When I attended Gage Park High School, I was on the school chess team. I even lettered in chess! I remember one day I was pulled from one of my classes and told to go the assembly hall. I saw my other teammates from the chess team there. We were attending the athletic awards ceremony where all the school athletes were brought on stage and given the school letter to put on the school jacket. When they called the chess team on stage, the whole assembly burst out into uproarious laughter because no one thought of the chess team as athletes. We chess players didn’t think of ourselves as athletes either, but we really enjoyed receiving the school letter. We were officially school jocks!
When we weren’t playing chess at school, we also played at a chess club that met every Tuesday at the the Marquette Park field house. After we played there a few weeks, we were required to join the chess club that was called the Mar Par Chessman. I’m sure I still have my membership card around somewhere. I really improved my chess skills by playing there and I met quite a few characters there. I remember the room was always filled with cigar smoke. For some strange reason, no one smoked cigarettes. I remember one player would occasionally blow cigar smoke across the chessboard to try to psyche me out. The winter meetings truly taught me to develop my concentration because a recording droned on monotonously, “Danger! No skating. Thin ice.” even when the temperatures were above freezing and the water in the lagoon wasn’t even close to freezing. Sometimes I hear the voice to this day whenever I see a frozen lagoon or a chess set.
The character I remember the most was Spans. I never learned his full name because everyone called him Spans, just Spans. I thought he was Lithuanian. I also believed he was a retiree. I was 16 at the time so I could have been wrong. A few times, I saw him sitting alone, so I offered to play him, but he told me he was waiting for someone. I only ever saw him play this one player whom I no longer remember because Spans was the more memorable of the two. Once his partner showed up, Spans would liven up and become a whole different person. He was like a tiger on the prowl. I’m not sure how strong a player he was, but I was always impressed by his demeanor and focus during the game. He always looked like he was just about to checkmate his opponent even before the game began. However, I don’t recall that he ever won a game. He really wasn’t interested in winning. He just wanted to play a good game. From observing him, I gathered that a good game for him was placing his opponent’s king in check as many times as possible before losing the game. Since this was his favorite part of the game, everyone knew when Spans was on the attack. He would slam down the attacking piece with all his might and yell at the top of his lungs, “CHECK!” The room would tremble slightly and his “CHECK!” would reverberate in the room and his breath would actually clear some of the cigar smoke from around his chessboard. When Spans was on a roll delivering check after check, he would actually drown out the “Danger! No skating. Thin ice.” announcement. In good game, he would deliver about ten “CHECK!”s before finally losing the game. And he would play to the very last move and make his opponent checkmate him. “Checkmate!” his opponent would yell at Spans, but with no enthusiasm or emotion compared to Spans’ delivery. Spans would say, “It doesn’t matter that you won. Did you see how many times I checked you? I hope you learned your lesson!”