On a cold march morning in 1973, Robert Donnelly climbed the sagging, rickety staircase that led to the Shelby Lyman Chess Institute in Greenwich Village. The school was crowded. Cab drivers, college kids, beauticians and bankers were battling it out over the boards. Bobby Fischer was the world champion, and now everyone wanted to learn chess. No one, however, wanted to lose to a five-year-old.
Chess master Bruce Pandolfini held Robert's tiny hand. As they walked between the tables, searching for an opponent to test the youngster's skill, the room fell silent except for the creaking of the wooden floor beneath their feet.
Players averted their eyes. Some suddenly remembered errands they had to run. All of them found a reason not to play the kid. They were as nervous as a pack of farmers when a gunslinger struts through town.
Then Pandolfini spotted me.
Like Robert, I was one of Pandolfini's students. Unlike Robert, I showed little promise of achieving chess immortality. Nonetheless, I was obsessed with chess. So much so that my high school grades were plummeting. I was cracking the books, but the books were Lasher's Manual of Chess and Practical Chess Endings. The only lectures that held my interest were those delivered by Pandolfini.
Other chess masters had offered to teach me for less money than I was paying Pandolfini, but I was devoted to Bruce. Bruce was cool. With his long, light-brown curls, hooked nose, granny glasses and broad-brimmed black hats, he looked like a gangly John Lennon. He never got weird. And he never threw any chess-master tantrums.
At one time he was rated among the top 50 players in the U.S., but he had given up serious competition and dedicated himself to teaching. His speciality was young players and prodigies.
Pandolfini. His name had the ring of a sorcerer's, and I imagined he conjured up his prodigies in the still, black hours of the night while poring over musty texts on alchemy and Alekhine. Quietly he asked if I would play a game with Robert.
You think I wanted to lose to a five-year old? Part of me, though, sympathized with the kid. Middle-aged players often avoided me. They assumed I was a young tiger. Their refusals were frequently accompanied by some cutting remark about my youth.
Pandolfini's eyes were pleading with me to accept. To please him I agreed to the game. But I was about to get crushed, and I knew it.