it’s been called.

I told you Uncle Emile was clever. I saw that more than once. Here’s one instance. One Christmas he stopped by. He was my Maman’s brother, two or three years older. They were very close.

My sister Lucie came along nine years after me. She was four when I got to witness this. She was still using her baby bottle!   Always seemed to have it in hand. Yes, with milk and the rubber nipple. She’d take it to bed with her. Curl up on the sofa with it. Embarrassing.

If Maman tried to take it from her, she’d scream and holler. Sounds crazy, I know. But that was the situation. My uncle got to see this. Was appalled.

We had our Christmas tree up and decorated. He had Lucie on his lap.  Was gabbing with her. And he asked, ”Lucie, is there anything extra nice you would like Santa Claus to bring you this year ? Maman has told me you  have been a very good little girl. Makes me happy! I am proud of you. Now think hard!”

She was all ears of course. He went on, “I know Santa.  Very, very well. I will tell him you deserve a special gift this year. For sure  he’ll  will bring it to you.”

Lucie thought and thought. Finally she said. “Oui, mon oncle! Oui! A nice big baby doll. Like Claire’s.”  Claire was her best friend.

“Very good, Lucie! But first  you have  to do something for Santa.  And you will get that beautiful doll.”

“What?”

“As you know, Lucie,  you are not a baby any more. Give me  your bottle. I will wrap it up and give it to the mailman tomorrow. Santa will get it in two or three days. He will remember me. For sure.

“He loves to hear about wonderful little kids like you. Extra good girls and boys. When you get up Christmas, you will see all the presents he brought. And the doll you asked for!”

We waited through a long, long pause. We saw the tug-of-war going on in her.  Uncle Emile smiled and laughed and bounced her on his knee. She loved him. Just as I did. Maman was smiling, too. And praying, I’m sure.

She had her hand resting on her big brother’s shoulder. She ran her fingers through his thinning hair.

Lucie was still quiet. She had been holding that cherished baby bottle all along. “All right,” she said finally, and so seriously. And handed it to him.

“Very, very good, Lucie! I will do this first thing tomorrow. You will be very happy on Christmas ”

On that wondrous day she was the first up. I’ll bet she kept listening through the night for Santa. She ran to the Christmas tree. She saw all the presents Santa had brought and counted those with her name on them.  But was her doll here?”

Finally it was time and we gathered around the tree. Maman, Papa, my little sister Louise, myself. (Louise was four years younger than Lucie. She had already given up her baby bottle.) But Uncle Emile couldn’t be with us.

Papa had been keyed in. Admired Uncle Emile for coming up with this terrific idea. Felt maybe Maman was spoiling Lucie.

Maman as usual handed out the gifts to us. She saved one for last.  She smiled at Lucie,  held it in her hands. It  was a big one. And said, “This last one is also for you, Lucie.”

Lucie tore the wrapping off. She asked Maman to help her open the box. And inside was the beautiful doll, and it was even nicer than Claire’s, she said later.  Was so happy. She looked it over. Every detail. The eyes, the hair, the little smile, the nice dress. The little booties. She ever mentioned her baby bottle. She played with her little baby all day.

Uncle Emile came a day or two later. Lucie ran up to him with a big hug and kissed him on both cheeks. He was smiling, glowing.  Showed him the beautiful doll Santa had brought. He picked it up and admired it and put it back in her hands. . “I told you Santa would not forget!”

Maman rushed to greet him and gave him a big hug.  “Merci, Emile!” And whispered, “Merci pour ton joli cadeau!” (“Thank you for your lovely gift!”) He beamed. Gave her a hug.

A true story!

Yesterday I called Lucie and told her I was writing up these recollections. When I mentioned how Uncle Emile had finagled to get her to give up her baby bottle, she laughed and laughed.

“But I wasn’t four. I  was five! Actually it was a big Pepsi bottle. With a black nipple. When I needed a new nipple, Maman would give me the money and send me to buy a new one. I’d run to Mr. Gendron’s pharmacy there on the corner.  Remember?

“Yes, I’d go buy my own nipple! I knew I was getting too old for that. But I loved my bottle.  Crazy, I know. One time Mr. Gendron asked if the nipple was for me, and I said no!” And she laughed again.

She told me that Uncle Emile had taught her how to play chess. I wasn’t aware of that. She doesn’t play now. But she’s a competitive bridge player. Gold level!

Yes, a smart man, Uncle Emile. And what a wonderful uncle. He and his wife Rosalie are buried just a few rows over from Papa and Maman.

Well, I think I’ll go to my computer now and play a game of Scrabble. And if I don’t manage to play with a live opponent,  I can even play against the computer!

Hope Uncle Emile isn’t aware I’m not playing chess much any more.

A  postscript for you

Interested in chess?

The victories will be few and elusive

The defeats many and humbling

It can easily morph into a passion

So be wary of this devilish game

But if this is your wish, do ignore these words.

An experienced loser

Anon.

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here