There is a solidarity between teacher and team, a bond forged by Americans outside the mainstream. “Mr. Times, he’s one of us. He doesn’t talk down to you. If he says knight-to-f4 is a wack move, he tells you why. He doesn’t just teach you how to play chess, he makes you feel like a chess player. That’s why we learn so fast,” says Santiljan Vukaj, who was born twelve years ago in the small village of Vermosh on the northern frontier of Albania and now lives with his family in the shadow of the approach ramp to the George Washington Bridge. Santi’s father, Sander, a raw-boned man in his forties currently “in construction,” he says, left Albania because “there Santi can be in the military or a farmer. If he is smart, it doesn’t matter. Here he has a chance. I will do anything, anything—to make that happen.”
It is that awesome anything—the unconditional immigrant ethic—that makes his team so tough, Mr. Times thinks. “They have a lot of heart,” he says. “They don’t give in.”
When you’re with the Mott Hall team, you can feel it, this sort of love, if not necessarily for each other, then for the game and the way Mr. Times brings it to them. You can see it in Mr. Times’s face at the Opryland, watching a practice game between Santiljan and Sammy Dominguez, who was born in Mexico and now lives in Brooklyn, where his father sells flowers to delis. “Here’s Santi, who loves to win, and Sammy, who hates to lose. The ultimate optimist versus the ultimate pessimist, closely matched. Hard to pick a winner.”
Off in another part of the room, Angel is playing Luis. Diana is kibitzing, along with Yiqing. The evening before, Angel had broken out in hives. It was very painful. Marc Briller, who serves as the program coordinator at Mott Hall, had to take him to the emergency room in the middle of the night. There was some thought that perhaps Angel should withdraw from his third-round game on Saturday morning. But Angel, whose father works in a grocery store, refused. He played a marathon 56-move match and was still totally pissed at himself for making what he called “an idiot move” that cost him the contest. This effort, however, was cutting Angel no particular slack from Diana.
He moved his bishop, and she frowned.
“What’s the matter?” Angel demanded. “It is a good move.”
“Maybe for you it is.” Lauren Bacall couldn’t have said it better.
The third round proved to be an excellent one for Mott Hall. Diana’s game was a standout. She found herself in a brutal, drawn-out struggle with a pudgy 12-year-old boy from Arizona. The boy kept the pressure on, taking Diana’s queen in the early stages. But she didn’t fold. She was able to develop her bishops to compensate for the loss in material. It was as if, overnight, in the stress of the tourney, Diana had developed a new way of spacing her pieces on the board. Mr. Times said Diana’s improvement was owed to the “Mott Hall hairpin learning curve.” The game came down to pawns, exactly the sort of situation an inexperienced player like Diana might lose against a higher-rated opponent. But Diana won after 60 moves. Asked to describe the game, Mr. Times said, simply, “Will.”
Diana set the tone. Then Dionis, Diego, and Albert also won, and Mott Hall scored a perfect four points, the maximum. They were in a tie for first with Hunter. “Don’t get too happy,” warned Mr. Times. Upcoming was “the karmic fourth round.” Historically, for reasons known only to the chess gods, the fourth round has been difficult for Mott Hall.
“History? What’s that?” asked Luis, with a bit more Colombian bravado than called for.
“Oh, history, we don’t need no stinkin’ history,” shot Mr. Times, alluding to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
As it was, history proved a formidable foe. One by one, the Mott Hall players left the giant Ryman Hall with vexed and puzzled expressions on their faces. Tom went into his room and slammed the door. Even Diego looked shell-shocked. Luis’s game was the most galling. Able to discuss the formation of black holes with ease, Luis was nonetheless capable of losing chess games in the most exasperating fashion. This time, up a queen and five pawns in the middle game, he’d somehow gotten himself checkmated in 30 moves. “How do you do this?” Mr. Times wondered, looking ill as he analyzed Luis’s game. “You’re playing blind . . . Stevie Blunder chess.”
Last to appear was John Wang, the fourth-grader, the youngest on the team. He said nothing, just slumped down into the chair. “Well?” Everyone wanted to know. What happened? John wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he’d won or lost. “The game kept going on like dripping water . . . The lights were in my eyes . . . I felt like my head was full of spaghetti,” John said.
It was the dreaded zero round. Out of a possible four points, Mott had gotten none. They’d fallen from the lead, back to fifth, behind Hunter and a school named Moreland Elementary, from Minnesota.
Clearly, it was time to unleash the secret weapon, Mr. Times said, turning the round-five pep talk over to Candido Tirado. When he first took over at Mott Hall, Mr. Times established a three-pronged teaching model, hiring Abdul Musawwir, a t’ai chi master, and Tirado, a well-known playwright in addition to being a 2,200-rated chess master. “Abdul taught them to channel energy, gave them confidence, a swagger,” Mr. Times said. “Candido was the storyteller, the purveyor of the metaphor, from The Iliad on. He showed them the faces of the hero, the cosmic struggle, which is what chess is.”