Thanks, Bobby Fischer
The grandmaster spurred my interested in chess and surprisingly, Latin.
It's funny how things work sometimes.
For instance, if Bobby Fischer hadn't traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, to take on Boris Spassky in the world's most celebrated chess match in the summer of 1972, I never would have gotten the opportunity to learn Latin at my junior high school in Medford, Mass.
Sounds like a real non sequitur, I know, but hear me out.
For starters, you don't have to be a chess geek to remember the American grand-master Bobby Fischer.
In his time he elevated the game to unprecedented levels of popularity, thanks to his spectacularly bold play and dazzlingly eccentric behavior. (He passed away only last year back in Iceland.)
Anyway, after a lot of prematch wrangling, mainly over prize money, Fischer agreed to meet Spassky for the World Chess Championship in the remote venue of Reykjavik. The first game took place on July 11, 1972.
I'm not exactly sure what my summer vacation routine consisted of back then, but I'm pretty sure that it included large amounts of what today would be called "unscheduled time."
As a result, I spent countless hours watching the World Chess Championship on Channel 2, Boston's PBS affiliate.
Incredibly, the show – which featured grandmaster Shelby Lyman analyzing each game (and indeed each move) of the Fischer-Spassky contest – was at the time the highest-rated PBS program ever and yet had an endearing slapdash feel to it.
The studio contained little more than a giant wall-mounted chess board, reconfigured by Lyman after each new move would arrive via teletext, as well as a few seated chess pundits enlisted for their own powers of analysis.
Even so, the show was an inspiration, and in September of '72 I entered the eighth grade at Lincoln Junior High School convinced that I possessed the mental muscle to become the next great American chess champion.
To condition myself, I stayed after school a couple of days each week to engage my English teacher, Mr. Kelly, in a series of friendly matches.
Mr. Kelly, I recall, had a similar enthusiasm for the game but unfortunately didn't appear to have benefited from the helpful advice offered by Shelby Lyman and company on PBS. He took forever to make a move, and when he finally did commit one of his pieces, it pushed him invariably closer to checkmate.
Between moves, I often got up and wandered around Mr. Kelly's classroom.
One day, I found myself examining the contents of the glass-paned inset bookcase at the rear of the room. An old Latin textbook caught my eye. I took out the dusty tome, which probably hadn't been handled for decades, read a few simple phrases, and committed them to memory.
The next time I met Mr. Antico, one of two guidance counselors at Lincoln and a notorious lover of languages, I blurted out those bits I could recall: Britannia insula est. (Or something near that.). An Agricola might have figured in there somewhere as well.)
It was an utterance that would change my life.
Mr. Antico was a big man and, perhaps indicative of his Italian background, wasn't afraid of showing his emotions – especially when someone demonstrated even a crude grasp of a language he adored.
He threw his right arm over my shoulders and pulled me toward him. "Ah, well done, Stefanos Rex!" he said.
I should have known better.
For the next nine months of eighth grade, that was to be my calling card as Mr. Antico took me under his wing and tutored me in the quirky details of Latin grammar.
At roughly 12:30 each afternoon, as the rest of my homeroom was settling into some free time, Mr. Antico summoned me over the class intercom.
First came the unmistakable crackle of the mic being switched on in the school's main office. Then Mr. Antico's voice, "Stefanos Rex to my office, immediately!"
After a moment's hesitation, I'd look in the direction of our homeroom teacher, get her tacit approval to leave, and rise from my desk at the front of the room. Then I'd walk the longest walk of my life, past the smirks and giggles of my contemporaries – many of whom, I now suspect, were mystified by my privileged status.
With Mr. Antico as my guide, I spent many homeroom periods declining nouns and conjugating Latin verbs, and, without a doubt, my command of English improved as a result.
Later that year, I gave up my dreams of chess dominance, but the Latin remained with me. Indeed, I took three years of it in high school, and to this day the connection between the two is undeniable.
You could call it a classic case of quid pro quo.