Most of the club's players accepted my presence and my expertise but not James - he tested me over and over, with the stubborn, somewhat hostile determination. I normally played everyone who wanted (and believe me not many wanted) and always managed to lose a game or two in a way of appreciation and encouragement, so after a while there was not one player who could not brag of beating the top master.
But James was serious and I played stronger against him. He was a good player, but I always could find something in my bag of tricks. He too was listening to the class but rarely participating. A few years later, when he mellowed down from his quest, he took me to the park where the rest of the "guys" played - this was their club and he wanted to show me off.
Once he brought me a puzzle - a triangle with 15 holes, like a Christmas tree. The task was to move a peg over the holes using chess knight move (two holes one way and one hole to the side) but each landing had to be a "take" - meaning you should land on another peg (and remove it from the board) while continuing the jump from the landed hole. The sign on the bottom said "Most people can do 8 moves, you are very smart if you can make 9, but you are a genius if you can make 10 moves in a row each landing on a peg!" James said that this was the hottest puzzle at the park and that he and the others could make 9 but nobody was able to make 10 and he thought if anyone could it would be me.
This was not a checkers puzzle but he insisted and I took the board with pegs home. I tried it over and over for several days but could not make more than 9. My Saturday class was coming up (I taught at the club for 8 years every other Saturday) and I did not want to lose face.
That Friday night I got really serious - drawing a chart and writing each move down. Deep into the night I did it! but could not repeat it again! Finally at about 3AM I wrote down the moves and went to sleep, tired but happy. In the morning I picked the puzzle again and happily repeated the solution. I tried it a few more times - the mind was relaxed, free of pressure.
Suddenly I saw another way to make 10 moves! Two ways! Am I a genius or what?
I wrote it quickly down imagining how surprised James would be...
After breakfast I tried again and immediately found a third way! What was going on?
Suddenly the whole board as if lifted itself and variations upon variations started flying in my head - I did not need the board anymore. The mind - relaxed and attuned to the problem - was building three-dimensional cubes out of the two-dimensional triangle; the new paths were appearing and disappearing; the relationships grasped and understood; the imperceptible solutions appeared by themselves, simple and obvious - in short I was in a total zone. While taking a bath I envisioned the 11 moves solution.
James was at the club' door and immediately asked about the puzzle.
I opened the club (I had the key) and showed him how I named each peg hole (like a2 or b3) and the 9 moves solution.
- I know that! How about 10???? I showed him 10 - James could not believe his eyes!
- Show it again! I did. Again and again.
I then showed the solution in writing and made him repeat from paper so there was no question he could show the solution on his own. James was ecstatic, he was practically jumping up and down - "I knew it! If anyone could it would be you!"
When his jubilation died down I showed him a second way to do 10 moves. He liked it and wrote it down.
Then I showed the third way. This time he did not write it down and looked weary at me.
I then showed the 11 moves - that brought some excitement from him and he wrote it down.
After that I showed the 12 moves, which was based on a three-dimensional approach.
James took his ever present cap off, he was perspiring; for the first time I saw that he had a bold head. His knees could not hold him and he sat down, his face ashen. I did not notice or understood his condition.
I was showing the 13 moves but his eyes were rolling; he could not look at the board.
Someone else came to the club and wanted to play.
This was in our new club at the back of the garage on the 126th street - not many people knew where it was and few supported it because of the high rent (members had to pay $60.00 a year - this after paying $20.00 to the old man in the barbershop on Central). I asked James if he wanted to play the guy but James just sat there gasping.
I figured that he already got what he wanted (the 10 moves solution) and I would have a chance some other day to finish my report and moved off to play the new guy.
I never saw James again. He died soon after, I do not know how or when.
For a long time I felt guilty, that somehow the incident caused this.
Sometimes we are so engrossed in a project we are blind to everything else.
If you hear me James - I am sorry.