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Chess for chess's sake

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SHORTLY before my 50th birthday I entered a chess tournament. It was my first tournament in 30 years or so, and I wondered if there were anything left of the talented teen-ager I had once been. After two years and several tournaments, I can report that my style is pretty much the same as it was. But there has been a big change in my attitude. When I was 12 years old I hated the idea of being a novice, at chess or anything else. The first time around, I could hardly wait to become a grown-up. Now that people call me ``sir,'' there isn't the same hurry. One of the best ways to enjoy chess is to hold on to a neophyte's openness of mind. If I don't insist on becoming an adult too quickly, I can even hope to learn something new.

At the very beginning, during what might be called the Garden of Eden period of my chess career, I was completely unaware that the game had a serious competitive aspect. I thought of it as mere play, and imagined that nobody could really care who won the game. For a short, blessed time I didn't know there was such a thing as a strong chess player.

Soon enough it became clear that chess could be savagely competitive, even among children, and that I myself was a relatively strong player. I could beat most of my schoolmates, and then older men; before long I was playing on my high school team. It seemed that I might go very far.

During my freshman year in college, one of the stronger players on the chess team told me, rather solemnly, that if I applied myself I could hope to become a master by the time I graduated.

It was like one of those scenes in an old-fashioned spy story in which the hero, an undergraduate at Oxford, is tapped for British secret service. Young Fotheringay may have been keen as mustard, but I wasn't, and chose not to apply myself.

I gave up tournament play and for years my relation to chess was that of a distant spectator.


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