Uncle Fred's Gambit

by Jon R. Edwards

My Uncle Fred taught me how to play chess in 1958. I was nearly five and Fred enjoyed winning. From all I can gather, I was the only one he could beat. We played nearly every weekend. Uncle Fred would give me queen odds, then rook odds, then knight odds, until finally, when I turned nine or so, we started playing even up.

It was around that time, early 1963 according to my post-a-log, that Uncle Fred moved off to California, and at his suggestion, we started playing through the mail. The game started as an Evans Gambit, with me as white. It was really the only opening that we knew, or should I say, that Uncle Fred knew, since he was the one who taught it to me. As my mother predicted, Fred was not the best correspondent, and so a game meant to proceed quickly started to bog down, until we finally agreed to continue it with only a single move per year at my June birthday and at Christmas.

And so there it was, every year through my adolescence, Fred's move tied to the Christmas tree. As went the position, so came the toys and games. I discovered rather quickly that when Fred thought that his position was fine, my younger brother and I would receive the most wonderful presents from Uncle Fred. But a tough move in June brought relatively little in December.

Under this kind of intense pressure, especially the constant begging of my brother, I began to throw the game. Well, perhaps throw is too strong a word, but I certainly pulled my punches. My fourteenth move was a real lemon, passing up clear material equality. That Christmas, my brother and I received really nice 10-speed bicycles.

Needless to say, by the time I entered college, right around the 20th move, my position was nearly in shambles. By then of course, I had become a much stronger player, rated nearly 1600, while Uncle Fred, ever the patzer, remained around 1100. And Christmas was no longer so much the big deal, in spite of Uncle Fred's nice sweaters. I also started to tire of being ribbed by Uncle Fred at our occasional family gatherings that even a weak player like him could take on the big guys, given enough time to think. So I applied myself to the game with some new vigor and a new-found sense of ethical pride. As I said, the position was pretty desperate, but there were still some subtleties, and a college freshman had to be true to himself and the position.

That was 1971. For the next ten years or so, the Christmas gifts were meager indeed as Uncle Fred's position slowly deteriorated. I distinctly remember that in 1977, he sent underwear. The next year, I received a paperback copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the year after that a cassette of Tiny Tim's favorite hits.

By the time I finished Graduate School in 1983, Uncle Fred's position had become utterly hopeless. His pieces had lost any semblance of communication, his pawns, though well enough defended, were scattered and weak, and his isolated king seemed to beg for the white pieces to attack. After rather lengthy analysis, I found a remarkably clear resource, with checkmate inevitably to follow, and prepared to send it off some months hence. In late May just before my birthday, Auntie Helen informed the family that Uncle Fred had taken ill. A rare disease, she said, with no known cure. Fred would live, she assured us, but bed-ridden and without his usual stamina and cheer.

I'm not sure what came over me. Call it pity, regret, a sense of family obligation and love, but I simply couldn't send the move I had planned. So I took another long look at the position and found an awful, though plausible enough looking move that pretty much restored equality in the game. Soon thereafter, Uncle Fred recovered remarkably and returned to his job. His move came in an envelope with a handsome Christmas check capable of paying off a nice chunk of my educational debt.

I hate to admit it, but the whole incident made a significant impression upon me. It occurred to me that Uncle Fred's entire life was caught up in this game, and that I really didn't have the right to hurt him. Apart from that, there were obvious financial rewards. I was broke, still in some debt, in need of a job, and hardly in control of my life. It made good sense to keep my Uncle happy.

I remember the next few years more for the enormous changes in my life than the game with Uncle Fred. I got married, moved to California, got a nice job, in part thanks to a good contact from my uncle, and Fred also put me on to some simply excellent investments. In just five years, it was a rather classic rags to riches story. Nice home, two kids, and a job that barely taxes my schedule.

As for the game with Fred, I resigned last year. There was really no point in continuing it. Fred's position was simply overwhelming. It was just one strong move after another. It just goes to show that a weak player can play really well given enough time to think. This past Christmas, Fred surprised me with a new Porsche!

I still play chess every now and again, mostly these days with my young nephew. I started by offering the kid queen odds. He now plays pretty well with just the advantage of a knight. Nice kid too. It's really too bad that my brother will soon be moving back east. Hopefully, my nephew and I will be able to keep playing through the mail!