Playing chess with Kurt Vonnegut

Why should the pawns be the first to die, Vonnegut asked the 12-year-old. Let's see the knights and bishops take some heat!

Published April 12, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

(Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday night in Manhattan. He was 84.)

When I was 12 years old I played chess with Kurt Vonnegut on a Thanksgiving Day in New York City.

I remember the moment more clearly than I can recall the last 10 Thanksgivings. The miasma of haze from a battalion of New York chain smokers, smoking like no one will ever smoke again. The buzz of conversation from buzzed writers zipping around my head like crazed dragonflies, beautiful and incomprehensible. Bursts of laughter, the reflection of light off martini glasses.

Vonnegut, his face of hangdog kindness with eyes locked in a permanent sad twinkle.

My father and Vonnegut were good friends. One trickle-down side effect of this was that, in between devouring Asimov and Heinlein and a score of other lesser science fiction lights, I was also handed by my dad "The Sirens of Titan" and told, "Heinlein's a fascist, read this." Another perk was having Vonnegut crouch down on the floor that Thanksgiving, eschewing the give and take of New York conversational tango, and invite me to play a game of chess.

On a whim, he suggested that we rearrange the board. Why did the pawns have to go in front, those sacrificial lambs about to be chewed up by the slaughterhouse of the front lines, those powerless vassals of the high and mighty? Let's force the feudal lords out of their foxholes and into the hurly-burly!

Let's put the pawns in the back row, he proposed. Let's put the knights and bishops and kings and queens in the front rank!

Oh, the thrill of chess sacrilege!

Of course I was game -- how could I not be!? As we explored the craziness inherent in this new lineup, I had only a shred of comprehension as to how this casual act of ad-libbed creativity was of a piece with everything that Vonnegut represented, as an artist, as a writer who willed strange new worlds that spoke directly to all-too-familiar human dilemmas. Mostly, I figured him as a really nice guy who enjoyed messing with the head of an extremely dweeby 12-year-old.

And, well, shaking up the board like that was kind of weird.

And I liked it.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Skip forward 12 years, to 1986. Not my best year -- a year of mistakes, a year that I can look back on now and see as a key demarcation line between an endless American childhood and something approximating adulthood. But at that exact moment, dreariness and self-doubt reigned. I was living in Gainesville, Fla., working as a greeter at a Chinese restaurant and a hired hand for a catering company, waiting to hear whether a judge would let me escape an act of extreme stupidity and flee the country back to my budding obsession, Taiwan.

Then one day, a close friend called me up and told me that Kurt Vonnegut was giving a speech in Tallahassee. We should go, she said!

I was a little doubtful. It seemed like a strange way to connect back to him. In the intervening decade, I'm not sure I'd even seen Vonnegut a single time -- divorce had split my family up and splattered it across the East Coast. What would it be like to see him as a fanboy where once I had faced him across a topsy-turvy chess board? Would it be depressing? I was already depressed enough. I didn't relish the opportunity to unfavorably compare myself with the 12-year-old version of me.

But my friend was convincing. So we trooped off -- along with another friend -- to the Florida Panhandle, to see what Vonnegut looked like from a distance.

I'd be lying if I said I could remember a single word he said. But I remember we laughed and felt enlightened. Vonnegut had an incomparable way of mixing bleak pessimism with avuncular warmth. He could inspire even in the moments when he was underlining, highlighting and italicizing just how fucked up and criminally insane the world really was.

At the end of the speech, my friends urged me to lead all of us to the stage and see if we could chat with the great man himself. I was reluctant, but I had no actual choice. After a decade of dining out on the anecdote of how I dallied with Vonnegut in my parents' living room at age 12, I was in no position to shy away from him now.

There was a gatekeeper. She was reluctant to let us pass. The moment was fraught.

I told her, tell him the kid he played chess with on Thanksgiving is here.

It was weird enough to work. He appeared. His sad twinkle was intact. His warmth was overflowing. The two-hour car ride back to Gainesville was glorious, if only because, on that hot humid Florida summer night, Vonnegut proved that he was exactly as I remembered him.

One hell of a decent human being. We will no doubt hear, in the days to come, some insidious echo of the culture wars as the Vonnegut legacy is appraised and battled over. Already, the New York Times obit (which, I hasten to note, fully gives the man his due), includes the sentence "His harshest critics called him no more than a comic book philosopher, a purveyor of empty aphorisms."

I'm sure Ann Coulter will have something even meaner to say.

All that is so much chaff. Kurt Vonnegut was a good man, a kind man, a mensch. Our world is a shallower, drearier place without him. But anyone who has enjoyed any of his work, or been lucky enough to bask in his twinkle, can still rejoice, because we will always have him, in all his idiosyncratic twisted-chess perversity. The world is less without him, but it will always be more because of him.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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