Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Chess - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace)

Following on from my previous post about ALCHEssMIST's alleged writing style being similar to the writer David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist & humorist who is best known for his 1996 novel "Infinite Jest".

The passage below comes from David Foster Wallace's non-fiction book - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.[1]

The excerpt recounts an experience he had on the holiday cruise ship m.v. Zenith, from 11th March - 18th March 1995. He describes how one morning (0930-0945 hrs) on this Caribbean cruise, he played a game of chess against a 9 year old girl in the cruise ship's library (deck 7) with her mother observing.
The Nadir's library's got cheapo Parker Brothers chess sets with hollow plastic pieces, which any good chess player has got to like.98 I'm not nearly as good at chess as I am at Ping-Pong, but I'm pretty good. Most of the time on the Nadir I play chess with myself (not as dull as it may sound), for I have determined that--no offense--the sorts of people who go on 7NC Megacruises tend not to be very good chess players.

Today, however, is the day that I am mated in 23 moves by a nine-year-old girl. Let's not spend a lot of time on this. The girl's name is Deirdre. She's one of the very few little kids on board not tucked out of sight in Deck 4's Daycare Grotto.
99 Deirdre's mom never leaves her in the Grotto but also never leaves her side, and has the lipless and flinty-eyed look of a parent whose kid is preternaturally good at something.
I probably should have seen this and certain other signs of impending humiliation as the kid first comes over as I'm sitting there trying a scenario where both sides of the board deploy a Queens Indian and tugs on my sleeve, and calls me Mister, and her eyes are roughly the size of sandwich plates. In retrospect it occurs to me that this girl was a little tall for nine, and worn-looking, slump-shouldered, the way usually much older girls get -- a kind of poor psychic posture. However good she may be at chess, this is not a happy little girl. I don't suppose that's germane.
Deirdre pulls up a chair and says she usually likes to be black and informs me that in lots of cultures black isn't thanatotic or morbid but is the spiritual equivalent of what white is in the U.S. and that in these other cultures it's white that's morbid. I tell her I already know all that. We start. I push some pawns forward and she develops a knight. Deirdre's mom watches the whole game from a standing position behind the kid's seat,100 motionless except for her eyes. I know within seconds that I despise this mom. She's like some kind of stage-mother of chess. Deirdre seems like an OK type, though--I've played precocious kids before, and at least Deirdre doesn't hoot or smirk. If anything, she seems a little sad that I don't turn out to be more of a stretch for her.
My first inkling of trouble is on the fourth move, when I fianchetto and Deirdre knows what I'm doing is fianchettoing and uses the term correctly, again calling me Mister. The second ominous clue is the way her little hand keeps flailing out to the side of the board after she moves, a sign that she's used to a speed clock. She swoops in with her developed QK and forks my queen on the twelfth move and after that it's only a matter of time. It doesn't really matter. I didn't even start playing chess until my late twenties. On move 17 three desperately old and related-looking people at the jigsaw puzzle table kind of totter over and watch as I hang my rook and the serious carnage starts. It doesn't really matter. Neither Deirdre nor the hideous mom smiles when it's over; I smile enough for everybody. None of us says anything about maybe playing again tomorrow.
98 Heavy expensive art-carved sets are for dorks.
99 This is something else Mr. Dermatitis declined to let me see, but by all reports the day care care on these Megaships is phenomenal, w/squads of nurturing and hyperkinetic young daycare ladies keeping the kids manically stimulated for up to ten-hour stretches via an endless of number of incredibly well structured activities, so tuckering the kids out that they collapse mutely into bed at 2000h. and leave their parents free to plunge into the ship's nightlife and Do It All.
100 The only chairs in the Library are leather wing chairs with low seats, so only Deirdre's eyes and nose clear the board's table as she sits across from me, adding a Kilroyishly surreal quality to the humiliation.
David Foster Wallace never went on a cruise again. He did, however, continue to play chess. In particular, he would play chess with his stepson Stirling, who usually won.[2]

More importantly, I would love to know what happened to Deirdre (or her mother), who should be around 24 years old now. I suspect her name is not really Deirdre though. Any information would be gratefully accepted.

[1] - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (Amazon site) by David Foster Wallace, Back Bay Books (February 2, 1998)

Tags: Caribbean - Chess - Cruise Ship - David Foster Wallace - Deirdre - Fianchetto - Grotto

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