Paul Langham Hedrick
I remember the board first, its alternating squares of light and dark wood, heavy on the table in my father’s study. I remember the yellow light of the lamps, the board crisscrossed with the double shadows of the pawns and pieces. My father’s hand moved slowly as he touched each in turn.

“This is the knight,” he said, his finger resting on the white flare of wooden mane. “It moves like an ‘L’, in any direction.” He picked it up, grasping the horse head between thumb and forefinger, and moved it forward two squares and one square to the side. “See?” he asked, peering intently into my face. “An ‘L’. Do you understand?”

I picked up the knight with both hands. I repeated his move and looked up at him. He nodded solemnly.

“Yes,” he said. His finger moved. “This is the bishop.”

And I remember Bobby Fischer, his face a cipher of shadow on our old black-and-white television. He was young, tall and gawky, serious as he walked through an airport in South America, casting a silent, shy glance at the cameras as he passed.

“That’s Bobby Fischer,” my father said. “He’s the best chess player in the world.”

We sat in the study, the board between us. My father moved the king’s pawn forward two squares.

“Okay,” he said. “It’s your move.”

I looked at my side of the board, at the bewildering number of black pieces and pawns waiting.

“I don’t know which one to move,” I said.

“That’s all right. Here,” my father said, picking up my own king’s pawn and placing it in front of his. “This is good.” He moved out his kingside knight and looked at me, waiting.

“Your move,” he said.

Pieces and pawns were scattered across the board. I studied them, just the way he did, and moved my king.

My father’s hand darted to his queen, moving it quickly across the board. He placed it next to my king with a loud click of wood on wood.

“Checkmate!” He leaned back in his chair and smiled, his mouth twisted against itself, as if he knew his smile was wrong but it was too strong to hold back.

I studied the board again. I moved a pawn.

“No,” he said. He stopped my hand and moved back the pawn. “No. It’s checkmate. Your king is trapped by my queen, see?” He tapped the queen’s ruffled crown.

“What does ‘checkmate’ mean?” I asked.

“You lose,” he said.

After Palma de Majorca, Fischer could not be stopped. He crushed Taimanov in Vancouver, then Larsen in Denver, beating both men with six straight wins. In September, he faced former world champion Tigran Petrosian in Buenos Aires. In the second game, Fischer resigned on move 32, his first loss in over a year. A cheering crowd rushed from the auditorium, chanting “Tigre, Tigre -- Tigran es tigre!”

The celebration was premature. Fischer would not lose another game until Reykyavic.

The doorway to the study loomed large around me. My father sat in there, in the one room I could not enter alone, the place of stiff wooden furniture, dark leather and shiny lacquered wood. I watched him at his desk, his back to me as he worked, shuffling papers and signing checks under the yellow lamps, among his forbidden things, surrounded by the smell of books and dust.

I waited, silent in the doorway. In the center of the room, the chessboard waited too, pawns and pieces lined up and ready. He never turned around.

On September 1, Fischer strode off the stage in a Reykjavik exhibition hall after beating Boris Spassky with black in the twenty-first game of their championship match. He was smiling, confident as friends led him through the cheering crowd outside. Reporters, all serious middle-aged men in suits and ties, crowded around him to capture the historic moment, their eyes alert behind the heavy black frames of their spectacles.

The headlines announced it worldwide: he had beaten the Russians. Bobby Fischer was the first American world chess champion.

Pam and I sat at the kitchen table. My father had gone to work, and my mother was making the oatmeal for breakfast.

“Do you like playing chess with your father?” she asked from the stove.

“Uh huh,” I said.

She was smiling as she placed my bowl in front of me. “Now eat all of that,” she said. She sat next to Pam’s high chair and started to feed her. “I’m glad you like it. I think he really needed someone to play with. He tried to teach me to play when we first got married, but he wouldn’t let me learn.”

Pam wriggled, making stubborn baby noises with her mouth closed, and turned her face from the spoon.

“He just wanted to win, every time,” my mother said.

In a press conference in a Geneva hotel, the director of the international chess federation announced that Fischer was stripped of the title of world chess champion. The director cited a series of “unreasonable demands” made by Fischer for the terms of his match against challenger Anatoly Karpov.

Pam and I stood in the living room, watching him leave. We were both crying, Pam’s face red and tear-streaked, her eyes swollen shut. “Just go!” my mother shouted, pulling Pam to her, muffling her sobs with her body. “Look what you’re doing to them! Go!” My father stood there, frozen in place, a battered cardboard box under each arm. He looked at me, he looked at my sister, and back to me again, looking like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.

Bobby Fischer vanished from the public eye, rarely giving interviews, rarely leaving his Pasadena apartment. Throughout the 1970s, friends reported bizarre behavior, such as Fischer having all the fillings removed from his teeth. He still claimed to be the world chess champion, blaming a communist conspiracy for the loss of his title.

My father, my sister and I walked through Evans Park, just as we did every Tuesday afternoon. I walked by his side and we watched Pam run ahead, kicking a ball. We walked around the park once and back to his apartment. He read us Mickey’s Desert Adventure as we lay on our backs in the living room eating Snickers bars.

All through that afternoon and every other Tuesday afternoon my father smiled, but the smile never reached his eyes. His eyes never changed. They always held that look, the one from that last day.

At 6 o’clock he dropped us off at the driveway. We waved as he drove away.

Bobby Fischer was arrested in Pasadena and released a day later. Fischer later published an account of the experience, “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!”

“We’ll still have our month in the summer,” my father said on the telephone. “I won’t be that far away.”

1992 Anne and I sat in a booth at Denny’s, drinking coffee and waiting for our weekly late Sunday morning breakfast. She read the front page, I read the gossip column in Parade.

“This is rich,” she said.

I looked up. She folded the section over and held up a headline for me to see: “Recluse Chess Champ to Make $5M Comeback”.

“Oh my God,” I said, reaching over and taking the paper. “I remember this guy from when I was a kid.” I quickly scanned the story. “He’s even playing Spassky again. This is so cool.”

“It is not cool,” Anne said. “He’s going to play in Yugoslavia, for a Serbian banker. They think it’s a way to take attention away from the war. That’s not cool at all.” She took the section back, disgusted.

“But it’s a comeback story,” I said. “Like The Shootist, or The Color of Money. He’s the guy who used to be on top. He used to be the best at something, but then he drops out of sight. He’s gone for years, but he comes back for that one last battle.”

Anne shook her head, moved on to another story. “Those are just movies,” she said. “I don’t think Paul Newman was playing for blood money.”

Later that week I brought home a plastic chess set with a card stock board, and a book, Comprehensive Chess Course, volumes 1 & 2. The book was as thick as a telephone directory, every page crammed with terms and games and diagrams. After dinner, I set up the board on the coffee table and opened the book to the first chapter, “Pawns and Knights”.

“What are you doing?” Anne asked.

“I want to follow the match,” I said. “But I’m too rusty. I’m starting from scratch.”

She shook her head and went back to her magazine. “Blood money,” she said.

I began to read: The smallest unit in the game of chess is the pawn...

I read the newspaper every morning for the rest of August, following the reports. Fischer was in Yugoslavia at Sveti Stefan, an island resort off the coast of Montenegro. Spassky, now a French citizen, would join him at the end of the month. Both the United Nations and the United States government condemned the match, which violated UN sanctions against sporting events in Yugoslavia.

I found I had never forgotten the moves. I filled my nights with concepts played out on my flimsy board on the coffee table: opening strategy, endgames, tactics, material value. I was well into volume 2 when September arrived.

On September 1 on Sveti Stefan, Bobby Fischer made his first public appearance in twenty years. At the opening press conference, Fischer, fat, balding, and bearded, spat on a cease-and-desist order from the U.S. State Department. An AP photograph captured the moment for the world.

Fischer told the conference that Zionism was responsible for his not playing chess for twenty years -- Zionism, Fischer said, which is another name for Bolshevism. A reporter from the New York Times asked Fischer if he was an anti-Semite. Fischer answered, “Of course not -- Arabs are Semites, and I have nothing against them.”

The match passed slowly, with Fischer and Spassky playing three games a week. I played out each game on the coffee table. Fischer gained an early lead and held it at the halfway point, when the match moved to Belgrade, Serbia.

One night my father and I spoke on the telephone.

“Have you been following the Fischer match?” I asked.

“Just a little,” he said. “How about you?”

“Every game. I’ve even been doing some studying.”

“Does it help?” he asked. “Do you understand the games?”

“Some,” I said. “Not a lot, but some.”

“Well,” he said. “Maybe we should play a game some time. It’s been a while.”

“You’re on,” I said.

On November 5, 1992, Fischer won his tenth victory against Spassky, taking the match. He rode in a parade to downtown Belgrade, through streets lined with cheering people, many of whom were paid for their attendance. The parade route avoided areas damaged by the war. In the city square, the promoters wrapped Fischer in an enormous sash emblazoned with the words “World Chess Champion”, even though the match was not sanctioned by any official chess organization. Fischer faced the crowd, smiled, and waved. He wept with joy, flinching as his Serbian bodyguards fired their pistols into the air, the ejected shells jingling like a brass rain onto the concrete around him.

It was his last public appearance.

Anne and I flew to Denver in late November to spend Thanksgiving with my father and his wife Deborah. The first night, Deborah made us a big dinner. The four of us laughed, talked politics, and caught up on each others’ lives. After dinner, Anne and Deborah left the house to see a movie. My father and I went back into his study, wine glasses in hand, to where the heavy old wood board sat, every pawn and every piece in its place, ready to go. We sat on opposite sides of the board, my father taking the white pieces.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready,” I said.

He lifted the king’s pawn and moved it two squares ahead, looking across the board at me from under furrowed brows, ready for the fight, his mouth twisted in that same cruel smile. I moved my king’s pawn forward, locking his in place, and smiled right back.

Paul Hedrick lives in New Mexico with his wife Jennifer.


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