or, A Volunteer's TaleThis essay struck a chord with many readers when it was first published, and it remains the most often requested. It was last reprinted in Chess Renaissance News. We present it again here for your enjoyment.
I was part of the 1990 World Youth Chess Festival in Fond du Lac. I was not one of the principal organizers (I do have copies of most of the game scores, however — I figured they might be useful as blackmail material later if any of those players became successful) rather I (and others) worked the Milwaukee airport, collecting the travellers and seeing to their comfort and getting them on the chartered bus to Fond du Lac. The airport crew was headed up by Jerome Bibuld.
All I received for my efforts over those long days was a cap. A cap, and a headful of memories to put under it. The experience was a fine one, and I highly recommend it to any who might get the opportunity — I know I’d do it again if I had the chance! I got to meet and talk with many of the rising stars of the chess world (Judit Polgar, Gabriel Schwartzmann, among others). In addition, I got to meet some present stars like Pal Benko and Nikolai Minev. (Minev in particular was great fun. He was a bit put out when he first arrived, because no one met him at the plane. In our defense, no one told us he was coming. It appeared that he was a last-minute addition to the list of coaches and someone forgot to tell us. It was right after his book on the French was released — great book, BTW — and he was talking about doing another on the English. I wonder if that book is still on its way, or has he dropped the idea completely?)
On a grand scale, one of the better sights occurred as I was walking around the tournament hall. I noticed a flag that didn’t look quite right. And another. And I realized that many of the Romanian children had cut a circle in the middle of their country’s flag. They had removed the hammer and sickle! (Remember the events of 1990?)
As a father I had my best moment at the airport, before the festival had begun. We were wondering how we could attract the players as they arrived, how could we find them? My youngest daughter came up with the idea that we should wave a chess board as we walked through the airport, so anyone arriving could find us. And later, when people were all talking about Judit Polgar’s imminent arrival, she told me she didn’t think it was fair for everyone to be concentrating so much on Judit Polgar and ignoring all the other children. After all, they were all representatives of the best young players in their coutries! So she went to the book store and got a world map and made it a point to ask all the participants to sign it near their country of origin. (The Soviets did not sign, but rather their coach wrote all their names. The father of the boy from Greece nearly popped a button on his shirt with pride when she asked his son to sign.) It’s moments like that every father lives for. The world has changed, but that map stays on our wall.
My finest hour came late one night, when I was sent out to look for the Columbians, who were supposed to be arriving soon. I spotted a man surrounded by kids, mustered up my horrendous spanish and said “Ajedrez?” He curtly nodded, and gathered the children, and we set off. It was quiet, and everyone seemed a little nervous. I tried my best to make some conversation, but my spanish was terrible; he merely smiled and nodded, no matter what I said. I got near the rooms, and spotted Jerry. “I found the Columbians,” I shouted. Jerry’s exasperated voice came floating back down to me, “Arlen, those aren’t the Columbians, they’re the Romanians!” A quick translation for the kids (by Schwartzmann, I think) and the somber mood was broken. Everyone was laughing at the big guy with the clown’s nose!
The whole event left a grand series of impressions: How small Tal Shaked was, and the nervous way he would fidget with his rooks. The first people I met (Tatiana Duarte and her father, from Brazil). Playing blitz into the night on Pamela Wasserstein’s (or was it Wasserman? I’m sorry, but I don’t rightly remember her last name) set, which she had forgotten and left in the airport. (We put it on the next bus to Fond du Lac, with instructions on who to give it to, and thanked her for leaving it behind and saving us from a long boredom — we’d forgotten to bring some sets from the club — when we saw her later.) Me, struggling to speak French and Spanish, both languages which I hadn’t spoken since High School. A girl named Sylvia from Bangladesh who had a 32-hour plane trip. (If anyone out there knows her, apologize to her on behalf of my daughter. She was going to write, but in true Walker fashion, she misplaced her address right after the tournament was over.) I talked for a bit at Fred Waitzkin. (I say “at” because he wasn’t listening. He spotted me and apologized later, but he didn’t need to. It was my fault; I should have known better — Josh was in the middle of a very difficult game at the time, and it was obvious where Fred’s mind was. It was on his son’s game, where it should have been.)
There was the official pin of the Festival. It came in two versions: One which spelled Wisconsin correctly, and one which didn’t (“Wisconsion.”) The participants got the former; the rest of us were sold the latter.
And then there was the spookiest moment, which I advance in support of my belief that no large event like that can come together without some Divine Intervention. As we were setting up, a businessman came to us and asked if he could use a portion of one of our tables to work at. He had a few hours before his connection, and he needed a space to spread out. We let him, and didn’t give it much further thought. Later, Jerry Bibuld came in with the news that the West Germans were missing. They were supposed to have arrived, but we couldn’t find them anywhere. We were going to have them paged, and then realized none of us spoke German well enough to manage a page. We were about to give up, when a voice from the far end of the room said, “I speak German.” The businessman we’d allowed to share our room! He ended up making the announcement over the loudspeaker himself, on our behalf. Moral: Be kind to strangers; you never know when you might need one.
There’s a thousand, a million, more memories I’ve walked away from Fond du Lac 1990 with, but I’ll stop now. If you ever get the chance to help out with something like that in the future, do yourself and chess a favor, and do it. And tell me. ’Cause I’d like to do it again, myself.History Of Chess In Milwaukee Biographies blog comments powered by Disqus