Anyone who knows anything about chess knows that in 1968 I played the great Bobby Fischer to a draw in the Columbia Shopping Mall outside Atlanta, Georgia. By then Fischer had developed a vicious King's Indian Defense and rolled into town fresh off tournament wins in Croatia and Israel and other countries I'd only seen on maps to play twenty-five of Georgia's finest in a simultaneous exhibition match. I'd played my way into the event with a couple of junior tournament wins at the local Howard Johnson's and had dropped out of middle school at my father's demands. "You will sit in this chair and chess like the Fischer," my father said. He was overworked and very Polish and confused by American electrical systems and road signs, so my mother drove me to the event in my father's service van.
I didn't study subjects like astronomy and English and algebra and all that useless crap they make kids learn in school, but instead read and reread everything Fischer ever wrote, essays like "A Bust to the King's Gambit." I knew better than to play the Gambit and my plan worked. I opened with d4 and Fischer followed with his King's Indian, which I smashed by racing my queen-side pawns down the board. Fischer pulled at his lower lip several times and seemed to behave like a man very much frustrated with what was happening on the board. I remember every move of the game and have studied it several times, a lifetime really, so much so that my body grew pear-shaped as I went through my teenage years, and I know it could not have played out any other way. I showed everyone at the Market Street Club the game several times. They always listened carefully and shook their heads and said, "Impossible." But I'd say, yep, the game ends in a draw. Play it out.
After my match with Fischer was over, I stood up and shook hands with him and said well played, sir, well played. "You know," Fischer said quietly so he didn't embarrass the other players, "I wouldn't play anyone else here again but you." I knew he was really telling me that I was the second greatest living American chess player, having played him to a draw. And when he died, I would be the greatest.
Of course, this was all before I moved to San Francisco to play and live a quiet life as America's second greatest chess player and to wait until Fischer died so I could play crowded exhibition matches while everyone watched and shook their heads and said brilliant, just brilliant.
So, as one could imagine, the day Fischer died from renal failure I was very much nervous about what the scene would be like at the Market Street Club, where I stayed sharp by playing tourists who came to San Francisco to play me since Fischer was living in Iceland and unavailable for games, correspondence or otherwise. I expected that everyone would want to hear about the draw I played Fischer, would want to see the game reenacted. Many people would want to play me since I would now be the greatest living American chess player.
I swallowed three of my concentration tablets since I knew I would have a busy day and would need help focusing. I took my time dressing because I wanted to look like the greatest living American chess player. I shaved the casual shadow off my face and slicked my hair back so everyone could see my face and remember me with the same clarity I remembered Fischer. I put my club jacket on and noticed it had started to pill and smell like the gutter trash of Market Street. I was a little embarrassed, this being a big day and all, and knew I would have to send one of the boys at the club to have it dry-cleaned. I packed my briefcase with old scorecards and endgame notes and Xeroxed copies of my essay "A Bomb to Fischer's King's Indian Defense: How I Player Bobby Fischer to a Draw" and Fischer chess clock. Folks at the Market Club didn't like to play with the Fischer clock, but that was the only way I'd play anyone. I'd double my rate to four dollars a game to play me, the greatest living American chess player.
As I approached the cable car stop by the Gap on Powell and Market, I could already see a crowd had amassed. When something big like Fischer dying happened, the Market Club had a tendency to ignore the event and the scene would get pretty out of hand. People milled around the sidewalk without direction, unsure of where the line started or ended or if there was even one at all. So I did what I had to and started grabbing sleeves and lining people up to play me.
"Hey, what are you doing?" one man said.
"I'm lining you up since you all can't seem to do it yourselves. This is chaos. I should have expected this."
"We're trying to get in line," his wife said. She took her husband's hand and headed to the wrong line, the cable car line. I was sure they didn't actually know what I looked like yet, that I was in fact now the greatest living American chess player.
I grabbed the man's arm again. "No, no. You're headed toward the wrong line. So much confusion. I should have expected this."
Just then a police officer, one of the many who patrolled the area to keep the thieves away from the Market Club patio, took me aside.
"I'll handle this," he said. He nudged me toward the Market Club. "We don't want any trouble."
I thanked him and made my way through the crowd to my usual table. By now, everyone on the street knew I had arrived and they watched me closely. I was glad that I'd taken the effort to make myself look presentable, but still a little embarrassed about the condition of my coat. Several men kept their hands in their pockets to hold what I assumed were tape recorders in case I had a comment on the sad event of the great Bobby Fischer's death.
One of the club boys leaned against the BART station railing. The club boys had started looking pretty rough themselves, this one with a Laker's hoodie draped over his body like a ghost costume. "Excuse me," I said, taking off my coat. "I would like this coat taken care of."
The boy took the jacket from me and checked all the pockets, probably wanting to make sure I hadn't left an important draft of a chess essay I was working on. "You sure?" he asked.
"Yes, I said I would like my jacket taken care of." The boy took the jacket and disappeared into the crowd. When I turned to the tables, I saw Dmitri playing The Walrus, my biggest rival and the only player at the Market Club I'd never actually played.
"Dmitri," I said. I shook his hand and nodded.
"Pear," he said. He pushed his queen-side bishop's pawn a space and touched the clock. "Hear about Fischer?"
"Yes, I did," I said. I stood up straighter, remembering that I was being watched and should be conducting myself like the greatest living American chess player.
"Hey, Pear," Walrus whistled. He had had his two front teeth punched out by a tourist and wore his beard long and high on his cheeks. He had been a fisherman in somewhere that sounded a whole lot like Poland before he immigrated to the United States, and he talked like a sailor. He reminded me of my father. "Why don't you tell your friends about the time you played Fischer?"
"Which time? I played him twice."
"Tell us about both, then," he said. He started laughing, but it turned into a phlegmy cough, so I backed off. I didn't want to catch whatever illness he was surely carrying, it being an important week in my life and all.
"Yes, as you know, I played Fischer to a draw at the Columbia Mall outside Atlanta, Georgia."
Dmitri interrupted and knocked his king over to signal that he was conceding the match to Walrus, surely because he was more interested in my story than playing Walrus even another move.
"Anyway, I also played Fischer at the Mechanics' Institute in the spring of 1974. Played the same opening I played in Georgia, but made one wrong move and he swiped my knight and I lost. Everyone he played did that day."
"I was actually living in San Francisco that year. Fischer didn't show," Walrus said.
I rarely conceded that Walrus was right, but he was. Fischer beat everyone that day, but played poorly. Fischer had recently returned from a trip to the FIDE congressional meeting in Nice and didn't even look like himself. He seemed shorter, squatter, and walked around like he didn't have a face.
"I'll walk you through the important game if you'd like," I said. "This is an important day."
Walrus lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. He knew I didn't like smoke, but didn't know I didn't like smoke because my father would watch me play chess against myself at night and smoke over me. My mother would have to wash my clothes twice in the morning just to take the smell out. She didn't much care for the smell of tobacco either. "How about," he said, "rather than walking us through a game that wasn't played, you play me?"
"Oh, I played the game. If you'd ever pay attention, you'd know I played that game. You'd know that I'm the greatest now. You'd know I'll beat you," I said. I knew he wanted to play me, though, me being the new greatest living American chess player. Just to be in my presence, he knew, was something special.
I took the chair across from Walrus. He stared at me with that dead eye of his and said, "Well, how much time on the clock?"
"Five minutes," I said. I'd recently become the greatest living American chess player and I'd never played Walrus, so quite a crowd was assembling around us. I sat up straight again because some of the men in suits looked like serious newsmen types who would surely want to interview me after my exhibition match against Walrus. My father always told me I had terrible posture and that was why I could not focus on my chess. He said if I had the posture of Bobby Fischer I would have beaten Fischer at the Columbia mall. "Look," he said one night as Fischer talked and gestured wildly on television. "Look at how thin he is. You, you are a mess of fat."
I didn't want to think of my father. I went into my briefcase and took out my Fischer clock and set it on the table.
"What the hell is that?" Walrus said.
"Fischer clock, of course."
"Looks more like a rigged alarm clock," someone behind me said.
"What a piece of junk. You are crazy, you know," Walrus said, or something to that effect. At times, he sounded worse than my father. They had a similar accent too, a sort of bastardized Polish-American accent that made me wonder if he could speak either language fluently. "We are not playing with that thing, my friend. I bet it does not even work."
I wound the clock to five minutes and pushed one of the buttons. "That is a bet you would not win, sir."
"I refuse to use that absurd device. We will use my Chronos," Walrus said.
"Fischer would never have never played with one of those."
"What do you know?"
"More than you can imagine." I took my Fischer clock off the table and put it back inside my briefcase. "I will not even dignify you enough to play you on Fischer's clock." I grabbed a copy of my essay and slid it across the table. "Here. Read this. You'll learn something."
He glanced at the first page, then flipped through a few more. I knew he probably couldn't read, like my father, which is why he could never beat me in chess. I'd studied books; Walrus had studied the junk games of ex-convicts turned chess hustlers.
"This does not make sense," he said. "Is this even English?"
"I'm sure it doesn't make sense to you. Do you know English?"
"Lets just play," he said. He set his Chronos and centered his pieces on their squares.
I moved my queen's pawn to d4 and hit the clock. Walrus responded with his knight to f6. "You, sir, are unoriginal. You are playing Fischer's Indian," I said.
Walrus smiled. "A tribute to a great player."
I pushed a pawn to a4.
Walrus turned to the crowd behind him. "Are you watching this, friends? This is genius before us. Living genius." They laughed.
I studied the board. Walrus took what seemed like a long time plotting his response, like my father. My father and I rarely played, but when we did, we didn't play with a clock. My father liked to think through all the moves and wanted me to do the same. I could never think through all the possibilities. There would be a bird sitting on the window sill, the sound of my mother preparing dinner in the kitchen. She would sing as she cooked and I would listen and forget about Fischer's rejection of the King's Gambit.
Walrus moved, but I took my time countering. It had been a long time since I'd played an actual match, some forty years since I'd played in front of a large group of spectators. In the Columbia Mall, during my match with Fischer, I followed him between moves. They said he could keep track of twenty-five boards at once, think about all the possibilities in the few seconds it took to walk from one board to the next. But in the Columbia Mall in 1968, I wondered if he really thought about the next board, the position of the pieces between tables. When he played just one person, did he really think of all the possibilities when it was his opponent's move? I thought about these things in the time it took for him to circle back to my table. I made my moves when he got to the table next to me and forgot which ones I'd already made. This is how the game got away from me, why I lied to my father and said I'd played Fischer to a draw, why I have trouble recalling my second move. I can never remember anything after Nf6.
"You have already lost, Pear," Walrus said. "Through."
When the match was over, I sat at the table a long while trying to think through all the moves again, reimagine the game. I've spent years trying to remember the exact moves from my game with Fischer and may have been able to recall them all without effort had my mother not come out of Macy's to find me sitting alone at the board. I told her I was trying to see all the moves again, how I got there. After a while I lied and said I'd remembered and sometimes I think I have remembered all the moves. My mother didn't ask me to recite them like my father would have. She just took my hand and led me out of the mall and said don't you forget now, don't you.