Shah Mata

 

         Guillaume, Duke of Fidchell, sat and smiled as his opponent, Robby Hunter, moved one of his pawns forward.  The Duke stared for a second, contemplating the move, before humorously stating:

         “You certainly thought that move through, didn’t you?”

         The crowd at the National Chess Championship of Agrobas, which was being held in the populous port city of Memphine, erupted with laughter.  The Duke smiled, jovially, and then calmed the crowd down with his right hand.  He adjusted his black jacket, a powerful shade that matched the side of the board he controlled.

         The Duke was in a very good mood that night, most likely due to the three neat glasses of scotch he had consumed before the game.  Many commentators and critics questioned why the winner of the past five national titles always drank before each match, because they assumed it would slow down his thinking.  The Duke disagreed: since many generals throughout history drank before battle, why shouldn’t he?  He was a general himself afterall.

         He eyed his opponent comically, trying to get a rise out of him; but Robby stared back like a gargoyle perched atop a bishop’s cathedral, awaiting sinful pawns.  This stone gaze was finally awoken – though only slightly – by a small twinkling in the eye of the Duke, as if the chess master was trying to tell him something.  But before Robby had even a moment to figure it out, the Duke unexpectedly stood up and addressed the audience:

         “Ladies and gentlemen of Memphine, I believe I have been bested.  There is no possible way for me to win this game, and therefore I officially resign, and hand over my championship to this fine young man: Mr. Robert Hunter.”

         The crowd shook with silence for an infinite minute; even the new champion was awestruck.

         Finally, the chess commissioner tiptoed out, and the game was officially called in Robby’s favor.

 

***

 

         “I must say, you played a very fine game tonight.”  The Duke nestled a glass of scotch in his enormous hand.  “I can’t’ve imagined losing to a better opponent than yourself.  You deserve a celebratory drink!  My treat.”

         “Oh no… thanks,” muttered Robby.  “I just…” he slid his hands in and out of both pants pockets and then patted his breast, even though he had neither a jacket nor a shirt pocket to hold anything “…can’t find my lighter.”

         “Here,” the Duke said, handing him the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth, “light your cigarette from the end of mine.”

         And he did.

         And he continued to do so, chain smoking over half a pack of cigarettes throughout the after party, keeping alive the spark started by the Duke.

         It was during his fifth consecutive cigarette that the Duke hushed the inebriated crowd and declared he had an important announcement.

         “Tonight I was defeated by a very intelligent and brilliant young master.  It was without a doubt one of – if not the greatest – match of my long career, and I do not regret losing in the slightest.  But I want everyone to know that the outcome of tonight’s match is not the reason for what I am about to say.  I had planned out this speech tonight for quite some time, and the fact that I lost tonight’s match was, to be honest, entirely unexpected.  Nevertheless, I feel that my skills in this great and noble sport have begun to get rusty, and therefore, I am announcing my retirement from the world of chess.”

The shock after what the Duke just said completely overshadowed the shock the crowd had shown earlier, when the Duke resigned.  It was more chaotic than the markets during the Crash, with people yapping and screaming and running around frantically.  Amongst the frenzy, Robby lit a fresh cigarette from a finished butt; though instead of acting shocked, he began thinking of how he could swindle the Duke into at least one re-match.  His victory had left him feeling unsettled, and he would not be satisfied with such a feeble finale.  Though he didn’t know how, Robby knew that a solution would arise soon enough, and as he took a deep drag of his freshly lit cigarette, a smile crept across his face.

 

***

 

         Robby finally managed to get back to his hotel after several failed attempts to leave.  He was absolutely exhausted, yet sleep was the last thing on his mind.  Just as soon as he slid the room key out of the lock and saw the bright green lights, Robby shuffled in his room and whipped out the chess set from his suitcase.  Within moments he had recreated the final positioning of the night’s game.

He gazed at the positioning that had caused his victory, but he just didn’t get it.  He had been behind – essentially since the beginning – and had no idea why the Duke felt even remotely threatened.  Robby hadn’t even put him in check!  Not once!  Sure, he had moved a pawn up one square; but that was just a bullshit move, a time killer, done to see what the Duke would do next.  Yet instead of playing some board-shattering move – one that his reputation claimed he would make – the bastard got up and walked away.  And not only did he resign the match, but he quit the sport all together, claiming that he’d never play professionally again.  How was a man to enjoy his awkwardly won title when he knew he could never rematch the man from whom he stole the title?  Especially when the victory was too mindboggling to fathom.

Robby stared at the chessboard for a long time: definitely longer than he had thought about any of the moves that night, and possibly even longer than the four and a half hours allotted for a tournament game.  He stared at the fateful pawn with rage, shaking his head and fuming like a pot boiled over, until he finally accepted that the  pawn wasn’t to blame.

Then he started moving a piece to a new location on the board, trying to predict the Duke’s move and then his own counter-move; yet no matter what he did, he always stopped and returned to the original final position; and no matter what positions he moved the pieces to, the logic made no more sense to him than it had when the chess commissioner had declared him the new National Chess Champion of Agrobas.

Finally, after hours of fruitless study, he decided to go downstairs and get some fresh air.  On the elevator ride down, Robby started to think that maybe he had outsmarted the Duke after all; that maybe he was a better chess player – and more of a genius – than he had realized.  By the time the elevator bing!ed on the ground floor, Robby’s ego was gloating like a heavenly angel before the Fall.

The maritime winter climate bit against Robby’s bare skin, but his arrogance kept him warm as he marched down the street.  He spotted a corner store up ahead and decided to treat himself to a pick-me-up.  He grabbed the first caffeinated beverage he saw and then found himself waiting in line behind a couple of apparent locals.  He felt like he was forgetting something; like something was missing.

As he waited to check out, his sleepy eyes were drawn to the shop’s television, which was broadcasting the early morning news:

“…and it looks like that coastal rain will continue into the weekend.  Back to you, Joann.”

         “Thanks, Tom.  Just in, some shocking news related to the National Chess Championship that had been held for the past two weeks here in Memphine and concluded last night.  For the full story, we turn to Colin Burger.”

         “Thanks, Joann.  Well the world of chess is certainly built around the phrase ‘the king is dead.’  But this morning the community will have to alter this statement to say ‘the Duke is dead,’ in order to honor the great master Guillaume, Duke of Fidchell.  Guillaume, or ‘the Duke,’ as he was known by his peers, was found dead at three AM this morning in his hotel room.  The coroner reports that his death was due to a massive heart attack.  His loss will be mourned by many in the local chess community.”

         “Thank you, Colin.  Sad, tragic news.  Guillaume ‘the Duke’ was beaten at the National Chess Championship last night by Bobby Hunner, a young chess player who…”

         Robby zombied out of the store with the drink still in his hands, unpaid.  He began shaking in the cold morning air.  Colors and shapes appeared distorted and confusing.  He couldn’t remember where he was.  To play chess popped in his mind.  But why?  What was the point in going on when his most formidable opponent was gone?  He would’ve won the title by default after the Duke’s death – his victory was just as faulty.  He didn’t deserve it.  So why defend it?  He wouldn’t.  He would quit, just as the Duke had.

Though could he stop playing when he was on top?  He’d finally done what he had always dreamed on doing, and yet all he could feel was disappointment, remorse, and nausea.  It seemed as if his lifelong ambitions had led him astray, sending him deep into a dark wood.

         He suddenly got a tense feeling in his neck, and he noticed his hands were trembling.  He reached into his pocket for his cigarettes; he hadn’t smoked any since he left the party.  He pulled out his pack, but it was empty, so he threw it to the ground.  As he did, the unopened drink fell out of his other hand and fizzily exploded upon impact with the cold, hard ground.  He stomped on the can and screamed as loud as he could.

         After regaining his composure, he started to walk again.  He felt very numb and hollow.  He walked away from the shop and the hotel, towards the unfamiliar streets and buildings on Memphine, wanting to get lost in the city that had taken so much from him and left him with so little.

         Maybe he would quit.

 

© Liam  Connolly