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It's impossible," said Milan Vukcevich. "He can't do this." Vukcevich, a senior master, was sitting in the Bond Court Hotel in downtown Cleveland, looking at the chess board before him. Across the table was no one.
His opponent, Grand Master Pal Benko, was sitting about 400 miles away in the Manhattan Chess Club on East 55th Street, puzzling over his board. "This is terrible," Benko was saying.
Never in his long chess career had Benko found himself in such a situation. But then, this was the first game he had ever played in the National Chess League, the only sporting organization in the country, if not the world, whose teams compete over the telephone.
The league was only in its second season. Not all the bugs had been worked out.
Slowly, while both players stirred themselves up a rich blend of anguish, the trouble became clear. Benko's runner had erred. He had incorrectly written down a Benko move and given it to the man on the New York end of the telephones, who had relayed the misinformation to the Cleveland telephone man, who had given the wrong move to Vukcevich's runner, who had played it on Vukcevich's board. Three more moves were made by each man before anyone noticed. Then, abruptly, the game was an unplayable botch. On Vukcevich's board, the pieces had bumped together like cars on a fogged-in freeway. Now Cleveland demanded that the game be backed up three spaces to the scene of the accident.
Benko was appalled. "But I've given them my winning plan," he said. "How can they say this isn't the position? This is the position." Teammate Bernard Zuckerman, a veteran of the league, tried to explain. "This is the position in New York," he said gently. "However, the position in Cleveland is quite different."
Someone should have given the rookie a chalk talk. Muffs and miscues are to the NCL as punches in the nose are to the NHL. Last season a game between New York and San Francisco went 15 moves before it was discovered that White's first move had been transmitted incorrectly. They had to call the game a draw. And a long-distance rhubarb over whether New York's Robert Byrne, a former U.S. champion, had gone over his time limit grew so heated that Miami hung up in a tantrum, leaving four other games unfinished.
"It gets a little hairy," says Cleveland's phone man, Bill McElyea. "There are six boards on each team, which means you're transmitting and receiving pretty close to 500 moves, so it can become quite confusing." NCL teams usually play on alternate Wednesday nights, starting at 7:30. Some of the longer games have gone on till four or five in the morning, which can be hard on the players but is fine with the phone company, because the average bill for a match is $72.
Despite the hangups, crossed wires, intercity feuding, scant publicity and scarce money, the National Chess League not only survives, but also somehow grows. Last season there were nine teams in the league, and two of them—Miami and Houston—dropped out. This year there were 16 teams in the league.
The league's founder, Bill Goichberg, talks proudly of the nine "expansion franchises." He thinks the league will grow to 30 or 40 teams in the next few years and eventually to hundreds. "The fact that chess can be played by two opponents who are not even in the same place means that it can have a league that's much more truly national than football or baseball," he says. "They could never afford to have a team in Berwick, La. It just wouldn't pay."