By Jim Withers
You don’t have to be a chess aficionado to appreciate The Queen’s Gambit TV miniseries, but it helps.
My love of chess – the ultimate mind game – was instilled in me when I was a kid by an Englishman with a quintessential English name. Bob Smith was my step-grandfather, and I remember him best in his navy blue striped suit with his pocket watch, recounting stories about the Great War, doing the gardening each spring at Mom and Dad’s place, never missing Saturday afternoon wrestling on TV (I didn't have the heart to tell him that it was all fake) and playing chess with me.
Grandma used to marvel at how quiet we were as we sat on opposite sides of a chessboard at the kitchen table, with the silence only broken by the mantel clock chiming the hour or one of us saying “check!” Little cemeteries of captured pieces expanded at the side of the board as our games progressed. Once in a while, though, Bob would exclaim, “Oh, I’ve made a bloomer!” in his undiluted Cockney accent – a kind of Homer Simpson “Doh!” reaction – and I knew he’d made a calamitous mistake.
In the early years, when I wasn’t very good, he’d let me win every once in a while. I loved it when Bob told stories about WWI. War might be hell, but Bob made it sound like a lot of fun. France seemed to have left a positive impression on him because the word “mademoiselle” often popped up in his stories, although he never elaborated. I could imagine Bob playing chess with his buddies in a muddy foxhole.
Chess has stuck with me all these years. (I was never enticed to play video games, but I do enjoy playing poker with the guys.) In university, I used to skip a lot of classes to play chess against long-haired opponents in the smoke-filled student lounge.
These days I play chess with a friend in Paris by email and online against opponents from around the world, which is a welcome distraction from everything that’s going on, but it’s not the same as sitting across from my granddad and hearing him exclaim, “Oh, I’ve made a bloomer!” in his undiluted Cockney accent.
Bob Smith died in 1975, and I miss him still.