A Sporting Chance, Part Two: The Swedish Chefs

Just in case some poor random soul should stumble across this page just now, and for reasons incapable of being explained with mere logic, find him or or herself unwilling to leave without partaking of the unnecessary verbiage here offered, a short explanation is in order. Currently two multipart series are running here, one on computer games and one on organized sport; the general idea was to compare and contrast the two traditions drawing on personal experience.

My stint as an amateur athlete in childhood was (mercifully) sweet, as I mentioned last time, consisting almost solely of two seasons in Andover youth soccer, one winless and one undefeated, both devoid of meaning. I felt scarcely any need to venture into the the realm of organized sport again until I was nearly finished with high school, and that was under very specific circumstances.

The schedule at Austin Prep, where I attended high school, was at the time divided into periods referred to by letter. Period 'C' was designated free time, usually using for studying over a snack in the cafeteria, or, for most of my friends and I, playing chess in the Biology Lab.

Like many schools, we had our divisions of Jocks and Geeks, and I understood well which side of this line I was on. I probably spent more hours at that school playing chess than engaged in any other single pastime, despite my almost complete lack of talent for the game.

Talent was, in fact, a secondary consideration to speed and ego for a two-board variation of the game that was our favorite, referred to as "bughouse chess". This game featured two boards, four players, and two chess clocks both set for five minutes. Players on each side of the table are a team and play opposite colors. Play proceeds normally with the exception that pieces captured on one board are handed over to your teammate, who is playing the appropriate color, and may be placed anywhere on the board in lieu of making a move, the only restriction being that a piece cannot be placed to create checkmate. In this game of chess, planning and tactics take a backseat to reflexes and trash talking.

Meanwhile, the jocks were up to something else: softball. There was a (relatively) organized league of teams, usually arranged by homeroom, that played softball during C period. Unlike the chess matches, the results of these games were broadcast at the end of the day over the PA system. The teams were named thins like the Marlboro Men, or other such things. Sometimes they tried to be clever, as the team that named themselves Off and had a penchant for losing-- that is, for being beaten. Draw your own conclusions. Hey, it was high school.

Our team was called the Swedish Chefs.

The reason, of course, is that one of our number, Jeremy, had a particular fondness for the Henson character of that name, and had a habit of exclaiming "Bork!" during matches, which he invariably won.

The bigger mystery was why we chose to play at all. To say we had limited athletic talent at our disposal is an understatement. I myself, having left the athletic world to fend for itself over the ten intervening years since I last saw it, had improved little except for a few discussions about the infield fly rule.

We may have won one or more games (I do remember we won at least one by forfeit, where the opposing team did not field enough players); I'm not entirely sure. What I do remember, though, was that it was actually possible that on any given day I might somehow, measurably, contribute to the result.

In one game I ended an inning by fielding a fly ball to left field when I wasn't even supposed to be playing. The opposing team complained, but no one was listening.

In another game, I actually managed a halfway decent base hit to right field and was promtply asked if I was on steroids. That's the kind of team it was. We had one kid named Murphy who could have been a jock, although to be honest he looked more like a marine, which is to say his neck began at his ears and ended somewhere on his hips, all of the above of which could be described as wide. He wasn't a chess player, but for reasons passing understanding he hung out with the rest of us a lot of the time, and we were grateful to have him since I think he drove in all the RBIs we ever scored.

Winning or losing, however, was always a distant second to participating, to playing. We never had any delusions about moving up in the standings, or winning a championship. It never even entered our minds. It was something to do to break up the monotony of too many chess games. And as a result, it rescued for me the idea that athletics-- even organized athletics-- could be fun and interesting, with the right players.