Josh shook her
hand, turned and walked out of the room. When I met him in the hall, his eyes
were hollow and bloodshot, and he said he wanted to take a nap. There were
nearly 2� hours before the next round.
The third game
was against a talented young player from Charlotte who played through an
intricate modern opening but faltered in the middle game. The fourth game was
against the highest-rated player on the chess team from Hunter Elementary in
Manhattan, Dalton's archrival. He made a mistake, and it was an easy win for
After the first
day, half a dozen children had 4-0 records, including Josh and Jeff Sarwer, but
Morgan had drawn his fourth-round game, which in all likelihood put him out of
the running. At dinner his round face was gray and droopy, and he didn't have a
smile in him. It was difficult for me to be excited about Josh's chances for
winning and at the same time to express regret for Morgan, and it was hard for
Kalev to be enthusiastic for Josh. At the nationals, heavy emotions frequently
clang against one another.
Pandolfini was calming and encouraging to Josh, reminding him of key ideas in
his openings and traps to watch out for, but during the games he was distant
and apparently uninterested. While his pupil played. Bruce occasionally walked
through the lobby, glanced at the position on the screen, chatted with a few
parents and then returned to his room.
On Saturday night
we talked until 3 a.m., and Bruce explained in his gentle manner that he was
put off by much of what he saw here: the single-minded emphasis on winning, the
tacky one-upmanship of parents, the pain endured by young losers. Watching the
nationals had brought back what he hadn't liked about being a tournament
player; simply put, that one's self-worth as a human being became linked to
winning or losing, and that friendships were frequently strained by competition
over the board. He was uncomfortable with the role of coach. Teaching Josh rook
and pawn endings in our living room was one thing, but plotting the demise of
another player, particularly a young one, was something else.
At that moment,
however, I found Bruce's distaste and feigned neutrality annoying, even though
I realized he was bracing himself for disappointment and also carving a way out
both for himself and for Josh. Of course it was true that my son would be
miserable if he did poorly, and that Bruce would worry about where he had gone
wrong as a teacher, but tomorrow we had a chance to win. Like it or not, such
an event has its bloody side. There cannot be ecstatic winners without
miserable losers, but that weekend wasn't the time to agonize about it. Josh
and I wouldn't have been in Charlotte if it hadn't been for Pandolfini's artful
lessons and his insistence over the past three years that my son could be a
great player. Bruce had made Josh, and now he could bear only to peek at what
In the first two
rounds on Sunday, Josh played against two boys who were among the strongest for
their ages in the country and won both games without much difficulty. Jeff
Sarwer had also won his sixth-round game. He and Josh had the only perfect
scores and would play each other in the final round. Morgan had won his
fifth-and sixth-round games, and if Josh and Jeff drew their game and Morgan
won, there would be a three-way tie for the championship. Having calculated the
tiebreaks, however, I knew that Josh, who was higher seeded than either of
them, would win the first-place trophy if he and Jeff played to a draw. Josh
had also figured this out—but I knew he would be playing to win.
Pandolfini had said that if they met, Jeff would be Josh's toughest
competition. They had similar attacking styles, and both played the endgame
with a sophistication unique even among prodigies. Bruce had said that if Josh
played Jeff, it would be like playing against himself.
Who would have
the psychological edge? Jeff believed that no other child was in his class.
Josh believed in himself but had learned that losing was part of the game. Jeff
had humiliated Josh in the fall. Josh had returned the favor in the winter, and
the kids hadn't played again in the intervening five months. "Daddy, I'm
scared," Josh said at the door to the tournament room before the seventh
round. He had never said this to me before a chess game. "My stomach hurts.
I don't feel like playing." I handed him his blue pencil, the same one he
had used to score the moves in each of his first six games, the magic
stomachache will go away when you start to play." I said, and gave him a
kiss on the cheek. I wasn't sure it would go away; I knew mine wouldn't. One of
the tournament directors closed the door.