Going through some boxes tonight, I found an old scrap of paper on which I’d drawn a diagram. Hold on to your hats, folks, this one’s about chess.
Once upon a time in Clemson, some friends of mine owned a coffee shop called the Wired Café. It was an internet cafe, but by the time this story took place the university’s computers and connections were far faster than the ones at the Wired, so they had to rely on the drinks, food, camaraderie and ambiance to attract customers. It didn’t last long.
One of the many things one could do at the Wired, aside from drink coffee, use the obsolete computers, or meet the girl who would transform you into a source of perpetually renewable bitterness, was play chess. There was usually someone around who was up for a game, either an owner, or a barista, or one of the regulars. Over time the games became more competitive, skill-wise and pride-wise. It was always loads of fun.
Well, late one night–and the date was recorded on the scrap of paper but I care not to relate it here–late one night, a stranger, called himself “Rhett,” found his way up the steps of the Wired. He was clearly drunk and probably a little bit high. He had straggly, mussed hair and wore flannel that suggested he hadn’t been told that Seattle grunge had been passé for a good five years.
Anyhow, Rhett wandered into the big room where the chess games usually took place. He saw some people playing, and called winner. The winner was a regular, a decent player, and Rhett beat him so quickly that we assumed the regular had made a silly mistake early in the game from which he could not recover.
Next up was a somewhat stronger player, a computer graphics major, who had improved dramatically as a player over the brief course of the Wired’s existence. He’d beaten me more than a few times, and Rhett, still drunk and now getting a little bit talkative, beat him almost as quickly as he beat the first guy. The CG major was gracious and humble about it, but he was gracious about everything.
Third in line was a girl who eventually married one of the owners. She was a math major, incredibly intelligent, and a bit more prickly than the CG major. I watched this game with great interest, because she was going to put up more of a fight than the CG major had, and she’d fire right back at Rhett if he annoyed her. Well, he annoyed her, partly because he was beating her despite not-quite-having-sobered-up yet, and partly because while beating her, he was waxing eloquent about matters she held quite dear. She might not have been offended by his opinions, but she was certainly pissed off that he was philosophizing and pontificating while beating her so handily.
Rhett finished her off, and he asked me if I was up for a game. I said sure. He went to the front to get a fresh cup of coffee and the math major turned to me and said, “Please beat him.” I said I’d see what I could do. Rhett returned with his coffee, and we began. He played white, I played black.
I will admit that I was nervous. This guy had drunkenly stumbled into our abode and beaten three players, each one stronger than the last, all while carrying on deep discussions. And now, now that he was about to play me, he was sobering up. I’d have to remain calm and collected, and pray that he screwed up.
My dad taught me to play chess many years ago. He often smoked a pipe when we were playing, and if the pipe smoke ended up in my face and distracted me, then so be it. If memory serves, I didn’t beat him until after he stopped smoking.
I don’t smoke now, and I didn’t smoke then, but beating Rhett would require a little gamesmanship. I took my sweet time and didn’t rush any moves. I was thinking as far ahead as I could, sometimes deciding on a move quickly and waiting for Rhett to show signs of impatience before making the move. When he talked–and he did talk, but the only thing I specifically remember him discussing was the possibility that the Magi were Zoroastrians–I would barely respond with a bored “That’s interesting” or a “Hm.” I could tell without looking directly at him that my refusal to banter was frustrating him.
Aside from that, I really did feel like it was the best I’d ever played. I was thinking further ahead than ever before. I didn’t fall into the traps that he set. I didn’t capture his pieces just because I could. I moved pieces into seemingly unguarded positions, knowing that if he took them I could set up some pretty strong pins and forks.
But Rhett was beating me anyway. He didn’t take those pieces that I left out to dry. He moved pieces into seemingly unguarded positions, and I hesitated to take them for fear of a trap. His pronouncements were becoming more thought-provoking and more eloquent. He was taking an awful lot of my pieces and not losing very many of his own. I was playing the game of my life, and he was still beating me.
Eventually we got to a point in the game where I knew I was beaten. Below is a version of the diagram I drew on the aforementioned scrap of paper. I’m showing it from my point of view, black at the bottom, with A1 in the top right corner and H8 in the bottom left.
Needless to say, I was in a lot of trouble. [Note: I just found a chess simulator online, set up this position, and had the computer play black. It resigned immediately.] He had an extra knight and four extra pawns, including one just two moves from promotion.
I saw no way to win… except for one extremely fluky possibility that would rely entirely on Rhett failing to notice something. I was almost embarrassed to think about even trying it, because if he noticed it, my defeat would turn from “hard-fought” into “humiliating” pretty durned quick. If he saw my ploy, I’d resign.
While waiting for me to move, Rhett was looking back and forth between his queen and the big scrum of pieces in the bottom left corner. I needed him to keep focused on my half of the board and forget about his own half. I stared intently at the pieces on my side of the board, and eventually looked over at the two pawns on the right as if I were thinking about taking them out.
After a few minutes, I moved my queen to A4…
…and crossed my fingers. It was like he hadn’t even noticed my move, or wasn’t concerned at all about his pawns. He was still locked on the pieces bunched around my king. I leaned in close to those pieces, hoping he’d think I was focusing on them, too, and hoping that’d cause him to stay focused on them. I’d just weakened my defense, and he did not want to screw up this opportunity. He was probably thinking about taking out my rook and checkmating me in two moves when he slid his queen to E7:
I took a moment to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. They weren’t. My Hail Mary worked. I calmly picked up my queen and placed it on C2:
He looked like he thought it was a silly, desperate move as the smug little bastard went to take my queen with his king. Just as he picked up my queen, I said, “Checkmate.”
Rhett blinked. He put the queen back down and looked puzzled. Then he noticed my bishop, which was protecting her majesty from capture.
That sobered him up. He was stunned. I was stunned, but I was happily stunned. I had beaten the best player I’d ever faced and defended the Café’s honor. True, it was through guile and sheer luck, but sometimes–and this was one of those times–that tastes a little sweeter than winning through superior ability.
Rhett stood up, said “Good game,” and looked ruefully at the board before he walked out. He knew he had it won, and should have won, and let me off the hook. I didn’t mind.