Uncle Theo Taught Me Chess

A short story by Tony Blades

Clearing some of my drawers recently, I rummaged through a jumble of photos, documents and ephemera. Then I unearthed the small notebook I sought. Calling downstairs to my wife, “I’ve found it!”, I heard ” Good!”.    

The title is written in black fountain pen ink, “Stanley Weaver. Chess Games.”. A cheap jotter filled with untidy schoolboy script, yet to me it’s an object to treasure. Let me explain…      

After the war my mother’s sister had married a Polish man and settled in Kent. Sadly she died young and childless. Uncle Theo, who loved the Lakes and Snowdonia, moved to the Wirral.      

One rainy Sunday in autumn 1967 my parents announced that they were going to visit uncle. Would I like to stay at home with my older brother or accompany them? I chose the second option. We arrived at his top floor flat in a Victorian house in Oxton. He greeted us warmly, gesturing towards three comfortable green armchairs. He was a tall man with short grey hair and metal spectacles. As conversation flowed I gazed around the room, noticing prints, photographs, pot plants, three bookshelves and a large wooden chess set on an inlaid board on a table next to the bay window.

Theo followed my eyes, saying, “Do you play, young Stanley?”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Well, I can teach you now…”

Half an hour later, he had patiently explained the simple rules of the world’s greatest board game. Turning to my parents, he suggested another visit a month ahead; they agreed.  As we left, he said to me, “I don’t play much, as there is no Club near. I promise that the day you can defeat me, I will give you this chess set.”        

So from that day, I practiced regularly against my brother and schoolfriends. Birkenhead Library provided many good quality books, and I absorbed several every fortnight; my favourite was “Leipzig Olympiad 1960” featuring some games of the 17 year old American genius Bobby Fischer.         

Family visits to my uncle now always included one chess game. We never used a clock, but adhered to the “touch and move” rule.  I had learned the correct method of writing down entire games (similar to musical notation). At first I lost every time, of course. But he urged me to discover my errors by later analysis with stronger players. “Chess is life…..learn from your mistakes!” he said often. I practiced as often as possible and joined the school Club. Gradually, I began to gain more understanding. I learned tactical themes and to see the logical flow of each person’s plan.            

Looking at my scorebook, I see that in October 1968 I actually managed a draw with him, it ended in perpetual check. I recall that he smiled and praised my great progress.

I continued to study, mostly annotated grandmaster games. At Christmas, one of my gifts was a subscription to a British chess magazine.  By Spring 1969, I had beaten some strong school players and felt more confident. I realized the importance of watching the opponent carefully, of striving to anticipate their moves and being aware of traps.       

On 16th April 1969, we were again visiting. This time I had the White pieces. After 12 moves we had castled on opposite sides and both began to launch an attack against the enemy King; the ruthless clash of wooden armies in a silent battle. On move 33, I saw him frown after moving his Knight. I calculated some tactical sequences and visualized a plan which seemed to be highly favourable to me. But was I sure? My heart pounded as I rechecked my calculations. The idea was sound! It must lead to eventual victory! I reached out and played the move.

Uncle Theo scanned the board intensely. Twenty minutes later I had won a Bishop and one of my Rooks had invaded his half of the board. Suddenly, he turned over his King and shook my hand.       

“Well played! You’ve won the game and the chess set.  Denis and Jane, you can be proud of your son.”     

My parents applauded me; I thanked him for all his help.     

Now 59, almost a veteran player, I’ve competed in over forty tournaments and am a qualified coach. Yet I still derive the same level of enjoyment from this ancient game. Uncle Theo’s set is in the corner of my study, regularly used and with happy memories.

But I do reflect sometimes, was that 33rd move a genuine mistake, or an uncle’s kindness to his nephew?

This is a fictional short story; any resemblance to real people is coincidental. Tony Blades has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work. ©Tony Blades 2014.

If you are interested in contacting the author, he will reply to emails: tonyblades55@gmail.com

Are you interested in chess? If so, two recommended websites are: www.englishchess.org.uk (the official site of the English Chess Federation) and www.chess.com