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Published: October 5th 2021
There is no doubt that my ancient laptop – an Asus purchased in 2012 – is my single most important possession. It enables me to connect with friends, read the news, gather information, listen to music, watch movies, write blogs like this one, play chess and teach online lessons. Before the lockdown in HCMC it was valuable; during the lockdown – stretching back to June – it has become indispensable. Being unable to go out, I spend a large portion of the day on my laptop. Crucially, it has enabled me to carry on teaching English lessons – online instead of face to face in the students’ houses – and earning money.
Essential though my laptop is, it is not my most cherished possession. That accolade goes to my ancient pocket chess set.
It has been with me since the age of 12, which makes it 57 years old. I bought it in E. Hill and Sons toy shop on Broad Street, Reading. I was at Stoneham School at the time, and many boys were playing chess. I decided I wanted to learn. My meagre pocket money did not allow me to buy handsome full-size wooden pieces, so I
settled for a cheap pocket-size plastic set.
It has a brown mock-snakeskin cardboard cover held together by sellotape and a wooden base with 64 holes to accommodate the pieces, which are plastic and tiny (the queen is ½'' tall) but beautifully fashioned in the traditional Staunton pattern. I doubt if any plastic pocket set today would have such fine pieces. The original black and white colouring on the squares has long since faded, forcing me to recolour the black squares with a marker pen. Amazingly, I have never lost a piece. Looking at my set now, I realize that the pieces are encrusted with the dust and dirt of 57 years. This is only apparent on the white pieces, all of which have acquired a black patina. Perhaps I will wash them after finishing this essay.
This little chess set has travelled around the world with me. It has been my companion in Reading, Leeds, Stourbridge, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Buenos Aires, Maturin, Accra and Ho Chi Minh City. Over the years I have bought a variety of full-size sets, which currently live in a wardrobe and rarely come out of hibernation, but my pocket set is in
a drawer next to the laptop, ready to serve me at a moment’s notice. It is my go-to, handy for fiddling around on, small enough to fit in a rucksack and take on holiday.
This set was an intrinsic part of my great leap forward in chess. In 1967, I was hospitalized with appendicitis and, after the operation in the Royal Berkshire, recuperated in Peppard Sanatorium. During those three weeks I amused myself by reading ‘Teach Yourself Chess’
and playing through the illustrative games on my pocket set. I emerged from hospital a vastly improved player and instantly became part of the school chess team.
In 1991, the set was also an intrinsic part of my greatest chess triumph. I had not played competitively for many years before taking a job in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There I joined a chess club and was born again as a competitive player. In December 1991 I entered the Tanzanian Open Chess Tournament and won with a final score of 7/8 (6 wins and 2 draws). Each afternoon, after work and prior to the evening game, I would lie in bed with my little set and practise openings. Each evening, after
finishing a game, I would replay it, reliving my brilliancies, cursing my inanities.
Nowadays I play chess mainly online, on chess.com, but my trusty little pocket set is always to hand in case I want to set up a position or replay a game. Yesterday, for example, I copied – from chess.com to Word - a spectacular game I had won against a higher-rated opponent, but the moves came out with some initial letters missing. I reached for my little set and replayed the moves, inserting the missing letters.
More than anything, my chess set is a link with the past, a treasured piece of nostalgia. Along with some other items - The Observer’s Book of Birds
, The Schoolboy’s Pocket Book
, my father’s pocket-watch, my Primary School reports and exercise books, various old photographs, letters, postcards and documents - the battered little set reminds me of my Reading youth, of the house where I grew up with my parents. Just looking at it brings back so many memories. In that sense it is priceless. If I were Thomas Hardy, I would write a poem about it.
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