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Desert Companion

Games: Knight moves

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Knight moves
Illustration by Brent Holmes

What happens when a chess dilettante takes on a blindfolded grandmaster? Reality check!

 

Chess is kind of having a moment right now. Magnus Carlsen, the photogenic world champion, recently defended his title in New York in a series of games that climaxed in a dramatic tiebreaker. This fall, Disney released an acclaimed biopic about Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who rose to renown from the slums of Katwe. Technology has given a profile boost to the ancient game, too, with apps and websites connecting players all over the world. And some of chess’s more sensational traditions, such as the blindfold simul — that is, a blindfolded player, relying solely on verbal notation, challenges multiple opponents who have the advantage of being able to see their boards — are finding a welcome place in a world hungry for spectacle. 

On December 3, Grandmaster Timur Gareyev brought that spectacle to UNLV, where the man who calls himself "The Blindfold King" attempted to set a world record by playing blindfolded against 48 opponents, including me. I’m what’s called a patzer, a fumbling if enthusiastic dilettante. I took up chess a few years back, hoping, I dunno, to bring some sense of elegance, clarity and intellectual mystique to my life. Since then, I’ve played weekly casual games with friends over wine and chatter at a Russian restaurant, but I’ve sometimes wondered how well I might do if I gave the game my deep and complete attention. That’s what I have the opportunity to do at UNLV.

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But there is no elegance or clarity to be found on this day. Instead, I’m hunched in my chair at table 39, staring mutely at the board as though trying to telekinetically fling it across the room, attempting to somehow extricate myself from what seems to be an iron glacier of Gareyev's pieces slowly advancing to my side of the board. As I’m trembling with pained concentration, in the center of the room, Gareyev, a lanky twentysomething with a flowing fauxhawk, pedals languidly on an exercise bike and nibbles fruit as he calls out moves from behind his eyemask: “Game 39 ... bishop to g5.” 

That was move 12, where he pinned one of my knights to my queen, paralyzing it so that a few moves further on, Gareyev could snatch both my knight and my hapless pawn (which, in a moment of desperate affection, I had nicknamed “eggling,” knowing how tenuous and fragile its existence was) that was being guarded by the knight.

His opening skirmish is a little bit of introductory tenderizing for the real punishment to come. As the game progresses, Gareyev spirits his king away to the corner and unleashes a triple attack with his rook, bishop and knight on one of my position’s tender spots, a disaster I manage to hurriedly deflect with a pawn push; then, when I think I’m turning the tables with a rook attack on his queen, Gareyev calmly deploys his powerful bishop to the f7 square to muzzle the plot. All the while, he’s methodically crystallizing his pawns into a sort of telescoping cybernetic spear that eventually reaches into my seventh rank and, in the ultimate indignity, checks my king. During my turns, a small group gathers around my board. At first, I think they’re watching in rapt wonderment, silently marveling at how this untrained amateur is marshalling from his deepest brain brazen, novel strategies that are giving the grandmaster a run for his money. When I eat Gareyev’s c4 pawn with my queen and simultaneously give check, I swear I can hear the theme from Chariots of Fire tinkling from the celestial spheres! But I soon realize they’re actually observing me with clinical amusement; I’m a rag doll being toyed with by a god. Over 17 hours, I manage, at best, a creditable if unimaginative defense against a precision onslaught by a terrifying mentat in an eyemask. Near the end, I’m lashing out with petty checks and pointless maneuverings that only delay the inevitable.

Bleary-eyed and half-crazed with exhaustion, I resign the game at 1 a.m. Despite the bruising experience, I haven’t lost any appetite for my weekly pickup matches over drinks and dinner. On the contrary, I’m particularly looking forward to the next one — because with all the wine, food and chatter, at least I have a handy excuse when I lose.

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