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.
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.
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
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
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.
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