Chess

The sun had started its seasonally quick descent into the western sky by the time I descended the staircase into the Manchester's Inn's lobby. Like the rest of the building, it featured extensive dark wood paneling and high ceilings, with the lobby roof slightly higher than the second story roof. The west wall consisted entirely of thermally-paned glass, which was a good thing to have in the unexpected snowstorm that had started earlier today. I suppose before I go any further, I should mention why I was sitting in the lobby of a rural, eight-bedroom (nine if you count Mr. Frederick Manchester's room, as the proprietor lived there) inn. I was stood up. I was on holiday, and was supposed to have gone skiing with some of my friends; this inn was the meeting place. Needless to say, three came down with the flu, another with pneumonia, and since we divided up the various costs instead of pooling our money, I now didn't have enough to go skiing by myself. So, like so many other times in my nineteen years of life, I found myself stranded for the remainder of the week in this giant bed-and-breakfast, the only other people a few businesspeople passing through and a yuppie couple that did cross-country from the inn's back steps.

As I sat down in one of the reasonably comfortable armchairs that were scattered around the room I took off my messenger bag and without thinking, ran my left hand through my head of swarthy black hair. Mr. Frederick was already starting up the massive grey stone fireplace. I was already wearing my heathery grey tweed pullover and my slate pants and was quite comfortable. Bored beyond all belief, but comfortable. I had almost finished closing my eyes when a female voice, a light alto, addressed me. "You're a chess player, aren't you?" I opened them to see a girl standing in front of me, leaning forward with her hands resting just above her knees. "Yes…why do you ask?" Her taste in clothing was as unusual as mine. It was not that either of our styles were dated or even considered "classic", just that neither had ever been popular. Her nearly-white platinum hair (which went roughly to her chin) had been parted to her right side, giving the appearance of one massive bang. "Well, all the good players I've met have the same 'I'm smug yet relaxed' look that I have. And your face just screams it at me." Her eyes were a darker blue than mine were, and they were offset by long earrings, each a pair of two small red glass beads on light silver chains. Her white blouse was more a shirt, really, in thick, plain cotton, with a structured, circular neck, and blue, circular seams. The sleeves were detached—not all the way; the shirt stopped at the shoulder, but just the below the armpit, where the sleeve attached horizontally with one of the blue seams. The sleeves continued loose until the elbow, where at another seam they became as loose as a tunic until they stopped at the wrist seals. "I didn't know there was anyone else below the age of thirty, here. Did you just get in?" She nodded quickly. "Yep. This afternoon, actually. I guess I'm pretty much stranded here until Friday." The odd ensemble was finished by her pale, warm face, and sand-khaki slacks. "I'm Zahra Pengraf. And you?" Zahra stood up and held out her right hand. I got up out of the chair and shook her hand. "Dolan Corbet." She chuckled as our hands returned to our sides. "Sorry, it's just that our names are rather…" "Unusual?" She concurred. "Isn't it funny how we didn't end up as a Whitney or a Jennifer or a Michael or a Jonathan?" She smiled slowly, and put a self-satisfied grin on her face, tilting her head to the right so that her hair and earrings caught up moments later. "So, you up for a game?"

Next to the fireplace on the north side of the room was a table that I thought looked older than the lodge itself. It was fairly tall, square, about four feet to an edge, with large gnarled feet; it was heavy enough that I doubt it could be moved by hand. Inlaid flush with the surface was a familiar eight by eight pattern of sixty-four pieces of marble. I looked over, and grabbed a small armchair that looked as though it just might fit under the table. Zahra had chosen an identical chair. She looked down at the table. "That's quite the board. I think it will work fine. Now…how about pieces?" I had grabbed my bag, so I unzipped and removed a thin, rectangular rosewood case. I set it on the table and unhinged the lid, revealing the velveteen lining protecting my marble chessmen. Zahra had set a similar—no, identical box next to mine and opened it, revealing the same set of expensive pieces that I received as a gift. She laughed again. "Scary, isn't it? What color do you usually play?" "Black." "White. So, Dolan, let's just use our half of our sets, then. Do you play with a clock?" I shook my head. "Not unless I'm forced to. I prefer casual games." "Same here." She sat down, and took out the white marble half of her set, and then closed the box and set it next to the table on her right. I did the same. We quickly set up the pieces, and the game began.

My eyes were locked on Zahra's, since as white, it was her move. "Are you ready?" "Yes." She first put her palms outward and linked her fingers, stretching her arms, before she put her left arm on the table, her hand on her right. Reaching over her arm, she took the pawn in front of her king and moved two spaces forward. I moved the pawn opposite it two spaces. She moved her right-hand knight from G1 to F3. I could see where this was going. Zahra looked at me. "You could have started the Scandinavian Defense." I grinned. "That's what everyone does. And it looks like you've started the Giuoco Piano. Isn't that a bit timid? I wouldn't have expected that out of you, although it is certainly old school." She smiled. A few moves later, we had matched our knights and bishops, when she moved the pawn that was second from the left. I had expected that. "The Piano opening can be aggressive. Especially if you modify it into…" I finished her sentence. "…an Evan's Gambit. You like rare moves as much as I do." "Glad to hear it." Although it was a wonderful trap, I declined taking the bait, although it meant a loss of tempo. I was already on the defensive, and she had the potential to open up a weak point on the seventh row. We both ended up castling, although I managed to get my King out of the way first. It was then that the game truly took off.

Zahra played in a style that I've heard called the "logical berserker". The game was a constant stream of skewers, forks, and other tricks, although few of them actually got anywhere. Tempos were lost and gained like pocket change, although she was never behind or ahead of me by more than two tempos. For any piece one of us lost, the other made it up quickly. The actual loss of pieces was not on the initial attack, but more often on an unexpected counterattack. I captured a bishop by stopping her dead in her tracks with a discovered attack. "Meanie!" I smiled. "I sacrificed my bishop early on. Chess is a battle, after all. We simply play it quieter than we would be dueling rapiers." "You do have a point, although what are you going to do about that pawn all by itself?" I glanced at her eyes and answered, "What am I going to do with it, Zahra?" She smiled.

Naturally, with her style of play, I was the first to go into check. I not only got myself out of the situation in one move, but instead of returning the favor, ensured that my single move gave an even more wonderful present. Her eyes went wide, and she studied the board intently. I noticed that by this time, I was totally in my element. The surroundings: the inn, the background noise, and the light of the sunset had dimmed from my senses. The only things in my universe were the tables, the chairs, the two of us, and our game. A void of sorts accompanied by a warm grey silence was all that stood outside of us. Zahra frowned, and she stared into my eyes. We both said the same thing at exactly the same time: "Zugswang." "It's a pity you can't skip turns in this game, isn't it?" She smiled as I smiled. "I have to say, Mr. Corbet, but you've better than I expected. I can't remember when I've a game this good." I nodded. "You're the best opponent that I've played, Ms. Pengraf. Now hurry up and choose your poison." Zahra curled her lip. "Meanie."

As the inevitable endgame approached, the game was still up for grabs. Both of us had both our queens and quite a few pieces left, and I think we tied for numbers of escaped checks. The secret to any game, as I had proven several times, is that the best plans are easily crushed. Keeping one's head and always being able to come out with a comparable alternative is how you actually win. As she wove her final trap, I rewove mine. "Check. You're not escaping this time, and you have nothing to block my rook." I smiled, grinning just enough to show some of my teeth. "Really? How about I move my king here, then?" Whether it had been a conscious effect on my part or just blind chance, I don't know, but I knew that winning against her would be extraordinarily difficult. So, by this point in time, all I had to do was move my king. I looked at Zahra. "The game's over, I'm afraid." "What, are you silly? My king isn't in check!" I looked into her eyes. "You're correct. Look carefully at the board and your pieces. Look closely." Her expression of smug disinterest (the same one I had had for the entire game) slowly changed to that of concentration and suddenly, she looked up and directly into my eyes as her own turned misty. "I…I…can't make any legal moves." I nodded slowly. "Stalemate." "How is it possible with so many pieces? I've never seen it with more than three or four!" "It's possible, and it just happened. I've never had it happen either. At least neither of us is the absolute winner. A stalemate's technically an unavoidable draw. A hundred years ago, it would have been a win for me, but let's just leave that we both have half a point each." She nodded, tears trying to form in her eyes.

With that acknowledgement, the spell was broken and the room suddenly appeared beneath us. The only light nearby was the fireplace, which was clearly waning. My legs and arms were stiff. I checked my watch. It was after midnight. Zahra pushed her chair back before she stood up and stretched, her strange sleeves sliding up her shoulders slightly. I got up and stretched my knees as well. I mentioned, "Good game." She said back, "Great game." In the dark lighting of the lobby, we separated our pieces and returned them to our respective boxes. "Listen, Dolan. Perhaps tomorrow, today really, we can sit down and talk for a while about something other than chess. You've certainly earned my friendship this evening." "Sure. I'll see you down here at 10:30 tomorrow." Zahra nodded before the nod changed into a yawn. "Well, I better get through the bath before I fall asleep in the bathtub. See you." She pushed in her crimson armchair and started walking away, putting a full twist and a blown kiss in her step before she leapt up the stairs and disappeared down the hall.

I pushed in my chair. "That was an excellent game, Mr. Corbet." I turned to see that I wasn't the only person left in the lobby as I had thought. There stood Mr. Manchester, with a grin on his face. "Technically, it's the best game of chess I've ever seen. I should have taken down the moves, because it certainly ranks up there with the famous games. It certainly ranked with the likes of Fischer, Kasparov, but was more like some of the older ones, with Anderssen and Steinitz, although it was also the longest game I've watched. That's a good sign, though, it shows that neither side made any fatal mistakes; I'd say that you and Ms. Pengraf are evenly matched." I nodded. "Thank you sir. You watched all of the game?" He nodded. "With the exception of a bathroom break about half-way through, I saw the entire thing. The other thing that struck about it was that it was the most interesting but strangest chess game I've ever seen. From the time you started until you got up, neither of you said anything, but your eyes seemed to be darting back and forth a lot. Still, it was a bit refreshing to watch a totally silent casual game." I went to protest. "But sir, I…" I thought better of it. I smiled to myself as the inn's owner walked off. It's true that we may not have actually vocalized, but language wasn't all that necessary. The moves were important, sure, but it was something about our eyes. Eye contact was all that was really necessary for our discussion, and even staying silent, I learned more about someone that I ever could with just words.

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