Bad Coffee - A Chess Tournament Story
by Michael Weitz
Originally published in SQUARES Magazine, Volume 2 Number 5, Summer 2004
I lost my first game. Well, technically I resigned from it. But it didn’t bother me too much. My opponent was rated 300 points above me and I had just driven for an hour with nothing to get my synapses firing. My loss, er, resignation, couldn’t have been due to letting go of a fairly solid position could it? No, I’m sure it was his superior rating and my travel time. Fatigue. Yep.
In between rounds I was able to find something that was loosely termed coffee. There were plenty of Starbucks around, but they have yet to reach within the halls of the chess community. What my drink lacked in coffee-ness it made up for as a potential corrosive. I stirred in some creamer to weaken its bite. A jelly donut completed my breakfast and I felt prepared for my next opponent on the checkered battlefield.
We settled into a fairly fast-paced match, the opening fading away as quickly as the dehydrated creamer had curdled in my coffee. As the clock ticks played and our pieces danced, my opponent crossed his arms and sat back with a “humph.” I looked up and searched for signs of panic, but only saw the bill of his hat pulled down low to hide his strategical machinations. Confidently I stacked my rooks on the d-file and brought my bishop to bear on the diagonal. All while he sat with his hat pulled down. Whatever he was thinking under there, it no longer mattered. If his low-slung cap was a psychological tactic; I had beaten it. Swiftly my queen and rook dealt a series of checks to my chappeaued adversary, and cornered his king. I needed to bring my other rook into the fray to complete the execution, but it wasn’t to be. Suddenly I felt a blow to my belly as an enemy pawn pushed forward. My heart dropped with a splash into the black pit of my stomach opened by the nasty chess tourney coffee.
It was over. My mind was divided. Half of it absorbed the game before me, the rest mulled the impending doom of my mid-section. With only half a brain working for him, my king fell to the pawn advancement. With a smile my opponent pushed his hat up from his nose and shook my hand. I accepted the defeat graciously knowing full well I’d been undermined by a cheap concoction of poorly brewed coffee and a “powdered dairy product.”
Two games down, three to go. I needed some R&R. I took a bye for the third round and went in search of a hotel. Since I didn’t need anything more than a bed and a shower, I determined to save some money. Big mistake. Forty dollars got me a room without an alarm clock, a television remote control and a television too old to be operated with infrared signals. So, after I suffered through four greasy tacos from a nearby fast food joint, I settled in for what was to become a harbinger of doom.
Every 20 minutes a freight train rumbled by less than 30 yards away. It shook the room with its sheer mass and, with its air horn, blasted apart the mental analyses of the first two chess matches from my drowsy brain.
In between the railroads effort to staunch my sleep, police sirens screamed past and footsteps pounded just outside my door. I jumped up and wedged a rickety chair against the door, then thought twice about the motel’s cleaning service. Would the floor be safer? Never mind, at least the bed absorbed some of the quakes created by the freight trains.
Luckily I had brought my own alarm clock, remembering past hotels having obscure models with complicated systems, and awoke with time to spare. I peeked out the window to insure my car had survived the night and then took a shower.
To my surprise, there was an abundance of hot water and I felt my spirits lift. The steam permeated my brain and cleansed it of yesterday’s negativity. Then, to my dismay, I discovered the abundant hot water had collected on the vinyl floor outside the tub. With a PGA-style whoosh-crack, I slipped and connected my head with the opposite wall. On the positive side, the motel bathroom was so small my fall didn’t create enough momentum to cause any cerebral trauma. Good thing too, since I had to use both of the tiny towels to dry off. They would have been worthless as bandages.
After a maple bar and a cup of the black acid at the playing hall, I wandered over to the pairing list to discover my next opponent was rated only 100 points above me. I confidently found our allotted table number and began setting up the pieces. When he arrived we cordially exchanged names and shook hands. But when my clock started ticking the friendly auspices were over. With two goose eggs following my name on the score sheet I couldn’t afford to not play for blood.
Summoning the wicked effects the coffee was having on my belly, I strove to use that to turn my mind towards war-room mentality. I concentrated on developing all of my pieces, controlling long diagonals and taking the center. I heard swords clang and triumphant battle cries as our pieces met and fought to establish territory. I advanced upon his King, stationed a pawn on the seventh rank, had rooks eyeing a half-open file and my Queen was gearing up to race into the melee to complete the game.
Then, as with my earlier defeats, an unseen move changed my strategy. His rooks suddenly doubled up as if a mirror were dropped upon the board. His Bishop lashed out, catching my Knight off guard and my King had no choice but to retreat.
My head began to ache and I realized with horror that the slip in the motel shower had affected me! Obviously I wasn’t thinking clearly due to a slight concussion! Relieved this loss was once again due to extenuating circumstances, I left the tournament for a short lunch and an aspirin.
Dining at a nearby McDonald’s I perused my earlier games with a travel chess set. Remarkably, I discovered that in each game my downfall occurred near the 30th move. Was there some sort of mystical force at work? An outside phenomena connected to the number 30? Quickly I muttered an oath and resolved to slow my game and watch the board for signs of my downfall. With only one game left to salvage my pride, I swore upon my french fry box and sealed the deal with a swallow of Coca-Cola.
The final round was scheduled for 1:30. I arrived early and set up my board and pieces. My opponent was a fellow I’d played before and beaten. This made me confident, but I threatened myself with a cup of the chess tourney coffee if I became too brazen.
Assuming a humble posture, I sat in my chair behind the white pieces and concentrated on the coffee pot in the corner. If everything else failed, fear of imbibing that wretched liquid would keep me to my promise.
My adversary arrived and without further ado our game commenced. I played a Queen’s pawn opening and moved my pieces out. Careful to avoid confrontation too early, I sidestepped his advances when I wasn’t comfortable with the trade and watched for opportunities to attack with advantage. Soon I had a good position and a strong plan. We’d each traded away three pawns, a Bishop, and a Knight.
Then I glanced at my score sheet. My next move would be number 29.
Suddenly my palms were slick with sweat and I felt myself reaching for the Queen. My hand trembled above her like a drunken butterfly. A gleam caught my eye and I stopped to look. The coffee pot! Quickly I yanked my hand away as if it might be burned. I had to slow down, search the board.
Then I realized…the aspirin hadn’t taken effect! I had chewed three tablets and washed them down with Coca-Cola. The soda had neutralized the medication in the aspirin! My concussion from the fall in the bathroom still blocked my ability to objectively analyze a complicated middle game position! Thus enlightened, I wasn’t bothered at all when I was forced to resign six moves later.
I’d been skunked. Without even a draw I began my long drive home. But I wasn’t upset. A valuable lesson had been taught to me at the close of each game. At my next tournament I needed only to remember them to be successful. 1) Do not travel before the first round. Fatigue brought me down. 2) Bring my own coffee, a trustworthy brew. 3) Be willing to drop a bundle on a quiet hotel with big towels located in a nice, quiet part of town. 4) Be prepared for head injuries with a solid brand of pain reliever.
Of course I now know there were no supernatural events connected with the number 30. It was purely coincidental and I blame it all on bad coffee. But just in case, next time I plan to slouch real low in my chair and wear a hat that will pull down to my chin.