How We Banished a Chess Snob from La Dolce Vita

His name was Edgar Saenz and I hope it still is, that is, I hope he is still alive and thriving. He is one of the characters in this story.

Another character is Enzo Blundo, the master of La Dolce Vita, the only truly Italian coffee shop in all of Ensenada.

Finally there is me, the writer of this story.

Enzo and I were playing on a board that afternoon. This was somewhat unusual for us, for both of us preferred a tablet because a tablet keeps a record of the game for later study. Also we liked to use a clock, and the tablet provides one that does not require that you remember to hit it. On the other hand, playing with a nice set of real chess pieces is a special pleasure and helped advertise the coffee shop as a venue for playing chess.

I had just moved my king's knight when Edgar opened with his first salvo, "Why don't you move the other knight?"

Enzo acted as if he hadn't heard, keeping his hand to his chin as he stood watching the board. As best I could, I did the same and moved a bishop to clear the king's side for castling.

"Why did you do that?" asked Edgar quietly.

It is called kibitzing, and it is outrageously bad manners in chess clubs. Although not a chess club, La Dolce Vita was at that time the only establishment in Ensenada where chess was usually in progress. Some of the players who frequented the place were quite good. Chess sets were available for the asking, and one was usually set up on a vacant table.

But before I go further with these events, let me give some background on Edgar. He was an electrician, but not just any electrician. He worked for Mexico's Instituto de Astronomia, an organization which has a history reaching back to prehistoric Mexico and which demands the best of its members, something which Edgar very ably and gladly gave. I knew this from discussions with him and from discussions with others about him.

One other thing about Edgar. He could be grumpy. There was, for example, a man who would come into the shop occasionally and stand smoking a vape at the counter. If Edgar was at the counter, the behavior would put him in a near rage, altho' a quiet one. He valued Enzo's well-being so he never offended a customer, at least not voluntarily. But after the man left, Edgar would let anyone nearby know his opinion of the man.

But, getting back to this particular story, Enzo brought out his queen's knight.

Edgar said nothing.

I castled.

"What is that!?!?" exclaimed Edgar.

"Please, Edgar. We're trying to focus on the game and when you ask questions of us, it makes it difficult," I responded as gently as my irritation would allow.

At this, Edgar broke into a rage.

"I asked you a simple question! Why can't you answer it?" he fumed.

"Because we are trying to play chess. I would be happy to discuss the game after we finish, but not now."

"You're nuts! You chess players are all nuts!"

With this he stomped out of the shop, still in a rage and cursing quite loudly.

"Enzo, what was that?" I asked my friend.

"He is like that sometimes. Do not worry. It was not your fault."

I stopped playing. I couldn't play anymore. I was very upset. Edgar was a friend to both of us and for Enzo a valued patron.

"Tomas, please. It is OK. He will be back."

"Ahh, Enzo, I have been unkind," I replied. "The next time he does it, I'm going to stop the game and answer his questions. And as soon as I see him I am going to apologize for my behavior."

"You are very generous, Tomas, but I doubt he will remember the incident."

Edgar did indeed remember the incident. About a week later he strolled into the shop. At first I didn't recognize him: before he had always come to the shop in jeans and a flannel shirt; now he was wearing a suit.

"Senor Tom," he said in gracious tones, his face lighted with a smile. "How are you?"

"I am very well and glad to see you looking so well," I returned delighted to see him.

"And what is the occasion for your suit?" I continued. "Have you come from a wedding?"

"No. I am dressed this way to show my respect for you and Enzo. I have come to apologize."

"What a coincidence!" I began my response. "I have been wanting to apologize to you."

"But the fault was all mine, let me assure you," returned Edgar.

"No, you may not. Let us kiss on the cheeks French style, and then I will explain ..."

"Well, it is not my style to kiss a man, but if you insist ..."

"I do not insist. But let me cut to the chase. Putting chess before the affection I have for you and offending you is something I am very sorry for. And I realize now that La Dolce Vita is a coffee shop, a place to be with others and enjoy coffee and the good pastries which Enzo and his wife prepare for us, and that it is not a chess club. So I hope the next time you want to ask me a question when I am playing, you will do it. And I will stop playing and answer your question and give you some more questions to ask. Let me show you, by the way, the answer to your last question."

With this, I led him over to a chess board and set up the pieces. Then I asked him, "The move you asked about, the move with the king and the castle, do you remember it?"

"Yes, quite well. I had never seen that before," he replied, his eyes riveted on the setup.

"Well, here is how it works." With that, I opened with a few moves which cleared the way between white's king-side rook and the king, then said, "Here is the position from which I made the move."

"Yes, I remember the position," he said.

Then I castled the king.

"It is called castling," I said.

"And why do you do that?" he asked.

"Ah, that is an interesting question, which is to say it has an interesting answer. Actually there are two answers. One has to do with playing chess. For starters, the move protects the king by getting it away from the center files of the board. Also, it gets the power of the castled rook into the center files. Usually, you want to focus on the center of the board in the early part of the game."

"Ah! And because your opponent will also focus his power on the center files, it is better to get the king away from them. It is so?" responded Edgar.

"Exactly!" I said.

"And the other answer?" asked Edgar.

"The other answer is to the question, 'Why does the rule exist in the first place?' And the answer is, to the best of my knowledge, 'We do not know.' We do know that the rule developed gradually and rather chaotically over a period beginning about 1300 and spanning about 100 years. Historians of chess speculate that the rule was introduced to eliminate a set of moves which were repeated in almost every game; thus the reason for the rule was to make the game more interesting. There are other rules which were introduced for the same reason. For example, the pawn can move two squares on its first move. But the real reason for these changes is the reason for chess itself: fun!"

"Fun, eh? Fun for masochists it seems to me. But I love you both! How about some espresso? On me, of course."

"No, no," interrupted Enzo, our host. "On me!"

Then he said, looking at the other faces in the shop as they listened to our discussion, "On me, for everyone!"