Za Chem!

When I was living in Moscow, We had a post Soviet Chess Grandmaster that would hang out upstairs in the hotel bar, and you could sit down and play chess against him. Being an idiot, I figured, Hey, why not?

I should note that I am a terrible chess player. Miserable.

The bar itself was much larger than my room at the hotel, and as such, I spent most of my off hours there. It had a great balcony view down into the lobby, and out the glass windows of the front of the hotel giving a perfect view to the Dynamo neighborhood of Moscow, which was essentially the crappy area around the Dynamo Soccer stadium. The whole place was a marvelous shade of grey.

The Grandmaster sat in a quiet corner of the floor, with no view, and darker lighting. He was reading the paper, slowly sipping on a glass of vodka and smoking. There were three chessboards in front of him, set with pieces, ready to play.

He had been there all week, and no one had even approached him the whole time. (And yes, I had been in the bar all week for enough hours to make my personal observations statistically significant.)

So I sat down and smiled.

It took a moment, but he looked over at me from behind his paper, stared me square in the eye,and put the paper down, folding it in half. He took another sip from his vodka, cigarette still in his mouth, and knocked down two of his own pieces.

He then motioned for me to start. Apparently knocking down his pieces was a standard form of handicap or something. I was cool with that, so I moved a pawn. He immediately grabbed my pawn and put it back.

“Nyet” he said.

Okaaaay. I had to think for a second to determine if I was actually stupid enough to move a pawn the wrong way. I hadn’t, but apparently, it was still wrong.

Fine. I started again, moving a different pawn. This was apparently better, as he moved a piece. I moved again, and as fast as his hands could move he reset the entire board.

The Grandmaster looked exasperated. “Nyet,” he said again, “dumats! za chem?”.

My Russian was just passable, but I could translate: “No! Think! Why?”

He started to move pieces about the board to illustrate his point, while my brain continued to translate. In Russian, there are two words for “why”, the philosophical “Pochemu?” (as in “Why did this have to happen to me?”) and the concrete, “Za Chem”, better translated as “for what purpose?”

He was using “za chem?” and trying to make his point. He would move a piece on the board, look at me and ask, “za chem?” then show with his fingers where that piece could attack. he then would move another piece to defend, ask “za chem?” and show the defensive attacks available for that piece. he did this over and over, replaying some gave stored in his head to make the attack and counterattack point to me.

The waitress showed up at that point with more glasses of vodka, and I bought two, handing the grandmaster one, which he quickly downed, and we started again.

I focused. I moved my pawn.

He countered.

I focused again on his pawn. “Za chem?” I examined all the attacks possible, which of course was two. I moved another pawn to defend the first.

He countered again.

This continued for nearly six moves before he shook his head, grabbed all the pieces, and reset the board. We started over.

We played through another two shots of vodka, and I was able to make it up to nearly ten moves. Eventually my friends showed up, and we were planning to head out. I thanked him and he dryly lit another cigarette, and went back to his paper.

As I reflect back, nearly 20 years later, I find that I still remember the important lesson of always looking and examining situations – “Za chem? – for what purpose?” Each movement and each action by others is to be judged, “Za chem? – for what purpose?”

But I also now have a second lesson that I wish my younger self knew:

When playing chess with a Grandmaster, get the fucker drunk first.