Tales of a Hustler Hunter: The Killings
While I wouldn’t necessarily say I come from the world of tournament chess, I have definitely poked around at the club level. Before I moved to New York City, where chess can be found at all hours of the night, I lived on the outskirts of Boston. I was lucky enough to reside only about a 15-minute drive away from the Waltham Chess Club, which met on Friday evenings in an office building’s cafeteria and had its share of strong players, mixed with middle-aged meddlers and a never-ending battalion of little pawn-pushing kids. It was there that I played my first USCF rated tournament and guiltily checkmated a small child.
One constant expression was in the vernacular of that club that has stuck with me years later. Though it was a rather placid environment in Waltham (excepting the battle of a chess game), a verb of undeniable force frequented the cafeteria, with the younger and older players alike: “You killed me.”
I would hear this at least twice every single Friday, in some adjusted form or another. “He’s gonna kill me on h2,” might be uttered during late night bughouse, or, “Don’t kill me!” shrieked during a pre-tournament blitz game. “Yeah, I really got killed,” and “He killed my queen on move 14,” were quite common.
There was one time, however, when I got to hear a memorable statement from a club veteran. It was after a slew of checkmates from masters and amateurs alike when he said, “There sure are a lot of killings over the board tonight. Lot of killings.”
I bring up this tidbit of my club history now to highlight a profound point, I think. Whether hunched over a chessboard in a cafeteria outside Boston or swatting away the cigar smoke from a hustler in Washington Square Park, chess, while a lot of fun, is about mentally destroying your opponent. It is a hard-fought, 1 vs. 1 battle of wits—competition at its purest. It is kill or be killed.
To conclude, here is a Nimzowitsch game that one of my favorite Union Square players (and perhaps the most skilled), Chris G., showed me from a notebook when we began talking about the predatory nature of chess. He adores showing me aggressive older matches, and I have since looked up this particularly game and found quite a bit about it online, including Nimzowitsch’s own commentary. Behold, the brutality of the French Defense, Advance Variation!
Chess is a wonderful, kid-friendly game, but it is one of remarkable violence, where threats and captures can be sensed throughout the board in all but the most boring symmetrical draw. No matter how calm the waters, with chess there are thousands of sharks swarming beneath the surface, waiting for the smallest drop of blood.