Robert (gurdonark) wrote,


Postal chess is an odd thing. You write your move on a postcard, mail it off to your opponent, who writes his or her move on a postcard, and mails that move to you, using the odd notation for such things, once "English Descriptive", now "algebraic". The world, you see, is no longer "English Descriptive" but is merely "algebraic".
Cycle, rinse, repeat, checkmate.

I played in my first postal chess tournament when I was a teen. I thought I was quite good going into it--a simple matter of being able to beat the folks around me, excluding possibly my brother. I could even beat that senior who kept saying he spoke seven languages because he knew how to say "hello", "goodbye" and obscure obscenities in each.

My first "real" postal chess tournament, though, changed my view of my skill from "Searching for Bobby Fischer" to "The Man Who Fell to Earth". I not only sometimes had my head handed to me in regular profusion. I also sometimes had my thoughts and hopes and dreams. It's one thing to go about losing your head--indeed, in middle age one sometimes wonders if one ever had much to lose anyway, head-wise. Hopes and dreams are another thing. It's a little sad to algebraically recognize that one is being scalloped more than one is making the world one's oyster.

Early in my chess life, though, I met Alwyn C. Buckland. I loved and love that name, Alwyn C. Buckland, from the time that the US Chess Federation wrote me that he was an opponent in the annual "Golden Knights" postal chess tournament. In an era in which I was in my late teens and early twenties, Al was perhaps a little younger than I am now. That seemed unfathomably old to me. Yet somehow we became fast friends, without meeting or talking about anything but chess. The how and why I barely remember, but it had something to do with me calling Al's home in New Orleans to say that my move was late, but would be coming soon. This was unorthodox and completely unnecessary. We barely spoke for two minutes. Yet it mysteriously broke the ice that calcifies around us all like that literal mineral calcite--which is brittle, thin, needlessly infirm and yet crystalline-cold.

Al was quite a bit stronger as a chess player than I was. He was a little bit stronger than I am now. But we shared games and thoughts and ideas with one another by mail. He sent me elaborate hand-written letters, with the score sheets of his games. When I sent him my games, he would annotate his thoughts about them, suggesting good moves and correcting bad moves.

Sometimes, a period of time would elapse, and then I'd write him again. We wrote for years after our chess game ended (my head, no longer being attached anyway, being unable to be passed around like grapefruit, I merely played into defeat with resigned dignity). If I wrote him after a gap (and, not always characteristically now, but common, I was usually the more diligent correspondent, being in love with writing and reaching out for interconnection of the mind). Whenever I wrote after a gap, he wrote back, and always began his letter "It MUST be ESP!".

Al had an immensely positive effect on me. During my freshman year of college, a dreary time most reminiscent of
the sound of Mick Ronson singing off-key with his hair pink and his finger stuck in his ear during those 1974 Bowie in Santa Monica videos (n.b., my hair was never pink, but I sing off-key sometimes), I found chess a release, an escape, and an addiction. I also found it disheartening to be so weak at it. In the Summer before college, I had finished 7th in the state championship. I thought I was good. But college taught me that I had (and have) much to learn.

Al taught me a lot of chess, without charge, using huge magic marker lettering on notebook paper. But most importantly, Al provided me with aphorisms. Obvious things. Good things. Things like "If it isn't fun, stop playing". He was just this guy who corresponded with me about chess. But his letters were a lifeline that reminded me that life is more gracious than the anomie and antipathy that is the lot of the awkward such as myself.

I have not written to Al in decades. We drifted, as corresopndents tend to do. We did not burn bridges or have a tiff or anything. I rarely have tiffs, really, although you would not imagine that if you read my constant agonizing over such things. Even as I write that, though, I think of a tiff or two in my real life, so I say instead "I usually hate tiffs of any kind". We just stopped writing.

I looked up Al some years ago on the US Chess Federation site. He was still in Louisiana. He still played postal chess. I figure he may be in his 60s or 70s by now, as I am in my late forties. The last time I wrote him, he had been promoted to be in charge, which he said actually reduced his work stress.

But now I wish I knew how Al came through this New Orleans thing. I remember from years ago when I called him, all a-flutter and earnest to excuse my time tardiness in making my move. He had a rich New Orleans accent--that accent that sounds northern to we southerners, but sounds to northerners like a southern accent.

Perhaps he is in a shelter in Dallas, or Houston. Perhaps he is in McKinney, just to our north. Perhaps he
is trying to get home. Perhaps he evacuated to a better clime before the storm hit. Perhaps he left his chess set behind, and could use a game or two.

I googled him for clues as to whether he lived in New Orleans, but no luck. But I somehow believe that, if I could find him, and write him, he'd write back immediately, and say, "It must be ESP!", and we'd talk chess again. He'll never know that he made a difference in my life, but I know, and if I wrote him, I would tell him so.
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