by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The TV behind the bar flashed a picture of Gary Kasparov, who had just won the world chess championships in Moscow.

“What a bore,” said the man next to me.

Not really, I said. Chess can be exciting.

“Yeah? How?”

Strategy. Pressure. Timing.

“But there’s no action. They just sit there.”

Not all of them.

“Come off it,” he said, slurping down his beer. “Those guys are just a bunch of sissies in suits.”

Now, it’s not often that I speak about chess. In fact, I never speak about chess. But it would have unfair not to mention at that moment that one of the greatest athletes of all time was a chess player.

The legendary Zyrt of Persia.

Zyrt lived from A.D. 460 to 495. He is rarely talked about. But those who know his story know that Kasparov wouldn’t last a minute with him. Neither would William (The Refrigerator) Perry. Zyrt was nearly eight feet tall, had arms as thick as clubs, wore a toga, and had a beard down to his knees. His shoulders were so broad, he could carry a mule on each one. And he often did, because he felt sorry for them.

That’s the kind of guy Zyrt was. He knocked ’em dead In Zyrt’s day, chess was the most grueling of all sports. The players had to run in place as they moved the pieces. And in between moves, each player had to perform an athletic feat which the opponent had to match.

It was here that Zyrt excelled. Because of his great strength, he chose to toss a heavy boulder over his head and catch it coming down. Under the rules, his opponents had to try the same thing.

Most of them were dead by the second move.

Zyrt won hundreds of matches this way. He became well known in chess circles, even though his entire vocabulary was limited to just six words: “I take your king. Ha. Ha.” Whenever he won a chess match — which was every time he played — he would say “I take your king. Ha. Ha.”

Once, after winning a match in the Royal Palace, Zyrt said, “I take your king. Ha. Ha.”

He then took the real king and disappeared.

This created quite a stir. The people cried that the king must be returned, because without him there was nobody to collect taxes.

But time passed. Soon the people found they really didn’t miss the king. No one collected any taxes, and they all had more time to play chess.

Zyrt was hailed as a hero. He went on to play chess in dozens of kingdoms.

Every time he won, he said “I take your king. Ha. Ha.” And he did.

Soon, every country wanted to see Zyrt play. His great strength was thrilling. And of course, when the match ended, the king went away.

Those years from 485 to 487 saw some of the greatest chess matches in history. Not to mention many shifts in government. All thanks to Zyrt. In fact, many of our current chess practices can be linked directly to him.

For example, the tradition of chess masters playing blindfolded. This came from kings trying to blindfold Zyrt, so that he couldn’t find them.

Or the word “checkmate.” As any linguist can tell you, the phrase actually comes from two words “check” and “mat.” When Zyrt played in Bulgaria, the king, fearful for his life, hid under a doormat. Zyrt won, and said, “I take your king. Ha, ha.” He entered the palace, but he could not find the king. He was about to leave when a helpful guard whispered, “Psst. Check mat.”

Zyrt did. He found the king. A word was born. No money, no toga Ultimately, however, Zyrt’s story is tragic. He was quite famous. His life story was carved in rock and sold in popular rock stores everywhere.

But Zyrt grew tired. He had no time to do personal things, like carry his mules.

Then, during the famous Mesopotamia Match, Zyrt spotted a beautiful princess watching him from her throne. He was smitten. So was she. Zyrt threw up two boulders to impress her, and caught them both. His opponent fainted.

The princess smiled. She dropped a rose. Zyrt bent over to pick it up — and tragedy struck. His toga ripped, right up the backside.

This was bad news. For in ancient Persia, all athletes adhered to the great tradition of true amateurism, meaning they were broke. Zyrt had no money for a new toga.

He was greatly embarrassed. He went meekly to the board, sat down, and never got up again.

From that day on, chess has been played sitting down, and with no boulder tossing.

“That’s an incredible story,” said the man at the bar. “I never knew that. And to think, I always thought chess players were sissies.”

Yes, I said. Few people truly appreciate the great sports tradition of the game.

He sighed. “You know? I like that old way of playing. Guys getting crushed for no reason. Splat! They should’ve done something with that.”

They did, I said. They called it pro wrestling.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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