Short Story: Beginner’s Luck

[Click HERE for floating game board.]

Copyright © 2006 James Schroeder

It was a beautiful spring morning about to turn into a sunny afternoon, for which Southern California was famous. Twenty years later Harry would remember it nostalgically as “the good old days”.

It was a Saturday, a day off from work. Having very little money and nothing to do, Harry decided to go to the YMCA and see if there were any checker players there.

He went up the steps and into the building and discovered some persons playing contract bridge, but no checker players.

Then he saw the sign: “SIMULTANEOUS CHESS EXHIBITION / 1:00 P.M. / Auditorium / U.S. Chess Master, Reuben Fine”.

Harry didn’t know anything about chess but thought: “Where there’s chess players there could be checker players.”

So he went downstairs to the auditorium and walked into a room with long tables arranged in a rectangle and fifty boards and sets in place.

As Harry stood there a man approached and said: “Hi! I’m Herman Steiner, did you want to play? It’s only five dollars.”

“I don’t know how to play chess,” said Harry.

The man did not appear distressed by this negative reply. Instead, his face lit up and he said: “I’ll show you! Come over here.”

They went to a board where Herman first named all the pieces and then explained chess notation.

The setting of this story is more than sixty years ago, and English Descriptive Notation was almost always used. “Algebraic” was considered a foreign abberration.

Herman then started with the pawns. “The pawn moves forward and cannot move backward, but it captures diagonally.”

He then demonstrated the pawn moves, moving all sixteen of them one or two squares.

Herman then grabbed a white pawn and said: “This is pawn to king four.” He then grabbed a black pawn and said: “This is also pawn to king four, because you count from the side whose piece is moved. And this is pawn to king bishop four,” said Herman, followed by: “This is pawn takes pawn.”

“There is another rule about pawns,” said Herman. “It’s called capturing en passant.”

Herman then demonstrated en passant captures in other places in order to make it perfectly clear.

“I think I understand,” said Harry, but before Herman could say anything more they were interrupted by an announcement: “Fine is here!”

The players went to their respective boards and Herman ran off to introduce the master to the audience.

Another man approached Harry and said: “Hi! I’m George Koltanowski. We have only forty-six players, why don’t you play? It’s only five dollars.” “I don’t have five dollars,” said Harry. “Well, said George, “we paid Fine for playing fifty games, so you can play for free!”

“I really don’t know how to play,” said Harry. “Herman Steiner just began teaching me today.”

Mistaking this for the typical modesty of a beginner, George said, “You can have the white pieces, it won’t cost you anything!”, as he grabbed Harry’s arm and practically pushed him into a chair.

All Harry knew about chess was: White moves first and the pawns move forward, but capture diagonolly. And don’t forget the en passant rule!

So Harry played 1 P-K4, because that’s what Herman had played.

Fine came to Harry’s board and did NOT play 1 … P-K4, as Harry had expected, but played 1 … N-KB3.

This meant nothing to Harry, but he assumed that if he played 2 P-K5, he could then capture the knight on his next move.

But Fine played 2 … N-Q4. “that’s certainly strange,” thought Harry. He then considered possible pawn moves and decided that 3 P-Q4 looked nicest, because of the symmetry.

After everyone had settled, Herman walked around the tables and observed the games. He was surprised to see Harry sitting at a board and noticed that 1 P-K4 N-KB3; 2 P-K5 N-Q4; 3 P-Q4 had been played. “So!,” he thought, “Harry lied to me and he really does know how to play chess. Not a very good joke, but harmless.”

Fine quickly played 3 … N-QB3 and Herman winced. “That’s a mistake,” he thought.

Harry played 4 P-QB4, threatening pawn takes knight, and maintaining the neat appearance of his position.

Fine astonished Harry by playing 4 … N-N3. “Backwards!,” thought Harry. “Well, I may as well play 5 P-Q5, attacking the other knight, but I’m darned if I can guess where it will go.”

When Fine came to Harry’s board he stopped and realized that he had played too fast and had blundered earlier.

“Oh, well,” he thought, shrugged his shoulders and played 5 … NxKP.

Herman was right behind Fine and also saw that Harry could win a piece in a few moves.

“Darn!,” thought Harry. “Now I’m going to lose.” He was thinking of checkers, where you win by capturing all your opponent’s pieces.

By applying some heavy thought, Harry decided he knew how knights moved and captured! Therefore, Fine must be threatening 6 … NxBP. EITHER knight takes bishop pawn. Harry was pleased with himself at this intelligence, so he played 6 P-B5, not only saving his pawn from being captured, but threatening 7 pawn takes knight.

“Fine’s in trouble!,” someone said, and there was a rush of spectators to Harry’s board.

Some of them thought Fine was winning because he was a pawn ahead and also ahead in development: two knights to nothing.

When Fine stopped at the board and saw that the move he anticipated had been played by Harry, he quickly played 6 … N/N3-B5. Harry saw that he could play 7 pawn to queen knight three attacking a knight, or 7 pawn to king bishop four, attacking the other knight. As usual, his choice was determined by symmetry, and he played 7 P-B4.

When Fine stopped at Harry’s board and saw the move he had expected he smiled broadly, stuck out his hand, and said: “I resign!”

Harry shook hands with Fine and stood up, in a daze.

More spectators rushed to Harry’s board to see how he had defeated the master in less than ten moves!

Strangers congratulated Harry, pounded him on the back, and shook his hand.

Herman was so stupefied that, for one of the few times in his life, he was speechless!

Eventually Herman found his voice and said, accusingly: “I thought you didn’t know how to play chess.”

“I only know what you told me,” said Harry. “You’re a great teacher!”

(Apparently those moves were played in the game, Harry Borochow – Reuben Fine, Pasadena 1932 International Tournament, which continued, 7 … P-K3; 8 Q-Q4 Q-R5ch; 9 P-KN3 Q-R3; 10 N-QB3 Black resigns.)

Sol Rogovin, the chess club champion, had not been able to play in the simultaneous, but when he arrived to watch the games he was told the stunning news of Harry’s victory.

“Hi!, I’m Sol Rogovin,” he said to Harry, “let’s play a game.” Harry protested, but Sol insisted and dragged Harry to a table away from the simultaneous games.

Harry had white again and played 1 P-K4. Sol responded 1 … P-QB4 and Harry played 2 P-QN4. He was taken aback when Sol played 2 … PxP, and still being confused played 3 P-QR3. Sol played 3 … NQB3 and Harry recalled how the pawn captures and played 4 PxP. Sol played 4 … N-B3 and Harry saw a chance to attack a knight and played 5 P-N5. there followed a sequence of Harry chasing the knights with pawns: 5 .. N-Q5; 6 P-QB3 N-K3; 7 P-K5 N-Q4; 8 P-QB4 N/4-B5; 9 P-N3 N-N3; 10 P-B4.

Herman had wandered over and was astonished to see that Harry was going to win a piece. “He must be a foreign master,” thought Herman.

Sol saw that he had to lose a piece and played 10 … N/N3xBP and after 11 PxN NxP; 12 P-Q4 N-N3; 13 P-R4 P-K3; 14 P-R5, he played 14 … BN5ch. Of course that meant nothing to Harry so he played 15 PxN. “You’re in check,” said Sol, but Harry didn’t move and had a blank expression on his face.

Herman realized that he had been wrong and Harry didn’t know anything about chess except how the pawns move. So he said: “Harry, I know you don’t want to leave when you’re winning, but didn’t you say you couldn’t stay long?” Harry took the hint and said: “I forgot. Excuse me, but I have an appointment,” and swiftly departed.

Herman sat down and finished the game in masterly fashion: 15 B-Q2 BxBch; 16 NxB N-K2; 17 N-K4 N-B4; 18 P-R6 P-KN3; 19 N-B6ch K-B1; 20 N-B3 P-Q3; 21 N-N5 PxP; 22 PxP QxQch; 23 RxQ K-K2; 24 R-R3 P-N3; 25 B-N2 R-QN1; 26 N/5xRP Black resigns. (That was Frank Marshall – H. Rogosin, Marshall Chess Club Championship, 1940.)

After that auspicious start, did Harry become an International Master, or at least a U.S. Master? NO! Never again did he play chess, because it was too easy! Not at all like checkers, which was very difficult and complicated.

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