The X factor.
One of the most fascinating aspects of chess within any community is the sheer number of people who think they are good at it. They are legion. Very few of these individuals are actual USCF card-carrying tournament players with established ratings; those that are, like myself, realize that the more you know about chess the more you realize how little you actually do know about the intricacies of the game. The tactics, positional play and the sheer volume of opening theory alone is enough to rattle anyone not a GM. I cannot tell you how many people my comrades and I have come across over the years who, having seen us playing a game in a public setting, have challenged us immediately. Time and again. Even more absurd is that one out of every three claims to be a resident Master (which is amazing as the city of one million that I live in only has two to begin with). Apparently my hometown has over 150 Masters and at least 25 Grandmasters. One of them even swore he was personally taught by “Bobby Spassky,” which is either an astonishing scientific advance in molecular genetics and DNA cross-fertilization or, as is the most likely scenario, a brazen lie (my suspicions were confirmed when he answered my query as to his favorite opening with the word ”pawns”).
Then I met Titus and his infamous “x-factor.” Titus was a maintenance technician who worked at a local outdoor strip mall that consisted of about seven or eight stores, one of which housed a small coffee shop in which about a dozen of us from the club met during lazy Saturday afternoons. The first time he came in he was mesmerized and could barely contain himself, announcing to anyone within earshot that he was the man to beat. None of us paid any attention (the sure sign that you are not a strong player is to announce to strangers that you are, especially when you don’t even pay attention to their board to gauge an approximation of what strength level they are at). Not to be denied he left and was back within a few minutes with several friends in tow, all from the local barber shop that was at the other end of the strip mall. It was here, among his entourage that he began to hold court, commenting on our moves with his own analysis, if you can actually call it that, among his tidbits of wisdom was the declaration that in order to be successful at chess “one must use both his bishops.” I thanked him (later that night I wondered, does this dual application also apply to knights and rooks as well? And what about pawns for God’s sake, there were eight of those bastards).
One afternoon I entered into said establishment to get a coffee and he was there about to remedy a litany of complaints that the manager had compiled concerning the faulty hot water heater in the back. This time there was no ignoring him and he asked that I play him a game later on that night. I didn’t have the time to do that and politely informed him of my evening’s plans when I heard his friend comment that it “must be the X-factor.” The X-factor? What the hell was that? They would not give me an answer but understood if I didn’t want to play because it would surely mean my demise on the board. I didn’t give it much thought until I saw them again the next weekend and as before mentioned my supposed (or in their view ascertained) fear of the “X-factor.” They never explained what it was, only that it was deadly and there was no way I could overcome it. At this point I began to wonder if I was dealing with an airborne pathogen or a series of forced vaccinations than that of some tactical misnomer within the chess lexicon. Morbid curiosity coupled with the annoyance of having to be forced into conversation with a second shift maintenance mechanic every time I wanted a latte finally led me to agree to a game so we agreed to meet at a sandwich shop within the strip mall the following night.
Showing up at the appropriate time I was surprised to see how many people were in the shop, not because of hunger but presumably to see another victim fall to the self-appointed Master and his mysterious “X-factor” which at this point was being wielded like a talisman imbued with the ectoplasm of Bruce Pandolfini’s soul. As I approached the board I realized that this scene had been re-enacted before, Titus had defeated numerous chess enthusiasts over time due to his “mastery” of the game and the aforementioned X-factor which was then explained to me as a series of chess moves that was handed to him from a dying GM (and evidently reclusive I was told when I questioned who he was) in New York City. Apparently this GM had defied all the odds and had developed a stratagem that, if carefully studied, would result in victory for the one who would devote his life to its principles and meditate on the hidden tactical meanings within, now the whole ordeal resembled a bad Kung Fu episode. Knowing I was a member of the local chess club they were eagerly awaiting confirmation that even “chess professionals” such as myself would bend to his will.
To make a long story longer, I sat down and as I reached down to make a move Titus proposed a bet on the game. Now I have several friends who play for serious money (more on that later) but I do not. To me it simply cheapens the game down to some sort of pool hall mentality. I have too much respect for the game itself to equate it to a level of bartering. Naturally this resulted in cat calls among the spectators who questioned my ability, if not my confidence in winning the game. Titus wanted to pay for forty dollars, I refused. Like a mad microcosm of Fischer-Spassky we were at an impasse until the owner of the sandwich shop had a novel idea. Titus could still wager but if I lost I had to buy the equivalent in sandwiches. As in five twelve-inch sandwiches. I agreed and picked pastrami. Titus demanded to be white (another concession granted) and the fight was on. The stakes were high, for him it was for honor, respect among his peers as the self-coronated Master and his use of the X-factor; for me it was sixty inches of pastrami on whole wheat bread.
His opening moves were puzzling (to say the least) and on the third move I found out what the X-factor move was…a load of bullshit. In fact it should be called the BS-factor. The first four moves went as follows (that is basically all I remember from the game).
1. h4 e6
2. g4 b6
3. Rh3 Bb7
4. d4 c5
Immediately upon playing 3.Rh3 his friends exclaimed “X-factor!” Then after 4. d4 and other subsequent moves he began moving the rook back and forth along the third rank to counter any threat. After 4…c5 he played 5. g5. I took on d4. blah, blah, blah. For the next seven or eight moves he just moved his rook from side to side trying to line up some silly trap he had developed. A trap so abysmal that I would have had to suffer a brain aneurysm on the spot for me to fall into it. This guy had played chess for years but he had only competed against friends and family, never rising to another level, something that really can only be gained as a member of a chess club or in serious tournament play. I tried to reason with him but he wouldn’t listen. We played several more games, for the black pieces it was just a variation of what he did as white (now a tempo down). He kept hoping I would castle kingside as black (obviously as he launched the g/h pawns and a rook in the first three moves). Four games later I had enough, his friends were truly stunned and he feigned a sudden illness for why he didn’t perform well. And of course the owner was pissed off as I now carried five feet of pastrami to the car.
I didn’t feel any better about crushing the guy and the whole episode was detrimental to me on a whole new level. I was now three pounds heavier.