Russian Grand Master,
played 10 games at a time in Washington Square Park.
If he lost,
he’d give his opponent a buck.
If he won,
the guy gave him a buck.
If they played to a draw,
no cash exchanged.
Besides, he never lost.
But once, though,
maybe he was having a bad day,
or my Dad was having a good one.
they played to a draw.
And a Russian, bear hugging brotherhood began.
Russilimo owned a chess club in the West Village.
Dad began to manage it at night
when Nicholas was away,
playing in a tournament somewhere else in the world.
To relax, he came to City Island
to sail with us in Dads Penant sloop.
He spoke broken English well.
Dad spoke shattered Russian, poorly.
They played chess
(though there was no repeat of the draw.)
They drank Rusty Nails, Black Russians and Vodka, straight.
They got drunk.
And after a few years,
Dad and I had played chess also.
He’d taught me when I was five.
Dad won often.
I won seldom, mostly when he let me.
I moved away for college and career.
When I came back to New York to visit,
we would play.
He won often.
I won seldom….
(by then, he would never “let me” again.)
Dad married for a second time.
I was his best man.
His wife a younger woman.
He grew older and couldn’t.
“Shooting blanks,” he called it.
“Her clock is ticking. She wants a child,”
he told me on the phone.
“I can’t help her.”
He loved her.
He’d quit drinking when they married.
To help her quit.
Now, she was sober and left.
And he was sober and bereft.
I came to New York to see him.
We played chess but I beat him.
Game after game, five, six games in a row.
That scared me.
It is impossible to win a game of chess
when your mind is thinking clearly about anything else.
(or even that game when you’re a great player)
for the game can be over after the first move.
The rest is instinct.
Everything else is just interference.
Two months later,
Dad went out and bought two bottles:
One of Stoli, one of Dewars
and went back to playing at the Manhattan Chess club.
He married again, his third.
Was happy again.
And beating me again, game after game.
And then he was dying in Saint Vincents Hospital
from successful knee surgery
and the little white lie he told about drinking
“Just one a day.”
And the DT’s.
His last lucid conversation with me
was in his hospital room,
about a game we tried to play with no board, no pieces,
he trying to see the game on the ceiling ,
Kings pawn to king four…
Queens knight to Queens bishop three…
but he couldn’t see
beyond out first few moves.
But it was chess
and his opponent was me
so he tried.
But then, he couldn’t follow anything.
“No more, No more,” he said,
brushing the board in his head from the ceiling
like a spider web in a pitch black cave.
And then, he was dead
and I never played again.