Endgame: Playing Chess with Fran Farrell
I started playing chess with Fran Farrell about ten years ago, shortly after I learned he had been diagnosed with ALS. At the time when we began playing, we were more acquaintances than friends, but regular play brought us closer together. After I heard about his diagnosis, I proposed that we start playing as often as we could, as I knew that ALS would eventually wreak havoc on his body, but his mind would remain sharp and alert, something that you needed when playing chess. At first, we played actual games over a board, but when his arms began to fail him, we switched to online play, first on the app Chess with Friends and then eventually on Chess.com, which he could handle better with eye-gaze technology. He gave himself the name Bridgepoint, after the street on which he lived, and I gave myself the name LHOOQ, after the five letters that the artist Marcel Duchamp wrote below an image of the Mona Lisa (that artist having been the specialty of my studies in art history, as Duchamp was himself an avid chess player).
Photo: Fran Farrell playing chess on his eye tracker
When we started playing, I was the stronger player. According to the app, I was rated at around 1300, whereas Fran was around 1000, but it was enough of a difference for me to win consistently. I loved playing with him, because, at first, I gave little thought to each move, feeling confident that even if I made a mistake, more precise play would keep me winning. Some thought my consistent wins were cruel, but I was incapable of throwing a game, not only because I lacked the skill to do so convincingly, but because I knew Fran would know. We just kept playing and I kept on winning, that is, until one night when I realized that in one particular game, I was in trouble. No matter what I did, it looked like I was going to lose. Eventually, I came to the reluctant conclusion that there was nothing more I could do, so, with some reluctance, I clicked onto the little tab and resigned. Back then, Chess with Friends would play a little song when you won, and I knew that Fran was about to hear it for the first time, which put a smile on my face, even though I felt some pain in having lost. A few minutes later, Fran’s wife Denise called me. They were in a hotel in Ithaca, New York, having moved their daughter into a dorm room at college. She said that when Fran won, he jumped up off the bed and started dancing. It was his first win playing against me, but not his last.
Playing chess is such a wonderful experience that I wish I could share it with everyone for whom I cared. Occasionally, the app told me, I would play with a rating of around 1600, but that was only when I managed to play well against an opponent who was more highly skilled. Eventually I started playing others who were randomly assigned to me by the app, whereas Fran played only those whom he knew, like his son-in-law Dom, who was a far stronger player than either one of us. Once I managed to beat someone in an exceptionally spectacular fashion, with a move that I could not help but to share with Fran. When the game finished, I ran over to his house to go over the game with him. I remember that it involved a position where I sacrificed a piece and knew that if the guy took it, I would entrap his Queen. That’s exactly what happened. I so loved watching games being played that I wanted Fran to go with me to St. Louis to attend tournaments at the World Chess Museum and Hall of Fame, which I visited on occasion. Although his mind was willing, his body could no longer sustain the stress of a trip like that, so I regret that we never went. I tried to get Fran to view games analyzed by Antonio Radić, a Croatian chess player and YouTuber who, I felt, was the best person analyzing tournament games on the Internet. Fran preferred playing with people he knew, for it was the one-on-one exchange and camaraderie that most stimulated his interest in the game.
Neither Fran nor I ever studied chess seriously, so we did not know any of the standard openings, yet we knew instinctively how to avoid some of the more obvious traps. Once we got through the opening, we were both amazed at how the game suddenly and inexplicably took on a unique identity of its own, not resembling any game that we had played before (nor, for that matter, anyone else). It is said that the variations of the game are greater than the number of atoms in the universe, which is a ludicrous calculation (since we don’t really have a clear idea of how large the universe is). Nevertheless, there is enough of a difference between one game an another to make you think the variations are infinite. In our games, Fran kept falling for the Royal Fork, where, with my knight, I would check his King and Queen in the same move, forcing him to move his King and loose his Queen in the process. This frustrated him to no end, until I told him that whenever a knight of mine gets close enough to his King to check it, start looking carefully at the position of his Queen, because there is no doubt that I’m coming after it. Despite my warning, I pulled off a Royal Fork in the third game before our last, but something else happened. Even though he lost his Queen, he still beat me in the game! There is no question that, over time, Fran became the stronger player. You can send your opponent a message through the app, so I explained that I was losing because I was being timed out of the games. Even though Fran found it difficult to respond to any message (since he needed to peck out each letter individually on the computer screen), he responded with one word: “Coward.”
About a week before Fran died, my wife and I visited him at his home and somehow it came up that I had recently celebrated a birthday. Without telling anyone, after we left Fran went onto Amazon.com and purchased a pair of black-and-white socks with chess pieces printed on them. They arrived when he had already left his computer and was preparing for his final hours. When his wife asked who they were for, he said “Francis’s birthday,” nearly the last words he ever spoke. A few days after my good friend and chess partner departed from this planet, I went to my phone to check out the game we had in progress. We are approaching the endgame. We have the same number of pieces, although he has a rook and I have only a knight. His King, however, is out in the open, and I have been checking him for the last three moves, although I must be careful, for Fran is only one move away from checkmate. In the upper right corner of the screen the words “3 days” appears, which indicates the amount of time we each have to make a move. When I touch that warning, the following message appears: “Bridgepoint is on vacation! They have months of vacation time left, but may be back sooner.” I later learned that, just before Fran left his computer for the last time, he sent that same message to all of the people he was playing chess with. It was a wonderful gesture, as it suggested that our games were placed in a position of indefinite suspension, to resume at some point when he decides to come back from vacation. I can’t help but to think that these are all games Fran will win.