Meeting A Chess Grandmaster

The Core Belief

In the spring of 1989, Chess Grandmaster Konstantin Lerner was due to play in a tournament at the Penn Hotel in New York.  This was major news in the Zola household back in Bloomfield Hills.  Not because the Old Man was a certified chess freak and had once played a game against Bobby Fischer (he lost in 2 minutes) but because Lerner was family.

Konstantin Lerner was married to my first cousin Shura, one of my Aunt Raia’s two daughters.  Kostya, Shura and their son Andrei/Andrew were also the only members of the immediate family left in Soviet Russia.  In the 1970’s, the Old Man helped secure exit visas for his two sisters and their children and they all got out except for Lerner.  He had no desire to leave Russia, the Ukraine and Odessa:  Kostya was a Lt. Colonel in the Soviet army.  His job: playing chess with the troops.   As sweet a gig as one could find in a Superpower’s military.

Three days before the tournament, the Old Man left a message with the front desk of Brittany Hall to call him immediately.  The pink While You Were Out note said it was an emergency and to call him at his office ASAP.  I ran up to the room thinking something had happened to my Mother or one of my brothers.  Maybe my Grandfather was ill.  Of course there was a chance it was nothing at all.  I received messages like this from the Old Man once or twice a week.  I’d call back and we’d end up playing phone tag for a few days.  Once I got Dad on the phone, I’d find out the dog hadn’t died.  He just wanted to say hello.

This time was different; Sherry, his secretary, put me right through to his office.  There was no hello Alexander, no pleasantries at all.  “Shut up and listen to me.  This is very important.  Your cousin Kostya is playing chess at some hotel on 7th Avenue this weekend.  Find that hotel.  Sherry Fed Ex’ed you a check for $300.  I want you to buy 7 pairs of jeans and take them to Kostya,” he told me.

“Ok,” I said.  “Why seven pairs of jeans?”

“He’ll have some sort of KGB handler and he’ll have to give the guy a pair of jeans so he can keep the other six pairs.”

“Any specific sizes,” I asked.

“The size a normal person will wear.  I want Lerner to be able to sell these things on the black market in Russia so he’ll have some money,” the Old Man lectured.  “If anyone asks you why you’re there, you tell them you’re a chess fan.  If someone asks you for a name, tell them you’re Joe Smith.  Anyone who talks to you is a piece of shit Russian or KGB.  Any questions?”

Before I could answer he said “Good.  Call me when the check gets there tomorrow.”  It was fitting there was no good bye as this wasn’t a phone call but a set of precise instructions on how to facilitate a Black Market transaction.  And there was no one better at Black Marketeering than Aron Zola.

Three days later, I found myself wandering around the chess tables in a huge second floor ballroom with a blue and white Canal Jeans bag with even pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans, quietly dropping f bombs.  In my two conversations with the Old Man, I forgot to ask the most important question: what did Konstantin Lerner look like.  In a situation like this I’d usually look for the Jew but this was a chess tournament in New York – it seemed everyone was a Jew.  So I closed my eyes and tried to get a mental picture of what Lerner looked like and I came up with a tall elegant man in a long brown overcoat with an AK-47.  That seemed a bit out of place so being the proud possessor of a liberal arts education I decided to find a tournament official to point out my cousin.

Lerner was a short, swarthy looking man with intense brown eyes, a slight under bite wearing brown and red checked flannel shirt, thereby pre-dating the Grunge fashion craze by a good two years.  I watched Kostya slowly position his pieces over a five minute period against an over matched opponent.  When he got up for a smoke break, I followed him into the corridor and introduced myself.  With my rudimentary Russian and his three English words, we managed to communicate.  When it looked like we were alone, I handed him the bag.  “From Aronchick,” I told him.

“Aronchick,” he repeated.

“Da,” I said.

Konstantin thanked me and hurried back into ballroom, stashing the bag underneath the table.  I walked to the stairwell feeling pretty good about myself. I properly facilitated a Black Market transaction and met the most accomplished member of the family.  All in all not a bad days work – it’s Miller time.  Before I could get to the stairwell, some one grabbed my arm.

“Why were you watching only Konstantin Lerner,” a thinly accented Russian voice asked.  I turned around and saw a small blonde balding man in a cheap western styled suit.  This was Lerner’s KGB escort straight out of central casting.

“I’m a fan,” I said.

“A fan?”

“I play chess on Thompson Street.  I’m a fan,” I told him.

He pulled out a pad of paper and a pen.  “Your name.”

I put my hand on my cheek and sighed.  Where did he think he was, Moldovanka in OdessaRed Square?  I was going to walk away when he grabbed my arm once again.  “Your name,” he said, this time sounding officious, bureaucratic and annoyed.

“My name,” I asked.


“Write this down,” I said.  He put pen to paper in his small green notebook.  “Robert Allen Zimmerman.  That’s with two M’s and one N.  I’m from Hibbing Minnesota.”

I expected to hear something like ‘you’ll be shot for this’ or ‘we’ll be watching you Zimmerman’ but he turned and walked back into the tournament.  With any luck when he reported to his bosses that Bob Dylan had been watching Konstantin Lerner playing chess he was sent directly to a Siberian gulag for not having the good sense to get an autograph.

Kostya finally left Odessa for Israel with Shura and Andrei (Andrew) in the early 1990’s.  On September 25, 2011 Konstantin Lerner passed away after a long illness.  He was 61.  I find it sad that the death of such a precise, accomplished man received little if any press.  But I suppose you have to be Bobby Fischer to have the world notice the death of a Chess Grandmaster.

And I wonder if the KGB guy is still in some gulag.  Sheer idiocy deserves a minimum sentence of 25 to Life watching re-runs of Two and a Half Men.


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