The Chess Tournament
When Giovanni, Grandmaster, national champion and part-time school chess teacher, asked Andrew, James’ father, if James would be interested in taking part in tournaments and competitions outside school, the obvious response was to feel flattered and excited and say yes, of course James would be delighted.
“Are you sure he’s good enough?” was what he actually said.
“Of course. There are competitions for children of all levels. And I think it will be a good experience for him anyway.”
“Well, yes,” said Andrew, realising he was being somewhat unsupportive of his own son and trying to row back from his initial lack of faith. “I’m sure James would be happy enough with that.”
He turned to James.
“Yeah,” replied James. “Of course.”
And that was that. James went back to studying chess for one afternoon a week, after school on Wednesdays, and playing the occasional game at home against his dad whenever the pair of them weren’t too busy conquering, civilizing or colonizing various hostile worlds on the computer.
And then, before you could say, “oh my God, the first tournament is next week and we haven’t done any practice for ages!” the first tournament arrived. By way of preparation James and his dad played two games a night for the two nights before the tournament – during which James was supplied with a constant stream of positive advice and tips on strategy.
“Don’t rush so much. Think about your moves before you make them, then you won’t make so many mistakes. Your endgame is terrible. You had that game won and you threw away all your advantage by not thinking properly. Do you want to take that move back? No? Okay, well it’s your loss.”
And then there was the more general advice.
“Now don’t worry if you lose all your matches. This is only your first tournament and it’s all about just seeing what they’re like. It would be nice to win at least one, but I don’t want you to give up on chess just because you can’t win a single match at your first tournament.”
After such a torrent of confidence-boosting encouragement, it was hardly surprising that James was somewhat nervous as he entered the hall and came face to face with well over a hundred eager, confident children, many of whom knew each other well from previous tournaments or club meetings and five of whom were almost certainly about to crush his nascent chess career.
He saw some people he knew – Enzo and Lucas from the club at school – and he wandered over to watch them playing a warm-up game. These were people he knew he could beat, had beaten many times, and with relief he realised he was probably not going to finish bottom after all. For want of anything better to do, he played a couple of warm-up games himself, winning the first easily. He was winning the second as well when it was interrupted by the tournament organisers suddenly deciding to play some very loud music through the PA system and this seemed to distract not only his opponent but also a great majority of the other children in the room, as well as their parents.
However, once the Brazilian national anthem was finished, the tournament began.
James’ first opponent was already sitting at the table when he arrived, getting some last-minute advice from his dad as well as a paternal ruffle of the hair and an enthusiastic thumbs up. Andrew had already seen the man chatting amicably to the tournament organisers and assumed that his son was probably one of the tournament-circuit regulars.
“I think this guy is going to be really good,” Andrew said to James by way of last-minute encouragement. “Don’t worry too much if he slaughters you. It’s only your first game.” And then as an afterthought; “But try and have fun.”
James greeted his opponent with a casual nod, set the timer for ten minutes each and then when the word was given to start playing, the two of them began a furious to-and-fro of move, click, move, click, move, click – except when one or other of them forgot to click the timer and there would be a brief and complicated click, click, click as they tried to work out whose turn it was and whose timer was running down.
Andrew wandered off, too nervous to watch, then wandered back, too curious to stay away, then wandered off again, too frustrated to watch. He could see that James had captured his opponent’s queen – that was good – then lost his own queen – stupid – then some other parent got in the way and he couldn’t see anything at all… and then it was all over. The two boys put up their hands to show they had finished and one of the adjudicators came over, checked the result and marked it down on his sheet.
“So?” Andrew asked as James wandered over.
“Hey, well done. You’ve won your first tournament game. Now if you lose the other four it doesn’t matter because at least you’ll have won one game.”
It was difficult to tell which of them was more relieved. Andrew probably, as James clearly still needed more relief.
“Where’s the loo?”
There were free drinks as well, and after emptying from one end, he filled up again from the other and then wandered off to see how the other players he knew had fared.
“I won,” said Enzo proudly, “because my opponent wasn’t there.”
“Cool,” replied James. “I wish I could’ve done that. I had to win by getting a checkmate.”
And having been victorious, James would now be facing an opponent who had also won in the first round. When the tables were announced he took his place and waited to see who he had this time.
Andrew’s heart sank when the opponent arrived.
“Dammit,” he said. “It’s only the second game and already you’re up against someone wearing glasses. That’s never a good sign. Still, at least he’s not Asian. Always be wary of Asian kids and especially the Asian kids who wear glasses. They’re the real killers.”
Move, click. Move, click. Move, click.
This time the table was closer to the side of the hall where all the parents were forced to stand and Andrew was able to get a clear view of the board. The opening was fairly straightforward on both sides, with a certain amount of pawn juggling, and then the two of them settled down to a rapid series of piece-for-piece swaps. Some pawns went, then the knights and bishops, more pawns, then the queens. The board was practically empty. But James’ precious ten minutes was rapidly running out. He had the better position but Glasses was playing a good delaying game and James was too pressed for time to be able to stop and think. Move, click. Move, click.
James missed a possible checkmate. Andrew was staring furiously at the back of his head, willing him to see it, screaming silently. Move, click. Move, click. One minute left…forty-five seconds…thirty…twenty…
Glasses looked disappointed. Whether he felt he should have won, or whether he’d simply been pinning his hopes on outlasting the clock Andrew couldn’t tell, but James was clearly delighted with the result.
“I need the loo again.”
Now James had time to wolf his way through a cheese and ham sandwich, a Twix and another soft drink – all provided free by the organisers. And Andrew was so pleased he gave James no more than a five-minute lecture on how he could have got the checkmate earlier and how he really needed to improve his endgame and they even had time for a quick practice game to pass the time.
When James was close to winning it, Andrew announced that he wasn’t really trying. And besides, they were just putting up the names for the next round. After two wins, James was put up on the number three table and it was clear his opponent was going to be a much tougher one this time. Not Asian, but much, much worse. He wore glasses. He wore a tee-shirt which said; I play Chess. He wore a cap with his name embroidered onto it and he wore an official chess jacket with his name printed on it. In the battle of intimidation, he’d already won hands down.
He took the game fairly comfortably as well, looking quite bored by the end. James battled on, at least forcing his opponent to demonstrate how to play a successful endgame and James was able to leave the table knowing he’d been totally outclassed but not in any way humiliated.
“Ah well,” said Andrew. “Two wins is more than I ever got in a chess tournament. And at least now your next opponent will probably not be as good. It would be nice to get one more win, then you can come away with a winning record.”
Interesting. Three hours earlier he’d been giving James advice on how to deal with crushing defeat and now here he was talking about coming away with a winning record.
For his fourth game, and a little later than expected, James was finally brought face-to-face with his first Asian opponent. But sadly for the young lad he seemed more concerned with the temperature than the game, being encased in a thick, puffy coat which hid everything except his face and the tips of his fingers. Plus he didn’t wear glasses.
And he didn’t last long. James finished him off well within time and without really breaking a sweat – something his opponent would dearly have loved to do, no doubt.
“Well, there it is,” said Andrew with a smile. “Your first tournament and you come away with a winning record. Even if you lose your last game you still have that.”
“Yeah,” James replied. “But 4-1 would be really great.”
And 4-1 it was to be. The final game turned out to be another relatively easy win for James but against a good, friendly opponent who was happy to chat across the table both before and after the match. Competitors’ medals had already been handed out at the start of the final match and there didn’t look as if there was going to be any sort of prize-giving, so there was nothing left to do but head home, James with a broad grin on his face and a medal round his neck and Andrew wondering whether there would now be parents warning their children to watch out if they found themselves up against any blond haired foreign kids in future tournaments – they were the really evil ones.
However, no successful tournament would be complete without some sort of reward ceremony and so before going home James was presented with a celebratory hot chocolate from the local café. And Andrew, feeling that all his nagging and negative advice must have gone some way towards achieving the end result, had one too.