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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Tall, dark, and mysterious -- and tough!

So last night at chess club was a little different for me.

I'm playing the normal guys, who are tough but not that tough. Kind of like me. I win more games than I lose there, though, and I'm currently rated in the mid-1500s, so that gives you an idea of the general strength of the club. That being said, I feel I'm quite underrated, as I haven't played a rated tourney game in many years. I feel I lean more toward 1800, give or take. Either way, class player, big nobody.

Anyhow, I'm playing games with them and in walks a new player to the club -- possibly Filipino and a little older than I am, I believe -- with an hour to go for the night. He is quiet, a bit mysterious, but cordial enough.

Charlie, one of our regulars, tells him: "You'll probably want to play Derek, as he's the only one who'll offer much of a challenge."

Okaaaay, I'm thinking, what the heck is this?

The guy sits down and I can tell by the way he moves the pieces, the way he physically moves them, I mean, that he knows what the hell he's doing. That's another thing people don’t talk about, frankly: the fact that a seasoned player actually handles the pieces differently almost every time. This particular cat has real long, skinny fingers and he'd pick a piece up with the very tips of them and then, kind of in an odd dance-move way, he'd sling them to the intended squares. That's the best way I can describe it.

And he was strong. I knew it immediately. He didn’t play like the other guys, not even close. This guy is a pressure cooker, the type player where each and every move means something, is a threat, and you have to watch closely or it's curtains quickly. He played fast, too, which told me he was playing most the opening from memory. I was, too, but I play a little slower than he was playing as a general rule, just in case I miss something.

Anyhow, he plays e4 and I shoot out Nf6 for an Alekhine. He pushes to e5 for the chase variation and the battle is going. I get into a little trouble, he gets into a little trouble, the position gets very, very dicey and unclear -- muddled, dare I say, like some of Alekhine's games. The position was so thick with threats it was bordering on ridiculous. It was as if a child were told to randomly put all the pieces on any squares he chose and then we came into it blind, just trying to figure it out.

Well, long story short, he sacrifices a knight that I cannot take. But I give him absolute hell for trying in the first place by batting his queen around for several moves, all the while slowly, slowly wiggling into a better position, myself. It took maybe seven or ten moves but finally, finally, I was able to wriggle my way into a place where I could take the blamed knight. It was still dangerous as hell, but I could tell it was reasonably safe. For the moment.

At this point, my heart is going a mile a minute, this guy is moving very slowly now and talking to himself while he thinks, the whole place is leaning over our game, and some are muttering that they don’t even understand what's going on because there are literally so many threats from each side it was tough to make any assessment. Which is, of course, how we both felt as players, too.

After I snapped that knight off and got my own knight into the game (which he'd corralled on the darned a-file for 15 or 20 moves), I ended up with a checkmate threat from two directions, no way to defend. He kept checking me with his queen, just kind of hoping I'd blunder into a mate, myself, as he had plenty of opportunity should I misstep, but in the end I held my own and retained my piece.

The freaking coffee shop blinked the lights to tell us they were closing so, a half-hour and about ten moves later, we quickly agreed to a draw and the look on his face told him he was glad for it -- I know I was. I told him it was like the knife coming out of my back and laughed: Painful, yes, but full of relief, as well. Even though it was an agreed draw, I can't help but think that I won the game. Still, the position was really strange and opportunities were everywhere, so who knows.

And, as is par for the course, the game was really important to me and I'd like nothing more than to study it more, but I hadn't written it down. Even though I had my pad with me. Yeah, I'm that guy.

So my opponent goes to the bathroom real quick and Charlie leans in and tells me he's "very, very impressed."

Puzzled, I asked him why.

"He's a 2170 and plans to become master this summer. Nobody here can get that far with him, and especially not with an Alekhine defense."

My eyes went wide and I was on top of the world. By then it was after 10:00 at night and so I had to race home and get to bed, but we yapped a little bit about today's players vs. yesteryear's, about right and wrong ways to learn and improve, about Fischer and Alekhine -- it was chessgasmic!

I had inadvertently gained the respect of a candidate master and then had a wonderful conversation with him and Charlie. If there's a better night at chess club, I sure haven’t seen it.