The Chess Grandmaster of South Station
Grandmaster Larry Christiansen shuffles around the inside of a squared-circle of folding tables situated directly beneath the South Station arrival/departure board. Aided by his wife Natasha, he arranges chess pieces on 25 mats at 25 seats. One man, already seated, asks Christiansen to autograph two paperback books, both authored by the MIT chess coach and Cambridge resident. A curious passerby asks Christiansen if he has a photographic memory, or something.
“A pretty good memory,” says Christiansen, who was deemed a grandmaster by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) at 19.
Twenty-five opponents ready themselves, and at noon, Christiansen outlines a lax set of rules. You may pass if you need more time, and if you beat him, a $10 gift certificate to the Boylston Chess Club in Davis Square is yours. The same man who asked for the autographs quips the prize used to be fried chicken.
And he’s off. Christiansen, 58, buzzes from match to match, each move taking only a few seconds. The opponents vary in both skill and age: two university students in Boston Strong shirts; a gruff, middle-aged man in a “Vietnam Veteran” hat; an elderly man who’s reached the age when the top few shirt buttons hold little importance. Natasha tells me the man across the table is ranked 1900 by the FIDE, while one of the Boston Strong kids is 1800. I ask her if she can spot an expert player from afar. “I recognize most of them,” she laughs. She’s the vice president of the Boylston Chess Club.
I share a birthday with Bobby Fischer. My credentials end there.
Like a priest repeating “Body of Christ” as he hands out communion wafers, Christiansen greets each opponent with a “Good luck” and moves his pawn to E4. I struggle to remember the opening for the scholar’s mate, then think better of insulting the grandmaster with the lamest trick in the book. The autograph guy murmurs to his neighbor: “Play defensively.”
These lunchtime simultaneous exhibitions are promoted by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which works with real estate developers, government agencies, and non-profits to reinvent public spaces. Their South Station endeavor was a success, as evidenced by the crowd steadily growing around Christiansen under the big board, eyes glued to the maestro in khakis.
In eleven moves, I’m toast. My neighbor to the left sees it before I do and laughs.
“I think that’s game,” I say when Christiansen returns. He extends his hand.
I look at my watch. A full 18 minutes have elapsed. I feel an ephemeral sense of pride, voided when I remember how large a portion of that time he spent facing the other 24 challengers, and how little time he spent before me. I ask a kind-eyed spectator if I was the first to be eliminated. “No, you were the second. I think.”
Christiansen will hold lunchtime simuls again on June 9.