The piano player at the bar brought in a board one night and we played during his breaks. I knew how the pieces moved but that was the extent of my knowledge of the game. He beat me twice within the first four minutes or so, using two variations of "the fool's mate" and I was hooked. I've kept a chessboard on every bar I've tended since that day.

We play a version in the bar that I call "gentleman's chess." You are not allowed to lose a piece accidentally. If, due to the ravages of bourbon, your queen should unknowingly stumble into the path of my bishop, I will warn you of the faux pas. The player is allowed to return the queen to safety and subtly encouraged to buy another cocktail. Everyone's a winner and I come out looking like the benevolent guru.

If you beat the bar you win a drink but beating the bar is a rare occurrence. Give me a strong chess player and a bottle of rum and my money's on the rum every time. Every so often a rocket scientist or a rated Master will strut in, order black coffee and unceremoniously kick my ass. These matches are my favorites and are the only games that are etched in my memory.


It's not as if I had just fallen off of the turnip truck. When I heard the Russian accent I knew I was in for a humbling exchange on the chessboard. There are some generalizations that can be safely adopted. You should never tug on Superman's cape, spit into the wind or play cocky chess against a cat from Russia.

Alex thumped me soundly, five games straight, before we were even introduced. In my defense, I was playing black but that was hardly a relevant factor. I castled early and often but his ruthless aggression laid waste to my battlements every time. The worst of it was his arrogant sneer. There were far too many witnesses for my taste and all of them would attest to his irksome air of superiority. At one point he called one of my moves "foolhardy" and shoved the piece back into position with a huff. I was beginning to feel like a bitch-slapped wolfhound and I didn't like the feeling.

"Ah, that's sound advice Alex. In America we have a name for your type of player...obnoxious shithead."

You could have heard a ruble drop.

He politely pretended not to understand the vernacular but his demeanor softened considerably from that point forward. I acknowledged his superiority on the chessboard and asked him if he was a rated player. He told me that his rating was below that of Master but that he trained his ten-year old son to be the Australian chess champion for his age group. Alex explained that he had taken a job with British Aerospace and they relocated him from Moscow to Sydney.

"British Aerospace? What are you, some kind of rocket scientist?"

He sheepishly admitted that he was exactly that. Alex's job in Moscow had been to solve trajectory equations, which would guide Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles to specific locations in the United States. He was expressionless when he told me that he performed the calculations for the missiles that were now targeted at Minneapolis and the bar we were in at that moment.

He explained that Minneapolis was a central food distribution point and that it was near enough to the Strategic Air Command in Grand Forks, North Dakota that the entire region was designated for "overkill." Several dozen ICBMs were poised to eradicate everybody but the cockroaches in my home state within the first twelve minutes of the last war.

We stood mute under the weight of his words for a long moment.

Alex broke the silence and brought us back to the smaller battle. "You are not a terrible player. Your concentration on defense is your undoing." His harsh logic and faint praise stung a little. "You are a man without arms in a fist fight."


I followed Alex's suggestion to come out of my castle and kick a little ass and it worked. Our final game dragged out over two shifts at the bar and ended in a draw. At various times during the sixteen hour grudge match I assumed the advantage and actually got to see him sweat. I look for small victories in this life and playing black to a draw against the rocket scientist is one of my favorites.

I wanted to bust his chops a little so I told him that he played pretty well for a guy with all of those missiles aimed at him.

Alex replied, without lifting his gaze from the board, that since he had accepted a position in Minneapolis he must learn to ignore them.

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