The Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t exactly an ethics film. However, it did trigger a memory from high school of an episode in my life that I cherish, when a group of callow teenage chess-players, led by me, repeatedly made the admirable choice, and left the scene as heroes, even though we lost.
It was my junior year, and approximately the same period in which the heroine of “The Queen’s Gambit” finds herself discriminated against for being a rare young woman in the male-dominated world of competitive chess. Arlington High School had a chess club, and I was president of the club and captain of the team. We had a girl on the team: my sister Edith, who was a freshman that year. She was undefeated in our league in ten competitions with other schools, first because she was very good, if ruthless, second because everyone she played under-estimated her, and third because I “stacked” her in our ten board line-up. Edith always played 9th or 10th board, which means she was facing inferior players, giving the AHS team a guaranteed win every time.
That year we decided to enter the Metropolitan Boston High School Team Championship tournament, a five player-team affair routinely won by Sharon (Mass.)High School’s team. It featured the highest ranking junior player in the state, and the state Junior Champion, as well as a third player of similar caliber. I brought Edith as our fifth board, and sure enough, she was the only girl in the tournament. She also did very well, though she lost one game early on: the competition was much stronger than what she was used to.
After two days of play, my team found itself tied for second place; Sharon, of course, was first and undefeated. The team we were tied with, Boston Latin, had already played us (and lost), so for the final round, one of us would have to face the buzz-saw Sharon (a cockybunch that acted like the chess equivalent of the bad guy martial arts team in “The Karate Kid’), and the other would get to play the much weaker team in fourth place. Essentially, the result of a coin flip would decide whether Arlington or Boston Latin would finish second and get a trophy, because a loss to Sharon was considered a foregone conclusion.
My friend (and our best player) Paul Connelly was my choice to handle the flip, and we had discussed our situation. He called heads, and that’s what came up. And Paul, as we had planned, pointed at the Sharon team and shouted, “We’ll play them!”
Well, the place went nuts, especially the Boston Latin team, which felt it had a second place trophy in the bag. The tournament director came up to me and said our choice was “the best example of sportsmanship and competitive spirit” he had seen in 40 years.
The match had a lot of twists and terms, but to get to the best part: I elevated Edith to board three, in part because she had played so well, but mainly because I had a hunch that her aggressive style might unsettle her opponent, who was the top rated junior player in Massachusetts. He greeted her with the smirk she had learned to expect. Meanwhile, I won, Paul lost, and the 4 and 5 board players split. We were tied 2-2, so t was all up to Edith…and we noticed a huge crowd gathering around her game. She had the Sharon player’s king in the middle of the board, and was mounting one of her trademark all-offense-to-hell-with-defense attacks!
He offered her a draw. That would mean that we would tie Sharon in the match, a major achievement, though it would still relegate us to third place. Edith consulted with me and Paul about whether to accept the offer. “What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I think I can beat him,” she said, as I knew she would. “Then go do it,” I replied.
Well, she missed a winning move, and he won. Sharon won the match. Edith started to apologize, and I stopped her. “Are you kidding? You have nothing to apologize for,” I told her. “You gave the best junior player in the state the scare of his life. You refused to take the easy way out. You played a brilliant game, and made everyone in this room realize that female chess players could be every bit as good as the guys. And you made me proud to be your brother.”
After the awards ceremony, the tournament director came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “Be sure to tell your team that they were the real champions here today.”
“They know,” I said.