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The Chess Player

When I was travelling after leaving my Club in London I had this short story published under a pen name. It’s set in Kiev, about the chess players who used to gather there in Shevchenko Park. I remember I was paid quite a small sum, which I never bothered to collect.

It can be found by clicking this photo of two chess players, which should open on the original (very readable) page of the Ukrainian Observer.

If the page does not open, then the story is also below. But much more easily read in the original. SO hopefully it will open ok.

Learn chess, love chess!

Short Story: The Chess Player

It was early September. The crowds still flocked to the sandy beaches on the Dnipro River, not knowing if this day might be the year's last day of summer and desperate to squeeze every drop from the richly-fading season. The leaves in the city parks still clung tightly to the trees with small hints of gold and yellow only now starting to brush away their green. In a few weeks time, with the temperature in decline and the trees suddenly bare, people would speak of this summer as the best they could remember. But today, many of these same people looked forward to the cooler autumn.

Peter was in Kiev for four days on business, sent from England by a North London solicitor's office that had a client buying some apartments there. On arrival at the airport, Peter was met by a slim, self-possessed Ukrainian lawyer called Natalia, who at twenty-four seemed to know everything there was to know about Ukrainian property law. After three days of hard work they found themselves relatively free, and Natalia volunteered to show him around the capital.
They both enjoyed walking. The day was fine and they strolled into the park and sat on one of the benches by a large stone statue, watching tiny children excitedly clip-clopping past on equally tiny ponies. Every so often other tiny children, more mechanically inclined, would career along in screeching electronic cars. Peter waited with some trepidation for a car to crash into a pony, but the children were clearly expert drivers and all collisions were avoided. It was a pleasant day and he could have sat longer, but Natalia was on a mission to show him her city, and after a short while they stood up and began to cross the park.

They walked along a wide, white path. "What are all those people doing?" he asked. And then, drawing closer, it became obvious. "Why, look. They are playing chess!"

Peter considered himself pretty good at chess. He had never joined a club or anything like that, but when playing with friends he usually won. Also, he would look at chess books sometimes and had learnt some of the openings. He loved their names: The Ruy Lopez, The Queens Gambit, the Sicilian Defence. Romantic titles for a topic most of his friends would have considered as dry as dust. But quite often he would copy down the moves from a particularly interesting contest between two Masters and replay it on his board.

"Isn't that excellent," he exclaimed, and then, seeing Natalia less enchanted, he said again, "Look, they're playing chess."
"You play chess?" she asked.
"Yes, I enjoy it. Isn't it your National Sport?"
"Not mine," said Natalia. "And not any more my country's. Maybe in my father's time." And she smiled softly, and waved at all the men, saying, "And these are all our fathers."

Peter could see what she meant. The men who sat on the stone benches, immersed in their games, the other men who stood leaning across them, watching intently, even the men who stood talking or eating, or sitting alone - none of them were young, maybe all were older than he. They were all "fathers."

"Many do not work," said Natalia, "and this is somewhere for them to come, to meet their friends, to sit and talk, to spend the day."
"And to play chess," he added, for this still was the most important thing. "It is like a club, and the park is their clubhouse."
And so it seemed. Because surely the space was set aside for this purpose. Two separate large enclosures on one side of the park, filled with stone benches set into pairs, and small tables between each pair of benches. What a wonderful idea!

There were as many as fifty people there. At least a dozen boards in play. He sidled closer.
"Vy hateetye pa-eegrat?" asked a voice. Peter looked hopelessly at Natalia. "To play?" added the voice in stumbling English, before she could respond.

The man was small, with a short beard, and a cap pulled tightly over his forehead. His clothing was dark and quite shabby, but his eyes, just noticeable beneath the brim of his hat, looked bright and friendly. Peter turned to Natalia for permission. "Can I?" he asked.
The man led him to a pair of benches where a wooden board was laid out. He gestured to the bench, and Peter sat down. "Ten minutes?" said the man, motioning to the clock beside the board. This was a chess clock, with two dials and two metal plungers on the top, used to set a time limit for each player's moves. Peter nodded. The man looked at him again. "Five hryvnias?"
He nodded. "Of course."

Peter started with white, advancing the pawn to K-4. He felt pretty good, playing the Ruy Lopez. After a few moves he realised his opponent knew the opening too. After a few more moves, he realised that he had forgotten what to do next. Shortly after this things seemed quickly to go from bad to worse. A couple of minutes more and Peter knocked over his King.

The man looked at him, his expression hardly having changed throughout the contest. "Vladimir," he offered, pointing at his stomach. "Like Lenin." He offered his hand, the skin rough, his nails worn down, and Peter shook it and smiled ruefully. "Peter," he replied. "But not so Great." The man looked at him blankly. Peter reached into his pocket and searched for five hryvnias, and finding a ten gave this instead.

Walking away with Natalia, he said nothing.
"Did you enjoy that?" she asked, finally.
He smiled. "Of course, it was very interesting."
But inside he felt less sure. To lose at chess in a park, in a foreign land, to this small man with shabby clothes and callused hands. This man whose expression had changed only once - when Peter had made his first bad move and had looked away in disgust, but glanced back in time to see Vladimir winking at a friend who sat closeby, as if to say "this is the easiest five hryvnias of my day."
Returning to England, Peter played chess much more, seeking out friends to challenge, and rereading his chess books. It was almost six months later, in early March, that he found himself back in Kiev. Spring had not yet arrived, and the ground on the park floor was hard and frosty as he made his way alone to the cluster of tables and benches. The weather made his breath show like fog, and a light breeze blew, but still there were twenty figures present in the enclosure with five games of chess underway.

He stopped, standing up against the low wall where the nearest game took place. He inspected all those present as well as he could but was unable to identify Vladimir. It surprised him how disappointed he felt. After waiting a few more minutes, imagining himself a stranger, he decided to leave.

"Ekskooz mee, sir," said a voice. Peter turned to face a man smiling at him. It was a friendly, open smile, only made remarkable by a complete lack of teeth. "Game chess?" The man lisped. Peter nodded, walking around the wall to join him. The man was sixty, at least, and his clothes were gray, and shiny from age. With the help of the man's pointing finger Peter discovered his name was Ivan. He wore a cap pulled tight over his head from which long strands of white hair escaped. Peter felt a little guilty at finding such an aged opponent, but at the same time was grateful to be playing. He was sure Vladimir must have been one of the strongest players in the park, and some practice would serve him well.

"Five hryvnias," lisped Ivan as they sat down opposite each other.
"Are you sure?" he asked, not wishing to take advantage.
Ivan nodded, and they shook hands.

The game started. Ivan played white, and within a couple of minutes Peter realised his opponent had left the Queen's Gambit behind for a variety of moves he had never before encountered. To make matters worse, Ivan played with his tongue pushed hard into one cheek. After each move he rotated cheeks. Peter began to find this extremely distracting and forced himself to look away and concentrate on the board. He did not like what he saw there. "Check!" Ivan announced suddenly in a triumphant voice, and Peter realised he would be beaten in another half-a-dozen moves.

This time he didn't even bother to knock over his King. "Thank you very much, Ivan," he said, handing over a ten hryvnia note. "Too good." And he shook the man's hand, and stumbled away before his toothless smile.

Back in London, Peter threw his chess books into the bin. He would have ripped them up first for good measure except it is not an easy task to rip up a book. But in thought, if not deed, they were in pieces. It was maybe three months later, clearing up his office, that he came upon a chess book hiding at the back of a drawer. It was called "Winning in the Mind," and he soon discovered himself sitting on the floor with the open book in his hands.

"Positive thinking is most useful in all sporting confrontations," it insisted. "But never is this more true than in the static games - the confrontations of the mind, such as chess, draughts and all competitive card-games."

There was more, and it made good sense. After a while he got up from the floor and sat at his desk, but the book never left his hands. Clearly this was where he had gone wrong. He had not prepared himself mentally for the battle. Chess was a confrontation of the mind - positive thinking would be his salvation.

Peter returned to Kiev at the height of Summer. He had made some acquaintances on his previous two visits, and decided that a week's holiday would give him a chance to look them up, and to explore the capital further. His rented apartment was, coincidentally, a short walk from the Park, but although arriving in early afternoon he decided to wait until the next day after a good night's rest to make his first visit there. He spent the evening munching on food brought from England, playing automated games against the computer program on his laptop, and reading his secret weapon, "Winning in the Mind."

The morning was very pleasant, a clear blue sky, a hot sun overhead, but a hint of breeze washing away any discomfort caused by the heat. Peter drank coffee and set out for the park. A few minutes earlier, Natalia had phoned him on his mobile, but not wishing any distractions he allowed it to ring. They could speak later.

The Park was very green, and at the same time very colourful. Grass, flowers and trees - a lovely place to be. He made straight for the chess enclosure, his mind focused, his thoughts positive. In such pleasant weather, the benches were almost all full. Only half the tables featured chess matches in progress, maybe twelve in all. The rest were taken by people eating, drinking and talking. He felt a slight distaste for these interlopers, and wondered if the other chess players shared this feeling. He wished he could ask them, but although he had lately been listening to some Russian language CD's in his car, his knowledge was much too simple to allow a complicated conversation. He would have enjoyed speaking with them. He liked the feeling of camaraderie, of belonging, that these men possessed. It seemed such an excellent way to spend one's time.

Today few of the men wore caps, which made their appearance quite different from before. He stared at the faces but could not distinguish one from the other, until a stranger began speaking to him.

"Like Lenin," Vladimir repeated, when he saw that Peter remembered him.
"Ya hatchoo pa-eegrat," Peter said carefully.
Vladimir smiled. "Very good. Want to play, yes?"
They sat down. "Shakhmatty," Peter said, pointing at the board on which the pieces were already in position. Vladimir seemed delighted by this newly-acquired grasp of the Russian Language. "Very good, very good. Chess, yes?"

Peter nodded.
"Five hryvnias?" Vladimir asked, almost apologetically.
He nodded again.
"Ten minutes, yes?" Vladimir said, gesturing to the clock. He held out his hands, and Peter chose the left. He revealed the black pawn, giving himself the first move. "Shakhmatty," Vladimir chuckled to himself, moving a pawn forward two spaces.

Peter faced him across the board. Before moving he stared into his eyes, imagining the words from his book, "Winning in the Mind."
"I am positive. I will do my best. I am stronger than you. I will win." He repeated this five times to himself until he could almost imagine himself floating above the bench, looking down at this small man who he would now destroy. A minute had passed when he moved his own pawn forward two spaces and pushed down the clock. He felt calm and in control, and very confident.

It really worked. Right from the start things went better. Peter blocked the opening attack and set up a strong and commanding centre. He began an attack of his own, marshalling his pieces into a position around Vladimir's King. Before long, some of the spectators standing nearby peeled away from other matches and drifted into positions around their table. This felt like a good omen.

He stared at Vladimir, who was biting his lower lip helplessly.
"I am positive. I will do my best. I am stronger than you. I will win," He repeated to himself, moving another piece forward to attack the position around his opponent's King. It was then that Vladimir took his Queen.

"Oh God," Peter said, stunned. "No, no, no! I didn't see it!"
The men gathered around the table chuckled and murmured sympathetically whilst Vladimir shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands: an international expression that seemed to say that they all knew what Peter meant. He studied the board and could see that his situation was now hopeless. He bowed his head in some despair, then pulled out his wallet to look for a ten-hryvnia note.

"Too good," he muttered, handing over the money.
He wandered back to his apartment in a daze. Where had he gone wrong? He was tempted to take "Winning in the Mind," and throw it into the bin, but Natalia phoned almost the second he came through the door, so he left the book on the table and went out to meet her.
It was the next day that the answer came to him. He was in Kiev, and if he was going to win in his mind then it would have to be in the Russian Language. Undoubtedly Ukrainian would have been even better, but he already knew a little Russian so this would have to do. He spoke to Natalia, who was kind enough to write a translation on a piece of paper.

"I am positive. I will do my best. I am stronger than you. I will win."
Or: "Ya positivno nastroen. Ya prilozhu vse usilya. Ya sil'nee tebya. Ya boodoo pabeditelem!"
It took him a day to learn by heart, then he returned to the Park for one more try.

It was late afternoon and again the Park was bathed in sunshine and quite full. He walked across to the chess players, a few of whom acknowledged him with waves. This felt pleasant, and he waved back cheerfully. Vladimir was there, watching a game. When he noticed Peter he also waved and Peter walked over. Today Vladimir had a thoughtful expression on his face, glancing towards a man standing beside him, then Peter. He seemed finally to arrive at a decision. "This Alex," he said, motioning towards the man. "Today play Alex. Maybe better." Peter looked at Alex. He was younger than Vladimir, better dressed, with a hawk-like nose and a broad forehead. His eyes were intelligent and piercing, behind functional glasses. He looked the ideal of how a chess player should look, and Vladimir had said he was better than himself. Peter smiled. This would be a challenge.

"Maybe better," Vladimir said again, pointing at his friend. "Play Alex. Alex..." And he searched for the English word but could not find it. "Alex naveechok," he explained. Peter nodded, not understanding, but impressed. Naveechok. It sounded pretty good.
He sat down opposite Alex whilst Vladimir watched. Alex held out his clenched fists and Peter chose white, which meant he could go first. Before moving a piece, Peter observed Alex for a moment. Alex sat still under this inspection, staring back with a strong expression and piercing eyes. But Peter felt good.
"Ya positivno nastroem. Ya prilozhnu vse usilya. Ya sil'nee tebya. Ya boodoo pabeditelem!"

He said this silently with confidence. Then he moved his pawn.
The game was interesting and exciting. Peter developed his pieces well but so did his opponent. Every move he made, Alex seemed to have a strong reply. Peter was impressed by the quality of his opponent's play, but by repeating the mantra to himself he stayed positive. It was on his twentieth move that Peter first felt an advantage. Five moves later, he captured a pawn without reply. Another five moves and he gained his opponent's rook for a knight. And then, with his heart beating fast in his ears, on his thirty-sixth move, Peter captured the Queen. He sighed with relief and glanced into his opponent's eyes. Alex looked sadly at the board, and then reached forward to knock over his King. Peter stood up and shook hands with his opponent, then glanced across at Vladimir, who he was pleased to see smiling. He shook hands with Vladimir and then turned and made his way back to his apartment. Victory was indeed sweet, and tasted better for the time it had taken to achieve.

That night he took Natalia out for a meal to celebrate.
"I really do enjoy this country," he told her. "The place is so interesting, the company is so pleasant..." And here he smiled and was happy to receive a smile back.
"I could maybe buy a small flat in Kiev, perhaps close to the park. It would be an investment and I could spend my holidays here. Maybe even find a job..."

"And you could play more chess?" she asked, slyly.
Peter laughed. "Perhaps." He had told her all about it, of course, and it was fine for her to laugh at him a little. For he had told the story at least three times - how he had come up against this tremendous player called Alex with his strong forehead and piercing eyes, and how he had managed to beat him eventually after a titanic struggle. In what way had Vladimir described Alex? It was a Russian word, but before it had escaped him. Only now he remembered. Naveechok.

"A question," Peter said. "Can I ask you what does a Russian word mean?"
Natalia nodded.
"Naveechok?" he said. "What is this?"
Natalia looked at him strangely. "Naveechok? In English it means beginner. Why do you ask."
"No reason." he replied.