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Chess on the Square

1....BxB! 2.KxB RxB! That's what it said, right there in the chess column, and I believed it. Not a new ZIP code for Altoona, Pa., but a descriptive notation for a chess move. Fascinating. I longed to see such a move in dynamic, live action. I knew I could find some nice people playing somewhere, and I yearned to watch them at their sport.

I've had some experience with chess. I once admired two gents playing at Wilbur Parkey's Feed and Grain Emporium in Perris, Calif., when I was 6, though I don't remember much about it.

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I found out that one place they play on pleasant days is Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. I could get there easily enough, and I was raring to see 1....BxB! 2.KxB RxB! in action, or whatever moves they might make. In front of the Holyoke Center the town fathers have kindly provided sturdy cement tables and chairs, chessboards deeply imbedded.

The Square was not empty the day I searched out my game. I had hardly arrived when the Prince of Wales came by. I hadn't known he was interested in chess, too. But if he is, the way things turned out he didn't have much of a chance to join me in my adventure. His Rolls-Royce, his entourage, his guards, and the crowd kept him far away. Even away from a few protesters. This was Harvard's 350th birthday party. With all that ruckus, I didn't think the players I found would notice me. They didn't. They didn't even notice the Prince, the crowd, or anything else. I felt safe as I edged close to the one defending the south goal without fear of detection.

As the Prince's Rolls reflected sunlight onto the chessboard for a flashing second, neither player blinked an eye. However, at that moment, a rogue breeze did ruffle the hair of one of them as he quietly rested his chin on hand, more careful than Rodin's ``The Think-er.'' He stared hard enough at a chessman to make him melt.

Talk about immobile engrossment, I thought they were refugees from Mad-ame Tussaud's Waxworks in London. I detected no breathing but took it as a good sign that I thought I heard a slight sigh, from just which player I could not tell. I know I heard an m-m-m-m-m-m-m. A bit later I was treated to an eyebrow raising. That blasted the waxworks theory. The eyebrow's return to position was imperceptible, but I know I saw it.

These two nice young men seemed to be examining those black and white squares as if they had never seen them before. The pieces, too, seemed to be total strangers to them. Not a hand moved. Would one false twitch give everything away? Hesitation hovered over the board like a cloud through which thunder dare not sound.

By now the well-tailored Prince had gone by, the crowd milled around in his wake, the protesters resorted to protesting one another, and the Square took on the atmosphere of a Roadrunner cartoon. Save for my players, still posing for another Mt. Rushmore.

Actually, I think the excitement did get through to one of them because his hand began to move. Slowly, it ventured out into the fresh air and sunshine in slow, leisurely playback motion toward a piece, hovered, couldn't take the strain, retreated toward the home ground of his chin, gave that up, advanced again, crablike, toward the board, keeping the brakes on all the while, then at last lifted a chessman ever so gently to another square.

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WOW. In football this would be like a run around right end, even a two-bagger in baseball. The commotion between the players was tremendous. One nearly lost control. I could tell because he moistened his lip, sort of a lip twitch, I think. But the stronger of the two kept his head, resisted temptation, and remained stoical, with only the breeze coming back with another attack on his hair.

Since I had missed a good look at the Prince anyway, I walked around to the other side of the players for a deeper perspective. I knew I had to be careful. Don't get too close, stop breathing, hands behind me, feet apart in a military stance for steadiness. I didn't want to get trampled on in the excitement.

I must have stared too hard at those squares. The white ones began to turn black, and the black ones white. They kind of waffled about a bit. Was this happening to the players? There they were, blinkless. I closed my eyes, only to experience further optical pyrotechnics, so I trusted my gaze this time strictly to the pawns, bishops, kings, and queens.

WHOOPS. Right there before my readjusting eyes another hand stirred. With the wrist in an artful curve, it crept around the edge of the board, sneakily I thought, closed in shadow fashion, and moved a knight. Hourglass precision, every grain of sand counting.

SIGH. I had watched two moves. I got so excited I was tempted to cheer, jump up and down, or offer everyone a Bailey's ice cream. I like spectator sports, but I realized I dare not make a spectacle of myself, so I just took a deep breath right after my quiet sigh and melted into the crowd.

The chess column had been talking about the role of computers in chess these days, how many tournaments had games that included our electronic friends, certainly something never dreamed of back at Parkey's Feed and Grain Emporium. Maybe they could cut down on the exhilaration if they had two computers play together. Save on all that table trauma.

Back home I got to see the Prince after all. On the evening news. He looked great in that suit.

1....BxB! 2.KxB RxB!

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