My son asked me to play chess last Sunday. It was Easter. When a child asks you to play chess, you say yes. He is 20 years old and an excellent chess player. I taught him to play when he was five. He first beat me when he was 13. What I remember best from that day is his slow smile when he and I realized, a few moves before the end, that he had toppled the king. I remember, too, that he did not crow or caper or shout or cackle but instead reached across the board and shook my hand, as I had taught him to do, out of respect for the game, and for your opponent, in whose mind you have been swimming for an hour. Chess at its best is a deeply intimate game in which you can delve into another person’s mind and if you are lucky you get a glance, a hint, an intimation of your opponent’s character and creativity, the cast of his mind, the flare of her personality, how he confronts difficulties, how rash or calm she is, how willing to be surprised, how well he loses, how poorly she wins.
He came out along his left wing, immediately establishing his knights and forcing me to scuffle and skitter around on defense. My queen roared off her throne snarling and forced her way to his back line but he deftly boxed her in with yapping pawns. Sometimes I think the pawn is the most powerful piece of all. Revolutions and religions begin with ragged beggars from the wilderness. I sent my bishops slicing here and there. My pawns grappled and died. He missed one golden fatal chance with a knight. The knight’s curious sidelong move is the deepest genius of chess; it is the one piece that does not move in linear fashion, the one piece with a geometry of its own, the piece that goes its own way.
In a moment he will be 30. I want to stare at him across the board for a week. He catches me in a mistake that takes me forever to redress. I don’t know how to say any words that would catch the way I love him. I want him to outwit me. I want to win and I want to lose and I want to savor how deftly I am defeated. I often wonder if I have been a good enough father. A good father teaches his son how to kill the king. He makes an infinitesimal mistake and my rooks close in grimly. I have prayed desperately to die before he does. I would like to teach his children to play chess. I would like to show them how, if you are lucky, you can see inside your opponent, only occasionally, only dimly, only for a few minutes, but for those few minutes you get a hint, an intimation, a glance at who lives inside the castle of his body. What we see of each other is only a bit of who we are. I want to invent new words for what we mean when we say the word love. Chess can be a wonderful word for that. Chess is a lovely word that can’t be spoken. After the game we shake hands and I think never in the history of the world was there ever a man happier to be a father than me. Never in the whole long bristling history of the world.
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