The Argentine Zugzwang

By Aleksey Bashtavenko

Academic Composition

Miguel Diaz had once been the chess prodigy of George Mason University and even earned an “expert” title at a local tournament. Do not assume that I am at all impressed by such a title, but it meant the world to Miguel. He had no particular fondness for chess; in fact, he loathed it. However, he dedicated himself to the game with unrelenting determination, all in an effort to counter the deep sense of inferiority and shyness he had developed from being treated as a Hispanic in America during the early 2000s. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing that he could outwit anyone who looked down on him.   Miguel’s dislike for chess only grew, but there was an odd satisfaction in his accomplishments, and he couldn’t deny that his skills were improving until they weren’t.

In his sophomore year at George Mason University, Miguel immersed himself in chess literature, gained weight, stopped exercising, and began wearing glasses. His peers had little recollection of him as if he were a mere phantom. They didn’t even remember his chess prowess. I was always skeptical of people who appeared straightforward, especially when their stories seemed to hold up perfectly. I often wondered if Miguel Diaz had ever been the chess sensation he claimed to be. Perhaps he had encountered some peculiar mishap, or maybe he was raised in a Spanish-speaking household and had hidden it away, fearing judgment, and was making up all his stories to conceal his deep feeling of inferiority. However, I eventually had someone confirm Miguel’s story with Coach Ken Burgess. Coach Ken not only remembered Miguel but had often wondered what had become of him.

Miguel declared an electrical engineering major at GMU but dropped out less than a year later to pursue chess full-time. His goal was clear: to elevate his US Chess Federation (USCF) rating from a respectable 2000 to the coveted 2100 mark. This remarkable journey demanded an unparalleled commitment, and over the course of two intense years, Miguel invested more than 4,000 hours into exhaustive study and participated in over 300 classical chess matches, each lasting no less than three grueling hours. His relentless pursuit of excellence in chess ultimately led him to conquer his goal, and yet he was still 100 points short of the National Master title he coveted.

Miguel Diaz hailed from a family of Argentine descent, living in Northern Virginia. No one could have guessed that his forebears were of Spanish or Italian ancestry. He attended George Mason University, and his early life was relatively free from concerns about his ethnicity. As a young man, he was exceedingly introverted, and this characteristic, combined with his Hispanic background, bred a deep sense of insecurity within him. Miguel found himself going to great lengths to conceal his ability to speak Spanish, fearing it would exacerbate the feelings of difference he experienced.

Unlike his previous student days at a public school, where no one had ever made him race-conscious, his time at George Mason University was marked by the weight of his Hispanic heritage. He was a mild-mannered boy, a kind boy, and very shy, but painfully self-conscious. That made him bitter. Rather than turning to chess as a source of solace, he despised the game. Instead, he channeled his frustrations into his studies, especially when he realized that he had plateaued for years on end and had scant prospects of seizing the National Master title that he yearned for.

Miguel’s life took an unexpected turn when he suffered a severe injury. While living at home with his mother, his brother allegedly pushed him down the stairs, breaking his hip. Miguel’s world transformed as he found himself bound to crutches and dealing with considerable weight gain. Memories of the days when he ran 5k races with the GMU track team seemed like distant echoes as his chess aspirations seemed buried beneath the enormous weight he had gained.

He was taken in hand by the first girl who was nice to him. The lady was very forceful and he never stood a chance of not being taken in hand. Also, he was sure that he loved her. When she saw that Miguel wasn’t going anywhere in life, she became more than just a little disgusted with him and pressured him to move out of his mother’s house. The lady who had him, her name was Anna, began to notice as their second year together drew to a close that her looks were waning. Her attitude towards Miguel underwent a transformation, shifting from one of casual possession and exploitation to a resolute insistence that he should marry her and change his last name to match hers. During this period, Miguel’s mother had arranged for him to receive a monthly allowance of around three hundred dollars. Over two and a half years, I doubt that Miguel Diaz ever cast a single glance at another woman.

During this time the global pandemic hit, disrupting Miguel’s routine of playing USCF-rated chess at an IHOP. He then discovered an outlet for his passion for chess through a blog where he published his annotated games. It wasn’t long before he started collaborating with a local chess enthusiast who went by  “the Bill Nye of fat girls.” Working with his new collaborator, Miguel penned a chess book, which, despite later criticism, wasn’t as terrible as some critics claimed, although it certainly wasn’t worth reading.

I first noticed his lady’s demeanor towards him one evening after the three of us had dined together. Our dinner had taken place near a shopping mall in Arlington, and afterward, we headed to Starbucks for coffee. We lingered over several brews, and eventually, I mentioned that I had to leave. Diaz had been discussing the idea of the two of us embarking on a weekend getaway, craving an escape from the city for a refreshing stroll. I suggested we catch a flight to Brooklyn and explore its vibrant neighborhoods, perhaps venturing into Chinatown or some other part of the borough.

Someone nudged me under the table. I initially thought it was accidental and continued, “I know a friend in Brooklyn who can show us around. She’s been living there for two years and knows the city inside out. She’s a fantastic person.” I received another nudge under the table, and when I glanced down, I saw Anna raising her chin with a stern expression on her face. “Oh well,” I said, trying to smooth things over, “why go to Brooklyn? We could head up to Little Italy or even Madison Square in the Ardennes.”

Miguel appeared visibly relieved. There were no more nudges under the table. I bid them goodnight and headed for the exit. Miguel mentioned he wanted to grab a Pepsi and offered to walk with me to the corner store.

“Seriously,” he implored, “why did you bring up that girl from Brooklyn? Didn’t you notice Anna’s reaction?” I replied, genuinely puzzled, “No, why would I? If I happen to know a girl living in Brooklyn, what does it matter to Anna?”

Miguel sighed, clearly exasperated, “It makes all the difference. Any girl, really. I couldn’t agree to that, and that would be the end of it.” I shook my head, dismissing his concerns, “You’re overthinking it.” He countered, “You don’t understand Anna. Any girl at all. Didn’t you see the way she looked?”

One fateful day, news spread throughout the DC chess community that a local Fide Master had landed at the airport, in need of a ride home. To everyone’s astonishment, Miguel Diaz eagerly stepped forward, a gesture that left his peers in a state of shock, wild bemusement, and utter incomprehension. Miguel was not known for going out of his way to assist anyone, and witnessing this unexpected act of kindness was nothing short of astounding.

Shortly thereafter, the mystery began to unravel. Miguel brought the renowned player to a restaurant where his teammates were joyously celebrating their flawless victory in the DC Chess League. Their season had concluded with an impressive record of nine wins out of nine matches, with Miguel as their formidable board one player.

As the honored guest arrived at the dinner, Miguel made it his mission to interject into every conversation, emphasizing that he had defeated the player in a game that was played with a G.45 d5 time-control. To everyone’s bewilderment, he incessantly waved his two middle fingers in the player’s face, rendering conversations on any other topic nearly impossible.

As Miguel continued his relentless pursuit of chess excellence, his obsession with the game became increasingly apparent to those around him. He’d often be spotted at various chess tournaments, even when he wasn’t a participant. People couldn’t quite fathom why he was there, but it turned out that he was meticulously observing and taking notes on how his peers played. While conversations about the chess giants like Alekhine or Kasparov left him silent, he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of players like Kevin Michaels, whose modest rating of 1557 from last January was etched in his memory.

Miguel’s dedication knew no bounds as he tracked down the games of every potential opponent, thoroughly dissecting their openings. Before entering any tournament, he’d consult his trusty “rating calculator” on his phone, assessing how many points he could potentially gain. He only competed if he was certain he could accumulate rating points, even if it was a mere three points in a nine-round event—a treasure to him. Paradoxically, when he found himself on a winning streak or bested a higher-rated player, he’d withdraw promptly, haunted by the fear of losing the precious rating points he’d painstakingly earned.

Time passed, and Miguel eventually married Anna, carving a new path separate from his mother’s house and adopting her last name. He continued to host USCF-rated tournaments at an IHOP and relentlessly pursued his National Master title. Though he inched closer, within 55 points of his life’s ultimate goal, the elusive NM title still felt like an unreachable dream.

But one day, as Miguel prepared for yet another tournament, calculating the 6.3 rating points he stood to gain, an email from someone he used to converse with left him pondering the purpose of his existence. The message read, “Boludo! ¿Qué haces con tu vida? ¡Vivirás siempre con tu madre y nunca conseguirás el título de maestro nacional!” It was a stark reminder of the path he had chosen, and for the first time in his life, he began wondering if his princely USCF rating of 2147 came at an opportunity cost that he was no longer able to pay.


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