By Craig Cox
The boy got up uncharacteristically early last Saturday, but he’ll do that when he’s excited about something. And he was pretty excited about the competition looming over at Minnehaha Academy’s north campus, where he was about to join three hundred other kids from around the Twin Cities in the Student Chess Association’s fall tournament. He even combed his hair.
The parking lot was full, so I eased the Oldsmobile up against the curb on the south side of the school, and we followed the other bleary-eyed parents with kids in tow. The entrance was marked by a piece of paper taped to the window. Inside, there were more parents—and even more kids—wandering the hallways and talking on cell phones. The parents looked remarkably unconcerned about the prospect of spending an entire afternoon watching their brood hunch over a checkered board and move sculptured plastic pieces from square to square in a game designed for ninth-century noblemen with time on their hands.
We clambered down the red and black bleachers onto the gym floor, which was covered with a brownish plastic tarp. I felt the familiar slight buzz of adrenaline; at one time it had coursed through my body whenever I set foot on a basketball court. If the tarp had been removed, the long lunch tables pushed into a corner, the baskets lowered from their perch near the ceiling, and a basketball placed there on the sidelines, I would have buried a couple of fifteen-foot jump shots—just like the old days. Instead, The Boy spied the registration tables over in the corner under the big Redhawks sign, I ponied up fourteen dollars, and we set off to find his team.
The West Chess crew, which represented several school chess clubs along with my son’s homeschool one, Checkmate, was holed up in a second-floor classroom, getting ready for the contest ahead. Three coaches, each resplendent in a red t-shirt bearing the team’s logo with his first name on the back, counseled the kids on various moves. The head coach, a young man whose jersey identified him as Matt, was working through scenarios with a boy of about eight who carried his right arm in a sling. For a fleeting moment it occurred to me that maybe this game is a little rougher than advertised.
Later that day, I found myself planted on the hard plastic bleachers alongside another Checkmate parent. Her son, Zeke, was having a tough go of it in the early rounds. Zeke was out there, about at the free throw line, doing his best to checkmate a sixth-grade opponent, who appeared from our vantage point to be yanking large chunks of hair from his head.
The Boy was farther up court, almost across the center line, the place where a good defense might bring a second guard over to trap the guy with the ball and try to force a turnover and an easy fast-break bucket. He was facing the bleachers, his fourteen-year-old face implacable as usual, as his opponent, a baseball-capped teen in Jordans and saggy basketball shorts, leaned back in his chair as if he had a double-digit lead deep into the fourth quarter.
Because I have been known to occasionally recognize irony when it slaps me in the face, I realized then that any middle-age delusions I had about reclaiming my jock-spent youth through the exploits of my son were probably not going to be nurtured in this particular high school gymnasium on this particular Saturday afternoon. And as I swam for a moment in one side of this curious epiphany and out the other, I noticed that, across the court, The Boy’s opponent had risen from his chair and shuffled nonchalantly down the long table to converse with some other players.
“Can he do that?” I asked The Girl, who had come to cheer her brother on in a rare demonstration of sibling sports solidarity.
She didn’t know, of course. And there seemed little to be gained by tromping out onto the court to argue with the officials, since I spotted no striped shirts and whistles in the building. I could’ve made like Bobby Knight and flung a chair, I suppose, but at whom?
Besides, The Boy didn’t seem to be bothered. And every time the baseball-capped kid returned to his seat, he seemed a bit stumped. Maybe The Boy had trotted out some exotic gambit or castled his knights in a brilliant display of Grand Mastership for which Mr. Nonchalant had no answer.
Then, suddenly, it was over. The Boy extended his small hand across the table in a show of sportsmanship that made me smile, and the two foes gathered up the board and pieces and ambled over to the scorer’s table to report the outcome.
I caught his eye as he skipped up the bleacher steps toward the West Chess locker room. “Did you win?”
I followed him upstairs, where Coach Matt was blaring out pieces of an old Doors song (“People are strange, when you’re a stranger…”) and reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Boy’s friend Zeke fired back with some Weird Al Yankovic (“Why did you have to go and get me so con-sti-pay-ted . . .”). The Boy reported the results and sat across the board as Matt, still smiling, went through the moves. Baseball-cap Guy had thrown the Queen’s Gambit at The Boy—the first time he’d seen it—and the coach patiently explained how to counter it.
My son took it all in and happily retired to a corner of the room, where he would throw it all at Zeke—who, despite a disappointing day (he’s one of the best players in the club), kept the Weird Al schtick running full blast. Nobody appeared the least bit annoyed, though Matt complained that he was beginning to lose his voice and was worried about his audition tomorrow.
Somebody asked him what he’s auditioning for.
“Jesus Christ Superstar,” he said.
* * *
It’s after four when we finally shuffle out of the gym. The Boy finishes the day with two wins (one by forfeit), three losses, and no trophies. He’s pretty beat by the time we get home.
But later that night, we’re sitting across a chess board from one another and he’s doing the Weird Al thing as he gleefully destroys his old man in three straight matches.
I can feel the old adrenaline surging, the competitive juices flowing, but he just laughs and wipes out another bishop, a wayward knight on his way to a quick and humbling checkmate.
We shake hands. “You know, you shouldn’t be so smug,” I say, utterly demolished.
He looks at me, momentarily stymied, this guileless teen who never took to Little League or soccer but loves to climb trees and roller blade and tumble on trampolines. “But, Dad,” he says. “This is supposed to be fun.”
Author’s Note: I’d never been to a chess tournament before the one I describe above, and the fact that the games took place on a basketball court really sparked for me the disconnect between my own dream of athletic excellence and my son’s lack of interest in organized sports. Whether we admit it or not, most dads want to cheer their sons on through the kinds of sporting challenges we all faced as kids. In the end, though, Martin has a much more mature outlook on the sporting world than I did at his age. He doesn’t dream of playing shortstop for the Minnesota Twins or corner- back for the Vikings. He is perfectly happy doing what he’s doing in the moment, and for that I am very grateful. (My daughter, by the way, is a pretty good soccer player!)
Craig Cox is the editor and publisher of The Minneapolis Observer, a monthly journal of local news, opinion, and populist culture. This essay originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Minneapolis Observer.
Art by Oliver Weiss
Brain, Child (Summer 2005)
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