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ON THE great passenger steamer, due to depart New York for Buenos Aires at midnight, there was the usual last-minute bustle and commotion. Visitors from shore shoved confusedly to see their friends off, telegraph boys in cocked caps dashed through the lounges shouting names, trunks and flowers were carried past, and inquisitive children ran up and down the companionways, the orchestra playing imperturbably on deck all the while. As I was standing a bit apart from this hubbub, talking on the promenade deck with an acquaintance of mine, two or three flashbulbs flared near us — apparently the press had been quickly interviewing and photographing some celebrity just before we sailed. My friend glanced over and smiled. “That’s a rare bird you’ve got on board — that’s Czentovic.” I must have received this news with a rather blank look, for he went on to explain, “Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. He’s crisscrossed America from coast to coast playing tournaments and is now off to Argentina for fresh triumphs.”
In fact I now recalled this young world champion and even some details of his meteoric career; my friend, a more assiduous reader of newspapers than I, was able to add a number of anecdotes. About a year previously Czentovic had overnight entered the ranks of the greatest masters of the art of chess, such as Alekhine, Capablanca, Tartakower, Lasker, and Bogoljubov. Not since the appearance of the seven-year-old prodigy Reshevsky at the New York chess tournament of 1922 had the penetration of a complete unknown into that circle of luminaries caused such a wide sensation. For Czentovic’s intellectual traits certainly did not seem to promise a dazzling career. It soon emerged that, chess champion or not, in private Czentovic was unable to write a correctly spelled sentence in any language, and, as one of his irritated peers gibed, “his ignorance was just as absolute in every other area.”
Czentovic’s father, a penniless Yugoslavian Danube bargeman, had been killed in his tiny boat when it was crushed one night by a grain steamer in a remote area; the twelve-year-old boy had then been taken in by the local parson out of pity. The good reverend coached him at home, doing his level best to make up for what the lumpish, taciturn, broad-browed boy was unable to learn at the village school.
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