Catching Zs

The thing about driving across the desert is that you can close your eyes, catch some Zs, and when you open your eyes again nothing much has changed.

That’s the last thing I remember thinking. But, when I opened my eyes, up was down and down was up. The seat belt was doing a good job of holding me in place, but the assorted objects that had been resting comfortably on the floor, and on the seat, and in the glove box, a box that popped open on the first rotation of the car, were all obeying the laws of physics as they flew about.

A baseball bat from the floor behind my seat, carefully placed there to protect me should some punk decide to do me harm, flew near my head striking the windshield. I felt like the target of those physical laws, never mind that they didn’t know me from the bat.

I was on my way to the National Open in Las Vegas to play chess, but now I was on my way to the hospital. I arrived at the Montevista, where an x-ray revealed no broken bones, but missed a nice collection of bruises. The doctor said I’d be sore for a few days and offered me drugs. I said, “no” but he insisted.

“Just in case you change your mind,” he said. I don’t like to take drugs, they make my mind all fuzzy, and a fuzzy mind is the last thing a chess player needs.

I took a cab, east on West Rochelle, a right at Durville, right again at West Flamingo and then, Las Vegas Boulevard, the center of all the action. I soon arrived at the Riviera, the site of the weekend of chess I had planned before my restful trip across the desert.

I checked into my room in the Monaco Tower and headed for the casino. I saw a friend, Harold, at the roulette wheel and stopped to talk for a minute. Harold has a system. He only bets on black or red, choosing the opposite of what has recently come up. He’s a smart fellow, and yet I haven’t convinced him that his system is bunk.

“The wheel has no memory.” I say. I’ve repeated the phrase so frequently over the years that it’s started to sound like something a Buddhist monk would chant. Harold doesn’t make his bet because he thinks the wheel is flawed, but rather because it just feels true, the opposite color is due.

I try again, the wheel has no memory. It’s not like chess, I say, where your moves do influence the outcome, but alas Harold and the gambler’s fallacy are married for time and all eternity.

In a Swiss-system tournament, the top of half of the field is paired with the bottom half of the field. There are no eliminations. You can lose every damn round, if you don’t play well your only choice is to deal with the blow to your ego and go on, or withdraw. If you knew you were going to lose the choice would be easy, but you don’t, and so you play.

I started quickly, winning my first round game in 19 moves. The second round was a strange one, the bumps and bruises made themselves known and in the beginning I felt uncomfortable at the board. The feeling only lasted a while. And then, I reached a trance like state.

I was seeing everything. The pieces seemed to be moving themselves. I could have drifted off, taken a short nap, and I’m certain that when I awoke the pieces would have continued to find the right squares. The result would follow inevitably, like the flotsam that had done the extreme makeover on the inside of my car a few days earlier.

Chess attracts all kinds, many of them quite strange. It’s expected, but this event would register a ten on the weirdness scale; the nuts outnumbered the geniuses by a wide margin.

At the coffee shop after the day’s final round, a player, I call him momma’s boy since he always travels to the tournaments with his mother. He must have won his last round, I don’t know how else to explain his behavior. But, he was going from table to table stabbing the air with his fork and yelling, “put a fork in him he’s done.”

Security arrived a few minutes later and escorted him from the restaurant. I saw him later still playing in the tournament so they must have believed his explanation, though I can’t imagine what it was.

The third and fourth rounds were uneventful. There was nothing but the ticking of clocks punctuated by a handshake, a signature on a score sheet, a smile, and a frown.

At the beginning of the fifth round, I observed a silent exchange between two players. One was waving his hand and pretending to write in the air. I understood it as a request for a pencil. The other player, paying no attention to his opponent’s antics, was setting his clock. The player looking for the pencil was now looking for a score sheet as well, something to fill out with the nonexistent pencil which he continued to wave about.

Finally, one of the other players, anxious to begin his own game walked over to the table and placed a score sheet and pencil there, and turned to leave. Air writer said nothing, but checked the pencil for suitability and then, as if to punctuate an unpleasant situation, raised slightly off his chair and farted.

The tournament ended Sunday night. I hadn’t played well. I blame my bumps and bruises, and the pain reliever I never took. I must, however, report a final incident.

A player’s opponent fell asleep at the board during the final round and was snoring. His opponent tried to wake him up with a whispered admonition and failing that, uttered a louder, more forceful plea, which received a loud shushing from nearby players. He rose, walked around the table, placed his hand on his opponent’s shoulder, and shook him, first gently, and then more vigorously.

His opponent woke with a start and swung his arms out in front of him and to the side sending the chess clock flying. The clock struck the head of the player to his right. The player took the full blow to his head and fell to the floor.

He wasn’t wearing a seat-belt, but a seat-belt never helps in an accident where an object just lying around, and then following the laws of physics becomes a lethal weapon.

That’s the thing about playing chess, you can close your eyes, catch some Zs and when you open your eyes again nothing much has changed.

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