Sudden Death

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Death is an event that none of us can avoid and thus, strangely, it is part of life itself. Nevertheless, we generally do not like to think about it and even contrive oblique manners of speaking about it, such as “passed away”. It’s not hard to understand in the frailty of the human condition, why we prefer more pleasant thoughts.

But what we call “sudden death” (or even “unexpected death”) demands considerably more of our attention, especially if it is a young person who dies, and this compounds the mystery of when it is that a person’s time has come.

Thus the death of Cardinal football player J.V. Cain during practice on Sunday seems beyond our comprehension. Here was a 28-year-old athlete who had passed a physical examination only days earlier; yet in a routine drill his life expired.

Because J. V. Cain was a professional in the sports world, his was a prominent name, and so the shock of the event struck thousands. Not nearly so many knew of Michael Sarnoff, who had died 10 days before. But among those who did (I did not) the shock was even deeper. Mike Sarnoff was only 16, and already he had played the world’s second greatest chess player to a draw.

One who knew him is Bill Moushey, former chess coach at Vashon High School, and the other day he allowed me to read something he had written about Mike Sarnoff’s death.

Mike was 13 when they met at a local chess tournament. They were  to be opponents. “I hated beating a little boy” Moushey recalled, “especially one who looked like a smile was permanently engraved on his face. Oh well, the kid would just have to take his lumps.

But it was Moushey (pronounced Moo-shay) who took them. “By the 20th move, this kid had taken everything from me but my shoes.” He remembered. “I resigned in disgust. He just looked up at me, smiled, and asked me if I wanted him to go over my mistakes. He then proceeded to go into about 10 variations and sub-variations on one of the moves I had made. What was phenomenal was that he was not doing this recall of moves on a chessboard, but in his mind.

“Mike Sarnoff with his ingratiating smile soon became the friend of every player in the small St. Louis chess community,” Moushey went on. The “epicenter” of that world, ge explained, is the Chess Conglomerate at 6252 Delmar Boulevard, whose owner, George Thompson, soon became Mike’s close friend.

Mike spent every waking moment in the Conglomerate absorbing chess from the local experts and masters who frequented George’s place. His accomplishments in the chess field during the next three years,” said Moushey, “were nothing short of amazing.”

Young Sarnoff played on the chess team at University City High School, where he was a student and also turned to individual competition. Then came the high mark of his brief life. Viktor Korchnoi, who had been beaten earlier for the world’s chess championship by Anatoly Karpov, made a U. S. tour and last April was in St. Louis to play 40 local opponents simultaneously. He defeated 37 of them and drew with three. One of these was Mike Sarnoff, then only 15.

Moushey describes it. “We all wanted to see how our little prodigy would stack up against the best in the world. And so their game began, Mike chewing his fingernails and Korchnoi making moves. Of course, Korchnoi couldn’t beat our little ‘wunderkind’. He tried, though. Move after move the game progressed. Korchnoi would reel off a series of superb moves and Mike would match him, move for move. Finally the great Korchnoi looked up to Mike and asked him if he, Mike Sarnoff would accept a draw from him. Mike just smiled and stuck out his hand.”

“After the Korchnoi exhibition, said Moushey, “or friendly giant-killer went after that most coveted title – chess master. By his 16th birthday he was one step away. The United State Chess Federation awarded Mike the title of chess expert. It was now only a matter of time before Mike Sarnoff would become a master. My personal guess would be by the age of 18. He never made it.”

No, he didn’t make it. At about 7 p.m. on the night of July 12, he began to pedal his bicycle home from the Chess Conglomerate. A block away a 21-year old man driving a car struck the bicycle and the young chess player was killed. The drive was booked suspected of driving while intoxicated.
If life is a mystery, so is the death of young people like Mike Sarnoff, 16 and J.V. Cain, 28. Said Cain’s coach, Bud Wilkinson, “How and why these things happen and to whom always is a great mystery.” Wrote Moushey, “We cry for ‘what might have been’ in Mike Sarnoff’s life. His rabbi called him ‘an unfulfilled great man. That is it exactly.”

What does the mystery mean? Mostly we turn to religious beliefs for the answer, in trust that God has his reasons, for  blind fate seems too senseless in the face of intelligence and order in the iniverse.
Bill Moushey is one who believes that. “Actually I can see Mike now,” he wrote. “He’s sitting up in Heaven and an angel walks by. He gets up, smiles, sticks out his hand, and says, ‘Hi! I’m Mike Sarnoff. Do you play chess?

©- 1979 Jake McCarthy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch