Saturday, March 10, 2012
“The chicks dig my accent.”
”Even the rich ones?”
“Especially the rich ones.”
Nachum Salman was a sabra, like Rafi, but unlike Rafi, “Salman,” as most people called him, made y’ridah for good. This was a chance trip back to visit old friends, get laid by a few new ones, and qualify at the 1988 Tel Aviv Interzonal. Salman owned a home on Berkeley Street in Cleveland Heights.
“Rafi, you run to work every day for eight months, you run two blocks from my house, you never stop in? I have to go to Tel Aviv, then I still find you out here in Suryah!” To expats like Salman, all the kibbutzim in the northern Galilee were “Suryah” since Israel took the Golan Heights in the 1967 War.
“I had to come back. I left my guns here from the War. ” When Rafi was in gan y’ladim, kindergarten, the children danced to lyrics that Salman wrote. One in particular went like this:
Dance, dance on the water, water (mayim)
Sing about uniting Yerushalayim
Sail in peace upon the sea (yam)
Sing Hatikva b’kol ram.
The class play featured a crude movement “dance” staged to these lyrics. Rafi had dressed up in a uniform that looked like a sailor suit had a nasty encounter with a bottle of Clorox bleach, but to victory-crazed Israelis, suggested the national flag. He had charged up a set of choral risers with cardboard cutouts in the shape of mountains. “Golan” was stenciled in Hebrew underneath largely fictitious snowcaps. The children behind him were the Israeli Defense Forces waving cardboard Uzis, and the school staff, dressed as Syrian soldiers and all wearing Hafez al-Assad masks, tumbled down a ramp built for the purpose out of wood borrowed from the loading dock at the wrong end of the cafeteria. Ouch. It’s just that none of the kids wanted to be Suryans. So the people who couldn’t fight had to tumble down a board, brick, and burlap slope while wearing masks. Ouch, hoi!
Salman threw his olive skinned head back with such a laugh that all Rafi could see were his too-big lips and his too-hairy nostrils. He had fought in ’67. After the outcome was no longer in doubt, he wangled a trip to a recording studio at Sharm-el-Sheikh, a Sinai resort town taken from Egypt on Day 3. There, he recorded the kids’ song, which the star Boaz Arnon covered, and a novelty song called M’shaneh Makom, M’shaneh Mazal, which means “Change the place, change the luck,“ in his own gnarled nasal voice. This song went right to the top of the chart before Day 6. In these days, Sadat was bound by a peace agreement, but blood, both Palestinian and Israeli, was flowing freely. The triumphal spirit of the new Colossus had dissipated into memory.
Rafi agreed to go to Tel Aviv and compete in the Open tournament, held in the King David Hotel ballroom, while the Interzonal would take place in the much more cozy press room. Salman had no business being there. He was as Israeli as Katarina Witt was East German. But his friend Edgardo Rosario, a former professional baseball player who had a cup of coffee (or a line of coke; this was the ‘80s) with the parent club, went home with his wife to the Dominican Republic to have their children so the kids could compete in the athletic Olympics (the oldest, a boy named Fredy, was an 8-year-old who designed video games in his bedroom and could run the 40 in a week), so why not Salman in chess? The previous August , Salman placed second in the Haifa Zonal to Yehuda Gruenfeld, but first in the InterZayin with all the tourists. Here’s a Zayin. ז What do you think he was doing in a resort town full of tourists in string bikinis?
So Nachum Salman sat down with the likes of Viktor Korchnoi and the Syrian-American wunderkind Yasser Seirawan. A real Suryan. The genuine article. Rafi, who was later to crush Salman with an outrageous Queen sacrifice in front of a full rank of pawns sheltering a castled King, just muttered. This guy is no more going to beat the second best player in the world than I’m going to beat him on the beach.
Rafi had a sideline as a chess hustler in Cleveland. Nobody at the Agnon school had a clue that the teacher with the nice voice could play. Since he earned extra money as the cantor for the school’s Saturday services, he couldn’t play tournaments during the school year. OK. No problem. Keep my head down and my ego small, and I can go to the clubs and take everybody’s money. I wait for the summer for tournaments anyway. In the US, all I have to do is keep my rating low and I can win class prizes. They don’t have class prizes in Israel. You could pay for a year in the States by winning the Class C section at the World Open. CLASS C!! Those people have the vision of a fruit bat. All I have to do is lose the rapid transit tournament at the same time and act stupid. These Yankees will never know. In all, Rafi had played in about thirty chess tournaments and had won $30,000. In Israel? With a master’s rating, he didn’t make a penny, but he did beat that same Yehudah Gruenfeld as Black by double-daring the guy – he played the Gruenfeld Defense and rolled up Gruenfeld’s Queenside like he was, well, Gruenfeld. That time, the tournament was at Kibbutz Hadarat Haderech. Rafi earned nothing, but for a few weeks he was a minor celebrity.
This time, Rafi was playing for nothing particular. There was a chance, with Rafi’s strong openings, sound game and eagerness to sacrifice his pieces, that he could beat anyone in the Open field, but to win a ten-round, five-day event, he’d have to beat at least three people Salman’s strength, at least one of them with the black pieces. Salman liked the more relaxed, one-game-a-day schedule of the championship tournament. Games starting at 6 will be done by 11. The discos just get going by then. Rafi imagined spending the days with Salman, hiking in the Golan, swimming in Yam Kinneret, maybe doing a tourist before the game, and even hanging out at the tournament with both Salman’s and his own girl.
Salman had other ideas. Back in the States, he was an independent contractor, who also flipped houses for profit. He had responsibilities most days. Here his day started at 6pm. The mylar ball danced in Salman’s eyes. I have halivat boker for part of the second week. Who gonna be his wingman? Viktor Korchnoi? Rafi made a copy of the key for the visitor’s dorm, and bought the guy a map. Aizeh gever. What a man.
It was Day One, Round One of the Interzonal. Salman found himself immediately thrown to the Suryan lion, Yasser Seirawan, who shared Rafi’s age and quick mind, but while Rafi was trying to find out who he was as a high schooler in an unmotivated Kibbutz classroom, Yasser was ripping his way through his agemates across the world to become World Junior Champion. This guy was a weapon. His warm, fuzzy gaze matched his high black Afro, turning him into an adorable catch for any girl on the beach, but he would not be there. He was a Vulcan over the chessboard. Daggers came out of the eyes, all the soft cuteness consumed as fuel for that agile mind. With the second highest ranking in the tournament, Seirawan would sit on a podium reserved for the top three players. Viktor Korchnoi and Yehuda Gruenfeld took up residence at the other two tables.
Seirawan entered the hall wearing tight jeans (“I hate adjusting loose pants during a game”) and a Hawaiian silk shirt, half open in any temperature. Rafi and Salman came fresh from the beach. The Interzonal would go for a week before Rafi’s section, so he could do halivat boker and meet Salman for breakfast. They had brought a change of clothes, “just in case,” said Salman. The girls were out with a group, so the closest Rafi and Salman could get was to play in the volleyball game. Beach volleyball. Eight girls, two guys. The girls- maximum twenty-one years old. Salman got the number of the hot one in the fishnet string, who kept readjusting the few lonely pieces of yarn on her private parts after diving in the sand – almost every point. Rafi got three other numbers. Salman had violated his usual pick-up principle. Salman would always talk to the prettiest girl, and then switch to one who was hanging on to the clique by her fingernails. This would usually make the girl happy, and more receptive to an offer of breakfast (around 2 am), and an early morning romp. He must be taking his tournament seriously.
So the mermaid in the fishnet wasn’t there at opening night. Probably just as well. Seirawan is going to roll over him like a tank.
Salman had Black. Seirawan played the King’s Pawn, eschewing the slower, more positional Queen’s Pawn openings. Salman must have had that in mind, when he played his queen pawn one square forward. He remembered a game from Chess Informant in which Seirawan played the Scotch Opening against some pathetic local master and checkmated in seventeen moves. “Let him try to mate my Pirc defense that fast,” thought Salman. The game developed along theoretical lines that favored Black. After Salman didn’t lose before the first ten moves were completed, Rafi headed off to the skittles room.
This procedure became Rafi’s mode de vivre during that first week. During the day, he’d do his Kibbutz chores, call one of the girls, head into the beach or the town, and hang out. Then he’d head back to the Kibbutz for dinner and the tournament. Salman had focused his attention on splitting off the mermaid in the fishnet bikini from the rest of the group. By the fourth round, Salman had only one half-point draw, having frustrated Nigel Short into a childish mistake in the late middle game, when Short found he couldn’t roll over this obscure player. However, Salman chalked it up to Short’s early teenage hormones. Mermaid had shown up to the game barefoot, with white shorts and a ripped rugby shirt that displayed the bikini masquerading as underwear.
Rafi started hanging out with Mermaid in the bar at the event site. It was clear that she was supposed to be part of the clique, but Rafi knew before Mermaid said it that she was just getting to sleep when the girls got to the beach. She was only 19, and Salman was 44.
“He’s magic!” she volunteered.
“What are you going to do tonight?”
“The disco, maybe another one, Chummi promised there was on that plays Yemeni beat, then we’ll go to breakfast, and take the first bus back to the Kibbutz. Everyone else will be going to work.”
“What about your girlfriends?”
“They know, they aren’t that dumb. So you still playing with them volleyball?”
“Yes, yes, I can’t jump, but I’m OK. Your friends are pretty. Are they sabras?*
“No, I was born in Italy, and most of us are on an exchange program.”
Why do you guys speak such good Hebrew? I am dreaming, yes?
“What do they say about me?”
“When Chummi gets done with me, I’ll let you know.” Mermaid giggled. When she flipped her hair like that, especially when she touched him with her toes for punctuation, she looked just like Roza.
“I like Francesca. What do you know about her?”
“She comes from Nice. Her father is a professor there, and her mom tutors the piano. She wants to be animal doctor. “
“I know, I talked to her, I’m not that dumb either.” As he said this, Rafi quickly slipped off his sandal and planted his right toes back on Mermaid’s calves. Mermaid giggled again.
“Well, she’s not good at men, I don’t think.”
“You mean a lesbian? She plays for your team?”
“Ha, no! She’s just a little nerdy, that’s all. She reads too much.” Reads too much?! You have got to be kidding. No wonder Salman is in your fishnet.
“What does this mean, too much?”
“She’s got Les Mis in her beach bag.” Andrew Lloyd Webber fan? Grrrr.
“So what do you read?”
“Schoolbooks, Cliff’s Notes, my dictionaries…”
“You mean you can speak English, Hebrew, and Italian and you don’t read any of the great books in any of them?”
“Don’t forget Russian.”
“I will be a translator for NATO. Maybe US. Not Israel. I don’t want to spend my life in a US jail.”
Rafi was aware of Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy who was spending a life sentence for infiltrating the US nuclear establishment. But the flirtatious way she delivered the last sentence put the lie to the serious nature of this point. He was on the verge of suggesting a quick walk when Salman walked in.
“Hoi, Sofia, hey, Rafi!
“Another draw. The guy didn’t want to play, he offer me draw after eight moves. I had White, so I say no, but I couldn’t get the advantage.” It’s the fucking Interzonal, and you let this guy go just because you don’t have an easy win? You could have stayed in Cleveland for that!”
The mermaid finished her Mai-Tai, flipped Rafi a dorsal fin, and put her hand on Nachum’s ass.