Playing Chess with the Alt-Right
Doug types too much...
October 14, 2018
I like Fridays.
Fridays have a feel to them like no other day of the week. At 63, I’ve lived through well over 3,000 of ‘em. A lot of interesting things have happened to me on Fridays.
In the late 1970s, I went through a phase where I played a lot of chess with a white supremacist.
We played at lunch. For money. A dollar a game.
I suckered him. It was pretty easy.
You see, I’m not the best chess player in the world, but I’m not too shabby either. I learned chess the hard way, by getting my ass beat.
I cut my teeth learning chess at my first Air Force assignment in upstate New York in the mid-1970s. In a windowless office with eleven people crammed into a space roughly 10’ x 20’, we got cabin fever just because. There were periods during the year when we were working-all-night busy, but most of the time we were not gainfully employed.
My first winter there, in the dead of sub-zero temperatures, our Colonel decreed we would have a chess tournament. I was the only person in the room who didn’t play.
“We’ll teach you.”
For the next 3 months, I got my ass kicked. They gleefully handed it to me on many occasions.
Initially, my opponents spotted me their queen since I was a beginner. That didn’t stop them from creaming me with great relish.
About halfway through the tournament, they didn’t spot me anymore. They didn’t have to.
Phase 2 of my training was put into motion and I spent a lot of time appreciating the power of an opponent’s queen.
As they like to say, “The beatings will not stop until morale improves.”
Toward the end of the tournament, even though I remained in last place, I started to win. One game here. One game there.
Wax on, wax off.
After that, I played chess a lot and not just at work. I even purchased an early clumsy Montgomery Ward’s computer chess game that would freeze up right at the end of the match when I played against it. I read about chess. I studied the moves of chess games won by champions.
In later years, I taught all of our kids how to play, and they still occasionally want to drag out the board when they visit.
In 1977, I was transferred from upstate New York to Germany. That’s where I met Hans.
By the time Hans crossed the path of my lunch hours in the late 70s, I was sharp and able to give you a run for your King. But Hans didn’t know I played at all. That just came up in a casual conversation one day around the water cooler.
His steely German-heritage eyes lit up when I mentioned chess.
“Oh, do you play?” he asked with just a smidgeon too much caginess.
“I’m not very good,” I fibbed.
This was gasoline on the fire.
He sidled up close to me and conspiratorially suggested we meet to play at lunch. Money was not brought up at first. But I knew that was next. It was all he could do not to mention it.
Here’s where the suckering part comes in.
Hans was an easy mark for a guy who clearly regarded himself as shrewdly superior.
Our first couple of lunch hours, we played “normal” casual chess where you take all the time you want between moves. I tested him in the first game, making stupid careless moves to see what he picked up on. He caught some of my missteps, but not all. That gave me a barometer on where his chess talents rated. Plus it gave me a gauge on his attention span. I noticed his focus was beneficially precise at the beginning of matches, but once he sensed he had me in the kill zone, he perked up to excess. Got too excited. Distracted by shiny. He made mistakes to include being one move away from checkmating me, then boxing me in so I couldn’t move, forcing a stalemate. A tie game made him crazy, mad even – especially when he was the cause.
I let him act out for a week without clobbering him. I let the mistakes go. It was no different than a pool hustler purposely playing poorly until some money gets put on the table.
During our very first game, he brought up the money thing. He thought it would make things more interesting. Like I said, I knew this was coming. He had a look in his eye. I stalled him and poo-pooed the idea which made Hans all the more eager to encourage it.
By the time I’d lost to him for an entire week, he was salivating to play for money. At the beginning of our second week of lunch hours, he insisted cash change hands.
“A dollar a game,” he chided me. “C’mon, don’t be chicken.”
In addition, he wanted to switch things up and play speed chess with a 5-second time limit between moves – that way we could play more games and maximize how many dollar bills he could rip me off for.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do that.”
Hans literally rubbed his hands with delight in front of me. I have you in my clutches was stenciled across his forehead.
I was a lowly enlisted puke without 2 nickels to rub together. Even a couple of dollars a week back then made a difference. I couldn’t afford to lose.
And I didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I let him win here and there. Otherwise, he might’ve given up losing money every day.
We paid up every Friday. Hans never had a winning week. My average haul was $12 – $15 after the dust settled.
Hans had demanded speed chess because he was greedy and that was part of his undoing. Speed chess was not his friend. Without the ability to focus for minutes at a time on strategy, he was easily confused by shiny.
Psychologically he was easy to figure out. He liked to win. Which is okay until you get consumed by it. And plus, he revealed himself to me over time. When you play chess, you tend to bond through osmosis. You discern where the cracks are.
Hans was bitter. He’d once been an Air Force officer, but after 10 years, he got caught up in a reduction in force where he was given the option to just leave the service – OR – he could serve the second half of the 20 years required for military retirement with the title of sergeant, but still collect his captain’s pay on the back end. Hans took the road of lowering himself for the retirement check. And even though that was ultimately his decision, he was openly resentful.
We didn’t work together, we were just lodged in offices near each other. He didn’t seem to be much of a worker. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure what he did. He always seemed to me to be on active-duty retirement. Punching the boredom clock.
Hans had a way about him that put some people off. He could be openly arrogant and dismissive. I never got the sense he wanted anything more out of our “friendship” than some squeezed out chess dollars. He wasn’t interested in my family. He never wanted to go out for a beer on Friday afternoons.
He was intelligent. Considered himself sarcastically funny. He had inserted himself into European culture and for all practical purposes, was German. He spoke the language fluently.
Physically, Hans had a lot going for him. He was trim and so was his model wife. And yeah, she really looked like a model. Hans himself was no slouch in the looks department. If I was gay, he wouldn’t be my first choice, but he was confidently handsome in a weird kind of way.
Both he and his wife skied – in fact, they were really good skiers and they went to the slopes on a regular basis.
And he drove a beautiful sporty European model car.
Outwardly, he seemed like the guy who had everything outside of work going for him.
As I recall, he and his wife didn’t have kids. If they did, it was never mentioned in front of me.
As the weeks rolled on, Hans loosened up in conversation and became less guarded. He might have been fishing, I’m not sure, but one day when we were visited for a few moments by a black soldier, Hans waved a hand of dismissal accompanied by an eye-roll after the young troop left the room.
He shook his head in distain and muttered “schvartze” under his breath.
I was pretty sure I’d heard him correctly. “What?”
He looked me in the eye and held it. “The blacks.” He paused to measure my reaction.
I had my poker face on.
After a second or two, he shook his head in dismissive disgust and aggressively made his next move.
I went home bothered by that moment. And I was instantly more cautious around him. And from that point on, I wasn’t as keen on the chess matches. I started picking up on other vibes that he attempted to cloak. It didn’t take him long to get on a roll.
Turns out he didn’t care for the Hispanic sergeant that worked near him.
And he had little respect for women. Especially in a work situation. Apparently only model wives were allowed.
I should have said something then. About all those things. I didn’t.
As luck would have it, I got transferred to another job that took me out of his immediate sphere.
The chess matches with Hans were no more.
But I was around when he retired.
I walked in and caught him packing up his desk.
He was admiring a print of a water color he had framed in his little office area. He’d had this painting up since I’d known him and I’d never paid it much attention. He held it proudly as he took it off the wall and asked me what I thought.
It was a landscape. Nothing earth-shattering, but pleasant enough to look at. I nodded mild approval.
He smiled and pointed to the artist’s painted signature in the lower right corner of the print.
“Look at the name,” he grinned.
Upon closer examination, I realized who the artist was.
When my face froze in question-mark mode, Hans took the opportunity to tell me that Hitler had been a gifted artist before deciding being a dictator would be more fun. Hans told me he had more of Adolph’s works displayed in his home. He finished my education by telling me a lot of Hitler’s ideas weren’t bad at all. That he was well-intentioned.
“That Jews thing was a misunderstanding.”
I gotta tell ya, there are some people you cheer when they leave, albeit in your head. For me, he was one of ‘em. Time to jettison.
Several years later, on my way home late on a Friday afternoon, I was filling up at an Esso in Wiesbaden. It was wintertime. Biting, cutting temperatures on top of snow.
I heard someone call out my name from the pumps behind me.
It was Hans. And he looked really bad. Wasting away. Shivering. He admitted to me that he was dying from cancer and only had a few months to live.
He couldn’t have been more than late 40s. Maybe early 50s. Wow. He’d put up with being a lowly enlisted guy, only to retire and then get sick.
He shook his head like Isn’t this all so messed up?
He asked me if I still played chess. Yeah.
He laughed and told me it probably wasn’t as much fun without me winning money off him.
I kind of half-laughed myself, but it was tinged with sadness. And a realization that karma is to be respected. It struck me how pitiful he was to look at. Ravaged. Not going to get better. All downhill until the punch-out. The picture of Dorian Gray.
I asked him if he still skied.
I nodded my understanding. Based on his appearance, I was stupid to even ask.
We finished filling our tanks and we shook with gloved hands. There wasn’t much there to shake. He wished me well in between coughing he couldn’t control. His steely glint was fatigued. Faded. He wished me a merry Christmas and that was the last time I saw him.
As I drove home, I realized I wasn’t just saddened by the frailty of his body, I was saddened by the frailty of his thoughts. His bitterness and resentment seemed like a colossal waste of time to me. Was he really comfortable living inside himself with his prejudices? How did that sit in his gut every night? Or worst case scenario: He went out okay with it.
Part of me was mad at myself. What if I had taken challenging him on the chess board to challenging him about civil rights? I doubt he would have considered any of my opinions. I was half his age. What could I know? And like everyone else, I was beneath him.
But I didn’t even try. That said something about me.
It strikes me that Hans lived like he played chess. With excitement and verve, but with blinders on, crushingly focused on the wrong things. His arrogance and dismissiveness were key weak points not only when we got on the board, but also in the way he lived his life.
As I was tooling into work on this sunny and windy autumn Friday, I thought of Hans. And I don’t know why.
I guess I’m like one of those psychics you see on TV. I never know who’s going to come through or when.
Hans never got better.
He was consumed by cancer at the end.
But before he was sick, he was already consumed with a mental cancer.
What a waste of energy from an intelligent guy.
I should have done more to help him, but I didn’t have the wisdom or the control.
And yet I doubt myself. Could I have checkmated him into some positive thoughts or had he cornered me into a stalemate? My thought is he was so entrenched in the dogma, I could have never broken the ice.
So in the end, I’m just glad I never woke up thinking like him.
And I’m glad I took his money.