The King Is Dead


I looked across the playing hall to find her. I knew where to look, among the top boards of the open section. And she stood out, an attractive blonde-haired woman in a room full of shabby men.

She was a chess player, an internationally known master. It was a surprise to see her in Philadelphia, so far from home. There was a good contingent of foreign players, lured by the fat prize fund; but top women were a rarity.

I remembered how long she had been a celebrity. Women’s champion of her country – a small one in Eastern Europe – at fifteen. She captured attention around the world; not just because she was photogenic, but also because she was a fearsome competitor.

At eighteen she was posing for glamour shots. I remember one series vividly, where she had been outfit in nothing but a strategically placed chessboard and a big smile. They have different attitudes over there; not just about chess, but about sex.

And she’d dress provocatively at tournaments, as well. I recall seeing pictures of her playing; a striking young woman, well groomed, dressed to show off her ample bosom – and looking at her opponent like he was dead meat. I could only imagine what it would have been like to play against her, sitting across the table for hours, trying to stop looking down her cleavage as she bent over the board, knowing that the slightest slip would allow her to pounce and destroy me.

Now, close to thirty, she wasn’t playing the sex symbol like she used to. She was still in the camera eye, doing video reports on tournaments through a French web site, interviewing players between rounds, putting her personality and intelligence to good use. I could imagine her in another life being a sports reporter for a cable channel, pitching softball questions to jocks during intermission, moving easily through a man’s world.

These days she was a woman in the full flower of maturity, with an easy smile and a practiced sense of style. Sometimes, still, she’d discretely unfasten a button on her blouse just as she’d lead her opponent into dizzying complications, banking on a tactic that many, many men fell for. But now she’d use her sex appeal carefully, to gain an advantage when there was money at stake. She had come to the stage of life where there were things more important than trophies.

The first round was on a Friday evening. As always, the top seeds had easy games. I was paired with a middle-aged club player who used an offbeat opening to try to confuse his opponents. But that doesn’t work against a strong player; it wasn’t long before I identified the strategic weaknesses he’d created, and began to dismantle his position at the seams.

Her game was with a young kid, barely at the edge of puberty. I can only imagine what went on in his head as he sat across from this sexy woman! But kids are dangerous; sharp as a tack, always underrated. He’d be satisfied with nothing more than holding this famous player to a draw.

I strolled over to watch their game. She was taking no chances, steering the game into a simple ending, where her experience and superior technique would guarantee a win. As I stood behind her opponent, she looked up at me. Slightly tall, fit, and a bit older than her, our eyes met, and she flashed me a smile. And then she looked back down at the board; there was business to be taken care of.

Now I started feeling motivated to do other things besides win my games. I wanted to fire up my laptop and do some research – but I had to finish my game first. I went back to my board, and began to play quickly. I took more chances than were wise; but the attack hit hard, and my opponent conceded with a handshake.

Getting online, I looked up the games she had played. I wanted something she’d remember, that we could talk about. I ran the moves through computer evaluation, to find blunders and turning points faster than I could analyze in my head. I found a terrific example, from an international tournament late last year.

I killed time by the water station, shooting the breeze with guys I knew. Eventually she came back to fill her glass. She pretended not to see me, coyly waiting for me to make the first move.

I turned; loudly and confidently, I addressed her by name. “Yes?” She looked at me, startled. Her name was a jumble of consonants and strange diacritics; its pronunciation was a riddle to Westerners. She was used to hearing it mangled; but she wasn’t expecting to hear it like it would be said at home.

“I have to say how much I admired your win over Velimirovic.” I said it slowly and clearly, not sure how good her English might be. She understood, and warmed to the idea. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “It’s exciting to see someone sacrifice one piece, then another, for an attack,” I continued. In a lower voice I added, “Not so many women are willing to take chances like that.”

She paused at my explicit chauvinism, but let it go. “He is an old lion; if he lives by the sword, he dies by the sword,” she reflected; her English was güvenilir bahis thickly accented. “I hated to beat him like that,” she added, insincerely.

Now I had the kicker. “You mean, because it was unsound?” I tried to make it sound sympathetic.

A flush came over her face. She hesitated, not certain I knew the whole story. “The queen check,” I said simply. Her opponent had missed a simple move with his queen; it would have disrupted her plan and left her defenseless.

Her face turned serious, as she struggled to explain it. “We were short on time, and he looked tired.” Then she smiled slightly. “It was a cheapo.” I smiled at the way she used the English idiom for a swindle. She relaxed and went on “I needed a win. I couldn’t ….” Just then she saw her opponent make a move, across the room. She excused herself to go back to the game, casting a wry glance at me as she left.

I needed to do something for dinner. If it were just me, I’d go on a beer run, send out for pizza, and spend the rest of the night playing five-minute games for small bets. But I had other ideas; I searched on my phone for a decent restaurant in this suburban desert. And I bided my time, trying to keep an eye on the progress of her game without being obvious about it.

As I saw her wrapping up after the win, I chatted up some folks hanging out. Heading out the door, I caught her eye; I smiled and gravitated toward her. She paused, friendly yet guarded, as she would with someone who knew both her strengths and weaknesses. “You’re finished,” I said, which was obvious. She nodded. “You must be hungry,” I said, hopefully. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it.” She didn’t want to commit. And she had come to America to win money, not to party!

I tried another angle. “I’ve been working on a new move in the Sveshnikov,” I said in a slightly hushed tone, as if to let her in on a secret. It was a baited hook; looking at her games told me she played that opening frequently.

Her face brightened, as she challenged me to lay out what I had. “Oh? What is that?” I rattled off eleven moves, ending with the trade of a bishop for two pawns. She recognized them instantly. “Peresypkin’s Sacrifice.” I nodded. “You wouldn’t play that! Really?” I dodged the question, saying, “Kasparov did.”

Her face went blank at the mention of the former world champion. It was something she didn’t know, would never have guessed. “Then again,” I smiled. “He was sixteen years old at the time.” She laughed, and smiled at the idea. There are all sorts of things we try out as kids, that we would never dream of repeating as grownups. She knew it as well as I did.

She was engaged now, and thinking again. “All of those moves are well known to theory,” she said. “What’s your new move?”

I gave her another seven moves, slowly now, so she could visualize them in her mind. “And then,” I finished, “Black plays his king back and holds him off.” She considered that for a few moments. “But the pawns will march,” she retorted. “What then?” she demanded.

“Ah,” I said slyly, “that will remain a secret. You and I could yet face off over the board!” She pouted in frustration. I paused for effect. “All right, maybe I could show you. There’s a place near here we could go. You really don’t want to eat the food here.”

She smiled at my persistence. “What kind of food do they have there?” she said, putting up one last token of resistance. “Hamburgers, what else?” I said. “This is America!”

At dinner we relaxed, having a glass of wine to go with the burgers. I chatted with her about the reporting she did; since I’d had some experience in television, I could draw her out about what went on behind the scenes. We talked about her experiences in America, and I asked her why she had come.

I thought it was a simple question; there were lots of Europeans who came to play the circuit of big money, open tournaments in the U.S. But her answer took another turn. “Sasha has gone to Spain to play in the league; he won’t be back till the spring.” I turned quizzical. “Sasha? Who’s that?” I asked. “Sasha, my husband,” she said. “You know him; Alexander Amonatov.”

The answer nearly floored me. She was married to the Russian grandmaster! I had no idea. She hadn’t taken his name. She didn’t wear a ring. And to be frank, I don’t pay much attention to someone’s marital status if I want to hit on them.

The pause was awkward. She ignored my obvious surprise; she was just relaxed enough to share some more. “I think he’s seeing someone there.”

My mind started racing. She wasn’t just here for the prize money; there were problems at home. I started to think about the women I had known who were on the outs with their spouse, and looking for someone to fill the emptiness they felt. I tried to imagine the way she ached, her womanly needs unsatisfied. The notion of it clouded my brain, and agitated my groin.

I changed the subject, as gracefully as I could. “Spain is lovely,” I said. “Germany is better. türkçe bahis When I was in Mainz …”

“You were in Mainz?” she interrupted. “For the festival?” she asked, with excitement – and perhaps some relief at not having to talk about her husband. There were so few Americans that could talk about Europe – they were all so parochial. She warmed to the idea that I was a sophisticated traveler.

“Oh absolutely,” I fibbed. At this point I was ready to tell her any story she wanted to hear. If truth were told, I had been in Mainz when I was in the service; but my only experience of it had been some cheap bars, strip joints, and the red light district. If I had played any chess there I had been too drunk to remember.

“I love Chess 960,” she went on, “I played in the World Championship there.” I made up a pleasant lie. “I know; you did well there.” My ruse had worked, so far. But I didn’t want my real ignorance of the event to be revealed. I took the opportunity to change the direction again.

“Chess 960 was Bobby Fischer’s last great invention, before he lost his mind,” I said. I knew all about this variant and its unusual rules, where the game starts with pieces placed randomly. “It wipes out all of our previous knowledge and experience. You are left only to depend on your wits.”

She knew all this, and she approved. And then an idea began to form in my mind. I began to talk about chess variants, as I searched in my mind for a way to get to what I really had in mind.

I rambled through the possibilities of some of the historical variants, such as chaturanga and shatranj, played in India. I talked about how the game had come to the West through Persia, which gave us the term “checkmate” – a corruption of shah mat, or “the king is dead.” And I talked about the way the power of the queen had grown through history, till it was the most important piece on the board. That idea always appeals to the gals.

I was on a roll. She let me go on, smiling, sometimes giving me a little giggle to encourage me. I still wanted to keep the discussion on variants, so I went on to talk about new ideas, such as games with four queens; games where the queens had enhanced powers, like zigzag moves; games where other pieces absorbed the power of the queen.

Then, I brought up the most interesting one of all. “And, you know, there’s the variant where both sides can win.” She bit on that, and asked, innocently, “What’s that?” I answered slowly and clearly, “strip chess,” and waited to gauge her response.

Her knowledge of English idiom may not have the greatest, but my words sank in, and I could tell she got the drift. She tried to keep a straight face, but she couldn’t hide a little smile.

I turned the conversation back to light matters, just a little segue for my next move. After a decent interval, I suggested, “Listen, it’s early yet. Why don’t we go back, and I’ll show you – my new move.” She pondered that for a moment, and I wondered if I had pushed too far, too fast. Finally, she smiled. “Okay.”

Back in my room, she was friendly – but I could tell she wasn’t ready to get closer. She might have figured I talked a good game, but she had yet to test my mettle, the way she knew best. “Where are your pieces,” she said brightly. “I’ll set up.”

This was natural for us, a little friendly competition in the off-hours. She set up the pieces, then carried out the eighteen moves of the Sveshnikov I had described earlier; all from memory. She pondered the position. “And you think can hold a draw here?” I could tell she was skeptical; and I was in too deeply to back down. “I’ll take White,” she said.

My heart skipped a beat. I wasn’t planning on this. Everything else being equal, she was a stronger player. I’d have a hard time holding her to a draw on a good day. But the stakes now were incomparable. If I lost, I’d look like an idiot. She’d dismiss me as a patzer, just another in the uncounted string of men she had conquered through the years. But, I thought hopefully, if I won – I put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be gained by dreaming about what might come. All that mattered now was the position between us.

With this kind of dynamic, unbalanced situation, anything could happen. But the strategic imperative was clear. She had to attack, and mate me before I could trade material down to a draw. She went at me with vigor, her active pieces swirling around my exposed king. I bobbed and weaved. It was too complicated to calculate; I had to move on instinct. One by one I forced the exchange of pieces; it was the only way to survive. Finally, she was left with just two pawns, and I still had the extra bishop. It was a dead draw.

And it was a success, by any other standard. I had said I could hold the position with my new move, and I had resisted her best effort to prove me wrong. She smiled; I extended my arm for the traditional handshake.

But instead, she reached out and held my hand. She leaned toward me, and in a husky voice, said “Show güvenilir bahis siteleri me how you play – street chess.”

I think my jaw dropped; I was caught by surprise. I gathered my wits. “Strip chess,” I said, trying to suppress a tremble in my voice. “It’s easy.” I said. “And fun.”

First, I told her, we needed to create the proper setting. I cranked up the heat to a toasty level. And, I explained, the rules required a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. Finally, I said, we needed to play on the floor. I asked her to set up the board. While she was at it, I dimmed the lights a notch.

“I’ll play White,” I told her. That meant I’d be making the first move. She scooted around to the other side, sitting on the floor comfortably with her legs tucked under her, her short skirt not covering her knees. I didn’t have to tell her to kick off her shoes. “The first rule is that if you capture your opponent’s pawn, they have to drink a glass of wine.” That idea seemed to please her. “All right,” I said. “Let’s begin.”

I started by moving my queen’s pawn to the center. It wasn’t my usual style. But I did it as a tribute to her sex. She responded by moving her own pawn to mirror mine. I knew it wasn’t her usual style!! I suspected she wanted to match me move for move.

Then I moved another pawn next to the first. I knew it could be captured; but centuries of play had shown it wasn’t risky to offer the gambit. Most good players turned it down.

But this wasn’t an ordinary game! She hesitated only a moment before she swept it off the board. “Now,” she looked at me. “You drink.”

“All right,” I said, as I reached to place one of the goblets in front of me. “You have the privilege of filling my glass.” She giggled and picked up the bottle. She poured until my glass was full to the brim, and looked at me expectantly. With a sheepish smile I sipped at the lip, then picked it up and chugged until it was all gone.

We made a couple more moves, then she pushed a pawn to where it invited an exchange. I laughed as I snatched up the offer. She picked up her glass and held it out for me to fill, smiling coyly. I filled it discretely, stopping at a little more than halfway. She looked at me with her eyes wide open, appreciating my gallantry. There were some area where it wasn’t fair to assume we were equal; and ability to hold liquor was one of them.

She sipped at the glass, making goo goo eyes at me. I smiled at her, but in a firm voice I said, “You have to swallow the whole thing.” She stopped. “You’re making these rules up,” she said with her best little-girl voice. I thought for a moment and said, “Do you remember the first time you – played? Nobody told you what to do in advance. You had someone show you how. Just trust me.”

She submitted to my direction and polished off the rest of it. Then it was her turn. She recaptured my pawn, as expected. Again she filled my glass; I gave her a little toast before putting it down.

I advanced a flank pawn. We were in a strange position now, at least as far as what was happening on the chessboard. But this was a different sort of game. It wasn’t hard to guess that both of us wanted to clear some pawns from the board before engaging for real action.

I pinned one of her knights in front of her king. It powerless to escape capture. She knew it was gone; she waited to see what the consequence of losing the knight would be. But I bided my time; I didn’t need to take it right away. Finally, she broke the pin. It was now or never.

I picked up her knight and took it off the board. She looked at me, and I told her, “Unbutton your blouse.” She toyed with the next button; she had unfastened one of them while we were still in the restaurant, to give me a tantalizing view of black lace. But now there was no halfway. “All of them,” I said. “Pull the shirt tails out, let them hang loose.”

She wanted to be a good player. She looked down demurely, drawing her hands down over her breasts, working the buttons loose one by one. Down to her waist, she got up on her knees, turned away from me, and finished the job. She pulled the shirt out all around, and then turned around and sat back down, carefully arranging her blouse in front of the cups of her brassiere. There they hung loosely, hardly disguising the treasures underneath. I looked up and down the open strip in front, pausing to appreciate the way she filled out her undergarment.

“My move,” she smiled. She recaptured my piece and waited for me to fulfill my obligation. I faced her as I got my shirt open and loose. I opened it wide, enough for her to see that my chest hair didn’t obscure the toned pecs and abs I’d worked so hard to build. I noticed her shudder in delight at what she saw.

The board had opened up now, and the heavy pieces swung into action. She seized control of an open file with one rook; I could not let it go uncontested. I opposed her with one of my own. It was up to her whether to trade.

“What happens if you take a rook?” she said. “Stockings,” I smiled. “Or hose, if you will.” That was enough for her. She reached across the board and pulled my rook off, replacing it with her own. Promptly, I pulled up my pant leg, and yanked the sock off; one, then the other.

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