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I Can Take Him"I can take him," he said to himself, his eyes narrowing as he evaluated his challenger. He had spent a lifetime learning how to size up the competition; almost sixteen years worth.
He looked his opponent over and saw determined eyes, a red and white striped polo shirt, and blue jeans. He was also barefoot, with shaggy hair. But the initial assessment held true: this punk might think he was going to run the board, but yeah, I can take him.
He advanced onto the field of battle willing to risk grass stains on his elbows, flopped down on his belly, then stared into the eyes of his opponent, almost nose to nose.
"You call it," the young punk said.
"White," replied our hero.
"Cool. I knew you were going to say that; you always take white."
Tom, "the young punk," pushed the chessboard toward Chip with the white queen already in place. He, too, knew his opponent well. Chip, "our hero," always chose white, reaching forward to move the king's pawn and open the match.
It was the summer of 1972 and the World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky inflamed the world. Never before nor since has chess dominated the attention of almost every person on Planet Earth who had access to a television set. It became a phenomenon, a worldwide spectacle. The populations of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. were especially obsessed with the Cold War implications of "The Match of the Century" - as coined and promoted by the media. The entire country of France took their usual month-long vacation and watched every move of every game the two masters played in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Between July and September, 22 games were played to establish Bobby Fischer as the 11th World Chess Champion. And teenage boys across America gave up baseball for a summer to focus on black and white horses and castles and royalty advancing up and down checkerboards in thousands of backyards.
Chip always chose white because he had learned that the secret to winning was to dominate the game, to make the opponent play his game, as they phrased it. The television analysis was relentless, and in time every viewer thought they were expert chess players, too. Chip was determined to keep Tom off-balance, to force Tom to react to his every move, and never be allowed to set up an attack of his own.
The board was surrounded by boys watching every move while working out their own next moves. Every move set up a cascade of possibilities, and every kid played the game vicariously, waiting for their turn to play the winner. In the meantime, every busy mind thoroughly enjoyed the competition, and the ocassional flash of skill that sometimes surprised you.
None of these boys remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis, nor appreciated how preferable it was for the two world "super-powers" to compete on the chessboard instead of the battlefield. But ten years earlier Kennedy and Khrushchev stood nose to nose and redefined the serious consequences of brinkmanship. The lives of 100 million Americans and 100 million Russians stood in the balance, as their leaders played the mental game, "I can take him."
But in their small yet precious little lives, Chip and Tom and the rest of the gang were well served by their ability to assess whether or not "I can take him." You didn't have to walk the "mean streets" to be faced from time to time with personal challenges, physical dares, and serious confrontations. And how you responded to each challenge impacted how your friends and schoolmates treated you in the hallways and at play. How you stood up to a confrontation even influenced how you felt about yourself, and how you defined your place in the group. To a teenage boy, this was serious stuff.
Still, some compromise was required in every group. A boy learned early on how to get along with his friends and be good company. He also learned when it was time stand up for himself, draw a line in the sand, and stop a serious challenger cold. When "push came to shove" you had to learn to hide your fear, smile even when you felt butterflies in your belly and, if necessary, be willing to take a pounding. The code of "real men" and heros required you never back down and run. You had to tough it out, to stand tall, to be brave despite the odds. A boy learned to both "take it" and "dish it out" as needed. It was a point of personal pride.
Ideally, physical fights were rare; that made it a mental game, instead. You learned to evaluate your chances of success against any challenger. "Faking it" was a viable tool for success. You had to move with confidence, even when you didn't feel confident. But sooner or later someone would call you out, and you had to be ready to accept the challange. Sometimes that meant a fight; but most of the time you simply had to develop the competence hold your own on the playing field, to ride your bike with skill, to run fast, to think on your feet. You had to earn the respect of your peers and strangers.
Boys often did dangerous and stupid things because no one was willing to be the one to mention common sense to the group. It was not acceptable to "chicken out." You simply had to trust that the outcome would not be too dire, and the group of friends would acquire another cool memory instead. Bravado was both accepted and necessary - it was expected. You had to do or die, put up or shut up, and talk trash with the rest. These were some of the dues a teenage American boy was expected to pay. It was the price of manhood.
All of the above explains, in part, another bizarre chapter in the development of "I can take him" thinking. A year after the Fischer-Spassky tournament the nation obsessed over the "Battle of the Sexes," a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. For four months they "trash talked" one another, birthed by Riggs' comment that his tennis victory over Margaret Court proved that "women can't play too well." His comment after defeating the world's number one female tennis player set off a firestorm of feminine reaction, which Riggs stoked even hotter by saying that even the best woman in the world couldn't beat a man "with one foot in the grave."
Half serious, half played for laughs, Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. She was carried in on a chair borne by four muscular, bare-chested men, while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by a squad of provocatively dressed women. With topical "Women's Liberation" in the balance, some dubbed the match "the libber verses the lobber." In the end King crushed Riggs in three quick games and won the match.
As the summer of 1972 came to a close, Chip and Tom and the rest of the gang turned back to football and new grade at school. Chess was put away for rainy weekends and snow-days. Everything was changing, including the challenges they would soon come to face. They earned their driving licenses and grew more serious about the girls they were dating. Competition on the playing field became more organized, and the locker room introduced a new brand of challenges. The Viet Nam war dragged to an end in January, 1973 and these boys, at least, escaped the draft boards. College and marriage hovered on the distant horizon.
Meanwhile, Bobby Fischer was honored with Bobby Fischer Day when he returned to New York City that Autumn. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and on a Bob Hope television special with Olympic swimming star Mark Spitz. And he took home a prize of $250,000, which is worth five times that amount today. The boys learned that the spoils do indeed go to the victor, though excellence had a price to pay, and sometimes victory had penalties to endure, along with its rewards. The life-shaping lessons learned in those early days became integrated in their mature personalities; for better or for worse, only time would tell. The boys grew into men, and nothing could spare them from new confrontations and challenges in the board room, and the divorce court, behind the wheel, and from fatherhood. But they had learned their lessons well. They would survive, and thrive.