Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Working Title

The chess set was huge, worn, old, made of oak, or maybe beech. He was nowhere near an expert in wood types, a lapse for which he atoned by being an incredibly good chess player. He had played on everything from a crude, hand painted cross-section of log to a sophisticated glass and silicon interface designed to communicate with Deep Blue. He had won both games.

He picked the up the chess set, and tested its weight. It was solid, but its weight was not a burden. It felt good in his arms. The dark squares were the same wooden hue as the case, but the lights seemed to be a cleverly interwoven mother of pearl inlay, the seams so faint as to seem nonexistent. He pulled it open, its worn iron hinges squeaking slightly as it eased open.

Inside, the blood-red silk lining enfolded 32 pieces of individual perfection. Hand carved chess pieces, each so cunningly wrought as to be at once unique, still a part of a set. Of all the ideas over the past for chess pieces, ranging from army men to characters from The Lord of the Rings, of all these myriad ideas, this was the best, the most wonderful, the most right. The chess pieces were scientists.

They were there, beautifully carved: Pythagoras, Nietzsche, Einstein, facing off against Curie, Salk and Hawking. These famous thinkers, and others, completed the chess set.

“How much?” He asked as he casually placed the set on the front counter.

The young man behind the counter frowned, a twitch in his left lip causing his pencil thin moustache to jump and dance. He glanced down at the set, and then back at his customer, appraising the value of each. Numbers rose and fell in his mind as he tried to figure out exactly how much he would pay before walking away.

“Forty bucks,” he said finally.

“Done.” He counted out forty dollars on the counter as the young man lip twitched in disappointment.

Set up at home, the set completed his parlour. A front bedroom, converted at no small expense, into the ideal environment in which to sit and enjoy a game of chess. Mahogany bookshelves held worn and comfortable books, paperback and hardcover, each lovingly read. A large, hand-painted wooden globe, which stereotypically enough opened up into a mini-bar, set next to a glass display case containing statuary of various vintage movie monsters.

He stared at the set, slightly adjusting the overhead lamp so that the circumference of it’s light perfectly framed the chess set. Which side would he choose? White had its advantages, but black … well, black just looked good with his hair. He sat down behind the blacks, and gazed in awe and delight at the board. He closed his eyes, and then opened them again quickly at the sound of a faint scuttling?

Thoughts of mice fled as he watched one of white’s pawns slide forward two squares. He lifted the board, and tapped at it, listening for hollow thuds. He checked underneath, his fingers probing the felt lining. He carefully returned the board to the table, replacing the two or three pieces that had fallen. He was pretty sure this set was not electronic.

He examined the white pawn that had moved forward; it was Steven Hawking, complete with wheelchair. So incredibly well carved it still caught his breath. He returned it to the board, and sat down behind blacks once again. Hesitantly, he reached up, moving one of his pawns forward. A second later, a second white pawn slid into play. He brought up his knight, watching in amazement as - a moment later - white mimicked his move.

The game lasted 42 minutes. His opponent was good, but was locked into a fairly predictable pattern of offensive play. As the white king toppled, he sat back and tried to figure out just exactly what had happened.

“I’m telling you sir, it’s made of wood.”

“Yes, yes, I know that you imbecile, but inside, it contains circuits or some such, yes?” He was insistent.

“No, we’ve passed it through the x-ray detector twice. Its just wood, damn it.”

Sometimes it paid to have friends who worked for airport security. Chess players had friends from all walks of life, from doctors to pimps, from dressmakers to drug dealers. Even a few celebrities, friends of friends, that kind of thing. The point was, a chess player was always, first and foremost, a chess player. Everything else was just baggage.

He brought the set home, and returned it to its place. He set out the pieces, and again sat down behind black. He watched the table closely, carefully keeping his thoughts neutral. Concentrating on nothing more than his multiplication tables. He then stopped, and thought that it might be nice to play a game of chess. Wishing he had someone to play against.

A white pawn slid forward.

He played for hours, stretching on into days, grabbing the occasional short nap and ordering take out food when hunger consumed him, he placed chess, he played chess, and he played chess. Every time he wished it, an opponent would appear. Not physically, of course, but somehow a new opponent would move the white pieces against him. He had long ago given up any notion that the set was somehow computerized. The players were too fluid, too individual; these were no computers. These were living people. He always knew the difference, even when he played against Deep Blue.

After some time – perhaps two weeks – he decided to come up for air. He showered, and fell into bed, waking some 14 hours later. After another shower, he was ravenous, but fridge contained only a single jar of lidless mustard, which now seemed to contain a hard, brick-like substance, which held firm a long neglected butter knife. The sword in the stone, he thought as he dressed and headed out into the world.

In the café, he sipped slowly at his coffee as he spread the morning’s paper out in front of him. He hadn’t missed much, it seemed; certain scandals were waxing, others fading, some going strong. More of the same, not much had changed.

Near the back, sandwiched between an ad for shoes and an article on muffin tins, he saw it. The headline was shocking Freak Chess Deaths, it read. Forensic scientist Dr. Daniel Whitman released a somewhat surprising study today, which seems to indicate something of an epidemic.

“I came upon the data quiet by accident,” he spoke at an informal press conference. “I saw two similar cases cross my desk in the same week. The first was a suicide; some poor guy put a bullet in his eye, and was found sitting at a chessboard. He had been playing white, and white had clearly lost. I’m something of a chess buff myself, so that detail stuck with me.

“Then, about a week later, a woman was killed, stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. She was found slumped over a chess set, playing white. Her body had knocked the pieces over, so nobody knew who had won her game. But it was strange. Two deaths, each sitting in front of a chess board, each playing white.”

Dr. Whitman decided then to search through recent records, and see if there had been any other deaths involving chessboards. “Computers are amazing things. Records nowadays can be queried instantly; searches take minutes instead of months. It was easy enough to create a search targeting the keywords I was interested in. I got about forty hits.

Of these forty, seven turned out to have something in common with the original two. In each case the involved the death of an individual who was seated in front of a chessboard, had been playing white, and had appeared to lose the game. And all nine of them had died within a two-week interval.

“Obviously, I was flabbergasted. Understand, I am not in any way suggesting that someone is somehow causing the deaths of chess players. The methods of death have ranged from murder to suicide, from heart attack to collapsing ceiling fan. No, these deaths were all different, apart from the fact that they happened in such startlingly similar ways.”

Dr. Whitman’s report is designed to show how sometimes life can behave in strange patterns.

He slumped back, his mind whirling, as he thought about the article. Nine people dead. He was stunned. He then realized that the people who had been mentioned had all died in the local area – people who lived no more than about a hundred miles from him. He started multiplying, dividing the country up into similar-sized chunks of land. Then the world.

His coffee fell to the floor as he rushed from his table, across a busy street to the Internet Café. He pulled out his timecard and fed it into an available slot as he navigated the web. He loaded Goggle and searched for “death chess board white”. He skimmed through entries for chess sets, chess web sites, offers to teach the reader to play chess, and came to rest on one entry. Doctor Notices Dying Chess masters.

He skimmed through several more pages of similar content, and had almost quit, when he saw an entry for some blog. The preview read “Somebody has it in for the chess players of Grand Rapids. In the past two weeks, four of my friends, all great chess players, have died…” He clicked this link, and read through the blog entry. Four chess players, each playing white when they died. One had an asthma attack; the next had died from alcohol poisoning. The last two were both heart attacks.

He returned to Google, and after another page, he found another link. Russian Chess master Missing. The article reported that a famed Russian chess master had failed to show up for a game against the Swede. He had been found dead in his dressing room, sitting down in front of a chessboard. He had been playing white, and he had obviously lost.

The article then went on to say that two other well-known Russian chess experts had died. Another was missing, and would not answer his pager.

He returned home, and made his way slowly to the chess room. He flicked on the overhead light, and looked down at the board. How was it even possible? How could he be killing people with a chessboard? He looked at the board, his eyes sliding from the white side to the black, and back again.

He approached his customary position behind black, and stopped. His gaze turned towards the opposite side of table. Why not? He thought. It's not like it could really matter. He sat down behind the whites.

Slowly, he slid his pawn into play. After a moment, a black pawn thrust forward in challenge. The game was intense and sharp, right from the start. His opponent was shrewd, making short, calculated advances and punishing any errors on his part with cruel efficiency. Already, Jane Goodall and Sir Isaac Asimov had been taken, and things weren’t looking very good for Darwin.

Before long, he knew he had lost. Da Vinci was backed into a corner, protected only by Galileo and Max Planck. Planck fell quickly to Sagan’s cruel sword, and Galileo was too far away to help. Da Vinci was in checkmate. He heard the soft fall of a footstep behind him, and closed his eyes softly. He sighed as the bullet ended the game.


Don Q. said...

Great story. I plan to link it.

One annoying-ass chess player comment, there are 32 (not 36) chessmen in a set. Some sets come with two queens each, but even that would only make 34.

Asher Hunter said...

Thank you so much Don! As you can see, I'm not much into research. :) I definitely appreciate the help.

As you can probably tell, I'm an indifferent chess player at best. I don't have the patience, I admit.

Whenever I write a story, I always try to put myself in the mindset of my characters. Hopefully I captured the essence of a true chess aficionado.

And thank you for the link!

Don Q. said...

What I like about it is that it captures the sickness/romance of chess playing. In a sense, all chess players are locked into a love affair with chess that threatens to suck up their lives. One day we will look over the chessboard at our aged opponent and think "Where did the time go? How long have I been pissing away my life playing this stupid ... Hey, I think I can win a pawn on the queenside!" No matter how long we play we will eventually die/lose.

Also I like the symbolism of actually killing your opponents. A chess game is very intense and psychologically violent. The best expression of this is from former World champion Bobby Fischer who said he knew he had won a game when he could feel his opponent's ego crush.

Asher Hunter said...

Very interesting points, Don, thanks! I'm pleased to see I caught your imagination. Hopefully other chess lovers will feel the same. :)