Saturday, July 02, 2005

The chess chronicles
Part two

I am serializing a story I wrote back in January for publication on this blog. If you missed part one, just scroll down to the last entry. Sorry for the extra long delay, I was up at the farm for three days. Lots of work, but boy do I feel good. Anyway, here is part two…

Egor was way more animated and talkative than usual as we walked over to the sports school. He was obviously nervous. We found Boris Vasilovich standing in the doorway to the sports school. I made some polite noises. I bypassed a direct conversation about what happened and mentioned to Boris Vasilovich that Egor was to receive a chess clock for winning a tournament. This has always been a motivation, and we had always taught him to try his best to win. He wants to win, do you understand me?

"For which tournament would he get this clock?" he asked.

"Any tournament" said I.

"Oh," said Boris Vasilovich, ‘winning this one would be very difficult." And offered a wan smile. I gave him the coldest look I could possibly muster and took Egor inside. I told Egor that I thought Vasilovich looked guilty. He did. Egor said that he wanted a bit more violence, or at least that I should have tried to wring some compensation out of the old man. I told him that under the circumstances we had to make do with a little social coldness.

Ok, I was now sure that something had indeed happened that morning and it didn’t take long to figure out what, why and why Boris Vasilovich wanted a shot at speaking to us before we went in. I knew what was up the minute I looked at the hall and the result’s chart on the wall.

The tournament hall had been arranged in such a way that there was a special table set up at the top of the room. This was table number one, the table where the number one player played all of his or her games. The rest of the desks were much more anonymous. This sort of set up is designed to represent a sort of royalty in regards to who plays on table one. I have been to many of Egor’s tournaments and I have never seen them create such a situation before. The desks for all of Egor’s tournaments have always been set up in a more uniform, a more classless and proletarian scheme as would have been favored anywhere in the former Soviet Union. But this was not the case this time. And, the reason for this change was obvious: there siting at table number one, as he had for every game so far in the tournament, was Kosty.

As I said, the wall chart told me the rest. Egor’s two wins that morning had brought him up to 5 ½ points. Kosty had only drawn his two games that morning and was sitting on six points. Egor by virtue of his performance had managed to put himself in the position of playing on table number one for first place. Boris Vasilovich’s screaming at him had nothing to do with his team, and it wasn’t a joke; he had been protecting Kosty. This whole tournament had been set up as a present for Kosty and the floor set-up had been done specifically to celebrate him. Egor had apparently managed to get himself in the way and rather than simply giving Egor the chance to play for the tournament that he had earned, that he deserved, Boris Vasilovich had decided that in order to protect Kosty, Egor had to get whacked.

I now understood that Boris Vasilovoich had not looked guilty, but in fact was probably scared because I actually could kick his ass in my sleep and at that moment he was probably thinking that I might just do it.

However, what was done was done and Egor still in fact had a game to play. So what could I do? I gave Egor a pat on the back and told him to do his best and then did what I could to get out of the way.

And about that game there was not much to say. Egor lost but he played well. He played with more heart and tenacity than would be usual for him. He never gave an inch and hung in there using every second of his clock and every last move available. In the end though he had only made one mistake, missing a fork and losing only a pawn, but that advantage was all Kosty needed.

I told him I was proud of him for how he played and when we got home I told Tatyana what had happened that afternoon. Boris Vasilovich called that night telling us that Egor needed to be in bed and again the next morning so as to remind us that he should be at the tournament that day. He was obviously feeling guilty and this was a rather phony display of how much he cared. I was sick.

So we had a lot to think about. First of all, Boris Vasilovich is not a private teacher. He works for the school and is supposed to be a public resource. Egor is a member of the same class as Kosty and several others. In that class Kosty is very much considered a chess star. He is a star and he has a local chess pedigree from his Granddad who was a big wheel in local chess and the boy has won some tournaments already. It has never been a secret that Kosty is a favorite and that Vasilovich pays him more attention in class. And as far as Egor is concerned, has he been the best of students? Absolutely not. And, if we wish to speak not about talent, but bout work ethic, Egor doesn’t match up here as well. Sometimes he has a hard time understanding when he has responsibilities and when he needs to do certain things. He is in fact quite forgetful, and is very prone to laziness. Certainly one can shine on a lot of this and simply say he is just a 9-year-old boy, but level of competence is a measurable thing and it is an important measurement that is very much taken of all children here. Egor’s ability to master chess, his eventual ranking (as well as when it was achieved) will also be used as a gauge of his capabilities and will very much come into consideration when it will come time for Egor to apply for jobs or university positions. And inevitably this is what is gained by playing chess in Belarus and, IT IS A BIG DEAL!

If Boris Vasilovich only wants to be Kosty’s private teacher, well, I guess there is no real shame in an old fool hitching his wagon to a nine-year-olds star. But if this is the case, we should all be aware of this and he should have stopped posing as Egor’s teacher long before he used his position to hurt him. Egor, regardless of his faults is in fact playing chess very well, apparently is good enough to play with the best of them, and is doing this with or without Boris Vasilovich’s best efforts. And this was demonstrated not in the political arena, but at the table, exactly where it should have been. Would you tell me that I should have sympathy for Boris Vasilovich’s position? I say fuck him: who is he to abuse my people?

I talked with Tatyana about the possibility of Egor boycotting the final game. Tatyana agreed but Egor, realizing that not playing chess meant having to go to school said that playing was obviously better. No one could argue with his logic so we agreed that he should play. Tanya said that she wanted to go to the chess that morning for that last game so to support Egor. I would stay at the apartment to watch after Anya.

We had decided that it would be best though if we were to switch trainers. Tatyana told me that the next possible choice for trainer would be Leonid Nikolaiovich Lindarenko. We decided that we should go and ask Linderenko if he would take Egor as a student right away. Tanya said that she would do so at the tournament.

Now, I was worried about how she would act and what she should say. Tatyana was angry as hell, and I was afraid she might make a scene. I talked seriously with her about what she would do as she prepared to go. I pointed out to her that all of the trainers were chess players and would view Boris Vasilovich’s actions simply as a move and our reaction to the previous day’s happenings would be our answer. Everybody there would already know what Vasilovich had done and so she needn’t say too much because our intentions would be understood from the first moment she approached Linderenko. Also, she should know that what they would probably be hoping for would be that we simply quit and forgot about things. This would be a lot less messy and better for Boris Vasilovich. If we are going to make a strong answer, if we decide to play on, she had to make sure and act carefully and with great dignity because what she said and how she comported herself would reflect strongly on people’s opinion of Egor. If Egor’s people did not show that they understood that this was chess, they would think even less about what had happened to Egor. So, if we were going to play on, we had to play well.

I advised her to contain her speaking to a minimum, accept whatever good wishes came her way for Anya with dignity, but to only quietly let on that she furious without ever over-speaking the part.

Taking care of Anya without milk of course almost gave me a heart attack. But I did manage to get through her tirades by changing her (twice) and powdering and cleaning her (twice) and of course walking off the subsequent screaming and crying after both.

When Tanya got back she told me it had gone exactly how I had said it would. When she approached Linderenko, he took her away from the crowd to speak. He explained that becoming Egor’s teacher would be a little problematic. Firstly, we would need to speak with Boris Vasilovich. He told Tatyana that she was not the first mother to come to him but nevertheless, Vasilovich was still Egor’s trainer and would have to be spoken to. This was essential. And then, even if Boris Vasilovich would agree to let Egor go nothing would probably happen until next September when the new term started.

Now I could understand this. If Linderenko had said simply yes, that would be his stabbing Vasilovich in the back. It would have been better if I had talked to Vasilovich at the door before the tournament, but at the time I really hadn’t known what he had done. But now we did. We made a plan to go and talk to Vasilovich on Thursday when Egor will have his next lesson.

Despite Tatyana’s presence though, Egor lost that last game against a very strong player, again playing with everything he had and with the loss, fell back deep into the pack, well out of the money. He stayed to watch the awards and then had to go to school for the second half of the day. Tough day for the little guy.

Tatyana and I passed the rest of the morning while Egor was at school walking with the baby. We went to the bazaar and got some creme for diaper rash and a couple of envelopes of seeds for the garden- some squash and some peppers, and then walked through the park. Egor played in a football match after school and wasn’t home until a little after three. We had another long talk about what had happened but we had a nice night. Egor played his first game of chess against the computer in 33 days. After, we studied the game finding a few variations that would have helped and then we annoyed a very sleepy Tatyana by fighting and wrestling while we watched TV.
This morning, we talked about the situation again. My point is that we should all understand that all of this is really just a great big game of chess. And just like in chess, you either play to win or you resign. Just before Egor went off to school, I decided to try and make the point once and or all. I used a metaphor I learned from the movie "Searching for Bobby Fisher" and showed it to Egor as he sat on the floor preparing his bag for school. I opened up our chess set and asked him which piece he thought he was. He said he didn’t know. I asked if he thought he might be a pawn or if he was a bishop? He had no answer. I then explained to him that Boris Vasilovich had just told him that he was a pawn and could be easily sacrificed. He said he understood. I asked him if he thought that this was true. Egor looked unhappy at the thought. I have used the phrase before "lie down on the floor and die" in describing his laziness to him. I used the word again today and tried to show him that it was exactly the same as the word "resign" in chess. As in, are you going to make your best move or are you going to resign? I asked him again which piece he thought he was. And when he didn’t answer, just like in the film, I took out the white king and placed it solidly in front of him. "This is you. You are the king." He looked at the piece a minute and then back at me. I then placed a black rook on the floor a few inches from the white king.

"This is Boris Vasilovich. You are now in check. It’s your move."

So what can we do?

We are going to talk to Vasilovich on Thursday. My opinion is that at the least Vasilovich should never teach Egor again. The argument to keep him would be something like this: What he had done should be seen as a healthful shock that would inevitably be beneficial. He would say that Egor had not been giving his all and a wake-up call was probably in order. And, he was still familiar with the boy, has been his teacher for a while and wants to remain as his coach. Things of course will be better in the future.

But I don’t see how screaming at a student that he is supposed to lose could be considered helpful. The game was supposed to be played on the table and, regardless of personal habits, Egor had in fact earned his right to play in that game. Maybe a taste of victory might have been an even more healthful shock to everybody, even to Kosty. But what the hell are you supposed to do when a guy you have been telling your kid is one of the few people in the whole world he absolutely has to listen to, no matter what, stabs that kid in the back?

I think in the end that a bond of trust was broken and regardless of any implied "useful lessons", Egor had a chance to win his tournament and didn’t need any extra help in losing from his own teacher.

I think that Boris Vasilovich’s choosing to use Egor as a sacrifice, meant only that he did not want to teach him any more and therefore he should let Egor go to someone who does. However, I think Boris Vasilovich’s "lesson" should be made as clear as possible: Moves have consequences, consequences sometimes lead to losses, and losses are real. Therefore, we should always play our best. I very much think that Egor should learn this, but also, I think he should be allowed to make his answering move without Boris Vasilovich’s help. This is Egor’s turn after all. Let’s see what he can do.

So come Thursday we’ll talk it out. But I intend on getting Egor’s release. I am after all Egor’s bodyguard. And I have seen the Godfather a few times. I guess I’ll make this Boris Vasilovich fellow an offer he can’t refuse.

And I do hope that Egor uses this as a tool to make himself stronger. There was a good lesson about life in here and I hope it is one that he learns. Learning from mistakes is what the best of them do and that it is how I am counseling him. And we have the computer back up and so he will be able to train again there and I think that it will help. And, there is another tournament after a month or so, though one that is not as prestigious. He will be there and I think he will be better prepared. At least I hope so. I mean, you keep going as best you can, right? We don’t just lie down on the floor and die, do we? And in the end, this is how I have counseled Egor: Just make the best move that he can. Be awake, study the board, figure out three possible variables and the three moves that would follow and then do the best you can.

And also that he should know that when he makes these moves, he will not be alone because there are at least two of us, for sure, who will be there on his side no matter what. Well, within reason.

I think you can talk forever about the resiliency and endless open-heartedness of children. Egor seems as normal as ever; and he laughed with us pretty quickly afterwards. But I know it had to hurt. And I guess we will just have to see what happens next.

Tough day.

There is a lot more to come so stay tuned.
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