George at Chess


William Logan

I met George Steiner at a lawn party. That summer of 1993, Debora and I had begun a long stay in Cambridge, where a few years earlier we’d bought a house in an old working-class neighborhood near the railway station. The row of terrace houses had been built in the 1880s, two parlors with a kitchen to the rear, three bedrooms upstairs, with a w.c. accessible only out the back door and down a little alley beside the house. (One small bedroom was often converted later to a full bath.) The slightly larger terraces offered a bay window, as ours did; about half had doormat-sized gardens in front and all had twenty feet of garden behind. Among late-Victorian occupants were a coachman, a draftsman, a book-binder, a college servant, a few police constables, and a flautist. The near corners once boasted two groceries and a pub. Further down the street, the houses grew broader and some feet taller, and hard by the station a number had been converted to guest houses.

The station stood a long mile from the ancient colleges clustered at the town center. When the railway reached the city in 1845, they demanded that the station be a good distance away to keep the rabble out—so went local myth, and like most myth not untrue but not true, either. The colleges merely refused to sell the necessary land. When we took up life in Cambridge, the old railway hotel was still open. The imposing Victorian flour mill along the tracks, since converted to a tall stack of condominiums, was still grinding grain. There must have been fields where the terrace houses rose—fields and a windmill, commemorated by Mill Street and Mill Road. The streets around our house were slowly changing. John, our neighbor, had come to Cambridge from the Ukraine after the war. He raised onions and cut the lawn of his miniature garden with scissors. Those postwar tenants were succumbing to age—indeed, John died two or three years later. Young families were moving in. We’ve now owned the house longer than almost anyone along the street.

George was delighted to meet us because his son-in-law had grown up in Gainesville, Florida, where I’ve taught for many years. That August George and Zara invited us over to Barrow Road when their daughter and son-in-law, both classics scholars, came to visit. The Steiner house had been built between the wars on Trinity College land. The road was lined with cherry trees. We sat in the parlor furnished with a teal-blue Danish Modern sofa, two wingback armchairs, a leather club-chair, a large mid-century modernist painting, and the knickknacks and accoutrements common in Anglo-American parlors. On bookshelf and window ledge, however, as well as on a series of narrow wall-shelves, stood chess set after chess set, a dozen or more—English, Irish, Indian.

Searching for something to say, I remarked, “You have a remark-able collection of sets.”

“Do you play?” George shot back.

Our first game was scheduled directly, and there began the quarter-century ritual. At first once a week, soon twice, whenever we were both in the country, I arrived at the house at two p.m. The board and pieces were already arranged on the nineteenth-century sewing table in the parlor. George waved me into one of the armchairs, taking a smaller chair for himself. We’d indulge in a little chat on the politics of the hour, on our reading or writing—and quickly get down to business.

I never played chess competitively, and when I did play I relied on housebound logic and native cunning rather than the skills that come from study. In brief, I was a lazy student of the art. (When we were playing badly, George fondly, with only slight disgust, referred to us as patzers.) I was aware after our first afternoon that I was outclassed by his deep knowledge of openings. The games remained entirely informal. We never used a chess clock—I’m not sure George owned one—and never, though this I regret, kept a record of a game. If we refused to lay ourselves under the tyranny of time, we still played relatively quickly—not as fast as in blitz, but fast enough that we didn’t tire of ourselves. A minute, perhaps two, in rare cases three might pass between moves; but if a move took longer there might be some uneasy shuffling or throat-clearing. At least once every few months, one us would say, after extended silence, “It’s your move,” and the other would reply, “I thought it was yours!” Then we’d laugh and figure out which patzer had been daydreaming.

I was forty-two, George sixty-four, when we began the long match that amounted to more than two thousand games. I’d played chess with only two people after college, the lawyer Leonard Boudin, and that just for a weekend, and the poet Donald Justice for a few weeks one summer at an art colony. I held my own with both, though Justice knew far more than I did about openings. A few years after those summer games, when I joined Don at the University of Florida, we never managed to rekindle that earlier competition. We did play poker on occasion, a game I preferred. I almost always find games boring unless money is on the line.

George’s advantage in opening theory remained for the first year we played, though early on I armed myself with a book on the subject, the cheapest I could find. I used the time spent walking the two miles to the Steiners’ on the other side of town to memorize the first eight or ten moves in a number of lines. We were about evenly matched by the time Debora and I returned to Florida the following summer; but a curious withering gradually set into our openings, perhaps inevitably when two opponents play each other frequently. Every few months, George would bring out a different set, made of wood, ivory, or occasionally both. The only set we had to abandon was Irish, turned from two different woods—one dark, one light. Alas, the woods had aged to nearly the same color, and play proved impossible. I didn’t make the obvious political point.

Debora and I began to return every summer, largely because chess and the afternoon teas with George and Zara gave us welcome society. The chess remained irregular and charitable. Usually we opened with E4, only occasionally with the Queen’s pawn. We most often played variations on the Ruy Lopez, the Nimzo-Indian, the Najdorf, and occasionally the Queen’s Gambit Declined. It was a dramatic moment when one of us fianchettoed a bishop. I grew too fond of queenside castling—had we been better players, it probably would have been less successful.

The geniality of the games was proved in our forgiveness for any lapse into inattention or idiocy. If either of us missed the obvious—a distant bishop, say, stealthily guarding the square on which a piece landed—the numbskull was allowed to withdraw the move. Occasionally that might be two moves, but beyond that the chances were that neither of us could remember the previous position well enough to restore the board to status quo ante . We’d collapse into laughter and start another game. The only exception to this amateur softhearted- and softheadedness was that if a piece blundered into a devious trap or long-prepared pitfall, the move would stand. As such a coup was far more infrequent than a move that would have made Morphy scratch his head, geniality was more in evidence than genius. A further sign of our lack of skill was that our games rarely ended in a draw. A grandmaster may look forward to drawing tactically from a seemingly lost position; but winning or losing in Spartan fashion is the chief exercise of the middling player.

After we’d spent a couple of hours at chess, Debora would arrive and join us in the kitchen with Zara, who had laid the table for tea. Never an avid tea drinker, George in later years polished off a tumbler of orange juice instead. There was usually a plate of hot croissants (rarely, scones), with chocolate cake as the sweet. The Steiners always used an ancient ceramic teapot. The second or third summer, the handle broke, and Zara asked if I could mend it. I made a new one out of a spoon handle and a length of gardener’s wire wound tightly around it.

The teapot with its spatchcock handle lasted as long as the games; and on occasion I was detailed to do some of the handiwork that comes when you own a home, replacing a lightbulb in an awkward ceiling-fixture high above the stairs, puzzling over some problem with the water heater, retuning the buttons on the radio. Once I ordered Zara a refrigerator. (She said wryly, on the earlier purchase of a new freezer, “This should see us out.”) When George retired, he was forced to move out of Churchill College. He called one day in a muddle, and I found him in the middle of an office in a state of furious disorder. George had been one of the founding fellows when Churchill opened in 1960. Built on rolling land in north Cambridge, the college nestled against the backs of Fitzwilliam College and New Hall (now Murray Edwards, of which Zara was acting president for a year), which lie on the ancient Roman Road north. Churchill sits on a byway just south of the Georgian observatory. George’s rectangular office, with a bay window and large window seat on the long wall, was furnished with a desk at the far end, a pair of dinky wardrobes, and a table or two. He greeted me amid knee-high stacks of books that covered the floor, ruined pilings in the tidal shoals of literature.

The cause of the anarchy was soon apparent. Whenever George published a book or article, the publisher sent copies, as many as a dozen. Pulling one or two from the package, he’d stuff the remainder wherever convenient. The postmarks on the Jiffy bags provided forensic evidence. Some bags dating to the early seventies had never been opened. Early discards had been stored in one of the wardrobes. When that filled, the other became the storehouse, then the floor beneath the nearby tables, then the tabletops, the window seat, and at last the rest of the floor. When I arrived, only a narrow path remained between door and desk. I spent some hours sorting the decades of books and magazines. Eventually a copy of every publication found its way to Boston University. The orphans were sold to a local bookshop.

George confessed that just that afternoon he’d thrown decades of correspondence into trash bags and tossed them into the college skip—that is, dumpster. It was one of the few times I argued with him, but he was adamant. He didn’t want those letters from a long list of twentieth-century writers and scholars to end up in a library. He’d replied to the letters, which had therefore served their purpose. All that evening, I thought of returning surreptitiously to the dumpster and rescuing those black bags. I knew he’d have been furious, had he known—and yet a part of him might have understood the compliment paid. When I conceded a game, especially when he’d won from what seemed a hopeless position, his gratification was limited to a small, sly smile. Then tea.

George had been born with a withered right arm. He once or twice told the story of his interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, a condition of which was “fondness for and success in sports.” The committee, knowing that George couldn’t play, wondered if he knew anything about football. He said he did, so they asked if he could explain the difference between the T and I formations. George answered immediately and profoundly, drawing diagrams on a nearby blackboard. He received the Rhodes. Though happy to use a typewriter, he stoutly refused to master a computer. (I believe he thought the machine slightly demonic, though he claimed his eye doctor said the screen would ruin his eyes.) His IBM daisywheel, a relic of the 1980s, lasted for nearly thirty years; but when it stopped working the local repairmen had all retired, and those in the next town, and the next. I finally found a man in London—the last surviving repairman in southern England—who could recondition the machine. As I was back in the States, I arranged for the typewriter to be freighted down—it was all a little expensive. To ensure that George would have his favorite machine for another decade, I ordered a load of cartridges and correction tapes, which were no longer manufactured. Alas, his writing days were nearing their end.

The large lawn behind the Steiner house was laid with beds of roses and other flowers visited by deer agile enough to leap the waist-high fence. After he lost his college office, George and Zara had what was called the Library built in a corner—his new office, every wall covered with bookshelves. When he moved in, the shelves were empty; by the time we suspended our games during his long last illness, they were overflowing, and piles of books filled much of the carpet. Inside the house, he once had a small office off the master bedroom, but that had long silted up past reclamation. I can’t say I don’t know how that happens, and how rapidly.

The mock battles of chess conceal real ones—chess is pathology masquerading as psychology. Bishops have long replaced battle elephants in the original ranks, and rooks the chariots. (The armies Alexander faced may have provided the original portrait, though the game evolved later.) Even between friends, such games rely, whatever the open-faced look of the board, on Machiavellian cunning more than accident, though the fog of battle has its place. Most blunders come from a curious blindness rather than defects of logic, the failure to see as well as the failure to foresee. Blunders in poetry require a similar sort of seeing without seeing. The tender diplomacy of those skirmishes on Barrow Road was conducted despite the rough-and-tumble, no holds-barred nature of chess. When the games ran against him, George would say, “Not my day.” Then all was forgotten, even forgiven, over tea.

Whenever I returned to the States, I’d receive a letter from George every few weeks. The letters stopped during the last decade of our friendship, replaced by surprise overseas calls. They were never long, as George was a child of the Depression, when such calls were difficult and expensive. From time to time we talked of playing a correspondence game; but that never went further than dreamy planning. I kept a record of our wins and losses for the quarter-century we played. Matters did tilt a little in my favor, but I won’t say how much or how far. Even in his late eighties, he could still rise to the occasion and beat the hell out of me. In a note left in the sewing table on which we had played all those years, he gave me a set he’d commissioned fifty years before from the artist Michael Ayrton. We’d long planned to play with it—it had never been used—but somehow we never found the occasion. That was his last gift, after so many others that had no material form.

What have I left out? Zara’s profound knowledge of American and English political history. George’s pronouncements on, well, every-thing. The chess afternoons postponed because a diplomat had come to give George a medal, or a film crew to interview him. The phone calls George answered in German, French, or a version of Italian. The pub dinners, at least until the Steiners were in their eighties. The two Old English sheepdogs, and the smaller mutt that followed. The trip to Lon-don so George and I could eat at his club. The driving tour to an ancient church in East Anglia. There was a life with the Steiners beyond chess and tea, but mostly it was chess … and tea.

Such friendships cannot be compassed in a few words, and my saying that will give only the shadow of the extent, the devastation, of the loss. The first time we returned to the States, George had become so reliant on those chess afternoons that he sought another partner; but when I came back to Cambridge the following summer he admitted that after a few weeks he’d dismissed my replacement. The games, he said, hadn’t quite been the same. That may be the greatest compliment he paid me.