Friday, July 16, 2010

Chessed Out

Gavin called on me unexpectedly today. He said, ‘Do you want to play chess?’ and I said yes. I hadn’t seen or heard from Gavin for five months, when he had turned up unexpectedly and asked me if I wanted to play chess.

I don’t know Gavin very well at all, so it comes as a surprise when he tells me he’s been in a mental hospital for the last six months. He’s getting out this Friday and moving into a hostel. Most people are cagey talking about their mental illnesses; not Gavin – he’s positively forthcoming about it. He’s on medication and I could kinda tell because his sense of humour has gone. There’s a new intensity and seriousness about him and, if the truth be known, a touch of craziness. He may be a paranoid schizophrenic.

Gavin has been playing a lot of chess in hospital. Every day in fact. He’s been studying the moves of the greats. He likes Bobby Fisher a lot. Gavin and I used to be roughly on a par; now his game is leagues ahead of mine. Gavin says he can think eight or nine moves in advance.

‘Eight or nine!’ I exclaim. ‘A grandmaster is meant to be able to only think six moves ahead.’
‘By the time I’m thirty I’m going to be a grandmaster,’ says Gavin.

Gavin is twenty-two, well-built and black. His eyes are narrow slits, his head is shaved and he wears a silver whistle around his neck. He chain smokes Silk Cut Ultra Lows, maybe forty a day, if necessary. He’s stopped smoking dope now, but finds it difficult. Hence the Silk Cut. He needs to keep in shape. He’s going to be a professional footballer as well as a grandmaster. He wants to learn French.

He’s written a book on chess, on how not to play it, he says. I like Gavin. He tried to kill himself six months ago. He’s better now. Someone stole his manuscript but he still has the notes. He says he’ll show them to me one day.

I like it when Gavin compliments me on a move then his next move wins the game or at least a piece, then he goes back ten moves and shows me various variations I could have done. The only way I beat Gavin is by my, as he calls it, ‘unorthodox’ moves. What starts off as a possible Queen’s gambit turns into something quite unexpected and this flummoxes Gavin sometimes, and he’s not quite sure how to respond to my moves.

I like the names of the different chess openings: the Sicilian Defence, Philidor’s Defence, the Queen’s Gambit, King’s Gambit, Danish/Spanish/Budapest Gambit, and all the Gambit’s Declined. In short, a gauntlet of gambits. Gavin’s memorised them all and even invented some of his own. He thinks I should copyright some of my openings because they’re so weird and original.

After four hours I won once, Gavin twice, and we drew twice, though I had to take a couple of moves back.*

Six months later we played again. This time we drew four times: we were on a par once more. Gavin was upset that he couldn’t beat me.

He estimates he’s played 30,000 games of chess. Of course, no two games are the same.

Sometimes the chess gets to be like a martial art, or the movie The Matrix, where you see your opponent in slow motion, you know all his moves, all the possible combinations, and your mind races ahead beyond the game.

Gavin says chess is good on acid, and Casey says it’s not so good on heroin.

(2001, London)

* We play speed chess with a chess clock nowadays and get through about twenty games in four hours. Last time we played: Gavin won nine, I won one, nine draws.

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