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My Story of Chess

I had no idea what was wrong with the girl. She'd make her move, hold her breath for a few seconds, then move her hand toward the chessboard again and touch the piece she had just put down, as if she was caressing it, or else lightly grasp the very top of the piece with her pale fingers and then turn it slightly, move it a few millimeters to one side, whisper "J'adoube" in a warm, slightly choked voice and then rest her blonde head back down on her fleshy palm.

She did this after every move. It wasn't only her own pieces she adjusted, either; she did it to mine, too. Even when I'd placed them very, very carefully, right in the center of the square, she still adjusted them. I started to feel anxious whenever I put a piece down. I couldn't think straight. All those options I'd considered, all those combinations I'd thought through blurred into one. By now all my attention was focused on how the girl kept moving her hand toward the piece I had just put down, touching it, caressing it, lifting it slightly into the air, then putting it back on the same square and saying in that strange voice, "J'adoube . . ."

It was a rule. Chess players are allowed to adjust their pieces, or even their opponent's pieces, as long as they utter those magic words as they do so. If they don’t say the words the rule states they must move whichever piece they touched (if it was theirs) or capture it (if it was their opponent's), assuming it is legal to do so. Unfortunately there was nothing in the rules about how many times a player could adjust a piece, so this girl was exercising her right on every move. In fact, sometimes even several times between moves: she would touch the white knight, or the black bishop, or both players' pawns . . . Her hand would travel around the board, creeping up on a piece as she mumbled in a kind of trance: "J'adoube, j'adoube, j'adoube . . ." And gradually my head would get foggier and foggier, and I would start making stupid mistakes . . . and I’d lose to her every time.

I suddenly remembered this girl right in the middle of a lecture by the grandmaster Alexei Suetin on psychological preparation and the use of psychological tactics in chess. As he ran through the theory he gave us examples that illustrated his point. He gave several examples of one chess player using psychological tactics to beat another. For instance: "There was one particular player who would start staring right into the eyes of his opponent the minute he'd made his move. He would fix his gaze on them and never look away, and he would even try to return his opponent's move as quickly as possible, just so that he could carry on staring. There's no rule about staring at your opponent, you see, so they couldn't lodge a complaint.”

As soon as he said it everything fell into place. I realized that this girl's disconcerting habit of endlessly adjusting pieces was in fact a well thought-out psychological strategy designed to unsettle her opponents. Or at least that's what I thought back then; in reality there was no way a girl of twelve could have come up with strategies like that. It was more likely some kind of neurosis—a silent compulsion to touch everything. Or maybe she'd been taught to play chess by a blind father; after all, there were plenty of blind players in our tournaments. They sat to one side and always had more spectators than anyone else, and whenever their opponent moved they would run their hands over the battlefield to work out which piece had been moved and to where. Having done so, they would fall silent and fix their lackluster gaze onto the ceiling of the playing hall, or more often onto their invisible opponent. And then they would feel around the battlefield one more time and make their move.

And quite often the blind players beat me, although not always. Sometimes, after the game, one of them would ask me to take them to the nearest bus stop. They would fold up their chess board with the hole drilled into each square and tuck it under one arm, then take my arm so that I could guide them to the bus stops in front of the Philharmonic. I would tell them the number of each bus that stopped until the one they wanted pulled up. I'd help them up into the bus and then, fresh from my defeat at the hands of a blind player, set off home . . .

Anything could happen back then in one of our Swiss-system tournaments. At one point a Russian soldier started coming. He was a ruddy-cheeked man from some remote Russian province. He came to each game straight from his garrison. As often as not he'd be late, and still out of breath as he sat himself down at the chessboard to beat every one of us, round after round . . . He beat us all: the blind players, the girl who adjusted the pieces, even our finest top-rank players and future grandmasters. He left everyone in his wake, brought us all to our knees and always emerged the victor. And then one day he went back to his garrison and that was the last we saw of him. He must have finished his national service and been sent back to whatever remote province he'd come from. He's probably sitting there today, an old man, a drunk, who wins himself a new bottle of vodka in a game against one of the locals whenever he runs out.

Whatever made me think of that Russian soldier now? It was another Russian I was talking about: Grandmaster Suetin, giving his children's class a talk on psychological preparation in chess and then seating them at their boards for a simultaneous game. I'm sitting there too. I make one move, then another. Grandmaster Suetin walks around, doing a tour of the room. He has twenty or twenty-five children to outwit, a whole class to bring down with a single sweep of his hand. Grandmaster Suetin is a well-built man—one might even say portly—but that's not a problem; chess may be a sport, but it's not like athletics where you need the right build. No, for chess you need a piercing stare, lightness of touch, and a shrewd mind. Grandmaster Suetin has all of these, and there is a certain self-confidence in the way he moves his clumsy form through the rectangle of chess tables. One thing stands out though: once or twice as he was walking toward me I looked up and noticed that behind those enormous glasses he wore perched on his nose, behind those jam-jar lenses, his eyes seemed even larger and more bulging than usual. And it was seeing those bulging eyes that suddenly gave me a devious idea! I thought about the player Grandmaster Suetin had told us about, the player who won by staring at his opponent during the match, and I suddenly realized that since such a good tactic existed, and since there was nothing an opponent could do to stop it, there was no good reason I shouldn’t use it myself, right now.

As soon as it came to me I lifted my head and looked Grandmaster Suetin in the eye. He looked down at me, made his move and turned away, seemingly unperturbed. He steered his awkward form through the room, calmly made his moves, carried on making his rounds. I intensified my gaze, boring into his back, then his head, then the side of his face. When he next came over he gave me a sideward glance, made his next move and went on his way. I looked down at the board. It was the Spanish Game. I knew very well how it played out. I made a quick decision about how to proceed, moved my piece and carried on burning a hole in his back . . .

And as I did so I thought about that girl of mine who always adjusted the pieces: “I can't wait to play you again soon,” I thought. “I'll show you! I'll stare into your eyes until you're completely flustered, you poor girl, and you won't be able to focus on the board and your hand will start shaking and your voice will crack and you won't be able to think of any good moves, and you won't even manage your ‘J'adoube’ with that choked-up voice of yours, and then you'll see, then you'll see me get my own back, see me destroy you—no mercy! . . .”

But this was no time to be thinking about a girl. Not when I was in the middle of playing a Grandmaster. Not at this stage in the game. Not when I—normally such a quiet, polite, studious boy—had suddenly developed a daring streak, overcome my habitual embarrassment and timidity, started making my moves without hesitating, never taking my eyes off my opponent, going so far as to try and catch his gaze behind those enormous glasses. Sometimes I managed it, too, and saw in his eyes a terrible mounting rage, an awful mercilessness. And indeed, how else can he possibly respond, when he teaches his pupil a new tactic only to have the brazen young upstart turn round and use it against him not half an hour later!

We reach the middlegame. I look down at the chessboard and can hardly believe my eyes. I've clearly got the advantage; in fact I'm almost in a winning position. "It's really working!" I think to myself. Grandmaster Suetin comes over, and pauses in front of my board. I look up at him stubbornly. He bends over my board and makes his move, and as he does so he leans further down toward me and hisses aggressively in my ear, but quietly so no one can hear: "Stop staring at me!"

I go green.

Suddenly I'm that straightlaced, shy, studious boy again. I bow my head and stare down at my shoes. I sense Grandmaster Suetin move away, and when he has done so I just about manage a furtive look at the board. I want to see his move. Everything around me is a blur. I focus my gaze until I can just about make out the position of the pieces. I drop my head again and stare at my shoes. I think through my options in my head, moving the pieces in my mind. I try to think how to fight back . . .

He comes toward me . . . I think I've got it . . .

He's right in front of me . . . I lift my gaze, just a little, and make my move. He responds by slamming his piece down and walking away. He finishes his next round before I’ve even lifted my head. And the next. And the next. I’ve lost it. I've lost any advantage I once had. And I hear him hissing in my ear again: "Stop staring at me!"

And suddenly I'm angry! I'm angry! What right does he have? Why is he telling me to stop? He said it himself: I’m not breaking any rules! And now he’s breaking them! Or maybe not. Maybe he's just trying to psych me out . . . Just like I'd been doing to him . . .

And all of a sudden I was no longer cowed, and I proudly raised my head to look at him. He was already coming toward me. And the meek yet somehow wilful stare of a little boy met the wide, open eyes of the grandmaster. He did not take his eyes off me. He came toward me and glared at me, and I realized that now was the time to stand my ground . . . and I did. He came over to my board. He stood over me. He looked down at me. He swallowed me up with his eyes. I stared back up at him. Grandmaster Suetin did not even look at the board. He stared down into my eyes, devouring me . . . I stared back at him. I was trembling, but still I stared. I didn't blink . . .

And I did it. I outstared him. He shifted his gaze, looked down at the board, and, with a deafening bang of his piece on the board, he made his move, and turned away. By now there were only a few of us left, probably about seven. It was all over for the others. And this meant that he was coming back round to me much more quickly now. I kept staring at him, brazenly, and I played on defiantly . . . and I won.

In chess the loser shakes the winner’s hand as a sign that they are conceding defeat. It is both a custom and a question of etiquette. But there is another, unofficial way to end the game too—a less polite way, one might say—which is to tip your king over on the board when beaten.

Grandmaster Suetin tipped his king—or rather slammed his king down—on the board and walked out without shaking my hand . . .

I stared at him one last time.

It was probably the greatest victory of my life. I was never to experience another win like it.

As for the girl who always adjusted the pieces on the board, I never played her again. We played in the same tournaments, but fate—or the draw—decreed that we never played against each other. I was white when she was white, or I was ranked higher and the girl lower, or the girl higher and me lower. And I wanted to play her so badly . . . I was just itching to play her . . . I had my stare ready . . .

But each time that little blonde girl was sitting opposite somebody else, adjusting their pieces instead of mine, putting someone else off their game, or maybe—who knows?—failing to do so . . . And then one day some boys took me out of the Chess Palace and beat me up outside. No one had ever hit me before. It was my first—and worst—beating.

I can't remember why those boys had it in for me, what it was about me they didn't like, what I had done to them . . . but I came to the conclusion afterward that they'd been teaching me a lesson for behaving as I had. I was being punished for how I'd behaved toward Grandmaster Suetin.

Conceding the game and leaving the Chess Palace like that had brought him great shame. And then in one tournament I came last out of sixteen competitors—with half a point. I kept turning up and losing . . . turning up, and losing . . . I fought bitterly, but somehow I just kept losing. I started hiding at home. By now I was lying to my father. Sometimes I told him that I had drawn a game, or won. My father took great pleasure from my every victory, no matter how small, because it was he who had taken me to chess in the first place and who wanted so much for me to play well. I didn't want to hurt him by letting him find out how badly I had failed.

I picked up that wretched half point against an Indian player. The others mocked me right to my face: "That poor Indian guy thought you were some great chess talent; that's the only reason he accepted a draw. He'd have beaten you otherwise!"

I played my last game and ran out as fast as my legs would carry me. I didn't even look back.

I began to hate it. I began to hate chess.

The whole thing felt like one big defeat to me back then. There were the defeats by the girl who adjusted the pieces, defeats by the blind players, that beating in front of the Chess Palace, that damned half point, last place in the tournament, people making fun of me . . .

How could one bold victory against Grandmaster Suetin compensate for all that?

But one day I realized that chess could bring even greater defeats, and that was the day I heard about the death of my first coach, Shota Intskirveli. He had coached world champions, but was found dead in a house with shattered windows in the ’90s. He had died of cold and hunger . . .

When we were children he would always sit bubbly little Keti Abashidze on his knee while he advised on our game and taught us openings and tactics. Whenever I looked at bubbly little Keti Abashidze I couldn't think straight and would lose track of whatever the coach was saying about the position of the pieces on the board.

And if ever he pitted Keti Abashidze against me I'd lose, just as I always did with the girl who adjusted the pieces.

The next time I bumped into bubbly little Keti Abashidze I had just finished university. She was as bubbly as ever. She invited me to her house in Vake. And I went. We drank tea, reminisced about our childhood, and then she said "Well, if we're going to revisit the old days . . ." and we sat down to play. The funny thing is, she thrashed me again, then smiled wryly to herself and said "How come I always beat you?”

But then that’s how it was . . . I wasn't really a bad player, but somehow I always lost anyway. There was no remnant of my victories left in me; my very being had been branded by my defeats, marked, burdened, defined . . . and against the backdrop of these defeats the only thing I had left was the time I had used psychological tactics to defeat Grandmaster Suetin. And so I told the story again and again, to give me confidence. I told the story so many times that gradually I got tired of telling it . . . and now I've put it on paper instead. I've put it on paper, and yet in my mind's eye I still see Shota Intskirveli, hungry and freezing in his house with its shattered windows. And I imagine he was found sitting at his chess board, his hands turned stiff by the cold air, clutching the queen in his fist, ready to put her down on f5 or g6, about to show us a beautiful sequence of moves once played by Mikhail Tal or Bobby Fischer. . . and I imagine him not alone, but sitting there with the spirit of bubbly little Keti Abashidze perched on his knee . . .

© Shota Iatashvili. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Elizabeth Heighway. All rights reserved.