Old Grandmasters Never Die, They Just Fade Away

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Photo by Martin Lopatka (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Martin Lopatka (Copied from Flickr)

I’m not sure Bert ever asked me my name. The first time we met, there was a shaking of hands, an offering of a biscuit and then it was straight into the game. He wasn’t interested  in me; he just wanted a half-decent opponent.

Bert was 95, a long-term care home resident, practically immobile and dementia was taking hold. Every time I visited, he’d tell me the same story about his son, often as many as four times per visit. His son had designed motorway bridges and he’d proudly show off a photo of the pair of them posed in front of one of his creations. That was all he ever told me about himself.

Yet if much of his brain was fading, a precious part was in perfect working order. Bert was a superb chess player. He had been a regional champion and had competed regularly in national championships.

Bert beat me easily. He’d often beat me two or three times each visit. I’d  convince myself that this game was close, that this time I’d give him a real run for his money. Then Bert’s strategy would emerge and all would fall apart for me. He’d often end a game by chastising me for my poor quality play and offer me advice that I never seemed able to take. Brief chat with care home nurse, brief chat with Bert, a biscuit, a couple of defeats and a telling-off. Our routine remained unchanged for months.

Until I beat him.

The game started off as they all did. Bert moved his pieces with speedy authority, executing another well-rehearsed opening. Desperate to avoid humiliation, I took my time over every move. My only aim was to force him to think. The rare moments when I managed this was when I earned a smidgeon of his respect.

Then I noticed that Bert had left his queen unprotected. I looked closely. Surely this was just part of some ploy? I looked again.

“Go on, take it then” he snapped impatiently.

I did. Bert had made an awful mistake, the kind of move which he would have invited me to retake. He, however, would never have accepted such charity. Besides, at that moment I wanted to win. I knew this was community service, I knew my role was to entertain him and I knew the results meant nothing. Yet, right then, I was light-headed with the prospect of victory.

A good player would have exploited the advantage and won comfortably. I, however, have never been able to plan into the future; I can rarely see more than two moves ahead. Bert had often commented on this weakness.

Without knowing how to win, I contented myself with miserly clinging to my advantage. I played with utter caution. The safety of my pieces was my prime concern. I exchanged pieces whenever I could, trying to whittle down Bert’s options.

He was irritated. For once, I wasn’t falling for his traps. A couple of times, he pressed me to “hurry up and move”, something he’d never done before. His anger, however, was reserved for himself.

“Stupid move. Stupid move.”

The game began to drag. I was going to have to at least try and attempt checkmate. Yet I still worried that he’d conjure something up and change the game.

Then with one slow but decisive movement, Bert pushed over his king. He had resigned.

“You had mate in five. No point going on.”

My first reaction was delight. I’d beaten the unbeatable and I was proud of it. Yet it felt wrong. Bert had played me enough to know that I’d have struggled to find checkmate. He almost certainly could have forced a draw. But, for the first time in all my visits, the game he loved seemed an annoyance to him. When I sportingly offered a rematch, he waved the idea off. He’d had enough.

Normally I was very good at ensuring we met each week but it was three weeks before I rang to arrange another game. A softly spoken nurse informed me that Bert was dead.

“I’m sorry. Are you family?”

“No. I just played chess with him.”

I hardly ever play chess any more and I don’t miss it. It’s clear now that it was never the game that kept me turning up. Grumpy, irritable and cold, Bert was an unlikely hero. Yet I remain in awe of this man who, with both body and mind failing him, still had passion-fired eyes. Chess gave him a kingdom in which he was still the master.

Bert never raged against the dying of the light. He was just too bloody minded to let it go.

Andrzej Ryan

About Andrzej Ryan

Andrzej’s writing has ranged from adventures with the Obama campaign for Prospect magazine to why it’s OK for footballers not to like football for When Saturday Comes. He co-hosts Reverse Swept Radio, a cricket podcast focusing on the game’s literature and history.

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