I do not know how old I was when I learned to play chess. I could not have been older than 8, because I still have a chess board on whose side my father inscribed, with a soldering iron, “Saša Hemon 1972.” I loved the board more than chess — it was one of the first things I owned. Its materiality was enchanting to me: the smell of burnt wood that lingered long after my father had branded it; the rattle of the thickly varnished pieces inside, the smacking sound they made when I set them down, the board's hollow wooden echo. I can even recall the taste — the queen's tip was pleasantly suckable; the pawns' round heads, not unlike nipples, were sweet. The board is at our old place in Sarajevo, and, even if I haven't played a game on it in decades, it is still my most cherished possession, providing incontrovertible evidence that there once lived a boy who used to be me.
The branded board was the one Father and I always played on. It would be my job to set up the pieces, after he offered me the choice of one of his fists, enclosing a black or a white pawn. More often than not, I'd choose the hand with the black piece, whereupon Father would dismiss my attempt to negotiate. We'd play and I'd lose, each and every time. My mother objected to his never letting me win, as she believed that children needed to experience the joy of victory to succeed. Father, on the other hand, was ruthlessly firm in his conviction that everything in life had to be earned and that wanting victory always helped achieve it. As an engineer who had faith in unsentimental reasoning, he believed in the hard benefits of knowledge acquired by trying and failing — even if, as in my case, it was exclusively failing.
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I would not have admitted it then, but I did crave his furtive encouragement; that is, I wanted Father to let me win, but I didn't want to know that. I was not capable of thinking more than one or two moves in advance (my preferred activities were always soccer and skiing, where you make decisions improvising inside a vanishing moment). I regularly blundered, leaving my king hopelessly isolated or not spotting the imminent execution of the queen. I reliably fell into all of my father's traps and was much too quick to resign so as to spare myself further humiliation. But more of it was inevitable, as Father would force me to retrace all of the missteps leading to my demise. He prodded me to think about chess in a focused manner — and, by extension, to think thoroughly about everything else: life, physics, family, homework. He gave me a chess textbook (by, of all people, Isidora's father) and, move by move, we analyzed the games played by the great grandmasters such as Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tal, Spassky, Fischer et cetera. Patient though Father was with me, I could seldom see all the glorious possibilities of a wise opening or a clever sacrifice. He was trying to take me to a far-too-distant horizon, with all the mysterious comforts of chess architecture, as far as I was concerned, deferred into a dubious future. Going over the grandmasterly games felt too much like school — occasionally interesting, often straining my mind in unpleasant ways. Even so, when alone, I'd try to study chess, hoping that I could glean a simple trick or two before the next game and catch my father by surprise. Instead, I constantly and quickly hit the low ceiling of my abstract-thinking abilities. It didn't help that grandmasters such as Capablanca, Alekhine, and Fischer appeared to be obsessive hermits; I was not a writer yet and could not appreciate the devout artist producing painfully inapplicable art. And the world around me was nothing if not an infinity of distractions: cute girls, novels and comic books, my budding record collection, neighborhood boys whistling from the playground under my window, beckoning me to a soccer game.
Compared to the other kids my age, however, I was not all that bad at chess. The games I played with my friends mainly consisted of blunders and oversights, but I often won them. We played chess the way we played all the other childhood games: heedlessly pursuing the rush of an arbitrary victory, already invested in the next thing to do. I much preferred winning to thinking and I didn't like losing at all. I'd managed to acquire a repertoire of standard openings and attack strategies and was thus capable of committing fewer blunders and outlasting my opponents. I sought opponents who eagerly fell into my textbook traps and subsequently submitted themselves to a wholesale destruction. Trash-talking had far more value to me than the highfalutin beauty of brilliant combinations.
When I was in fourth grade, a teacher was assigned to organize an in-school tournament in order to assemble a chess team for an intraschool competition. I signed up. I wanted to challenge myself and go it all alone, but I foolishly told my father about it, so that when I went to play, one Saturday morning, he insisted on accompanying me. He coerced the teacher, who really did not care that much about chess, into letting him rearrange the desks, set up the boards, and design the score chart. Not only was he much too involved, he was the only parent involved. In the fourth-grade classroom, furnished with the little desks and chairs, he stood out like a giant. Everyone knew whose father he was.
It is highly possible that I would've done better in that tournament had my father's chess shadow not loomed over me as he watched at my shoulder. I kept staring at the board, envisioning all the errors and possibilities from his point of view, but I saw nothing. One's good fortune is often in the failings of others, so I managed to win some games. It is likely that my father simply distracted the other kids more than me, intimidating them with his silent, coaching presence.
Whatever might have happened, I made it onto the chess team, and a couple of weeks later we took a bus to play against a blind children's team at their school in Ned¿arici — a neighborhood so far off for me at that time it was practically a different city. I went as the fifth of eight boards, but it turned out that only four boards were needed, so I spent the day loitering in the depressing hallways of the ramshackle school for the blind and occassionally witnessing the blind kids tearing my teammates to humbled shreds. I had passionately wanted to play, but, watching the slaughter, I was glad to be spared. The blind kids frowned and shook their heads over the boards, clutching a piece with spikes on the underside, then palpating the squares for the holes to fit them in.
I tried to picture a mental space within which the game existed for them, an interiority where all the combinations, all the lines of advance and defensive positions, were — evidently — sharply outlined. But what I saw instead — and what, I thought, they had no way of seeing — was the banal solidity of non-negotiable physical reality, the ineluctable modality of the visible, past which I could see nothing. A 10-year old boy, I happily operated in exteriority, retreating inside only when I was reading. The world in all its hackneyed, stubborn concreteness could never be fully suspended for me so that I could think inside the abstract space of the game. When I played with my father, for instance, his very corporal presence was a terrible distraction. I could never separate the game from our relationship and everything surrounding it: his knee jumped at a rapid speed, jerked by his compulsive foot; his big hands with flat, wide thumbs moved the pieces with defeating confidence; he nodded as he discovered opportunities fully invisible to me; the smell of food floated from the kitchen; my mother lingered on the horizon, imploring my father, yet again, not to checkmate me. Whereupon he would checkmate me.
Naturally, I reached the point of always declining his invitation to play — I claimed I was still training, learning, getting ready. But when he played against cika-¿arko, his college friend, I'd kibitz and listen to their trash-talking. Somewhat guiltily, I'd root against my father. I wanted to witness his defeat, so that he could understand how I might have felt when we played. While he wanted to teach me what he knew, I wanted him to see what it all looked like for me — perhaps love is a process of finding a common vision of reality. I wanted us to share the sense that the number of wrong moves far exceeds the number of good moves, to share the frightening instability of the correct decision, to bond in being confounded. These days, of course, I remember neither his defeats nor his victories; nor do I remember enjoying his being humbled. On the screen of my memory, he is perpetually pouting over the pieces, jerking his foot at a speed commensurate with his difficult position on the board. He loves being inside himself, I imagine; he loves solving problems in the laboratory of his engineering mind; he loves the space in which reason and logic rule. He loves me.
In high school, I was in an advanced class. My classmates and I had about 12 hours a week of math and physics, all at the expense of the humanities and natural sciences. We pored over differential calculus and imaginary numbers, struggled with quantum physics and complex functions, while our equivalents in "normal" classes, who had a hard time grasping basic fractions, roamed the sunny, fertile fields of art, music, and biology, learning what all high school kids are good at learning — nothing in particular.
I'd decided to enroll in the math-major class because I'd developed a fascination with the theory of relativity. Having read a number of popular-science articles on Einstein's theory and its flabbergasting implications (spacetime! black holes! dark matter!), I'd concluded that the work of a theoretical physicist consisted of staring at the stars and imagining alternative universes, which seemed to me like something I could do for a living. But soon after I'd started high school I was forced to recognize that all I could hope for in the domain of mathematical thinking was to wing it, and from thereon in I was winging it.
My class was a geek-rich environment, with a tragically low number of young ladies interested in random snuggling. Other classes had a lot more women, all of whom were beyond our reach, permanently repelled by the dark matter of nerdiness we were emitting. Soon we were known in our high school by a derogatory name: the grocers, as calculating grocery expenses seemed to be the only application of math other high school kids could imagine.
There were quite a few considerably talented mathematicians in my class and at least one certifiable genius. His name was Mladen and he was decidedly uncool — he wore V-neck sweaters and pants with an ironed crease; his hair was blown and parted into a pompadour; he paid attention in class, did not curse or speak in slang, had no interest in rock 'n' roll or soccer, and was an unabashedly nice guy, forgoing all the adolescent male posturing. The math problems we grappled with were baby food to him; he lived comfortably inside the bright and arid space of mathematics. Once, as we were jogging in circles next to each other in our PE class, he told me, out of the blue, "Your trajectory is longer than mine," and I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained that, because he was on the inside, my circles were wider than his. Before the end of our freshman year, he won a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Washington, D.C., while my accomplishments included reading The Catcher in the Rye, becoming a smoker, and transitioning from Led Zeppelin to XTC, as well as resigning myself to academic mediocrity.
Given that we had no access to high-school girls and their bodies, we played a lot of chess. Often we organized entire tournaments. We played during class time, while our teachers were completely oblivious to it all. The score chart was pasted to the classroom wall, Mladen always at the top of it, head and shoulders better than any of us. He was so good, in fact, that he could play blindfold games on multiple boards, sometimes against as many as six, all the while paying close attention to the teacher and studiously copying from the chalkboard. We would risk reprimand, hiding our chessboards under our desks, fully ignoring the learning going on. Upon analyzing the position at hand, each of us would send him a note, reading, for example, "Ke2 to e4." Without losing the thread of the teacher's explanation, he would quickly respond with a move. We could instantly see the brilliance of his thinking and recognize we were being demolished. In revenge, we would mock the way in which he wiped the chalkboard clean, sticking his butt out while pulling down the sponge in straight, parallel lines.
The only one who could even begin to compete with Mladen was Ljubo. I'd known him in elementary school. Back then, when I'd pretended to be the George in a Beatles cover band, he'd taken a crack at being the Ringo. By high school, however, Ljubo lost interest in rock 'n' roll and indeed in the most things outside the realm of mathematics and chess. Unlike the neat, disciplined, well-groomed Mladen, Ljubo was relentlessly sloppy, fully compliant with the stereotype of an absentminded mathematician. His handwriting was so illegible that he sometimes received low grades in math tests simply because the teacher could not decode his brilliant solutions to difficult equations. Contaminated by the neoromantic myths of unconventionality (Bukowski! Sex Pistols! Warhol!), I thought that his inability to function within the reality everyone else was confined by was a mark of true genius — he, I thought, could end up being the great one among us.
In our junior year, Mladen decided that he was done playing blindfold games with patzers and explaining complex-function graphs to buffoons like me. Within a few months, he passed all the necessary exams, graduated from high school, enrolled in college, and disappeared into the netherland of responsible life. The rest of the grocer patzers had to jump through the hoops of baccalaureate exams before graduation, only to serve in the military for a mandatory year of conscription.
Ljubo, who was too slovenly and disorganized to do what Mladen did and thus avoid serving in the Army, had a dreadful time as a conscript. He came back from the army terribly distraught, in spite of which he passed all the difficult math exams in his first year of college. The only exam he had problems with was in geometry, because he had to draw graphs and keep them neat. He would come to the exam unshaven and bepimpled, his unwashed shirt untucked, a broken ruler and a single blunt pencil in hand. The graphs he had to draw for the exam seemed to represent his complexly muddled mind far more than the simple euclidian space.
Soon he was enmeshed in full-fledged schizophrenia. A couple of times he was locked up in Jagomir, a grim funhouse close to the city zoo on the outskirts of Sarajevo. I never went to visit him there, but a few of my classmates did. They came back with the dreadful stories of small rooms packed with patients serving imaginary coffee in imaginary pots to imaginary guests or huddling in the corners, howling in unreal pain. For his visitors, Ljubo unfurled long and elaborate tales of intricate conspiracies, scoffing at his classmates for failing to see the obvious connections between remote possibilities. Unlike Ljubo, they had no voices to guide them through his chaotic interiority and they listened to him, helplessly, bemused.
Once, after Ljubo returned to his parents' home from Jagomir, his mother called us up and suggested that we come over to talk to him and cheer him up. The seven of us, his high-school friends, rang the bell sheepishly, giggling with discomfort, and offered our chocolate-bonbon presents to his distressed mother. She served us soft drinks and snacks, as if we were at a birthday party, and then left us alone, no doubt to press her ear against the door. We babbled awkwardly, because Ljubo was not well at all and we didn't know what to say. He was listless and slow, affected by strong antipsychotic medication. Then we listened in stunned silence as he spun his schizo-narratives. This time, he divulged to us the true story of Alekhine, who, in Ljubo's rendition, descended directly from God himself and therefore partook in some sort of destiny-control mechanism, plainly visible to those who analyzed his games correctly. Somehow, Alekhine's divinity had been transferred to Ljubo, who was thus in direct communication with God. We had no idea, he told us, about the things that were happening as we spoke, we had no way to grasp the magnitude of his still-unused powers. The Alekhine yarn was then threaded into his claim that the truly great grandmasters — those of Alekhine's divine caliber — all eventually quit playing the game. Because the number of various positions in chess, however immense, was finite, the true grandmasters eventually played their way through all the possible combinations, thereby reaching the outer limits of chess. At that point, they got bored, as there were no more games they could play. We listened to him, rapt. He continued: once the great grandmasters were done with chess, they'd switch to inverse chess, where the goal was to lose quickly — whoever lost first, won the game. This game of inverse chess was called bujrum, which in Bosnian means something like "serve yourself" and is used to offer food at the table. Thus you offered your pieces to the other player, trying to lose as many as possible as soon as possible and then put yourself in a checkmate position. I'd played bujrum as a kid, oblivious to the possibility of treading upon divine turf. All the greatest grandmasters, Ljubo said, were now playing bujrum, Bobby Fischer included. Many of the greatest bujrum players were un-heard of. Karpov and Kasparov (furiously involved at the time in a rivalry over the world champion title) were actually just pathetic patzers, not able to cross the bujrum border to the other side of chess.
His troubled conviction was so strong that the story made sense for a moment — we had to snap out of it to dismiss it, still saying nothing. We knew no way of responding to his ramblings, nor could we come up with a counterargument that could even begin to weaken his psychotic faith. We sat brooding, until his mother came in with more pretzels and Coke. We quickly went for the snacks, grasping at the junk food straws, stuffing our mouths to avoid saying anything. We were hoping that we could be released now, but Ljubo's mother wanted to keep the party going, so she suggested to Ljubo that he play something on the accordion for us. Acquiescently, he fetched his instrument. We waited as he adjusted the straps at a glacial speed. We recognized the first bars of "Ode to Joy"; none of us expected him to play Beethoven on his discordant accordion. Slowly stretching and squeezing it, he produced notes and wheezes perfectly devoid of any semblance of joy. To this day, Ljubo's interpretation of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth is the saddest piece of music — indeed the saddest humanly generated sound — I have ever heard. What he played for us was to music what bujrum was to chess: his rendition was absolutely the opposite of the "Ode to Joy." We were paralyzed by the frightening possibilities implied by his antimusic and antichess. Beyond our life there was antilife and he was living it; we had not known it, until we heard the anti-"Ode to Joy." We idiotically applauded, guzzled down our fizzless Coke, thanked his mother, and went home to try to live without the fear of antimatter and darkness.
In the early '90s, after I'd moved from Ukrainian Village to Edgewater, I played chess at a place in Rogers Park, called the Atomic Cafe. It was a few blocks away from the Artists in Residence building, where I was renting a tiny studio. The cafe was next door to the 400 Movie Theater, where one could watch second-run movies for a couple of bucks and which reeked of stale popcorn and permanently clogged toilet. In the summer, people played chess in a fenced-off outdoor seating area; the rest of the year, the cafe was full of students from the nearby Loyola University, with a corner always occupied by chess enthusiasts. North Side players convened every day to play at the cafe; on weekends, one could easily play for 12 hours straight. The first I time I wandered in, some time in the early summer of 1993, I kibitzed for a while before going off for a movie. The following day, I returned to the cafe hoping to play a game. After sheepishly watching, I summoned enough confidence to accept a challenge by an older man who introduced himself as Peter. He looked shabby: gray hair peeking in tufts out of his ears, a flannel shirt on the verge of snapping open at his potbelly, envelopes sticking halfway out of his chest pocket. For some reason, he exuded a strong smell of perfume. But he appeared very wise to me as he narrowed his brows to examine the position on the board. Much like one can tell a good soccer player from the way he or she touches the ball with his or her foot, I could tell Peter was serious about chess from the way he sank deep into himself to contemplate the next move and all the possibilities beyond it.
I don't remember how the first game against Peter went down, but I'm confident I lost it — it had been a while since I'd played a demanding game. But I kept going back to the cafe, playing more and more, often with Peter, who never seemed to get bored with beating me. I played with others, too, and even began winning against some respectable regulars. Pretty soon, I was spending weekends at the cafe, breaking up the long chess hours only to see a movie next door.
It turned out the Atomic Cafe was rife with all kinds of characters obsessed with chess. Between the games I would hang out with the idle players, small-talking, asking them a lot of questions, ever eager to extract bits of other people's lives. There was a Vietnam vet, for instance, who had been on disability at least since the fall of Saigon. His knee often jerked rapidly and he was proud of having helped stop the advance of Communism in Southeast Asia. He played chess, took drugs, and did little else. Once, he described to me putting his face, high on acid, under a stream of water to examine the oncoming water drops — their molecular beauty goddamn blew his goddamn mind. There was Marvin the Master, the size and shape of a football player, who would occasionally stop by the cafe to play speed-chess games, disposing of the patzers at such speed and with such brilliance that no one in the admiring crowd could see what was happening. There was a brilliant Indian computer programmer who, in the few years I frequented the place, lost a number of jobs because of his chess obsession. He promised his wife at least once he would quit, but he could not help thinking of chess incessantly. Failing to stay clean of chess, he still came to the cafe, but declined all invitations to play, wasting just as much time kibitzing. Predictably, he ended up getting divorced. He told me so himself, the last time I saw him. He was driving a cab at the time, which he parked in front of the cafe to play all day, happily off the wagon and thoroughly uninterested in catching fares. All my chess friends seemed to be lonely men, continuously struggling to reproduce the painfully evanescent beauty of the game, never getting within a sight of the bujrum border.
Then there was Peter. Playing against him, I would attack from all sides, and he would patiently defend, waiting for me to make a mistake. Inescapably, I would make one, and he would enter the endgame with an extra pawn, inexorably advancing toward becoming a queen. Soon I would be forced to acknowledge defeat, whereupon he would jokingly demand my resignation in writing. We didn't talk much while playing, but would chitchat between the games, exchanging basic information and finding things in common. He lived in and owned a perfume shop in the neighborhood, which explained his rich, ever-changing flowery scent, heretofore incongruous with his shabby-old-man appearance. We both came from elsewhere: I told him I was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to which he said: "I'm sorry." He, on the other hand was Assyrian, but born in Belgrade. Walking home after a long day of playing, I asked him how come he'd been born in Belgrade. After a groan of reluctance, in a subdued voice of discomfort, he told me that his parents had escaped from Turkey in 1917 or so, at the time when the Turks had been busy exterminating Armenians, but could still spare, while they were at it, some time and bullets to exterminate a few Assyrians. His parents ended up in Belgrade, so he was born there. A few years later, following a properly unpredictable refugee trajectory, they found themselves in Iraq around the time it became independent, and that was where he'd grown up. But then, in his 20s, he had to leave Iraq because he had a run-in with the prime minister's son (he offered no details or explanation); his life was at risk, so he fled to Iran. He got married, had a son, and, in 1979, was living in Tehran, employed at the American Embassy, arguably the worst imaginable place of employment in case of a local Islamic revolution. During the chaotic upheaval his only son, conspicuously clad in denim, was stopped and searched on the street by the revolutionaries. He had some pot and they shot him on the spot.
So here was an Assyrian named Peter, selling knock-off Eternity for Men in Chicago, beating me at chess without any particular pleasure; here was a man whose life contained more suffering than I could begin to imagine. The story of Peter's life was narrated to me along the few blocks we walked before we parted, in five minutes or less. There is always a story, I learned on that walk, more heartbreaking and compelling than yours. And I understood why I was so drawn to Peter: we belonged to the same displaced tribe. I picked him out of the crowd, because I recognized the kinship.
I remembered how, a few weeks before, he had gone off at a couple of Loyola students who were babbling at the next table, copiously abusing the word like, barely slowing down to take a breath. I'd been annoyed by the incessant vacuousness of their exchange, the idiotic frequency of the likes, and I couldn't stop listening precisely because I'd had no idea what they were talking about. But I just put up with it, always liable to distraction. Peter, however, suddenly exploded: "Why are you talking so much?" he yelled at them. "You've been talking for an hour, saying nothing. Shut up! Shut up!" The students shut up, terrified. Peter's outburst, shocking though it may have been, made perfect sense to me — not only did he deplore the waste of words, he detested the moral lassitude with which they were wasted. To him, in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck, it was wrong to talk about nothing when there was a perpetual shortage of words for all the horrible things that happened in the world. It was better to be silent than to say what didn't matter. One had to protect from the onslaught of wasted words the silent place deep inside oneself, where all the pieces could be arranged in a logical manner, where the opponents abided by the rules, where even if you ran out of possibilities there might be a way to turn defeat into victory. The students, of course, could not begin to comprehend the painful infinity of Peter's interior space. Inoculated against speechlessness, they had no access to the unspeakable. They could not see us, even though we were there, as we were nowhere and everywhere. So they shut up and sat in wordless oblivion; then they got up and left. Peter and I arranged the pieces for another game of chess.
After a couple of years of regular playing at the Atomic Cafe, I became pretty good for a patzer. To go beyond that, to have a crack at being a truly good player, I would've had to go back to analyzing the great games. That was not going to happen: not only was I too old and lazy, I had no time for studying chess either, as I had to earn the money to feed and clothe the body that sheathed the inner space. Moreover, after a few years of feeling stuck between my mother tongue and my DP language and being incapable of writing in either of them, I began writing in English. In doing so, I delimited a new space, where I could process experience and generate stories. Writing was another way to organize my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words. My need for chess was dissipating, as it was being fulfilled by writing.
Now it seems to me that the last game I ever played was against my father, though that is almost certainly not true — it just the last one that mattered. I was visiting my parents in Hamilton, Ont., sometime in 1995, and I challenged Father to a game. Having settled in Canada, my parents were at the nadir of their refugee trajectory, and, it seemed at that time, at the end their rope. Tormented by the brutal Canadian climate, uncomfortable in the language they were forced to live in, short on friends and family, they were prone to devastating nostalgia and hopelessness.
I was not capable of helping them in any way. During my visits we argued much too often: their despair annoyed me, because it exactly matched mine and prevented them from offering comfort to me — I suppose I still wanted to be their child. We argued over the smallest things, hurtfully remembering and bringing up the unresolved fights and unforgotten insults from before the war, only to make up a few minutes later. We missed each other, even while we were together, because the decaying elephant in the room was the loss of our previous life — absolutely nothing was the way it used to be. Everything we did together in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia. Hence we didn't like doing any of it, but had nothing else to do. I spent entire days on the parental sofa (donated by a kind Canadian), watching re-runs of Law and Order. I would snap out of my TV coma with the urge to scream at somebody, akin to what had driven Peter to terrify the hapless Loyola students.
One of those hopeless days, I challenged my father to a game. I admit I was burning to beat him; having gone through the Atomic Cafe boot camp, I was ready to discard his shadow after a few decades of not playing against him. I could now redress the long-lasting imbalance between us by winning and putting him in a position to feel what I felt as a boy. I offered him my fists, each clenched around a pawn, to choose; he picked the black one. We set up the pieces on a tiny magnetic board; we played; I won; I found no pleasure in it. Neither did he. It is possible that he finally let me win. If he did, I didn't notice it. We shook hands in silence, like true grandmasters, and never again played against each other.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of "The Question of Bruno," "Nowhere Man," "The Lazarus Project" and "Love and Obstacles." He lives in Chicago.
© 2013 by Aleksandar Hemon. This story will appear in "The Book of My Lives," a story collection by Hemon due out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun