I don’t even remember his first name. But I always think of him whenever I play chess and/or drink a beer.
I met him when we were in the Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. He was your typical Mexican from Texas. A true Texican. Everyone called him Alva. He was short and stocky, what would be called husky in the boy’s department. He was particularly handsome. In fact, he had one eye a little bigger than the other, his teeth were crooked, and he always had a bad haircut. What he lacked in looks, he made up for in personality. He was always the joker and he always had everyone in the shop laughing.
He retained the rank of private because he was always getting into trouble and so he would never get promoted. Drinking was at the root of all his problems. I never saw him sober even once. He was always drunk or suffering from a hangover. When we stood in formation, he would always teeter during inspection. I’m surprised that he never fell over because a few times he was leaning more than the Tower of Pisa. Despite all his flaws, he had a girlfriend whom he had met near the base. That is, until he got into a fight at the club and wasn’t allowed to leave the base for months. So he would drink at the club everyday, only leaving to check in with the sergeant.
One day, he went to the club to watch Monday Night Football and later returned emotionally distraught. He told us that the game was interrupted for a special announcement: John Lennon had been shot! None of us could believe it. But Alva was the one who was the most depressed by Lennon’s death. Alva seemed to drink less after that shocking assassination.
Our superiors really came down hard on Alva. They controlled every aspect of his duty hours. We all thought they went beyond the call of duty. Finally, he told our commanding officer that he was tired of being harassed and he wanted everyone to leave him alone. He wanted to everything to go back to the way it was. He even told the CO that he had written his congressman. Why did Alva feel harassed? He would have to check in with the sergeant every hour just to make sure he was still on base.
It was during this time that I learned about his special talent. He could play chess. That was surprising because he wasn’t the type of person who exuded intelligence of any sort. One day, he challenged all comers. He walked into the radio shop where we worked and announced, “Who’s the best chess player here? I challenge you to a chess match!”
Somehow he had heard that I used to play chess. It might have been from me because I used to like to tell people I used to like to play chess. I might have said that I used to play when I first arrived at Camp Pendleton and Alva remembered. He had a good memory. At first, I didn’t want to play because I hadn’t played since high school and I was afraid that if I started playing again I would get addicted to play chess again. But I couldn’t control myself and I accepted Alva’s challenge. Anyway, Alva won every game easily.
Eventually, I played chess with Alva regularly and he always beat me easily. To add insult to injury, he was always very drunk when we played. Okay, I was hooked. I wanted to beat Alva at chess. We played chess everyday in the shop. Whenever he made a particularyly good move, he would say, “Don’t mess with Texas!”
I never beat him until I finally figured out his strategy! He had no strategy! He was always so drunk that he would only play the best move for the position. With each game we played, I improved my game. Finally, I figured out that if I planned my strategy at least five moves ahead, his best move for the position wouldn’t help him. Eventually, I was beating him on a regular basis. He wasn’t used to losing even though he never studied or practiced chess formally. He was truly amazed that anyone could beat him. And I was surprised that anyone so drunk could play chess so well. Oh, yes, and Alva’s congressman called up our commanding officer and Alva was no longer on restriction.