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By David Klass
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 David Klass
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Chess club was done for the day, and so was I. I had played three games that afternoon, two of which I'd managed to lose in the first fifteen moves. I tried to remind myself that I had just taken up the game six months ago and was still learning the basics, but there were times when I wanted to heave the nearest chess set out the window and never touch another rook or pawn again.
I pulled on my coat and headed out the door. Suddenly a hand yanked me back into the empty room and I found myself alone with the two senior co-captains of the chess team, Eric Chisolm and Brad Kinney. "We need to talk to you, Patzer- face," Eric said as Brad locked the door.
A "patzer" in chess speak is a beginner who barely knows the moves and is a pushover to beat. It's like being called a combination of chump, rookie, and dufus. Given the unfortunate similarity of my name to "patzer," I had been called it many times since I first walked in the door of the chess club. But "Patzer-face" was a new twist by the co-captains that I didn't particularly like. "Actually my name's Pratzer," I stammered, glancing from one to the other to try to figure out what was going on.
Eric Chisolm was senior class president, a turbo-charged student and a superachiever with intense black eyes who had never gotten less than an A in his life. He was a grind—maybe not brilliant but he outworked everyone else. He literally could never sit still—even when Eric played chess he was always fidgeting, getting up for water, and pacing behind his chair, probably doing his calculus homework in his head while figuring out a next move that would destroy his opponent. He was the son of a heart surgeon, and everyone knew he was going to be the valedictorian, go to Harvard, and discover the cure for cancer.
Brad Kinney was less intense but more naturally talented. He was tall and rugged, with a grade point average that glittered as brightly as the huge trophies he won as captain of the swimming team and contributed to our school's trophy case. For fun, and maybe to make us all even a little more jealous, he dated the prettiest girl in the freshman class. He was the best chess player in our club—a master at eighteen who regularly won local and regional tournaments.
At another school the two of them probably wouldn't have been caught dead on the chess club, but Loon Lake Academy had the oldest and strongest chess team in New Jersey—the Looney Knights—and it was cool to be on it, especially if you were Eric Chisolm or Brad Kinney.
I was not Eric or Brad—I was Daniel Pratzer, apparently also known in certain circles as Patzer-face. I was not tall or brilliant or rich. The admissions office must have accepted me because it was a weak year and my combination of mediocre scholarship and undistinguished extracurriculars was just enough to pass muster.
My grade average hovered above C+, resisting all my attempts to lift it into the B range like an airplane that has reached its operational ceiling and can't gain a few more feet of desperately needed altitude. I could play a bunch of sports reasonably well, but the electrifying soccer run and the diving baseball catch forever eluded me. I had decided to join the chess club on a whim. The school sports teams practiced for more than two hours every day, and since I was still struggling with the homework load I didn't have enough free time or ability for them. Chess met every Tuesday, and I thought the club might be a good way to make some new friends.
"We know what your name is, Patzer-face," Eric said. "That's why we need to talk to you."
"What about my name?" I began to ask.
"Sit down and shut your trap," Brad advised with his usual charm.
I sat at a desk and waited nervously. Was this some kind of freshman chess club initiation? Would they do something awful to me with rooks and bishops, leaving scars that would last for the rest of my life? I had only been at Loon Lake Academy for seven months, and had so far managed to fly under the radar of the cool-and-cruel crowd.
I glanced from one senior co-captain to the other and tried to figure out what these two towering school icons could possibly want from me.
"What are you doing this weekend?" Eric asked.
"Nothing special," I told him. "Staying home. Watching some junk on TV. Rethreading my sheets."
"Rethreading your what?"
"It was a joke," I explained.
"His sense of humor's worse than his chess playing," Eric grunted to Brad.
"You're not going to be rethreading anything this weekend," Brad told me. "Don't make any plans."
"What's this about?"
Brad plunked his big frame down on the desk next to my chair and folded his arms, staring at me with his bright blue eyes. It didn't seem fair that a guy who could swim fifty meters in thirty seconds and had the physique of a Viking raiding-party chieftain was also a chess master, with a rating well above the 2200 norm. "We know about your father," Brad announced.
"Huh?" I gulped. What was there to know about Morris Pratzer except that he was the shortest, baldest, and no doubt poorest father to ever send a child to Loon Lake Academy? He was practically mortgaging our house so that his only son could go to this fancy private school.
I don't mean to be critical—my dad's a good guy who works long hours at his accounting firm and sacrifices everything for his family. He also has a lighter side and some notable hidden talents that he sometimes reveals at parties: he can wiggle his ears, arch his eyebrows in opposite directions, and do a half-decent Elvis impersonation, but he's not the sort of "A-Lister" that people suddenly dig up revelations about.
"There's a chess tournament this weekend in New York," Eric said, as if that explained everything.
"Didn't see it on our schedule ..." I replied cautiously. The truth is I rarely looked at the tournament schedule because I wasn't on the five-member travel team. Nor was I on the seven-member backup team. I was on the euphemistically titled Regular Reserve Roster, which meant they would use me when necessary—which was no doubt never unless a comet struck Loon Lake and killed the dozen players ahead of me.
"That's 'cause it's not a regular school tournament," Brad cut me off. "It's a new kind of tournament. A father-son tournament. Each team needs six players to enter—three fathers and three sons. It's at the Palace Royale Hotel in New York City. There's twenty thousand dollars in prize money. Ten grand for first place. Do you understand now?"
No, I didn't understand. Eric and Brad were strong players and I knew their fathers were both experts, but I was a patzer and my dad had never played a game of chess in his life. When I joined the club and brought some pieces home, I offered to teach him how they moved. "No thanks, Daniel," he said, laughing. "I don't have the mind for it."
I looked back at Eric and Brad and shook my head. "I don't get it. I won't help you much and my dad doesn't play."
Eric dug out a piece of paper. I saw that it was some kind of computer printout. "Your father is Morris W. Pratzer?" he asked, like a prosecuting attorney nailing an evasive witness.
"We needed one more father-son to join us so we ran the dads of all club members through the Chess Federation ratings database, going back three decades."
He showed me the paper. My father's name and rating were there with an asterisk because his rating hadn't changed in almost thirty years. I stared at it. According to the printout, Morris W. Pratzer had been a grandmaster, rated well over 2500. "This is a mistake," I said. "Don't you think I'd know it if my father was a grandmaster?"
"Apparently not, Patzer-face," Eric said.
"Go home and have a father-son chat," Brad urged, handing me a sheet with info about the tournament. "Find out the source of this little misunderstanding. Tell your dad we humbly invite him to join us this weekend in Manhattan, and if Grandmaster Pratzer doesn't show up we'll wring his son's neck."CHAPTER 2
My mom had cooked a meat loaf that night, with broccoli and rice pilaf. She isn't a very good cook, but there are a dozen or so meals that are family favorites that she's made so many times over the years she's perfected them. Meat loaf is high on the list, and we were all digging in.
My sister, Kate, sat across from me, trying to eat as little broccoli as possible and get away from the table fast so that she could gab with her friends on her new cell phone. She went to the same crummy public school I had gone to for years. My parents were planning to send her to a private high school, too, when she finished middle school.
With the prospect of two kids in private school looming, my mom had gone back to work as an assistant teacher in the local elementary school. She worked in a first-grade class, and even though she was home by three p.m. most days, she now wore a perpetually tired and harried look, as if platoons of six-year-olds had been attacking her nonstop for hours, bellowing war cries and firing paper wads at her till she was ready to raise the white flag.
"I don't hear anyone talking so I guess the dinner is okay," she said.
"It's delicious, Ruth," my father told her, carving another slice of meat loaf for himself. He wasn't a big man, and he sat in a chair all day doing people's taxes and figuring out their books, so he probably shouldn't have been eating so much. His paunch was expanding into a sizable potbelly. "Kate, chew with your mouth closed, please."
She rolled her eyes at him, but so slowly that it was hard to tell if they were circling in irritation or just moving around the room in an innocent roundabout pattern. "Can I be excused?" she asked.
"After you finish your broccoli."
She picked up a tiny floret, broke it in two, and put half of it in her mouth. "Yum," she said. "Can I be excused now?"
"No," my father told her. "And if you roll your eyes at me again, that new phone is going to disappear for a week."
"Great," she said. "Threaten me. What parenting book have you been reading?"
My father let out a sigh, as if to say "I work hard all day and come home to this." He looked at me. "How's school, Daniel? Tell me something fun."
"We dissected rats in bio lab today."
Kate lowered her fork. "That's it. I'm out of here."
"Not till you finish your broccoli," my father told her. "Daniel, that's not suitable dinner conversation."
"Well, we did," I said.
"Especially when we're eating meat loaf," Kate noted, grinding a piece of broccoli against her plate with her fork, as if attempting to break the limp vegetable up into subatomic particles that would then float away into the ether. "Who knows what goes into meat loaf."
"Ground sirloin," my mother said. "There were no rodent ingredients in the recipe. Could we get off this subject?"
"Try again, Daniel," my father said. "Something fun and interesting must have happened today."
I took a deep breath. "Okay. Something unusual did happen in chess club."
"It's kind of hard to believe that anything fun and exciting could happen in a chess club," Kate muttered.
"Go on, Daniel," my mother encouraged me. "I'm sure we'd all like to hear what happened, including your sister."
"There's going to be a tournament in New York this weekend," I said. "They're only bringing three players from the whole team. They want me to come."
"That's exciting," my mom said. "Do you want to go? Will the school pay for it?"
"It's not a regular school tournament," I told her. I was watching my dad as he chewed his meat loaf. "It's a father-son tournament."
His eyes flicked to me for a moment and then quickly down at his plate. He swallowed the meat loaf he was chewing and had a long drink of water, then slowly put down his fork.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," my mother said.
"Neither did I," I told her. "And I still don't."
"When are we getting to the fun and interesting part?" Kate wanted to know.
"Your dad doesn't play chess," my mom observed.
Dad looked at her and then back at me.
"That's what I told them," I said. "Why would you want my dad? He can't play at all. But they said they had done a computer search on all the team fathers, and he used to play really well."
"They must have had the wrong Morris Pratzer," my mother said. "It's not a common name, but there are dozens of Pratzers out there."
"They had looked up Morris W. Pratzer," I told her, emphasizing the middle initial. "You're Morris William Pratzer, right, Pop?"
"Yes," my father answered softly, putting one hand flat on the table as if preparing to resign a chess game.
"According to their information, Morris W. Pratzer was a grandmaster." I heard a little anger creep into my voice. "But that can't be, because if you were a grandmaster, Dad, your son would know about it and not have to be told by a bunch of chess club bozos. Right? If you were a grandmaster, we would be playing games every night, and you would be teaching me openings and endgame theory and helping me out so I wouldn't be just a patzer."
My father stood up from the table and drew himself up to his full height of five feet four inches. His fist came down on the tabletop so hard that it rattled the silverware. "I'm not playing in any chess tournament in New York next weekend, and neither are you, Daniel. You're going to help me clean the basement. Now, excuse me. I've lost my appetite." He walked quickly away from the table.
My mother and I watched him go, and then looked at each other. She stood up and started after him.
"Well, that was kind of interesting," Kate admitted to me. Then she shouted: "Hey, Dad, aren't you going to finish your broccoli?"CHAPTER 3
He was standing on the back porch, his hands in his pockets, staring up at the half-moon that floated tiredly above this dinky New Jersey town, and I would have felt sorry for him if I hadn't been so angry.
My mom opened the screen door and propelled me toward him with a gentle push. "Go, talk to him, Daniel. He has some good news."
I wondered what kind of a conversation they had just had. After my dad stormed away from the dinner table, Mom had followed him into their room and shut the door. They had talked, often in loud voices, for the better part of an hour.
Kate had gone straight from dinner to her room and was blabbing away on the phone at ten thousand decibels, so even if I had wanted to eavesdrop on my parents, all I could hear was seventh-grade girl talk: "Do you really think he's hot? No, of course I don't like him. Don't make me barf. I mean, he acts like a total dolt, but that look he gives you—oh my God—but he's such a jerk. Where did you hear that ? No, I swear I don't and never will. But this is what his friend Allen told Susan that Glen overheard him saying about the time we met up at the ice rink and I spilled hot chocolate on him."
I retreated into my own bedroom and took out my algebra homework and tried to lose myself in solving the sorts of problems that actually have logical answers. But my mind kept circling back like a boomerang toward a more difficult and personal mind twister: What kind of father is a master—no, a grand master—at something and never tells his family? What possible solution could there be for that? I forced myself to focus on the homework and whipped off a few problems in record time. Math is my best subject. I'm not a genius at it, but I must have inherited some of my dad's numerical ability along with the lousy sports genes.
My father can add twenty four-digit numbers in his head faster than I can punch them into a calculator. "It's no big deal," he always says with a shrug, after amazing people with his party trick. "People are afraid of numbers but numbers are our pals. You just have to let them come in and play around like old friends."
"How can numbers be friends?" I remember thinking at age seven or eight when I first heard him say it, trying to imagine a playdate between numbers 4 and 11, or a water balloon fight between 7 and 52. But when I hit fourth grade, I started seeing patterns that other kids couldn't see, and when I looked at homework or test problems I often leapfrogged to the right answer.
It was as if the numbers were calling out to me: "Hey, Daniel, this is your friend 123. Just plug me in right after the equal sign, old bud. Good to see you again. And give my regards to your dad."
I glanced away from my homework to the trophies on the shelf above my desk. There were more than twenty of them, and not all were merely for participating. I had worked hard to become a decent baseball player, a moderately competitive tennis player, and an acceptable soccer player with a good right foot. But I had never been great at any of them. I was never the go-to guy, the star picked first, the hitter with the Babe Ruth swing who came steaming around third with the coach windmilling his arm and everybody on their feet cheering wildly for a tape-measure home run.
Excerpted from Grandmaster by David Klass. Copyright © 2014 David Klass. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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