The Female World Record--Part 4 ("Middle Tactics")

Apr 27, 2010, 11:25 AM |

(In the last installment, Cassandra’s parents were forced to face the fact that their perfect daughter had a learning disability.)

Cassandra Aragon was almost twelve years old before she was diagnosed as having a rare neurological disorder that misdirected certain visual signals from her eyes to her brain. Unfortunately, the most-troublesome signals for her involved checkerboard patterns like that of her beloved chess board.

As the neurologist explained to Cassandra’s parents, “A peculiar side-effect of the disorder is that she has developed a fascination with the checkered pattern. It almost hypnotizes her when she stares at it during a chess game. I believe in that state she feels a calmness not unlike Zen meditation. This is certainly rare in a young child. You might want to think twice before you discourage her from playing chess.”

Mr. and Mrs. Aragon understood the logic. So, because the problem had until then prevented their daughter from learning to play chess, they agreed to put her into chess therapy.

For nearly two years, the child underwent a therapeutic regimen based on the doctor’s hypothesis that the black-and-white pattern caused her two eyes to focus differently on the board, and then she unconsciously flip-flopped the direction in which she moved her pawns and pieces. It cost her parents a fortune. Eventually they were forced to ask Cassandra to choose between continued chess therapy and braces for her overbite. She chose chess therapy.

After that, chess became an addiction for Cassandra.

“At least it’s a healthy addiction,” her mother said, “at least I think it is.”

By the time Cassandra was ready for high school, she had not been completely cured, but she had at least developed sophisticated coping mechanisms. At last she learned to move all the pieces and pawns properly, so long as no one used en passant capture against one of her pawns. That sent her into one of those Zen-like trances. She needed to have a glass of water splashed in her face to bring her around.

In eighth-grade chess club, she was able occasionally to capture an opponent’s pieces (although the concept of exchanging pieces continued to elude her). She memorized the Fool’s Mate and the Scholar’s Mate so she could avoid them when she was forced to play White. (Her father had taught her when she was younger that the safest side she could play was Black, because she could mimic her opponent’s moves in the opening.)

But she still never won and only occasionally managed a stalemate by accident. These accidents generally occurred when her opponent was a boy who noticed that she was wearing a training bra and couldn’t take his eyes off her chest.

When at thirteen Cassandra realized what was going on, at first she felt insulted, but she soon came to understand that she could use this against the boys. Since she knew she still needed a few years before her cleavage would become a weapon in her chess arsenal, she tried an experiment with fire-engine-red fingernail polish. Sure enough, the red nails acted like a shiny object to a monkey. Every time she picked up a piece, she stroked it suggestively with her tantalizing fingers. The boys were temporarily distracted and often failed to notice she had made an illegal move. The ploy did little to improve her game. But it did have one advantage: it prolonged her games against boys. Against girls, she still lost within ten moves.

But failure did not diminish Cassandra’s fascination with chess nor did it change her goal in life: she still predicted that one day she would be a chess world-record-holder.  To that end, she entered her first official tournament in her freshman year in high school. Of course, by then she was grown-up enough to know she shouldn’t tell anyone she would be satisfied with the record for the most games lost in a row.

To be continued . . .