by Fred Pourtaheri
This is a true story.
It’s hot. I can feel the spotlights burning into the top of my head. I gaze across at my opponent’s face and scrutinize it for any hint or crack that might give away the next move.
I look at the small 12 X 12 board, its black and white squares, a warzone between us, the scene of a battle. I feel the jetlag pushing me down, suppressing my thoughts and filling me with tiredness. I flew half way across the world for this match, this one match. I should have got an earlier flight. My opponent looks at me, secure in their realm, and comfortable in their space. A trickle of sweat slides down my temple. My whole life has been building up to this match, this duel, against my fiercest opponent.
I move my piece.
My opponent reacts quickly and moves their knight almost instantly.
The speed at which the move was made reminds me of when I first fell in love with this game.
I must have been around 9 or 10 years old – I was glued to my old German made Grundig TV – watching Bobby Fischer quickly reacting to defending champion Boris Spassky’s every move during The World Chess Championship of 1972. I watched the match, which had been dubbed the “match of the century”, in black and white for over 20 nights consecutively.
It was in that match that Fischer became the first American to break the 24 year long Soviet Union domination of the World Chess Championship.
It was that game that inspired me.
I remember every day on my way to school in Tehran, Iran, I would stop by my favourite toy shop to look at a very special chess set. Even the shop keeper came to know me by name as I’d ask him about the set and tried to find a way to haggle down the price. But the shop keeper gave me the same answer every single time,
“If you want to buy it, it’ll cost you 20 Rials”.
Money that I just didn’t have.
Old men would sit on the corner of our street playing chess, always drawing a big crowd anxious to see their next move. The tactic and strategy is what interested me the most. We didn’t have money to buy a chess set, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming that I’d make it big one day. I knew that I’d become the most famous chess player – even bigger than the likes of Spassky or Fischer.
That year in Tehran, it was a particularly cold and harsh winter, with several terrible snow storms. I was heading home from school one day and that’s when it all happened. The streets and sidewalks were all covered in solid ice – two to three inches. The trees were filled with snow and icicles. A strong wind was coming from the grand Alborz Mountain, just north of Tehran. I was walking along, with both hands in my pockets, head down to avoid the cold breeze, taking my time walking on the thick sheets of ice, making my next step with precision to avoid slipping. At that moment, I noticed a big bird fly above my head, a crow or something -– bemused that even he was flying in this freezing weather, I suddenly lost my balance and slipped hard on the ice. Pain overcame my entire body. My mother would have disapproved of every other word coming out of my mouth. But the pain suddenly ceased when I noticed a piece of paper – I looked a bit closer and it seemed that I had found treasure. I brushed the snow off and there it was – a fifty Rial note.
My eyes widened and the biggest grin came over me. I grabbed the fifty Rial note and started to run. I knew exactly what I was going to do. At this point, I didn’t care about the ice. I just knew I had to get my hands on that chess set.
I ran up to the door and pushed it hard – the little bell on the door jingling frantically, catching the store owners’ attention.
“You again?” he said looking uninterested.
“No, it’s for real this time” I responded. “I’d like to buy the chess set”.
“You sure you have the money” he asked.
“Yes sir, I do” I replied, with a big smile on my face. The store owner went behind the counter and grabbed the box. It was brand new and shiny with a picture of the chess set on it. My heart beat so fast that I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. I gave him the cash, grabbed the change and ran out, without even saying thank you or goodbye.
I ran as fast as my little legs could, slipping and sliding along the way home. I pushed the door wide open and started to yell out my big brother’s name.
“Sharokh, look! I got it, I finally got it!”.
Every day after school, it was the only thing I looked forward to – playing chess with my brother. It became a ritual for us for years. I’d practice on my own and with anyone who wanted to play. I got better and better. I would dream about chess; practice it whilst eating; play against myself so that I could learn every single move. Even when kids at school would challenge me, I would always defeat them.
But none of that mattered now. Today, it was about the big game.
I had travelled through three countries to get to where I was today. Having practiced for decades against every single person who crossed my path it was this very moment that I had been waiting for.
I gaze across at my opponent.
I move my queen.
“Check mate” I say, looking directly into their eyes.
She looks back, looks down, trying to see if there’s a way out. She finally looks up.
“You got me dad” she says. “Fancy a cuppa?”