The Bet

By Adam Cogbill

1.

Rweb (alternate white font)icky’s first opponent’s nametag read “Morrie Spits.” He looked twice Ricky’s father’s age, with white, hedgerow sideburns and a nose like a dented gutter spout. He was as good a start to the bet as any.

“Hi there, kiddo,” Morrie Spits said, extending a hand. His grip was crushing.

“Hey,” Ricky muttered.

“Hope your play is stronger than your handshake.” Spits’s grin was two fault lines climbing his cheeks.

Adults often took such stances toward him. His grandmother liked to come up behind him when he was on the computer and apply a sort of three-finger death grip to the side of his neck. “Surprise,” she would say. Uncle A.J.’s favorite joke since Ricky began high school was, “So, when is coach going to give you more reps at middle linebacker?” Even Mr. Annikov, who ran the school chess club, liked to remark in the middle of matches that Ricky played chess like a dental patient whose anesthetic was wearing off. Ricky was like a sponge with such comments: he absorbed them without speaking, and sank deeper into himself, as if they made him weigh more. He wrung out his brain later, usually by lying awake and imagining who he would harm when he discovered his latent super powers— the ability to superheat or supercool molecules with his mind—or, for the fantasies that required more subtlety, that he could move anything with his eyelids.

“Well,” Morrie said. “Good luck, kiddo.”

For an answer, Ricky reached across the board and started the clock. It was an ancient analog Garde, something one of the tournament’s organizers had probably discovered atop a basement milk crate the day before and mistaken for a good omen. Its cadence was dull and flat. Several boards to his right, his cousin Elena was playing a kid who couldn’t have been more than eleven. The kid’s ears were enormous, like petals from a gargantuan cretaceous flower. Doubtless he was some family prodigy who’d memorized his traps and taken down his amateur uncles. But playing Elena was like a nineteen-hour road trip: you became a little delirious, and you couldn’t reach the end without feeling like something in your brain had shorted. It seemed unlikely that Ricky would get lucky and win his bet in the tournament’s first round.

Morrie moved his king’s pawn two squares. The Ruy Lopez opening, Ricky predicted. Because it was predictable, and Morrie Spits was a predictable kind of guy. Like Uncle A.J., or even his dad. Maybe instead of football and beer and hamburgers, it was chess and wine and old books, but that was a variation on the same theme: Morrie Spits was a dum-dum. The whole world was filled with dum-dums. They were common as crows. Murders of dum-dums flapping about everywhere. Ricky reached for his own king’s pawn.

 

2.

It was indeed the Ruy Lopez, which meant it was going to be one of those long, carefully executed—boring, Ricky thought—early games. Even the mid-game might drag. Ricky was grateful that the tournament’s time limits were on the short side: thirty minutes per player.

While Spits took his sweet time deciding whether he wanted to play the exchange variation, Ricky drifted. He remembered the day he’d finally accepted Elena’s invitation to play. That was almost two years ago, on his thirteenth birthday. She’d been bringing her board to the house for years, but he’d always refused to play. First of all, he’d thought, chess was just a less exciting version of the real-time strategy video games he already played. Second, he knew how everybody looked at him, and he wasn’t interested in adding “plays chess” to whatever image they had.

And finally, because it was Elena who asked. His cousin was odd—everybody agreed about this. Sometime after she turned six, Elena began to insist that she was a horse. She would trot around the house, snorting, kicking at whoever walked behind her. She refused to eat anything except carrots and apples and spoonfuls of packed brown sugar. Many conversations about her behavior took the guise of concern for her protein intake. At seven, a vigorous regimen of therapy partially succeeded: she stopped galloping and whinnying and snorting. Instead, she went silent, and stayed silent for two years. The closest her family came to hearing her voice was reading her schoolwork, which she completed faithfully and without protest.

And then one Wednesday around three o’clock, the phone rang, and Ricky’s Aunt Karen answered. She didn’t recognize her daughter’s voice at first; she hadn’t heard it in two years. “I want to stay for the chess club, but Mr. Annikov says I have to ask you first.”

At that year’s family gatherings, Aunt Karen and Uncle A.J. reported pessimistically that she played every day. She spent weekends shut in her room with the cheap board she’d been given for Christmas and paperbacks on chess tactics and famous matches. Over drinks on the porch, Ricky’s parents and aunt and uncle spoke of Elena and her chess in the same terms they talked about a cousin on Ricky’s mother’s side who’d gone to Thailand to marry a teenager and hadn’t been heard from in years.

“It’s just not a thing for American kids,” Uncle A.J. said, swirling his ice. “That’s not what American kids do.”

Ricky’s thirteenth birthday party was attended primarily by his relatives and his parents’ friends. He and Elena were the only kids there, but neither had much to say to the other. Ricky sat on a barstool in one corner of the porch while the adults drank and talked politics. Elena was elsewhere in the house—perhaps camped in the living room with a book. He would’ve liked to go downstairs to the computer to play a few Fleet! games with his online friends. It was Saturday, and at least a few of them would be online, talking tactics and build orders, or perhaps swapping music.

But there was no escaping the clusters of his relatives and parents’ friends. In addition to the porch, they milled about the kitchen, and periodically small clans would migrate through the living room and go down to the basement to use the pool table. If he began a game, they would peer over his shoulder and say, “Is this a Star Wars thing?” or “Saving the Earth again, eh champ?” or “How violent this is, Ricky!” It seemed to Ricky that these were not so much inaccurate as foundationally wrong things to say.

After a while, he wandered into the kitchen to pick at the barbecue chicken. It was six o’clock, which meant there’d be at least another four hours before most of the party was gone. He traced a line of barbecue sauce on the kitchen counter and inserted his finger into his mouth. He turned to see if anybody was watching, and found his cousin standing less than a foot away, hands clapped firmly to her sides like she was stuck in a very narrow closet.

“What?” he said around his finger.

“Will you play chess with me?”

She’d never asked this way before. Usually she said, “Would you like to play chess?” But this new question, which was not about chess but somebody to play with, made Ricky hesitate.

“I don’t know. Seems boring.”

Elena’s face, which was thin and pale and reminded Ricky of unripe fruit, revealed nothing. “After each player has moved three times,” she said, “there are more than nine million possible positions.”

“But most of them are bad, so you would never play them, right?”

“I’ll show you how to beat all the opening traps.”

“Traps. Those are like cheesy build orders in Fleet!, right? Have you ever played Fleet!?”

“No.”

“It’s sort of like chess on stimulants.”

“We can play blitz. Five minutes per player.”

Ricky wiped his finger on his pants and prepared to refuse again. But what he said was, “It’ll be quieter in my room.”

She beat him in two blitz matches. Then she beat him in two untimed matches before he finally agreed to let her handicap herself. Then she beat him twice without a queen, and once without a queen and a bishop.

After his aunt and uncle took Elena home, Ricky stayed up until two in the morning reading chess strategy websites.

3.

Morrie Spits was doing what dum-dums did: dwell. Ricky had already listed the best three moves Spits could make—it was too early for anything really surprising. Or, as Elena put it, at a tournament like this one, full of retirees and chess column enthusiasts, when you see something surprising, you can assume it’s something stupid.

Spits moved his knight, and Ricky wasted almost no time capturing it with his bishop. He didn’t lift the bishop and replace it with the knight in one smooth motion, but jabbed at the piece with the bishop’s base so that it collapsed with a clatter and rolled sideways, displacing a pawn.

“C’mon, now,” Spits said. “Have a care.”

Elena had once told him it was rude to announce ‘check’ to your opponent. “Check,” Ricky said.

The knight was still on its side, the pawn sitting on the border between two squares. Spits stared at Ricky.

“You want to clean that up?” Spits asked.

Ricky placed his index finger against the base of the knight and pushed it across the board, like making a furrow in sand, disturbing several more pieces as he did.

“Now look,” Spits said, and Ricky began adjusting the pieces he’d displaced, finishing with the first pawn. Spits turned in his chair to locate the tournament arbitrator, a man even older than he was, and then thought better of it. “Let’s just concentrate on the game, shall we?”

Ricky faked a yawn without covering his mouth, and then turned to check on Elena. She was bent over the board, cheeks resting on fists. Big Ears was sitting on his hands. At their school club, only Vik Dyal pushed her this hard. The kid with the red ears and the oversized baseball cap was short enough that if he sat all the way back in his chair, he could swing his legs, which he was doing exuberantly.

Ricky found himself wanting his cousin not to lose this match—even if it hurt his chances to win their bet. But he was almost certain to lose anyway, and he couldn’t think of much worse than getting vivisected by some child genius. That was nothing but proof of how far behind you would always be. Besides, if Elena beat him, Ricky wouldn’t have to lose to him.

 

4.

After his birthday, Ricky began to play chess every day. He would come home from school—the high school he and Elena attended did not yet have its own club—and go immediately to the computer. From his parents’ perspective, this was normal; Ricky always went straight to the computer after school to play Fleet!. And chess was surely better than Fleet!: no digital explosions or alien voices or futuristic weaponry. Even more blessedly, there was none of the insistent keyboard tapping that Fleet! required. If the past discussions of Elena’s chess obsessions unnerved them, they didn’t show it. In fact, Ricky’s mother took the stance that at least now Ricky and Elena had someone to talk to.

“Isn’t that what we’ve been wanting, really?” she asked her brother one evening over steak and grilled peppers.

Uncle A.J. grunted resignedly into his beer.

Accordingly, neither set of parents minded how much time Elena and Ricky began spending together, shut in a basement or a room, squinting at chessboards. When they got bored of playing each other, they played out famous matches. Lasker’s double-bishop sacrifice against Bauer. Retí ending Capablanca’s eight-year tournament win streak. Karpov vs. Kasparov, the “Octopus Knight” game.

When Ricky heard that Mr. Annikov had come to the high school as a long term substitute for Ms. Gaines, who was going on maternity leave, he did something he’d never done before: he went straight to Ms. Gaines’s old room and introduced himself to a complete stranger.

As he explained what he’d come for, Mr. Annikov’s eyes flicked around the room, as if he expected at any moment to be ambushed. This was, Ricky would eventually discover, habitual, and it made speaking to the man for any significant length of time torturous. As it was, he cut himself short: “But so the point is, I was wondering if you’re going to start a chess club?”

Annikov rocked on the balls of his feet. He looked pale and brittle. He had a crayon-thick mustache that, despite a fine start, seemed to have given out halfway around his upper lip. Was this really the man Elena had learned from? It was hard for Ricky to believe; he looked like he might dive for cover if a paper airplane swooped toward his head.

After a moment, Annikov went behind his desk and lifted a half-unpacked cardboard box from the floor. He rummaged through it and dug out a rolled vinyl chess mat and a black zipped pouch. He gestured to the opposite side of the desk, and Ricky scrambled to pull one of the student chairs with attached desks into position. Annikov dumped the pieces unceremoniously from the pouch, and a bishop and two pawns rolled off the desk and clattered on the floor.

Annikov allowed Ricky to select white, and Ricky opened with his king pawn. Annikov responded in kind. Then Ricky moved his queen to H4—a beginner’s trap Elena had taught him in one of their first games. If Annikov made an incorrect move, Ricky would win his king pawn and gain dominating control over the center. Even if he defended properly, there was a chance for a scholar’s mate when Ricky moved his bishop.

“This is the move of a coward or a jester,” Annikov said. “Which are you?”

“Neither?”

Annikov leaned forward as if Ricky’s forehead were an exposed, malfunctioning engine, and he the mechanic employed to diagnose it. “A coward acts only to avoid losing. A jester only learns a thing so he can use it for fun. Which are you?”

“I want to win,” Ricky said.

“A coward it is.” Annikov moved his queen’s knight.

“I’m not a coward. I just want to be better than everybody else.” Ricky brought out his bishop, though the trap seemed unlikely to succeed.

Annikov pushed himself away from the desk and went to the chalkboard, where he began to scrawl something. The chalk screeched. He spoke without turning around. “Pawn to G6.”

Ricky moved Annikov’s pawn, and then retreated his own queen. Annikov showed no intention of turning around, so he said, “White plays queen to F3.”

Annikov’s laugh bore a startling resemblance to the screeching he was making on the board. “Knight F6.” He began to rock on his toes again, and Ricky noticed that he was not writing but drawing: a huge frog, its eyes huge and bulbous, and its lines surprisingly steady for a man with such shaking hands.

The game didn’t last long. While shading the frog’s head with the chalk held lengthwise, Annikov rolled over Ricky’s exposed queenside. After the game was over, Annikov spun, the frog half filled in. “To understand chess, you must understand something of beauty. And cowards know nothing of beauty.”

Ricky didn’t know what this meant. But he knew, from Annikov’s play, that it must’ve meant something important. “Another?” he asked. When he saw the look on Annikov’s face, he added, “I’ll play regular this time.”

Annikov was better than Elena. At first, it was hard to tell, since Ricky had only beaten Elena once, and then only when Elena been distracted by a fight with her father. But by the end of the third game with Annikov, a sense of deep despair had enveloped Ricky—a feeling so thick and suffocating that he wanted to lie down on the floor of the classroom until it passed. Annikov’s positions were as impenetrable to him as Elena’s, but unlike his cousin, Annikov was a spiderlike tactician. He pieces converged predatorily on some weak point in Ricky’s position so that the final six or seven moves were like waking up to find you were being slowly digested by huge, carnivorous plant. It was the first time Ricky had considered chess a possible form of torture.

After he put Ricky out his misery three times, Annikov swept the pieces back into the black pouch and rolled up the mat messily. “Enough,” he said. “Come tomorrow if you like.”

Ricky slid unsteadily from his desk. He wanted to say that he would not come tomorrow. That if he were ever assigned to Annikov’s class, he would go to the vice principal and beg for any other science teacher. He wanted to ask what sort of nightmares accompanied a mind like Annikov’s.

But he did come back, and he brought Elena. And by the end of the week, other kids had joined them. After a month, the Chess Club had an official poster hanging next to the other school club posters, and Annikov was bringing six identical vinyl chess mats and pouches. Tournament sets, he called them.

Ricky had been playing the shortest time of anyone who came, but after several months, he was beating everyone but Annikov, Elena, and freshman Vik Dyal, whose father had once had a FIDE rating over 2000. Annikov’s advice was sullen and stilted and rare. “You bring your queen out too early.” “Do not play chess like a dancer.” “Do not treat your pawns as mere pets.”

Slowly, he began to see chess positions as delicate systems of cause and effect: every piece on the board bore some relation to every other piece. The player who managed these relationships best, who was most attuned to harmony and discord, would win. Ricky had his doubts. Winning was the point. When the game was over, harmony and discord didn’t matter. What mattered was whose king was captured, and the only reason to manage harmony and discord was if it would allow you to do just that.

Still, until he could beat Mr. Annikov, he felt he couldn’t argue.

 

5.

Somewhere, a small child screeched, and Ricky winced and looked up to glare at whichever delinquent parent had failed to attend his or her gremlin. But there were no small children inside the stanchions—just a smattering of players’ friends and parents. The tournament arbitrator hovered over Big Ears as if he were a museum exhibit. Whatever was happening there was undoubtedly more interesting than here; Ricky had a stranglehold on the center of the board and was systematically taking away the spaces his opponent’s minor pieces could move to. Morrie would hold out a little while, but he’d given Ricky no reason to suspect he’d make his way back into the game.

Then he brought his attention back to the board and saw that that he was going to lose his queen.

He’d missed it, somehow. No matter what he did, Morrie Spits would fork Ricky’s queen and king on the next move. Ricky would have to move his king out of check, and then Morrie would win his queen.

No, he wouldn’t, Ricky saw. It was worse. He closed his eyes to picture the moves. Instead of taking his queen, Morrie Spits would move bishop to H5 check, and then after Ricky’s king escaped to the only available corner square, Morrie’s own queen would swoop in for mate. He was going to lose to a man who looked like an impersonation of a fungusy tree stump, and drop out of the tournament in the first round. He was going to lose his bet with Elena. He’d expected to, of course—but not like this.

Morrie lifted his knight, and Ricky found himself thinking not of Fischer or Kasparov or Carlsen but Tigran Petrosian, whose famously impregnable positions earned him the nickname Iron Tiger. Shonberg had compared playing with him to trying to handcuff an eel. How did anybody become so indomitable? Mr. Annikov liked to say that chess was two games: the board, and everything else.

By the time the knight came down, Ricky had come up with a plan—a gambit. A rickety one, the mental equivalent of duct tape and toothpicks. But a plan.

The moment Morrie’s knight landed, Ricky proclaimed loudly, “Ha!”

Morrie looked up, fingers still earmuffed over his knight’s ears. Ricky let his eyes bounce around the board as if he were calculating, a concrete grin playing across his lips. To make the grin authentic, he recalled the Friday afternoon he’d gone up a piece on Vik Dyal. He hadn’t won the game, but he’d carried the tortured noise Vik had made with him all weekend.

“Not sure I’d be so happy if I were in your shoes,” Morrie said.

“Guess you wouldn’t know unless you were in them,” Ricky said.

Then, speaking to the board, he said, “Okay, then. Here we go,” and moved his king.

Morrie reached for the knight, and then retracted his fingers into a fist, which he peered over. He slouched, straightened, and slouched again. He looked up at Ricky, and jerked when he saw that Ricky was not looking at the board, but back at him. He returned to the board and began to trace imagined variations with his index finger. After a while, he sat back in his chair and shook his head. Two full minutes went by—a chapter of significant length, given that the tournament’s half hour time-limit.

“Not sure what you think you see, kiddo,” Morrie said finally. Shaking his head, he picked up his knight and substituted it for Ricky’s queen.

Ricky felt his shoulders untense. Ordinarily, he would’ve been devastated: few chess casualties were more severe than losing the queen. But Morrie had missed the checkmate. Morrie Spits was a dum-dum. He knew the man’s make and model, just like he’d figured out the others in the school club. Figured out everyone but Vik Dyal, anyway. And Elena. And Mr. Annikov. But Morrie Spits was none of them. He could beat Morrie Spits without his queen. This was what confidence and determination felt like, he realized. He’d mostly fantasized about it up until now.

His cousin still hadn’t finished the boy with enormous ears. She seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into her chair, as if she were being absorbed.

 

6.

Elena’s favorite game to replay—somewhat unfortunately, Ricky believed, once he understood its place in chess lore—was thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer defeating Robert Byrne. They played it out at least once a week, offering explanations of why this or that variation wouldn’t have helped Byrne. But the more he watched the game play out, the less impressed Ricky was.

During one of these replays, he interrupted her commentary. “I don’t get why everybody thinks the queen sacrifice is so brilliant.”

Elena slow-motioned mouthed “what?”

“Of course he shouldn’t have taken the queen,” Ricky said.

“Like you would’ve seen the trap coming.”

“No, but I would’ve been suspicious of a grandmaster offering up his queen.”

“Fischer wasn’t a grandmaster then. He was only thirteen.”

“Fine. But did Byrne think it was his first time at a chessboard? Did he fart his way through the U.S. Youth Championship?”

“He thought going up a queen was a huge material advantage.”

She was right, though Ricky wished she wasn’t. He wanted to think of skill as tactical pyrotechnics and mentally dominating an opponent. He didn’t like thinking of it as gaining a small material advantage and winning the war of attrition. The part of the Byrne-Fischer match that impressed Ricky was the three-move sequence following the queen sacrifice in which Fischer’s knight gallivanted merrily about Byrne’s kingside, winning pieces and making a nuisance of itself, while Fischer’s light-squared bishop grasped Byrne’s king by the throat. It was calculated, lethal control. Ricky thought it inspiring. It taught him to love bishops and knights. It was beautiful and dastardly. He hadn’t known thinking could look like that.

When they’d finished the game, Elena lay on her back on the carpet. Her room was dark with posters of famous players and positions. A six-foot tall black bishop glared from over her bed.

“Do you ever think about what you’ll do when you quit chess?” Elena asked.

Ricky imitated his cousin’s silently mouthed “what,” but she wasn’t looking. “Why would I quit?”

“I don’t mean forever. But what about when you have to do other stuff?”

“What other stuff?”

“Like go to work. Or take care of your kids, or mow the lawn. Stuff like your parents do.”

“No way. My parents watch sitcoms and listen to Steely Dan,” Ricky said. “That won’t be me.”

“I bet that’s pretty much what they said about their parents.”

“You could just become a grandmaster. You get paid like two million if you win a world championship.”

“That is statistically unlikely.”

He had been joking, but her dismissal irritated him. “It’s not about statistics. It’s about skill.”

Elena raised her palm and became engrossed in studying her fingers.

“Why not?” he demanded. “You have to admit there’s at least a chance.”

“There’s a chance that Bobby Kolbert will stop calling you ‘Dicky,’ too.”

“But why would you even play if a little part of you didn’t think you could be the best?”

She jerked her head toward him. She looked alarmed, like he’d announced plans to rob a convenience store and flee the country. Then she pursed her lips and looked away. Ricky crossed his legs and scooted toward the board. “You want to play blitz?”

For a moment, he was afraid she would say she didn’t feel like it—and then where would he be?

Then, she sat up. “You take black this time.”

 

7.

Morrie Spits chased Ricky’s king around for a while, but half his minor pieces were on the other side of the board, and it wasn’t enough. In the end Ricky won a knight and initiated a counter attack down the kingside. With each move, Ricky reduced the number of squares to which his opponent’s pieces could move. His mind was locked in now. Morrie sighed and squirmed and picked agitatedly at his mustache, but Ricky hardly noticed.

And then he could see the end. He’d move his dark squared bishop, and then there wasn’t much Morrie could do; Ricky’s pawn on the B-file would queen, and then it would be, as Mr. Annikov said, just a matter of technique. There was the rather obnoxious possibility that Morrie would use all his remaining time trying to come up with something. Ricky was impatient for it to be finished. He wanted to tell Elena about his comeback.

But Elena’s match still wasn’t over. Most of the crowd, including the players who’d been eliminated, had gathered behind where the cordon passed nearest her board to watch.

Morrie Spits moved a pawn, and Ricky took fewer than ten seconds to verify once more that there was no way out of the mate. Then he moved his rook. Morrie’s eyes flicked back and forth across the board, and then his torso seemed to collapse, as if every muscle had slackened.

“It was a nice comeback, kiddo,” he said.

“Thanks,” Ricky mumbled.

“After losing your queen, too. You know, I have a friend who plays like you. He is dastardly with his knights.”

“I got lucky your bishop was out of position.”

“I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it. It’s where it is because you pushed it there.”

Ricky felt his face color, and he lowered it.

“Don’t weather compliments well either, do you kiddo?”

“Are you resigning or not?” Ricky asked.

Morrie Spits chortled. “I never resign,” he said. He moved his king.

Normally, he would’ve been exasperated. The game was over—playing it out on principal was a waste of time. If there was anything worse than a dum-dum, it was a dum-dum with convictions.

But it was Elena’s game that Ricky was thinking about. It was still going on, and while Elena’s eyes were feverish, Big Ears looked as unperturbed as a kid waiting at an ice cream counter for a sundae. It might have been his only chance at winning the bet, but Ricky found he didn’t want his cousin to lose in the first round to some pubeless wunderkind.

 

8.

Elena and Ricky were in Ricky’s basement. It was late afternoon on the 4th of July, and upstairs, a smattering of relatives and family friends were taking on the miniboss that was Ricky’s father’s bar. They were preparing for the Eastwickenham Summer Charity Tournament, a tournament that consisted almost entirely of players from the Eastwickenham Senior Chess Players Association. Elena’s mother worked for the senior living community where the club convened, and she’d been bringing Elena since chess was a substitution for acting like a horse, and not a dangerous obsession in its own right.The ESCPA players hadn’t improved terribly over the years. Elena had. She’d won three years running, and Ricky was having trouble getting her to care about practicing. He had only been able to interest her by suggesting they try a nontraditional opening—something known as Ware’s opening, where white advanced the queen’s rook’s pawn on the first move of the game.

Midway through their third game, Elena rolled onto her back and brought her knees to her chest. “This is stupid. There’s a reason nobody plays this opening.”

“Preston Ware played it.”

“And who’s he?”

“A guy good enough to get an opening named after him,” Ricky said.

“Whatever.” She let her legs fall and stretched her hands out over her head, nearly knocking over most of her queenside. “Let’s do something else.”

“But the tournament’s in two days. We haven’t even gone over Queen’s Gambit accepted lines. They all loved accepted lines last year.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Elena said. This was true, Ricky reflected; Elena didn’t need to prepare much against the old men of the ESPCA. But it was the way she’d said it that he didn’t like.

“Well, you should at least help me,” he said. “I don’t want to lose in the first round this year.”

“You won’t. You’re a lot better since you started playing with Annikov.”

“Yeah, but with how safe some of these old guys play? It’s like great depression strategy. They just tuck their kings away and sit tight. I’ll die of boredom if I play that kind of game.”

Elena lifted her queen and swirled it in the air above her face. “Actually, I was considering not going this year.”

“Oh, come on. You always have fun. The look on some senior citizen’s face when he realizes he’s getting owned? Admit it. That’s fun.”

“Maybe for you. That’s not why I play.”

“That’s why everybody plays. It’s just that nobody admits it but me.”

“That sounds like a pretty good reason not to play anymore.”

“You mean today?”

“I mean ever. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I think I might be done.”

Ricky could detect no signs of sarcasm. He wanted to snatch the queen out of her hand and whack her forehead. He might’ve if he’d thought it would help. But threats only made Elena harden her stance. A relic from her days as a wild horse, maybe.

“You can’t be done,” he said. “What about me?”

“What about you? Nobody said you couldn’t keep playing.”

Logical as this was, it seemed to Ricky very much beside the point. Like a diver being pursued by a hungry shark taking the time to check how much air she had left.

“I’ll bet you,” he said. “I’ll bet you’re not done.”

“Fine. You lose.” She extended a palm. “Pay up.”

“I bet,” Ricky went on, feeling very much like he did when he was short on time and had to move based on hunches, “that I can get further in the Eastwickenham than you.”

He fully expected her to laugh at him. Getting further than her probably meant beating her, but even that was irrelevant: she had no reason to take such a wager.

But she nodded. “Okay. But you have to get further. If we go out in the same round, I still win.”      “Fine.”

She rolled over onto her stomach and put the queen back on the board. She looked thoughtfully at the position she’d abandoned, and then moved a pawn. Ricky found that his hands were shaking, and he sat on them.

In his mind, he tried out the argument, It’s just a game. It doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things if you’re good at it. It means no more than anything else. But, though this seemed true, he found that he wasn’t ready to believe it.

 

9.

Elena and Big Ears were deep into the endgame. Elena, playing black, had only her king and a light-squared bishop, and the kid had his king and rook. They were both moving very rapidly; according to the clocks, they each had less than a minute left.

Ricky crossed his arms. He had shuffled to the front of the cordon. He’d won his bet, then; anybody who could play Elena into such a position would surely know how to take advantage of it. He and Elena had practiced rook/king vs. bishop/king checkmates many times; it was just a matter of keeping your own pieces off the bishop’s color squares.

He wondered briefly if she’d lost on purpose. The boy looked too cheerful to be a chess prodigy; Ricky was certain that sort of thinking was sure to mark its practitioner in some awful way. And yet, he was having no trouble backing Elena into a corner.

“That’s my grandson, David,” somebody whispered. Ricky turned to see Morrie Spits, massive grin in place, standing behind him.

“Is he pretty good?”

“He’s got a gift. Won silver at the State Youth Championships last year. Playing him is like—”

“—being trapped in a burning house?” Ricky finished for him.

“Not how I’d put it. But yes, that’s apt. He sees everything you see and more. Much more.”

When Elena appeared to hang her bishop, he ignored it, recognizing that if he took it, Elena would have no legal moves, and the game would be declared a draw. She offered it again, and again he ignored it. This time, instead of moving, she looked up. “Nicely played,” she said, and held out her hand.

The small audience clapped. Ricky left his arms crossed. He should’ve felt elated—or at least, relieved. Instead, he felt as though he’d somehow gotten away with cheating.

David let go of Elena’s hand and stood up. He turned to the crowd and waved. For a moment Ricky thought the boy was waving at him. He started to raise his own hand, and then realized that the boy was looking past him, to Morrie.

He accompanied Elena to the scorer’s table. Together, they examined the tournament tree. “You won.”

“Yeah.”

“Guess I won’t be quitting this time.”

“That kid you played apparently won silver at the Youth states.”

Elena did not seem surprised. What sort of mind did you have to have, Ricky wondered, to be so good so young? Did the world come in sharper?  And what had he given up to get what he had? Ricky had never been as good at anything as David already was at chess.

“Why do you want to quit, anyway?” Ricky asked.

She didn’t answer. Ricky thought he could make the case that she owed him an explanation, but he didn’t push her. Then she said, “I thought it was going to make everything make sense.”

“I see,” Ricky said, though he didn’t.

“Your second match will be starting soon,” Elena said.

Ricky massaged the knuckles of his right hand, which cracked loudly. “If I get black, maybe I’ll try the Ware,” he said.

“Only if you want to go home early.”

 

10.

He lost in the next round to a man who claimed to have played Kasparov years ago in London. He felt oddly unperturbed by the result, and when the man offered to shake his hand, he accepted, making sure to tighten his grip as much as he could.

Later, while waiting for Elena’s mother to pick them up, Ricky said, “You can quit if you want.”

“You don’t need to let me out of it.”

“I know. But you can if you want.”

They watched a green minivan nearly back into a Civic. At the last second, the Civic’s driver honked. “Okay,” Elena said softly.

It was the last they spoke of the topic. On Monday, Elena came to chess club as usual. But on Tuesday, she left after only one game, and on Wednesday, she didn’t come at all. That weekend, when her parents came over to Ricky’s house for dinner, she didn’t ask if he wanted to play. When the adults settled on the porch with drinks, Ricky suggested a movie, and she fell asleep sprawled in an armchair in front of the television until Uncle A.J. came to retrieve her.

It would be years before they played together again. In the meanwhile, they had become too accustomed to spending time together to quit altogether; they often split off from their parents to watch movies or play cards. Elena occasionally asked about a tournament Ricky had competed in, and he gave brisk, summary answers. They never discussed strategy or reviewed his matches. For that, Ricky had Vik Dyal and the other boys from the chess club, who he now spent most weekends with. Sometimes they hardly played—just sat around talking famous games, or inventing childhoods for Annikov, or scheming about ways to get more girls to join the chess club.

Sometimes they asked about Elena. “Why did she quit?” they wanted to know. “How can you quit when you’re that good?”

“She burnt out,” he would answer. “It stopped being fun for her.”

They would shake their heads and accept this, though Ricky could tell the thought scared them.
Like him, what they wanted was to get as good as Elena had been. To get that good and find that it wasn’t enough—that was unfathomable.

Only once did Elena offer an explanation. It was exactly a year after the Eastwickenham charity tournament that’d been the site of Elena’s last competitive match. They’d gone down to the basement to pick out a movie while their parents drank, and Ricky mentioned casually that the boy wonder, David, had been at the tournament again.

“I got to play him this year,” he said.

“How’d you do?”

“It was a massacre. The kind of game that made me understand for a second why you quit.”

Elena didn’t answer immediately, and he thought he’d upset her. He was preparing an apology—a relatively new tool in his verbal repertoire, one still under construction—when she spoke. “You know why I quit?”

“You told me. You said you thought it would make everything make sense. But it didn’t, I guess.”

She nodded, her tongue stuck behind her lower lip.

“To be honest, I still don’t know what you meant.”

“Well,” she said. “Another way to put it is, I couldn’t see any difference between chess and acting like a horse all the time.”

She’d never spoken of this period of her life. Ricky only knew about it because he’d heard through the family grapevine. He was unsure what he was allowed to say, and she didn’t offer further explanation. Eventually, the awkward feeling faded, and they let the subject drop.

From then on, Ricky would maintain, when the subject arose, that his cousin had been a phenomenon, a prodigy, and nobody, not even he, knew why she’d quit. But years later, when he was tutoring junior chess players in junior chess clubs and at a nearby middle school, he would take special note of particularly competitive or ambitious youngsters. “If you feel like a horse when you play,” he would tell them, “you’re playing wrong.”

They would demand that he say what he mean, or else stare appraisingly at his forehead as if they suspected some belt had snapped loose and was whirring around loudly, distracting him.

“I mean,” he would say, “this game is about the pursuit of beauty. That is its purpose.”

They would groan. Perhaps they went home and swapped stories about him. Perhaps they wondered what he had been like when he was their age.

___

Adam Cogbill’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in several magazines, such as Slow Trains, The Ampersand and The Collagist. He writes and teaches in Dover, NH.


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