“The Lesson of the Nine Crowns”: A Short Story
July 13, 2012 in Wordsmoker Short Fiction
My strong preference when traveling across Europe has always been to take night trains — both so I can save on hostel accommodations, and because night trains seem inherently adventurous and romantic. Also, sleeping.
But the sleeping part wasn’t working very well on this journey. Because unlike in Agatha Christie novels and espionage films, in fact night trains crossing national borders frequently make stops which are both inconvenient and impressively long-lasting. And who can remain asleep, dreaming of expressionistic cityscapes and underground rebellions and mysterious women with hooded eyes and Levantine accents — all while one’s train is clunking and screeching to a stop on some remote, nameless frontier?
So one night I was somewhere between Slovakia and Slovenia, probably on the border of some minuscule principality too trivial to appear on maps, when I was once again jolted suddenly to wakefulness. Since I grasped right away that sleep wouldn’t return again for some time, I spent a few minutes staring at the walls of my sleeping compartment — and then decided to take a casual stroll down the corridor of the now-stationary train.
The sleeping cars were all dead quiet; I guess other folks managed to slumber through the train’s jolts much better than I did. Eventually I came to the lounge car, which I assumed would not be in service. But even though most of the car’s tables had had their turquoise oilcloth coverings stripped for the night, it turned out that the overhead lights were on, a train staffer in a white tuxedo jacket was cleaning up behind the tiny bar, and two tables remained open: One full of tourists who looked almost American but clearly weren’t, and a second table commandeered by — you might even say dominated by — one lone patron seated at its corner.
The seated man’s domineering air seemed to fill the entire train car. He was obviously Eastern European, probably Slavic, with a bushy goatee and swarthy skin. His table was the only one with open seats, so I tried to slip quietly into the spot furthest from his own. I didn’t want to disturb anyone; but at the same time, I guess I didn’t mind having a little company in the dead of night here. I thought I might sit here and scribble some notes to myself about the cities I’d just visited.
But as soon as I sat down, the Slav started speaking. In English. In fact he seemed to be re-starting a line of patter that my sudden appearance had interrupted.
The Slav introduced himself, not really to me but rather to the general vicinity of his table, as “Ivo.” He even mentioned where he hailed from: Some Warsaw Pact statelet or province whose name escaped me even as he said it. Later research suggested that the place’s existence as an independent entity had not survived the Cold War.
Most of Ivo’s patter was dedicated to abusing the tourists at the other table, who turned out to be Germans. “I am convincing these Schweinhunden,” he gestured unmistakably across the narrow aisle, “to admit what is the force most powerful in the universe.” I gathered that Ivo might have downed a drink or two back when the bar was still open. And that perhaps his English teacher hadn’t been a native speaker. “Their answers, they make laughter. Gött, one says. Amor, says another. Ridiculous. Absurd.” He uttered something that might have been an imprecation in a language spoken by only five hundred people.
Then from under the table, Ivo produced a box. I stared at its highly-polished dorsal surface for a moment, my sleep-stunned mind struggling to identify this strange object. It was only when Ivo placed the box between us and started to pull out one of the recessed drawers beneath its top surface that I realized what it was: A chessboard.
“Do you play?” Ivo asked, finally turning permanently in my direction. His hand crept into the open drawer, then paused.
Now, I don’t fancy myself any kind of chessplayer. And this wasn’t a situation where any serious player would agree to a game, I didn’t think. No time-clock was present. The harsh overhead illumination bounced unpleasantly up from the board’s surface. And further, just look at who my proposed opponent was, and where he came from. I remembered a line from a Don DeLillo novel: “…Yes, chess, all those layers of Slavic stealth, those ensnarements and ploys.”
But the 2012 world championship match (“Anand and Gelfand” — as if chess were a battle of rhymes) was about to commence, in Moscow. And I do appreciate a well-played battle in the Game of Kings. So with no illusions about my ability to turn this unusual opportunity into an actual contest, I said yes. It was the very first syllable I’d dared to utter into Ivo’s torrent of words.
As the challenger, Ivo took the black pieces. I noticed that his energetic chatter quickly wound down as he stationed pieces on his side of the board; once the game commenced, he remained mostly silent and attentive. Although he still selected his moves with sudden bursts of almost careless activity, and he faithfully recorded each of our moves on a pad of paper in spasms of quick scribbles, as an experienced player would. Meanwhile, even though I was playing the white pieces, I decided immediately on a defensive strategy. Mostly I was just trying to avoid losing too quickly and having to return right away to my cramped sleeping compartment. So my first few moves were an uncertain attempt to prepare a half-remembered Sicilian Defense.
But Ivo had a very different game in mind. He attacked immediately, all over the board, as soon as he possibly could. And recklessly, in my view. I’m no expert in chess strategy, but when I can capture both of my opponent’s knights and lose only a rook, or else take his rook and lose only pawns, I tend to think I’m getting the better of the deal. I guess Ivo’s gambits here could technically be called “exchanges” — but they sure looked like sacrifices to me. The absence of a time-clock wasn’t going to be a problem for either of us in this game.
I knew that at no point could I possibly be winning this absurdly aggressive confrontation. But very early on, my array of surviving pieces did seem to grow more powerful than my opponent’s. And when Ivo finally managed to “trap” my queen, he still lost a bishop and a rook in the exchange. Quickly I was left with about half of my major pieces, while Ivo retained only his queen and all eight of his pawns, which he seemed to take great pains to preserve. I didn’t yet have a clear path to attack his king, and my pawns were almost all gone — but I still had a considerable firepower advantage on my side of the board. I imagined that even my modest strategic talent might be able to force a draw here, if I caught a break or two. Some Germans at the next table began stealing glances at our board, trying to figure out who was winning. I wasn’t sure myself.
Then the game changed. Those damned pawns of Ivo’s started marching down the board, and I was reluctant to sacrifice any of my carefully-hoarded major pieces in order to stop them. Also Ivo was an absolute wizard with his queen, flawlessly shepherding those modest black pieces during their inexorable advance. You could almost hear the “Imperial March” from Star Wars playing in the background. Meanwhile my pieces just danced out of the way of this board-wide offensive, orbiting Ivo’s king and waiting to find a crack in his defenses.
It sounds incredible, but despite the best efforts of my free-ranging knight and rook, Ivo’s furthest-advanced pawn managed to reach the end of its journey (square a1) and got promoted. Queened, naturally. Ivo retrieved the additional piece from the recessed drawer: “Another lady,” he said, staring directly at me to ensure that I understood the rules of pawn promotion.
Now things were starting to get a little hairy for me. My king faced a line of pawns bearing down from his front side and now an additional queen threatening from his flank. With that one move, Ivo had nearly evened the match. I needed to do some more fancy dancing in order to rearrange my little arsenal so it could be defended on two sides. I managed to complete this task, but wondered what might happen when that second queen started launching coordinated attacks alongside Numero Uno.
The answer to that question was: Nothing, quite yet. And not for a while. Because that queen remained on a1 for the next dozen moves or so. While Ivo carefully marched another pawn forward to the first rank, this one protected from my reach by the new queen which already resided there. And then he queened that second pawn as well. Another queen from the drawer; another leer from Ivo. Now there were three black queens on the board. What kind of chess set was this, exactly? How many queens were in there?
So even though I didn’t quite understand why it was happening, I could clearly see which way the wind was blowing here. My king made a hotfooted escape from the queen-crowded first rank and raced toward the board’s center, protected by a motley honor guard of mismatched pieces. Ivo’s stockpile of queens could have smashed my defenses at almost any moment now — but curiously, he refrained. I guessed this wasn’t really a match; Ivo was just working out a chess problem he’d dreamed up in his head and never seen on a board before. I felt like I’d awakened in the middle of a Nabokov novel.
Ivo’s royal roll call continued to completion: six queens, seven queens, eight. And then finally, ultimately, number nine. Nine black queens on the board at one time. This wasn’t even a chess problem any more; it was a circus act. Ivo must have had hundreds of ways to attack my king. Unstoppable checkmates in three moves, two, probably even one. I grew a little dazed trying to keep track of all the winning options he had.
But to my surprise, Ivo’s next move was to stand up from his seat and loom over me. He swayed a little. Apparently the train had started rolling forward again — sometime around the appearance of the fourth or fifth queen, I guessed.
Standing and facing your opponent during a chess match is one way to signal that you’re offering your opponent a draw. But Ivo did this in a very unusual way. Instead of explicitly proposing a draw, he asked me this: “Do you want to continue playing?”
This question of Ivo’s confused me. Offering a draw from his absurdly strong position didn’t make any sense. And Ivo’s wording was so strange; was I just supposed to translate his statement into correct English here (“I propose a draw”)?
But I’d come this far. And the circus-freak board position did offer some curiosity value. I would certainly never have another chance to watch a skilled player turn this position into a (brutally quick) endgame.
So I said, as evenly as possible: “Yes. Let’s continue.”
And Ivo sat back down and proclaimed, “That is the correct answer.” But he made no effort to move a piece, at first. In fact he seemed suddenly to have lost all interest in the game. Instead he just repeated that phrase a few more times: “That is the correct answer. Do you hear, Germans? He keeps playing.” He didn’t really need to address the Germans directly, of course — they’d been watching us carefully ever since Ivo stood up. He was just twitting them for effect.
There turned out to be nothing interesting about the next few moves; I was checkmated in three, with a sequence that would have been unstoppable even if Ivo had possessed only one queen. “Smash!” said Ivo as he expertly punctured my defense with a single queen’s sally. All my miserable king could do was make a doomed run for the corner, where there was no real protection to be had. Instead of tipping over my king, though, I forced Ivo to complete the final move which placed me in checkmate.
Then I stood. The game’s various stages had developed relatively quickly, but it had still been a long contest — eighty moves, perhaps. I was ready to go back to sleep.
Ivo did not rise himself, but instead from his seated position held me in place with a burning look. “Now, friend,” he said. “What is the force most powerful in the universe? Now you know.”
Did I? “Um, is it queens?” I ventured. Maybe Ivo habitually confused the chessboard for the full extent of the known universe. Talented grandmasters have been known to make similar mistakes.
“My friend, no,” said Ivo. “Not queens. Women. Women are the power.”
Ivo must have interpreted my look as blank incomprehension. Which I think he encounters quite often.
“But you keep playing. Yes. You keep playing. That is how the game works. Always playing. No draws. Only wins and losses.”
Ivo paused, looking over his written record of the game.
“For you, I think, mostly losses.” A small smile propped up the corners of his bushy goatee. “But it’s good. It’s good. Thank you for playing. Now the Germans have seen. Eh, Germans?” And he went back to pestering the Germans at the next table, who just now seemed to realize that they were free to escape Ivo’s verbal barrage at any time and return to their sleeping cars.
But I managed to slip out of the lounge car just ahead of the stupefied Germans and stagger down the corridor to my own compartment, wondering about the quality of this wisdom. “Women have power” and “Just keep playing” — those were Ivo’s great insights? Christ, I already knew that.