As our plane taxied to a halt in Nashville, Alex, my 12-year-old son, announced our arrival in stadium sound: "Welcome to Nerdfest-fest-fest ... 2003!" It was the National Elementary Chess Championship, and Alex, himself a middling chess player, had come to Nashville with the powerhouse squad from the New York private school he attends. Alex, whose own cultural level is defined at just this moment by Marilyn Manson, takes perverse pleasure in the atmosphere of hopeless uncool that pervades the adolescent chess scene (though I should add before I get him into any trouble that he makes an exception in the case of his own teammates, most of whom maintain a more-than-respectable level of musical sophistication and athletic prowess).
This year's tournament was staged at the Gaylord Opryland hotel, perhaps the closest thing in the hotel world to the Biosphere—a vast, thickly forested world with fountains and walkways and streams, all encased under a glass dome supported by criss-crossing steel trusses. Veterans of national chess tournaments, which I am not, tend to recall them by the hotel in which they are staged, for the simple reason that it is virtually impossible to leave the hotel for more than an hour or two while the tournament lasts. The previous national had been held at the Atlanta Hilton, where every few hours thousands of children and parents were forced to storm a single staircase in order to reach the basement room where the tournament was staged, leading to scenes of appalling mayhem. The Opryland was so enormous that it was able to swallow the entire event with barely a burp.
Chess tournaments have a simplified class system that divides teams between those that can afford to rent a separate room for practice and repose—the team room—and those that can't. The latter can be seen hauling coolers across great stretches of lobby carpet, and then setting up camp amid a jumble of armchairs, boxes of take-out, and, of course, chessboards. Like Depression-era Hoovervilles, these encampments take on an air of semipermanence by the end of the tournament. Our team belonged to the upper echelon; the organizers of the event had thoughtfully placed half a dozen private schools from the New York area in a single column of team rooms, thus creating a sort of arc of privilege.
An hour before the first of our seven games, we gathered in the team room: 20-odd kids from kindergarten through sixth grade; three coaches, all of them grandmasters; and parents, mostly dads, prepared for the long haul with laptops and Blackberries and cell phones. David, who coaches many of the kids, including Alex, called us to order and delivered a stern warning—be serious, behave yourselves in the team room, stay calm, play slowly. Last year we had missed first place by a whisker, and it was plain—perhaps a bit too plain—that David felt we could sweep the field this time.
The tournament was held in a giant concrete bunker that had been filled with endless ranks of trestle tables covered with chess boards—well over 1,000 boards in all. Parents and kids milled around in their team T-shirts: "The Dream Team," "The Champions of San Benito, Texas," "Kick Some Brain," etc. (I saw two tiny children whose shirts read "Shock" and "Awe.") Grown-up chess nerds in orange bibs patrolled the rows, helping the kids and keeping a weather eye out for possible infractions (illegal moves, hand signals among teammates, etc). We deposited our kids, each of whom had been paired off against an opponent, and went back to the team room and waited. Unlike Little League baseball, in which parents sit in the stands and shriek at their children to get a hit, the principal parental activity at chess tournaments is waiting. You wait, then you rejoice or console your child, then you wait in line for a bad meal, then you wait some more. On the other hand, it is indoors.
Alex came up soon, in a transfigured state. "That was the best game I've ever played!" he announced to the entire room. He had sacrificed his queen in order to lure his opponent, ranked 200 points above him, into checkmate—at least, he appeared to have done it on purpose. And since the kid had been nasty when Alex had asked for a "take-back" when he had touched a piece, vindictive satisfaction was in order. Alex was babbling with joy. When I took him to Ben and Jerry's for a victory milkshake, he said dreamily, "I don't even care if you give me ice cream." (The comment was meant to be understood rhetorically.) "I'm not even walking," he said later. "It's like I'm on drugs." But we knew that life would only get harder from here, since the draw is designed in such a way that the better you play, the better the opponent you are matched against.
By the middle of Day 2, the team had taken some hits, but we were in first place. Alex still reigned as king of the B team, with two victories and two draws. ("I'm still undefeated!" he shouted after Game 4.) The coaches were working furiously at their respective stations. Joel was the very picture of chess professionalism—balding, bespectacled, gentle. John was our very own Ralph Kramden—a born wisenheimer who sometimes affected a Sheik of Araby look by sticking a towel under his cap so that it draped over his head on either side. David, who inevitably saw their wins and losses as the fruit of his own prodigious effort, was generally a nervous wreck. Chess players notate their games, and the kids were expected to go over their performance with a coach as soon as they returned from the field of battle. The coaches would call to one another across the room with great, incomprehensible (to me) streams of chess positions, like brokers on the trading floor. "This position is a complete mess," John would cry. "David, I don't know what the hell is going on."
Day 3 began inauspiciously. Gerardo, one of our stars, got lost on the way back from breakfast and arrived late, panting and panicked; the coaches fanned him like a prizefighter. We were still clinging to first place, but about to embark on a death march. First Kyle came back—"I lost on time." Then Alex—a different Alex—flung his notepad on the ground. James lost, Michael lost, Gerardo lost. Catastrophe! Gerardo gazed poker-faced at John, apparently numb, while they went over his game; his mother, Giovanna, sat at his side looking stricken, inconsolable. "Isn't it awful?" she asked a fellow sufferer. "You can't explain." My Alex, who had lost his first game the night before, had yet another draw.
As the final match approached, we were in third place, two full points out of first—an almost impossible margin. (A win is worth a point and a draw half a point; only the team's top four scorers count.) There were some bruised feelings around the room. Then an enterprising mom dragged in four chess-playing cheerleaders from another school, who obliged us with a cheer that ended, "Go kick some butt!" Even the most blasé boys applauded. David then delivered a Churchillian oration whose gist was: Don't come back with a draw. Then the boys filed out; the wait began. After an hour, Kyle came back; he had pulverized his opponent. Harry won, too. More time passed. Then Gerardo came back—to a standing ovation. Giovanna sighed, profoundly. The other Alex won, and James, too. They had all come through in the clutch; nobody could blame anybody, or themselves. Now we had to wait again to see how our opponents had fared.
I was already on the plane, waiting to take off, when I got the news: We had fallen a point short of a school from Memphis. (What did they have—four grandmasters?) I felt a pang for David. But mostly I felt bad for Alex—my Alex—who had lost his final game, and had contemptuously flung away the little medal everybody got for participating. Like almost all these kids, Alex loved winning and hated losing. Still, he was 12. After the tournament, he picked up the latest Artemis Fowle book, and pretty soon he was lost to everything but the page.