Ritter forgot no moment of that night, for he did not sleep at all. The glowing board in his mind was an unquenchable beacon, and all-demanding mandala. He replayed all the important games of history, finding new moves. He contested two matches with himself, then one each with Morphy, Steinitz, Alekhine and Nimzovich, winning the first two, drawing the third, and losing the last by a half point. Nimzovich was the only one to speak, saying, “I am both dead and alive, as I’m sure you know. Please don’t smoke, or threaten to.”
He stacked eight mental boards and played two games of three-dimensional chess. Black winning both. He traveled to the ends of the universe, finding chess everywhere he went, and contesting a long game, more complex than 3-D chess, on which the fate of the universe depended. He drew it.
And all through the long night the four were with him in the room and the man-eating lion stared in through the window with black-and-white checkered mask and silver mane. While the Morphy watch ticked like a death-march drum. All figures vanished when the dawn came creeping, though the mental board stayed bright and busy into full daylight and shqwed no signs of vanishing ever. Ritter felt overpoweringly tired, his mind racked to atoms, on the verge of death.
But he knew what he had to do. He got a small box and packed into it, in cotton wool, the silver barbarian Pawn, the old photograph and daguerrotype, and a piece of paper on which he scribbled only:
de Riviere, 1884-?
Ritter-Rebil, 3 days
Then he packed the watch in the box too, it stopped ticking, its hands were still at last, and in Ritter’s mind the mental board winked out.
He took one last devouring gaze at the grotesque, glittering dial. Then he shut the box, wrapped and sealed and corded it, boldly wrote on it in black ink “Chess Champion of the World” and added the proper address.
He took it to the post office on Van Ness and sent it off by registered mail. Then he went home and slept like the dead.
Ritter never received a response. But he never got the box back either. Sometimes he wonders if the subsequent strange events in the Champion’s life might have had anything to do with the gift.
And on even rarer occasions he wonders what would have happened if he had faced the challenge of death and let his mind be racked to bits, if that was what was to happen.
But on the whole he is content. Questions from Martinez and the others he has put off with purposefully vague remarks.
He still plays chess at Rimini’s. Once he won another game from Martinez, when the latter was contesting a simul against twenty-three players.
George R.R. Martin
After they swung off the Interstate, the road became a narrow two-lane that wound a tortuous path through the mountains in a series of switchbacks, each steeper than the last. Peaks rose all around them, pine-covered and crowned by snow and ice, while swift cold waterfalls flashed by, barely seen, on either side. The sky was a bright and brilliant blue. It was exhilarating scenery, but it did nothing to lighten Peter’s mood. He concentrated blindly on the road, losing himself in the mindless reflexes of driving.
As the mountains grew higher, the radio reception grew poorer, stations fading in and out with every twist in the road, until at last they could get nothing at all. Kathy went from one end of the band to the other, searching, and then back again. Finally she snapped off the radio in disgust. “I guess you’ll just have to talk to me,” she said.
Peter didn’t need to look at her to hear the sharpness in her tone, the bitter edge of sarcasm that had long ago replaced fondness in her voice. She was looking for an argument, he knew. She was angry about the radio, and she resented him dragging her on this trip, and most of all she resented being married to him. At times, when he was feeling very sorry for himself, he did not even blame her. He had not turned out to be much of a bargain as a husband; a failed writer, failed journalist, failing businessman, depressed and depressing. He was still a lively sparring partner, however. Perhaps that was why she tried to provoke fights so often. After all the blood had been let, one or both of them would start crying, and then they would usually make love, and life would be pleasant for an hour or two. It was about all they had left.
Not today, though. Peter lacked the energy, and his mind was on other things. “What do you want to talk about?” he asked her. He kept his tone amicable and his eyes on the road.
“Tell me about these clowns we’re going to visit,” she said.
“I did. They were my teammates on the chess team, back when I was at Northwestern.”
“Since when is chess a team sport anyway?” Kathy said. “What’d you do, vote on each move?”
“No. In chess, a team match is really a bunch of individual matches. Usually four or five boards, at least in college play. There’s no consultation or anything. The team that wins the most individual games wins the match point. The way it works—”
“I get it,” she said sharply. “I may not be a chessplayer, but I’m not stupid. So you and these other three were the Northwestern team?”
“Yes and no,” Peter said. The Toyota was straining: it wasn’t used to grades this steep, and it hadn’t been adjusted for altitude before they took off from Chicago. He drove carefully. They were up high enough now to come across icy patches, and snow drifting across the road.
“Yes and no,” Kathy said sarcastically. “What does that mean?”
“Northwestern had a big chess club back then. We played in a lot of tournaments—local, state, national. Sometimes we fielded more than one team, so the line-up was a bit different every tournament. It depended on who could play and who couldn’t, who had a midterm, who’d played in the last match—lots of things. We four were Northwestern’s B team in the North American Intercollegiate Team Championships, ten years ago this week. Northwestern hosted that tournament, and I ran it, as well as playing.”
“What do you mean B team?”
Peter cleared his throat and eased the Toyota around a sharp curve, gravel rattling against the underside of the car as one wheel brushed the shoulder. “A school wasn’t limited to just one team,” he said. “If you had the money and a lot of people who wanted to play, you could enter several. Your best four players would make up your A team, the real contender. The second four would be the B team, and so on.” He paused briefly, and continued with a faint note of pride in his voice. “The nationals at Northwestern were the biggest ever held, up to that time, although of course that record has since been broken. We set a second record, though, that still stands. Since the tournament was on our home grounds, we had lots of players on hand. We entered six teams. No other school has ever had more than four in the nationals, before or after.” The record still brought a smile to his face. Maybe it wasn’t much of a record, but it was the only one he had, and it was his. Some people lived and died without ever setting a record of any kind, he reflected silently. Maybe he ought to tell Kathy to put his on his tombstone: HERE LIES PETER K. NORTEN. HE FIELDED SIX TEAMS. He chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
She didn’t pursue it. “So you ran this tournament, you say?”
“I was the club president and the chairman of the local committee. I didn’t direct, but I put together the bid that brought the nationals to Evanston, made all the preliminary arrangements. And I organized all six of our teams, decided who would play on each one, appointed the team captains. But during the tournament itself I was only the captain of the B team.”
She laughed. “So you were a big deal on the second-string. It figures. The story of our life.”
Peter bit back a sharp reply, and said nothing. The Toyota swerved around another hairpin, and a vast Colorado mountain panorama opened up in front of them. It left him strangely unmoved.
After a while Kathy said, “When did you stop playing chess?”
“I sort of gave it up after college. Not a conscious decision, really. I just kind of drifted out of it. I haven’t played a game of tournament chess in almost nine years. I’m probably pretty rusty by now. But back then I was fairly good.”