Writing about the Mechanics Institute chess club started me thinking about other chess clubs that I’ve played in. Although I played in school chess clubs from about eighth grade all the way through graduate school, the first club for adults that I ever went to was the Richmond Chess Club.
My family moved to Richmond, Virginia, during my first year of college (1975). Because I was in college most of the year, I lived in Richmond only during the summers, and I barely knew anybody there. The chess club was almost the only social activity I had, besides my summer job.
The chess club was held every Thursday night at the Virginia Home, an assisted-living faciilty in a very picturesque part of town. As I wrote in my diary at the time, “At first I was a little uneasy about going to a home for the disabled.” I think now that I was more than a “little uneasy.” I had not spent much time around older people or sick people, and I really didn’t understand them very well.Â The fact that they looked ugly, or deformed, meant to me that they somehow weren’t good or complete people. After all, isn’t that the way it is in Disney movies? The heroes or heroines are always young and beautiful, and the villains are old and twisted. The same ruthless code of judgement based on external appearanceÂ applies in high school, too. The popular kids are the good-looking ones, and if you are ugly or deformed in any way, you’re a social outcast.
The main reason the club was held at the Virginia Home, I believe, is that it was where Jesse Burke lived. He may have been the founder or organizer of the club–I’m not sure–but he was certainly its most visible presence. He was completely confined to a rolling bed, not even a wheelchair because he couldn’t sit up. He had Coke-bottle glasses and twisted-up hands whose fingers all went the wrong directions. If I remember correctly, he moved the pieces with a long stick, sort of like a back-scratcher. I don’t think I ever actually played Jesse, because I was both repulsed and a little bit afraid of him. But there were plenty of other people to play with–younger people closer to my age and ability. Also, some “big names” of Virginia chess, such as former state champions Ed Kitces and Charlie Powell, would show up now and then.
One time, in 1978, a newspaper reporter came to write an article about Jesse and the Richmond Chess Club. Here’s what I wrote in my diary: “He looked amazingly like my stereotype of a cub reporter–skinny, bookish, very ill at ease until he started interviewing people and filling his very conspicuous notebook with pages of notes.” So what’s wrong with that? Somehow I thought it was funny that he looked so much like a reporter, but what else is he going to look like? And it’s a good thing that he took pages of notes! That’s part of his job!
Well, life has taken its revenge on me, hasn’t it? Now I am a reporter, and when I went to the Mechanics Institute this week I took along my notebook, took lots of notes, and probably looked just as ill at ease as this guy did.
Finally the newspaper article came out, and it was a long article full ofÂ information about Jesse Burke’s life. I wish I could remember it (alas, the online archives of the Times Dispatch don’t go back to 1978), but I do recall that it said that Jesse Burke had juvenile arthritis. Of course it had never occurred to me to ask him about his disease, and I had never realized that he had a lifeÂ before he was confined to the Virginia Home. Probably with modern treatment his body would not have gotten so ravaged by the disease, but in the 1910s and 1920s they didn’t have the range of anti-inflammatory drugs that we have today.
I wish I could say that the scales fell from my eyes after I read this article,Â and I became less judgmental about the way that people look. No, it took time and maturity for me to reach that point. But maybe playing chess at the Virginia Home got me started.
(Note: Entry edited on 2/1/2010 to correct the spelling of Jesse Burke’s name.)