The art of war

John Reitzel lurches forward — cigarette in one hand, coffee in the other — and frowns: What is his opponent, Tom Brown, up to? Reitzel’s pawns, lined up like the Great Wall of China, loom over the center of the 64-square chessboard. From their 16-piece starting forces, each man has whittled the other down to a rook or two, a queen, a knight and a handful of pawns. In the tally of captured pieces, Brown is ahead by one pawn, and Brown’s queen has just flanked the pawn wall in one fell swoop. But Reitzel’s forces are pressing forward relentlessly against Brown’s weakened defense.

Brown confesses to Mountain Xpress that he made his last move “just to see what happens.”

Hearing that, Reitzel takes a drag on his cigarette and relaxes. “Not knowing what you want to do is not a game plan,” he informs Brown. Composure restored, he moves his own queen, charging nearly the full length of the board to penetrate Brown’s defense line and set up a subsequent move with his knight — that will threaten Brown’s king and, perhaps, end the game.

The move elicits a muttered curse from Brown, who deduces the knight setup. “Chess is civilized,” he remarks.

Well, up to a point.

“You’re in a desperate battle,” he continues. “The best thing I can hope for now is to strip away some of [Reitzel’s] power and get at his slightly denuded king.” Brown then launches a series of quick, decisive moves that pester his opponent with repeated checks against his king and skirmishes with Reitzel’s all-too-few other pieces.

The two 50-something men sit at Natural Mystic Coffee Company on a wintry Sunday afternoon, the fading light glossing the building’s old-garage-door window. Asheville musician Andrew Baker looks on, studying their duel. At other tables, men and women of various ages are likewise bent over chessboards — some murmuring, some with hands held to foreheads as if stemming a headache. Others clutch coffee mugs or pause to stir cups of tea — delicate signs of composure under fire.

Reitzel burns through no less than three cigarettes during his battle against Brown. He dodges Brown’s pesky — but not deadly — attacks, pressing his other pieces into position for a final strike of his own. One of his pawns lurks near Brown’s rear line, having traversed the board like a soldier advancing through enemy territory at night.

Reitzel moves, and Brown tosses his arms up. “I’m screwed!” he declares. But he quickly recovers, and begins studying the board afresh. He attacks again, swiping Reitzel’s remaining pieces left and right. “That’s my survival game, to whittle him down,” Brown explains, pointing toward Reitzel’s brave pawn: “This guy down here is getting annoying. If he gets to the other side, he becomes tall and shapely.”

In other words, a pawn that makes it all the way across the board becomes a queen. Hundreds of years ago, “she” was a “he” — a piece called a chancellor or vizier who didn’t pose much of a threat in the game, able to move only two squares ahead (diagonally) at a time. But in the 15th century (the same era in which warring men discovered long-range artillery) the vizier became the queen — the most powerful piece on the board, free to move any number of squares at a time, in any direction.

Asked why he likes the game, Reitzel replies, “The whole world is confined to 64 squares. It’s all black and white, with no ambiguities.” The Buncombe County resident holds a Ph.D. in physiology from N.C. State, but says he’s just a farmer — albeit a “dangerously overeducated” one.

Brown attempts one last check, and Baker mutters, “Oh, Tom — that wasn’t it.” If Brown had moved to the adjacent square, Baker observes, he would have been in position to checkmate Reitzel. The miscalculation gives Reitzel time to complete his plan, and he soon finishes off Brown. But Reitzel graciously offers to play Brown again — and Brown readily accepts.

Coffee-shop secret

Reitzel, Brown and Baker are all ranked by the United States Chess Federation, having played in a number of tournaments over the years. One of those is the Land-of-the-Sky Chess Tournament, to be held at the Holiday Inn Great Smokies Sunspree Resort Feb. 4-6. The brainchild of Weaverville attorney Wilder Wadford, it’s one of the top tournaments in the country (and probably the largest in the Southeast) — an event that challenges beginners and grand masters alike.

It’s also one of Asheville’s best-kept little secrets. Some of the top players in the state live in this area, Baker notes.

“I moved to this town [from Indiana] because of the chess and the music scene,” he proclaims. “The brain’s a muscle, and chess helps me to concentrate. I use that in the music I create.” An active local chess club meets the first and third Wednesday of each month at the North Asheville Community Center, and a thriving coffee-shop chess crowd has made Mystic its latest home (Beanstreets and Vincent’s Ear were former haunts).

Of the migration from Vincent’s, Reitzel jokes, “We didn’t have enough piercings.”

But at a nearby table, two young men sporting variously pierced body parts, rainbow-streaked hair and overly baggy pants seem to refute that notion. One of the boys, Jeremy, is playing part-time Asheville resident Laura Thomas, who’s been avidly improving her game by taking chess lessons from Karl Ehrsam, arguably the city’s best player. The other young man is chafing to play, fidgeting restlessly as he watches the game, offering Jeremy occasional advice and — when his friend blunders — making a sign as if cutting his own throat.

Nearly oblivious to these antics, Thomas coaches Jeremy through the game, writing down moves so she can review the game later with Ehrsam. When Jeremy moves a knight to the edge of the board, she recites her teacher’s advice: “A knight on the rim is dim” — then explains that Ehrsam teaches a lot of children and gears his advice accordingly.

Jeremy then makes another dubious move, and she offers maternally, “Honey, are you sure you want to do that?”

Thomas started playing when she got out of college, but dropped the game until a few years ago, when her 18-year marriage (and accompanying business partnership) crumbled. “I had just lost everything,” she recounts — but a good friend, Charlie Thomas, courted her attention … through chess. “He knew I wouldn’t go out on a date, so he asked me to play chess. He was sweating it [during that first game], trying to beat me so I’d be interested.” He won that first one, demonstrating skill and intelligence, and an intrigued Laura kept meeting him for chess … and then wine …

They’ve been married for six years now.

Romance aside, Thomas says of chess: “It’s very satisfying to solve a puzzle, and I’m good at it. It’s opened a whole new world for me.” She credits Ehrsam’s coaching with sparking her great progress — along with her bygone years of boarding-school homework (which sometimes averaged four hours a night), and her experience in competitive sports such as fencing. “I’m used to drilling,” says Thomas, who tracks her games for subsequent review, studies everything related to chess, practices moves and situations … and plays as often as she can.

Modest nonetheless, she observes, “Fencing and karate are like chess — except in [those sports], it hurts when you lose!”

Husband Charlie might disagree: “I play for the lessons in humility,” he said one afternoon outside Malaprop’s. Apparently, he had just lost a game — not surprising, considering the number of above-average tournament players who live in Asheville (and the lessons his wife gives him). Nonetheless, he keeps on playing, feeding an addiction that began in childhood: “I made a chess set out of cardboard and made my little sister play with me.”

In Asheville, he’s had little trouble hunting up games, though in Mount Airy — where he and Laura run a flight-garment business part-time –it’s a different story: “There are maybe four players I know of — and we’re two of them,” he jokes.

Ehrsam joins the discussion, commenting: “When I came back from college in 1991, it was hard to find a chess game outside of the club, other than the occasional game at Beanstreets. Now, it’s all over [the city], and we almost don’t need a club.”

A weekend-afternoon peek into Mystic can reveal up to half a dozen games in full throttle. You can spot the regular players by the rolled-up vinyl boards and bagged chess pieces poking out of their backpacks. Teenagers will beg the older players to lend them a chess set; players not currently in a game will stroll from table to table, studying the action. Many women play this traditionally male game, as well. (Thomas takes great pleasure in defeating male opponents who underestimate her, and Deanna Fitchett shatters moldy stereotypes with the battle cry, “It’s my nature to want to attack.”) Teens play middle-aged engineers. And the best players aren’t always the nerds and geeks, either, observes 16-year-old Will Combs — who calls America’s first and only world chess champion as “that Bobby Fischer dude.” Says Combs, “We had a chess team [in junior high],and it had all these diverse people on it. The best players were the cool people.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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