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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, August 25, 2008


When I was a teenager I was enthusiastic about chess. I'd always been fascinated by the game, and felt frustrated at age 6 or 7 when my father refused to teach it to me.

"You should learn checkers first," he said.

I was initiated into the game at age 8, I think, by my classmate Bill. I'm not sure whether he knew the game properly himself, but he got me started.

In 1972, when I was 13, the world was on fire over the apocalyptic (so the press would have had us think) world-championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik. Incredible though it may seem, each game in the 24-game series was front-page news worldwide. Now my father taught me how to read chess notation, and we would examine the games together--some of my favorite memories.

Over the next few years I attended a few tournaments and collected several books on chess. One of these books contained a chapter discussing the introduction and use of the clock in chess tournaments. In case you don't know, a chess clock is a twin set of clocks that measure the amount of time each player has spent deliberating over moves. In tournament and club play they are required, and they are often used in casual games by serious players as well. Nowadays these clocks are digital, but in my day the clocks were regular dial-clocks, actuated by buttons protruding from the top of the case. You'd make a move, punch your button, and this would stop your clock while simultaneously restarting your opponent's.

The time limit, called the "time control", is established in advance, and can be whatever the event organizers decree (or casual players agree on). I remember the time control for the Fischer-Spassky match: each player had 2.5 hours for the first 40 moves of a game, then 1 hour for each 16 moves thereafter. This is a relatively long and open-ended time control. By contrast, "rapid transit" chess is played with just 5 minutes for each player to finish the whole game.

And what happens if you exceed your time limit? Simple: you lose. If you're about to deliver checkmate, and your flag drops, you lose.

As my book pointed out, the clock was a lifesaver for chess. Without clocks, chess games would be reduced to a "turtle-paced inanity".

That phrase stuck in my mind. Recently it rose to the surface again, but not regarding chess, which I haven't played for years, but in regard to--you guessed it--my opus in progress. Trying to nap after lunch, or lying awake in the dark of night, the words haunt me: "turtle-paced inanity".

True, this is hare-speak. The turtle's pace suits the turtle. For the Preacher in Ecclesiastes it's a matter of painful irony that the race is not always to the swift, but Aesop provided a reason for that apparent anomaly in his fable of the tortoise and the hare. Hares are cocky and goof off.

But maybe that's just turtle-speak. No doubt turtles (or tortoises) have copies of Aesop tucked in their shells: consoling words for when the hares are sopping up the glory.

Turtle-paced inanity. The phrase has a rhythm that invites chanting. I'd better resist that--if I can.

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