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October 9, 2018

Ted Talks: Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

by Ted Scull.

Back in my college days, I signed up for a year of Russian and on the first day of class, the professor gave us our assignment — learn the Cyrillic alphabet overnight or don’t bother to come to class tomorrow. So, a friend and I stayed up well past midnight and were ready for the challenge the next day.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Soviet riverboat AMUR sailing the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not too long after, I wanted to use my Russian and planned a trip to the then USSR. A friend and I booked a Soviet riverboat leaving Vienna, sailed down the Danube bound for the Black Sea and Yalta in the Crimea. The group aboard was mostly European, including Russians, and no other Americans.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Bulgaria & the Black Sea

Changing Ships

A week later we arrived at the Bulgarian port of Ismail located near the mouth of the Danube. Here we left the riverboat and boarded a small Soviet ship for Yalta.

We followed a twisting channel through the marshy delta, and around a bend, suddenly there was the Black Sea ahead of us. The ship began to rise and fall in the light swell.

Walking to the stern to look back at the coast line, we encountered a group of people sitting at chess tables and speaking Russian. They turned towards us and asked in Russian if we played chess, a word I recognized, and I said, “Da” (Yes). They asked where we came from and seemed pleased with the response. Two seats were vacated, one facing a youngish fellow across the chess board. The group mostly stood around us.

The Match

My opponent made his moves very quickly, and that was not the way I played. After a bit, I realized the need to speed up a bit and concentrated hard.

There was complete silence, and in about 15 minutes, I surprised myself by being able to say “mat” for checkmate.

The Russians cheered, my opponent smiled and shook my hand, and beers were ordered. The conversation that followed was a bit hit and miss, and soon we were called for dinner.

To this day, I do not know if I was meant to win, though my opponent did not make any obvious errors that I could determine. But in the era of the Cold War, my first Russian encounter could not have been more hospitable.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Ted Scull at the fantail. * Photo: a fellow passenger

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