- General Grant Wore a Pink Dress
My father introduced me to the game of chess in 1979, shortly after my mother moved out of our house and filed for divorce. Given the demands of his job as a trauma surgeon, he had little energy to cultivate friendships, and for some time, I was his sole companion. I was his only partner in chess. He would have preferred a more capable adversary, namely, a son. This he made clear the evening he drew his worn plywood chessboard from the pantry—the same board upon which he’d battled his own father, a stolid German, for decades.
“I never thought I’d be playing chess with a girl. This should be interesting.” Placing the board on our kitchen table, he paraphrased world chess champion Emanuel Lasker. “The game of chess, after all, is a contest between two brains in which intellect holds undivided sway.”
By that time, my heart and mind had already been captured by the glitter pens, puffy stickers, and starter nail polish then au courant among fifth-grade girls. I considered the faceless Staunton-style pieces he arranged on the board.
“Do they have names?” I asked, examining two identical pawns.
“Don’t get attached to them unless you can protect them.” My father motioned for me to sit down.
Over the next hour, I memorized the starting positions of the 16 white and 16 black pieces facing each other from opposite ends of the board. I learned the movements allowed different pieces: squat pawns that plod forward one square at a time; crenulated castles that move along rows and columns; knights, or horses, that move in three-square L-shapes; bishops confined to diagonals; [End Page 49] a fairly sedentary king that moves one square at a time; and a queen—the most versatile piece—that can move along diagonals, rows, and columns.
“Before we play, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with this,” my father finally said. He pushed a tattered copy of the World Chess Federation’s Official Rules across the table and left the room.
I leafed through the book, at first mesmerized by my grandfather’s precise signature on its inside flap, and then overwhelmed by the contents of its grainy pages: elaborately annotated diagrams crowded with arrows, numerically encoded descriptions of move sequences, and lists of rules amended and qualified by countless subclauses. As it was, I’d grown distracted by the familiar sounds of machine-gun fire and shelling in our living room. My father had served in Vietnam, and perhaps to work through the horrors he had experienced as a field surgeon, he spent most of his free evenings watching war documentaries. My exposure to television was limited almost exclusively to programs about Civil War campaigns, the rise of air and submarine warfare, famous tank and U-boat commanders, and the crematoria at Auschwitz. While my friends waxed poetic about the dreaminess of Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter, I wrestled with the trauma of trench and atomic warfare nightly presented in the black-and-white footage filling our television screen.
Chess, in that sense, provided a small measure of relief from Erwin Rommel’s onslaughts, though it introduced its own horrors to my nine-year-old psyche. My father and I played our first game one evening, shortly after Cherbourg fell to a German Panzer division.
“Ready to lose?” My father took a seat and drew the white king from his box of pieces.
When he selected the white army, I didn’t realize he had just gained, by simple virtue of tradition, a significant first-move advantage, yet I felt the intimations of the carnage and humiliation that would become par for the course, or in this case, our plywood battlefield.
He began, as many seasoned chess players, by advancing the pawns in front of his king and queen to facilitate the movements of his bishops—powerful offensive pieces central to most opening strategies. I pushed the pawns at either edge of the board one square forward, thinking it best not to expose my back row of officers. As my father moved his bishops into striking...