WE PLAY THE BRAZILIAN CHAMPION AT A CHESS COLLECTIVE

The expatriates working at the British owned gold mine in the remote area of the Brazilian Highlands had to make their own entertainment. Unlike the inhabitants of the town, on the periphery of which, their spacious bungalows were clustered, this was not their home nor did they speak Portuguese among themselves. We were strangers in a strange land but it was one hundred years since the opening of the mine and there had been inter-marriages so that our presence was not seen as strange by the locals but just something they had been born with, and grew up with and accepted.

We had our own cemetery atop a conical hill, our hospital, our church and our sporting facilities such as a playing field and swimming pool. The gathering centres were our winter and summer club houses. Brazilians on the senior staff and town officials were welcomed at all these places but apart from the club and sport places few availed themselves of the rest as not surprisingly they had their own.

I was one of the post-war new recruits to the mining company. The expatriate old guard had kept things going – just about – during the war years but, without much help from the owners in Britain there had been decline in every aspect of their overseas investment. And now we were meant to ‘ginger things up.’ Both on the work front and for the social morale of the foreign employees many of whom were reaching the age of a long awaited retirement back to their own countries, and in most cases this was Britain which itself was still recovering from the devastation of five years of war.

The sports and social committee had always been nominated by the management and possibly, because of this, had ceased to offer more than the usual annual sports day and tennis tournament. Otherwise it was lifeless. The new intake of expatriates had been expected to get things going on the sports and social side but had not liked the idea of being nominated for this. ‘What’s wrong with voting for the committee members?’ Was their reaction. This response had seemed a direct challenge to the management’s guided paternalism that had worked for a hundred years. And now, the old country was exporting young radicals wanting to up-end the status quo. There was a stand-off until embedded tradition took a tumble and, as a compromise, only the chairman would be nominated and all other committee members would be elected by popular vote.

The old timers surprised by the management’s volte face divided into the ‘nothing good will come of this,’ camp, to the ‘about time too’ camp. But we ‘Young Turks’ were unleashed and apart from the Chief Engineer, with 30 years service at the mine, being nominated as a safe pair of hands, all the others on the committee were ‘new blood.’

As sports and social  representative I had a demand market and was expected to supply this, which I did. It was all too easy with one exception – the chess players. Forming a chess club was no problem and with fourteen members we enjoyed frequent games, rankings, handicapping and tournaments but somehow this was not enough. There was a need to widen our ambit, take on other clubs, to expand. Only here was I not able to keep up with the pace.

Whatever happened in the company was always of interest to the town people and it was not long before a town chess club was organised. It was while talking with its organizer with a view to arranging an inter-club tournament I was told proudly that one of their members, a lad called Moacir, had a friend in the Capital City of Belo Horizonte which lay across the serra, 20 miles distance, whose brother was the chess champion of Brazil.
‘Invite him here to play against our two clubs,’ I suggested. Brazil was an open society and I had already learned that ‘the doing’ was simpler than ‘the thinking’. Joao took the idea in his stride and it was not too long before news came back that the champion would visit the famous gold mining town for a tournament. Joao and I wasted no time in starting the planning.

There were seven tables in a row along one side of the social room and opposite them, nearly three metres distance, another seven tables on the side of the glass cases for the library books. On each of the fourteen tables a chess board with the pieces in position. Already seated on chairs facing the space made by the two lines of tables were most of the waiting players. Four figures were at the bar. Moacir and I in rapid and detailed discussion with a young, pleasant faced man in his early thirties.  Joao had been prevented from being present and the student, Moacir had appointed himself in Joao’s place.

There were quick interchanges and glances among the two representatives with abrupt hand and arm gestures, usually in the direction of the chess boards. The champion, Germano appeared more relaxed than the two club representatives and his  replies were quiet, calm and brief; at the same time a half smile showed on his face, bringing out its fineness and an added quality of gentle repose. Albert Noel the fourth was in our club and liked to get involved. The seated players were  in different attitudes of posture and frame of mind; some chatted with a neighbour, some stared transfixed at the chess pieces before them, others gave glances of mixed curiosity or impatience  towards the group by the bar.

Moacir turned abruptly and went to the centre of the tables with some brief comments; not all heard him and an ensuing cross table discussion erupted. He spoke no English and many of the Company players spoke no Portuguese and he became flustered. Already a babble of cross talk had developed in the two languages and he was not experienced enough to deal with the situation his comments had created. They were already ten minutes past the agreed starting time of eleven o’clock and there were now groups arguing over points while Moacir was getting more involved and lost at the same time. Noel stood beside the champion making some observation, his coarse, bulky figure towering above the others slight form. I looked around the scene and then going over to Moacir, took his arm and said ‘Estamos pronto para commecar?’ ‘Bem….’ the young man was excited and seemed unable to express what he wanted to say.

The two chess committees had gone over all the points earlier. It had been agreed to allow the champion the white pieces. There was to be no time keeper; Germano’s circuit of the fourteen boards would be the time allowed for each move. ‘Entao, vamos commecar,’ I called out to the tables in general. Others joined in ‘vamos, vamos,’ and, ‘come on, let’s get started.’ The three took their places at their numbered tables, leaving Germano alone on the floor. ‘Pronto?’ He gave a general smile and moved to the table marked as number 1 pushing a pawn forward then, the same at table 2 and so on around the fourteen boards. No one there had played a collective before, nor had anyone played chess against any opponent of such champion stature, and the blend of concentration and tension that engulfed the fourteen players was almost tangible.

The memory of my grandpa’s chess stories fleetingly crossed my mind. A formidable chess player by family repute. Once he had played chess against the English champion, a Mr Yates. They had been evenly matched although Grandpa had emerged from a tussle of exchanges with an extra pawn. The time was getting late and the game might have continued for many hours. ‘Well, Mr Spearman,’ said the champion, ‘it’s been a good game and I propose we can disengage with honour by calling it a draw.’ ‘Just as you wish Mr Yates,’ replied Grandpa, and he added to his listening Grandson with a reminiscent chuckle, ‘I said to him, ”but I don’t believe you would have been satisfied with calling the game a draw if you had the extra pawn.’ ” And Mr Yates, the champion, had smiled as he reached his hand across the table. I could not remember whether Grandpa had been a Grand Master or narrowly missed being one; it was probably the latter. He was a committed player up to the time that contests would over excite him so that he lay awake at nights going over the moves in his head. He was over eighty years old when the family doctor told little ‘Ma’ that playing chess wasn’t doing his blood pressure any good, and so he had to stop playing.

Antonio Germano was round at my table at number three for his second move. Total silence prevailed, the whole room sunk in deep concentration. The Morro Velho club champion, Paul Robbe, met my eye across the room and gave a brief grimace. He was one of the most competitive players and losing upset him. It was like being in an examination room, the silence was palpable, broken at times by a sigh, a murmur, a whisper. each player gazed at the game on the board before him, wondering perhaps how his opponent was able to recall all the moves when he arrived before each board to make a move. He didn’t wait long, just a look, a check, a pause and his hand would go out to push a pawn or a piece, or lift a knight, and then he would move a couple of steps to the next table, circulating in a clockwise direction. So relaxed! Fourteen coils of tension against this unruffled champion, carrying fourteen games in his head.

Occasionally a player would have a brief, whispering discussion with him on some point, but in general the silence and the concentration were like two entwining strands, binding the players together in a tight unison. The champion paced around unhurriedly, and the games unfolded through their openings, the middle games and ultimately the end games with check-mate or resignation. There was an awareness at the moment of his first victory. I could not see who it was who had just lost but somehow the tension in the room tightened a notch or so as the remaining thirteen players still in contention strengthened their resolves and searched desperately amongst the pieces before them to find the winning move or, more to the point, avert the impending defeat.

It was soon possible to see who had already fallen – players gazed ahead and Germano’s circuits came round quicker. They went out in roughly the order of their ranking in the chess club league. Robbe, Noel, Guido Penido and I were the ones who remained. Guido and I went in the same round and by now there was a group around the final two tables. Shortly afterwards Robbe was despatched his annoyance showing on his face. Germano gave a wry little smile and a murmured remark at which Robbe raised his unsmiling eyes. All attention now turned to the the final game with Albert Noel; his excitement seemed to be bursting out of his large frame. He removed his glasses and wiped them. ‘Shall we call it a draw (Empate)?’ Asked Germano. Noel gave a loud whoop and threw his arms into the air. There was a hubbub of immediate noise as everyone began speaking. all seeking to attract the champion’s attention to discuss details of their game with him.
He resolved this universal call upon himself by circulating the tables and making observations at each board. The scoring cards were held out for him to sign. There was a cluster around the bar for drinks when he had addressed all the boards and he asked for a lemonade, standing, surrounded by the chess club members as the games were replayed again and again. He is a very tolerant and forbearing champion, I thought as I watched Noel with a hand on Germano’s shoulder making a point with all the aplomb of a future champion.

1958