The Day We Discovered The Scholar's Mate

ChessOver the boardOpening
Return with me to those wacky days of yesteryear--back when Elvis was still alive and Elton John was still good!--as the bell for morning recess has just gone off in our sixth-grade class.

Usually we would all go spilling out onto the playground, trying to be the first ones to reach the four-square court and take up our positions (a moment too late and you'd be relegated to standing in line and having to wait your turn).

Increasingly though a number of us would stay inside to play chess. This was around when Fischer had started making the headlines and the game was no longer an activity strictly for rainy days.

This was a day that would turn out to be quite a bit different from all the others though. For one of my classmates--Joe--had brought in a book. And not just any book (about the recently inaugurated Super Bowl perhaps, or The Planet of the Apes). A chess book!

It was right after Christmas vacation and he'd decided to share his new gift with the rest of us.

Well, mainly me at first. Somehow I got first crack at it, I guess because I was the best player there (although just barely).

But I mean, who even knew there were such things as books about chess? Yet there it all was: in pictures and diagrams--with explanations of how the pieces moved--even that strange business known as castling.

The best part of all though was the chapter that said you could win a game in just seven moves! And even that was kind of weird, for according to them it was four moves...somehow they were counting White's and Black's moves together, as though they were a single turn. Another mind-boggling fact for us to absorb.

I remember we went through it time and again, me and Joe, right there at his desk. Going over it until we had it all memorized (it was the version that featured Qf3--only of course they called it Q-B3--rather than Qh5).

And so--feeling the glow of being transformed into instant geniuses by this secret knowledge--we both headed out to find some victims.

First up for me was Sean. He kept saying, "Wait...wait..." each time it happened. As though he might be able to concoct some answer to QxP mate.

After it had happened the third time he let out a sharp laugh and asked me how to do it. Evidently preferring to have the candle lit for him (rather than go on cursing the darkness). :)

Soon afterwards he was heading off himself to perpetrate it on some other unsuspecting soul. And so like proverbial wildfire the news spread...until by the end of recess the whole room knew about it.

Naturally, none of us had ratings back then (or even knew what they were); but if we had had them, that one book would've just about doubled all of them! :D

As a footnote, don't ask me how the author came up with the idea of modeling one of the world's cheapest mates on a Nazi terror tactic. For a long time afterwards though I thought that really was the name for it; I would shake my head at the term Scholar's Mate (which is after all an equally implausible term) and insist that it was actually called the Blitzkrieg!

Many years later--while shopping at a library book sale--I remember coming across that same tome. Admittedly, I didn't recognize it at first; it was only when I opened it and glanced through a few pages that that whole Blitzkrieg business came back to me. "Wow...this is it!" I murmured to myself. I didn't actually buy it though--unfortunately (as it would've helped me quite a bit in cobbling this thing together).

Anyway, one thing at least is clear: nobody in my sixth grade had ever heard of the French Defense. :)