His last round of the chess tournament at Fairfield was a long game, but he knew how to win this one. He would trade down to the end game, advance his passed pawn, and promote it. That's how he planned the moves. He was playing and strong once again at Fairfield.
He had played his first round game slowly at first, his arms labored to move the pieces. He hadn't played in many years, and his hands found it hard to hold the pieces anymore; he had been in bed too long. Doc Armstrong said he would never play again, but that was typical of the Doc. He was always pessimistic. Why, after a few games he was moving the chess pieces with confidence as all the coordination came back to him. His limbs were strong now, and he did not shake as he moved the pieces. He even played some blitz chess just to show he could still beat the clock, but he only tried one blitz game because he had a long tournament to finish. He wanted to save his energy for this game.
It was hard to play this game, an odd variation of the Slav Defence, and he closed his eyes so he could focus on the moves. There were some opening traps he had to avoid, and it took some time to find the right moves. He recalled some analysis his friend Knight and he had done the night before. Sure enough his opponent was playing into the same line now. Everything was the way it had been that afternoon, nothing had changed in years. Here was the clock he bought from the book shop, and here was the wooden set with a white Rook slightly damaged in a late night blitz game years before. Knight was watching the game now too. They both recognized the line of play. Knight would have played to open a line of attack, but that was not his way. He would play a different strategy at Fairfield.
He had found the tournament advertised in the back of a chess periodical. He used to search the ads looking for country tournaments; ones far from the big crowds of the big cities. This tournament site was a new one so he checked the name of the tournament director. The TD was fair. The TD had organized many good tournaments, and he had played in several of them. He could count on him to organize a good tournament at a good site.
The site was advertised as a retirement home with a restaurant, shop, hotel, and a community center. All together it was an island of luxury in a modest rural setting. Just the place for a quiet chess tournament. That suited him just fine. On the map, it was near a saddle-back between Nemo and Harriman mountains, nestled in a valley that the rest of the world seemed to ignore as they sped past on the distant interstate. In small type on the map not far from the valley — even with reading glasses his bad eyes could only barely make it out — was the word "Fairfield."
It would require a long drive into the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and the approaching winter weather made the trip a little risky. His usual car pool buddies declined to make the trip, but Knight jumped at the chance. Knight was shamelessly addicted to the game, and always ready for a road trip. Together they had braved many dark roads for the game. The directions in the magazine were clear, but they managed to get lost at an intersection. Then they drove around until they found their bearings again, and off they went. Never were they seriously lost as long as they were together. After Knight's death he stopped going to tournaments. He'd never find another friend like that.
It was lonely at Fairfield without Knight and he missed his game analysis between the rounds. He should have moved by now, but the position was unclear. As he struggled to remember the right moves he worried that his time was running out. If his clock's flag fell now (indicating he had not made the required number of moves in the allotted time) then he would lose the game. He searched the papers taped to the wall; the time control was still posted there. Forty moves in ninety minutes, then sudden death in thirty. Sudden death? He paused to think. What a terrible thought — to be fully alive in a time scramble one moment — then "dead" the next. He focused on the clock. He moved at blitz speed past the first time control. He loved the adrenaline surge of blitz; it made him feel alive. As luck would have it, he still had winning chances on the board.
He was playing well again pressing the button on his clock with each move. He had left the clock on his desk when they took him to the county hospital, but now it was right next to his board; he watched the mechanical movement ticking away. He glanced out the window. The snow had just begun to fall with slow reluctant flakes. Other things were coming back to him. The stuffy smell of the tournament room. The muffled grunts from players on other boards as they searched for better moves. One player offered an excuse or two and then resigned his game in defeat. And he loved the feel of hand crafted wooden pieces with added weight and felt.
"The horror," he thought with dramatic effect "the horror." It was odd how he remembered those words from some war movie. He used to say them good-naturedly on the rare occasion he stumbled onto a winning position against Knight in some late night blitz game. They had played countless late-night blitz games. He could hear similar trash talk coming from the practice games in the distant skittles room down the hall. Despite the loud voices, he returned his attention to his board feeling the excitement swell within him.
He tried to focus on the position of the pieces on his board, but he could not concentrate because of the voices. He wished they would stop talking, so he could find the right move. Someone was calling his name again and again, so he opened his eyes reluctantly and looked up at his wife. Her face was worried, but there was nothing to worry about. He tried to tell her that he was at Fairfield, but he did not have the breath to speak out loud. "What did you say, Dave?" she asked straining to hear. "Fairfield" he tried to tell her again. She turned to Doc Armstrong: "It sounded like Fairfield."
"Fairfield?" Doc did not know. "Never heard him mention that before."
He grinned. Of course he'd not mentioned it to Doc. Doc did not know chess. He did not know the contest on 64 squares. Doc was a good friend, but he wasn't a player. No, only other gladiators like Knight understood. He and Knight had played separate boards there that long ago afternoon, and it was their moment.
He was making progress on his board — he closed his eyes so he could see the board again. Knight had already won his game. Knight carefully marked the score sheet and strutted over to observe his board now. He glanced at Knight with half a smile. He was winning. Knight nodded knowingly. The position they had analyzed the night before was there to be won. As his clock ticked away, he calculated his next move. He knew that there was a fine line between an aggressively poised pawn, and an over-extended weakling. He had to push the pawn, but when. Patience or bravado. He thought of how one thoughtless move could ruin all his effort.
His opponent settled into a long trance to think. This afforded him the opportunity to walk away from his board. He liked to wander the room and feel the moment; the wall charts, the boards and players all in a row, the intensity of mental battle, the joy of finding a piece sacrifice. Occasionally, he would glance nervously back at his clock to see if it was his turn to move. He made small talk with other players, never really taking his mind off his own board. Had he moved the right Rook? He made several quick assessments of neighboring boards. White is busted on that one. This one is drawn, but those two players never give up. He thought about them. Where were they now? Had they come back to Fairfield? Were they here now, watching his moves unseen? He liked to think about how it was. Doc would argue that the past is past, but Doc was wrong. The past lives on. It never changes. We have to leave it to live in the present, but the past is always there ready for you to go back to it. Maybe that was heaven.
He had been so wrapped up in these thoughts that he had not realized that it was his move. He hurried back across the room. In the corner was his board, and standing beside his seated opponent was Knight with a serious look on his face. Knight was motionless, his eyes riveted to the board. He could tell by the look that his opponent had found a resource, some clever move that threatened all his plans. He quickly scribbled out the move on his record sheet, Rxb6, an exchange sacrifice.
"I think his hand moved a little," his wife's voice said. He did not open his eyes, because he was focused on the new position, but he guessed that Doc Armstrong was looking at him. "He's resting," Doc said after a moment. "Maybe you should get some rest too, Mrs. Burke." He heard Doc's footsteps move toward the door. "Call me if there is any change," Doc said and closed the door. The room grew quiet now, but he could hear his wife's chair creak beside him, her worried breathing.
What was she doing here, he wondered? She never showed any interest in chess. Because Cindy loved him, she had tolerated many of his late-night blitz marathons, even the ones that lasted to oh-dark thirty in the morning. He thought, there is no point in trying to sleep when my mind is on fire. He recalled the time when Knight spilled a glass of wine in the excitement of a game. Red wine on a light carpet. Her anger about that was tempered with her love, but she never missed a chance to remind him about the stained rug until the rug was replaced years after. Sometimes she had accompanied him to some of the tournaments where she would browse a few local shops. She always wanted to be near him even if she had to travel to a distant tournament. Now especially, she did not want him to be alone. He wasn't alone. Knight had a nervous habit of rolling chess pieces together in one hand while he studied a move. The pieces made a gentle clicking sound. He was never alone when he heard that.
He didn't have a sibling. Maybe that was why Knight was like a brother to him. Over the years, Knight and he were common sights at the local tournaments. Knight was not his real name. It was a nick name he picked up in grade school. Knight gave knight-odds to his classmates, and won more often than not. There was a closeness between them that he did not feel for anyone else, not even Cindy. He could still remember the years they grew up together. Knight was the best man at his wedding and was Godfather to both his kids. Still, it was Knight, the chess player, he remembered most. They would play chess together at the community center until it closed. Then they would take their sets to one of their homes, and play all night. Knight was a chess fighter, like the time he played a visiting Grandmaster in a exhibition tournament. Their game was a test of stamina and will. Knight had what it took to take what the GM could dish out. The game, he recalled, was drawn in a long 123 moves. In all the years, Knight never cheated, never took back a hasty move. He was a good man. Knight was the best man he'd ever known.
They had not played together again after Fairfield. Knight just didn't have any fight left in him. "The old man suffered a stroke," Doc later said. It was hard to realize he was gone. He liked to think of him the way he was; it was like the tournament, it was more real then the emptiness of his current situation. Sometimes at night, lying awake without any movement, he would hear the gentle clicking of chess pieces, and he would struggle against his body to move his head just enough to see that the hospital room was empty. But when he fell back to his pillow he would hear the quiet clicking again, and he would be content, and drop off to sleep, or what passed for sleep in these days. The days and nights ran together without sunlight or darkness to mark the time; only the harsh glare of florescent hospital lights.
Living with ALS was hard. Once he asked the Doc to level with him. How would he die? Doc was giving him a shot of something. Doc hesitated a moment and finished cleaning up, and then he looked at him and said, "You'll lose motor control until you stop breathing Dave." They too had grown up together in the same school, and Doc knew him too well to lie. "I am afraid there is nothing to do." Nothing to do except lay here until it was over. In two labored breaths he struggled to whisper "What do you think happens — when it is over?" Doc fumbled with some chart and put it away and said "I suppose you go on to someplace else called the hereafter." But he frowned to show disagreement. "No, it isn't someplace else," he told him, "its someplace you've been — where you want to be again." Doc nodded in understanding, "Take it easy now and rest." He knew that was how it would end, but the shot was taking effect and he was tired.
He was tired now, and his mind struggled to find the next move. He tried to recall his plans. He had not anticipated the complexity of this difficult position. Nameless others gathered around his board. They seemed to amplify his feelings of being all alone and unable to move. He invented and discarded candidate move after move, and now instead of excitement he felt a dread. His mind drifted from one bad line of moves to another. He was confused in desperation. He knew; the others around his board knew, he was lost.
There was no hope in his position, nothing to encourage him, nothing but his wife's creaking chair and her muffled worried sob. She wanted him to resign this game, and Doc wanted him to, they all wanted him to quit and come back to them. He thought of his chess books where he had studied countless hours. If he left, they would give them to some charity maybe, or maybe the books would end in the fireplace. He'd made notes in the margins of many good books — they would not appreciate them, consumed by cold flames. And there were the doubts, but most of all there was the fear. He was afraid of being lost, and being alone, and not knowing what move to make. It would be comforting to go back to them. All he had to do was resign this game.
And then he heard it, echoing through the tournament hall like a distant drum beat, the muffled click of chess pieces. He looked up toward the sound, a sound he knew meant there was play left in his game. He sat up straight. His mind was strong and alert again. He understood the position clearly. The fear was gone; he was not lost. He saw the combination, and smiled at Knight. Mate in five.
He reached to move the piece, and paused for a moment before touching it. He wanted to tell Cindy and Doc he'd found the right move — and if they only knew how happy he was — but when he opened his eyes he could not see them anymore. The chess board was bright, but the room was dark. He got up to look for them.
He looked across the tournament hall. The new fallen snow outside was bathed in sunlight, and he knew the trip home with Knight would be beautiful. He could see the tournament director standing at his board next to Knight. Knight was smiling. He needed to finish the game, before his time ran out.
He noticed a sense of urgency in Knight's smiling eyes. He started toward his board.
"I'm coming Knight. I'm coming."
Inspired by "The Road to Tinkhamtown" written by the late Corey Ford.
Life is like a game of chess, play smart or you lose.