I once met a physicist who as a child had been something of a chess prodigy. He loved the game and loved the role. He took particular delight in the mortification older players felt upon losing to a kid in short pants.
"Still play?" I asked.
"Quit when I was 21."
"Lost to a kid in short pants."
The Pariah Chess Club, where I play every Monday night, admits no one in short pants. Even our youngest member, in his twenties, wears trousers. The rest of us are more grizzled veterans numbering about a dozen, mostly journalists and writers, with three lawyers, an academic and a diplomat for ballast. We've been meeting at my house for almost a decade for our weekly fix.
Oh, yes, the club's name. Of the four founding members, two were social scientists who, at the time we started playing, had just written books that had made their college lecture tours rather physically hazardous. I too sported a respectable enemies list (it was the heady Clinton years). And we figured that the fourth member, a music critic and perfectly well-liked, could be grandfathered in as a pariah because of his association with the three of us.
Pariah status has not been required of subsequent members, though it is encouraged. Being a chess player already makes you suspect enough in polite society, and not without reason. Any endeavor that has given the world Paul Morphy, the first American champion, who spent the last 17-odd years of his life wandering the streets of New Orleans, and Bobby Fischer, the last American champion, now descended John Nash-like into raving paranoia, cannot be expected to be a boon to one's social status.
Our friends think us odd. They can understand poker night or bridge night. They're not sure about chess. When I tell friends that three of us once drove from Washington to New York to see Garry Kasparov play a game, it elicits a look as uncomprehending as if we had driven 200 miles for an egg-eating contest.
True, we chess players can claim Benjamin Franklin as one of our own. He spent much of his time as ambassador to France playing chess at the Cafe de la Regence, where he fended off complaints that he was not being seen enough at the opera by explaining, "I call this my opera." But for every Franklin, there is an Alexander Alekhine, who in 1935 was stopped trying to cross the Polish-German frontier without any papers. He offered this declaration instead: "I am Alekhine, chess champion of the world. This is my cat. Her name is Chess. I need no passport." He was arrested.
Or Aron Nimzovich, author of perhaps the greatest book on chess theory ever written, who, upon being defeated in a game, threw the pieces to the floor and jumped on the table screaming, "Why must I lose to this idiot?"
I know the feeling, but at our club, when you lose with a blunder that instantly illuminates the virtues of assisted suicide, we have a cure. Rack 'em up again. Like pool. A new game, right away. We play fast, very fast, so that memories can be erased and defeats immediately avenged.
I try to explain to friends that we do not sit in overstuffed chairs smoking pipes in five-hour games. We play like the vagrants in the park -- at high speed with clocks ticking so that thinking more than 10 or 20 seconds can be a fatal extravagance. In speed ("blitz'') chess, you've got five or 10 minutes to play your entire game. Some Mondays we get in a dozen games each. No time to recriminate, let alone ruminate.
And we have amenities. It's a wood-paneled library, chess books only. The bulletin board has the latest news from around the world, this month a London newspaper article with a picture of a doe-eyed brunette languishing over a board, under the headline "Kournikova of Chess Makes Her Move." The mini-jukebox plays k.d. lang and Mahler. (We like lush. We had Roy Orbison one night, till our lone Iowan begged for mercy.) "Monday Night Football" in the background, no sound. Barbecue chips. Sourdough pretzels. Sushi when we're feeling extravagant. And in a unique concession to good health, Nantucket Nectar. I'm partial to orange mango.
No alcohol, though. Not even a beer. It's not a prohibition. You can have a swig if you want, but no one ever does. The reason is not ascetic but aesthetic. Chess is a beautiful game, and though amateurs playing fast can occasionally make it sing, we know there are riffs -- magical symphonic combinations -- that we either entirely miss or muck up halfway through. Fruit juice keeps the ugliness to a minimum.