Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“How good is fairly good?”

“I was rated as a Class A player, like everyone else on our B team.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means my USCF rating was substantially higher than that of the vast majority of tournament chess players in the country,” he said. “And the tournament players are generally much better than the unrated woodpushers you encounter in bars and coffee houses. The ratings went all the way down to Class E. Above Class A you had Experts, and Masters, and Senior Masters at the top, but there weren’t many of them.”

“Three classes above you?”


“So you might say, at your very best, you were a fourth-class chess player.”

At that Peter did look over at her. She was leaning back in her seat, a faint smirk on her face. “Bitch,” he said. He was suddenly angry.

“Keep your eyes on the road!” Kathy snapped.

He wrenched the car around the next turn hard as he could, and pressed down on the gas. She hated it when he drove fast. “I don’t know why the hell I try to talk to you,” he said.

“My husband, the big deal,” she said. She laughed. ”A fourth-class chess player playing on the junior varsity team. And a fifth-rate driver, too.”

“Shut up,” Peter said furiously. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Maybe we were only the B team, but we were good. We finished better than anyone had any right to expect, only a half-point behind Northwestern A. And we almost scored one of the biggest upsets in history.”

“Do tell.”

Peter hesitated, already regretting his words. The memory was important to him, almost as important as his silly little record. He knew what it meant, how close they had come. But she’d never understand, it would only be another failure for her to laugh at. He should never have mentioned it.

“Well?” she prodded. “What about this great upset, dear? Tell me.”

It was too late, Peter realized. She’d never let him drop it now. She’d needle him and needle him until he told her. He sighed and said, “It was ten years ago this week. The nationals were always held between Christmas and New Year’s, when everyone was on break. An eight-round team tournament, two rounds a day. All of our teams did moderately well. Our A team finished seventh overall.”

“You were on the B team, sweetie.”

Peter grimaced. “Yes. And we were doing best of all, up to a point. Scored a couple nice upsets late in the tournament. It put us in a strange position. Going into the last round, the University of Chicago was in first place, alone, with a 6-1 match record. They’d beaten our team, among their other victims, and they were defending national champions. Behind them were three other schools at 5 1/2-1 1/2. Berkeley, the University of Massachusetts, and—I don’t know, someone else, it doesn’t matter. What mattered was that all three of those teams had already played U of C. Then you had a whole bunch of teams at 5-2, including both Northwestern A and B. One of the 5-2 teams had to be paired up against Chicago in the final round. By some freak, it turned out to be us. Everyone thought that cinched the tournament for them.

“It was really a mismatch. They were the defending champions, and they had an awesome team. Three Masters and an Expert, if I recall. They outrated us by hundreds of points on every board. It should have been easy. It wasn’t.

“‘It was never easy between U. of C. and Northwestern. All through my college years, we were the two big midwestern chess powers, and we were arch-rivals. The Chicago captain, Hal Winslow, became a good friend of mine, but I gave him a lot of headaches. Chicago always had a stronger team than we did, but we gave them fits nonetheless. We met in the Chicago Intercollegiate League, in state tournaments, in regional tournaments, and several times in the nationals. Chicago won most of those, but not all. We took the city championship away from them once, and racked up a couple other big upsets too. And that year, in the nationals, we came this close”—he held up two fingers, barely apart—”to the biggest upset of all.” He put his hand back on the wheel, and scowled.

“Go on,” she said. “I’m breathless to know what comes next.”

Peter ignored the sarcasm. “An hour into the match, we had half the tournament gathered around our tables, watching. Everyone could see that Chicago was in trouble. We clearly had superior positions on two boards, and we were even on the other two.

“It got better. I was playing Hal Winslow on third board. We had a dull, even position, and we agreed to a draw. And on fourth board, E.C. gradually got outplayed and finally resigned in a dead lost position.”


“Edward Colin Stuart. We all called him E.C. Quite a character. You’ll meet him up at Bunnish’s place.”

“He lost?”


“This doesn’t sound like such a thrilling upset to me,” she said dryly. “Though maybe by your standards, it’s a triumph.”

“E.C. lost,” Peter said, “but by that time, Delmario had clearly busted his man on board two. The guy dragged it out, but finally we got the point, which tied the score at 1 1/2-1 1/2, with one game in progress. And we were winning that one. It was incredible. Bruce Bunnish was our first board. A real turkey, but a half-decent player. He was another A player, but he had a trick memory. Photographic. Knew every opening backwards and forwards. He was playing Chicago’s big man.” Peter smiled wryly. “In more ways than one. A Master name of Robinson Vesselere. Damn strong chessplayer, but he must have weighed four hundred pounds. He’d sit there absolutely immobile as you played him, his hands folded on top of his stomach, little eyes squinting at the board. And he’d crush you. He should have crushed Bunnish easily. Hell, he was rated four hundred points higher. But that wasn’t what had gone down. With that trick memory of his, Bunnish had somehow outplayed Vesselere in an obscure variation of the Sicilian. He was swarming all over him. An incredible attack. The position was as complicated as anything I’d ever seen, very sharp and tactical. Vesselere was counterattacking on the queenside, and he had some pressure, but nothing like the threats Bunnish had on the kingside. It was a won game. We were all sure of that.”

“So you almost won the championship?”

“No,” Peter said. “No, it wasn’t that. If we’d won the match, we would have tied Chicago and a few others teams at 6-2, but the championship would have gone to someone else, some team with 6 1/2 match points.

Berkeley maybe, or Mass. It was just the upset itself we wanted. It would have been incredible. They were the best college chess team in the country. We weren’t even the best at our school. If we had beaten them, it would have caused a sensation. And we came so close.”

“What happened?”

“Bunnish blew it,” Peter said sourly. “There was a critical position. Bunnish had a sac. A sacrifice, you know? A double piece sac. Very sharp, but it would have busted up Vesselere’s kingside and driven his king out into the open. But Bunnish was too timid for that. Instead he kept looking at Vesselere’s queenside attack, and finally he made some feebly defensive move. Vesselere shifted another piece to the queenside, and Bunnish defended again. Instead of following up his advantage, he made a whole series of cautious little adjustments to the position, and before long his attack had dissipated. Afterthat, of course, Vesselere overwhelmed him.” Even now, after ten years, Peter felt the disappointment building inside him as he spoke. “We lost the match 2 1/2-l 1/2, and Chicago won another national championship. Afterwards, even Vesselere admitted that he was busted if Brucie had played knight takes pawn at the critical point. Damn.”

“You lost. That’s what this amounts to. You lost.”

“We came close.”

“Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades,” Kathy said. “You lost. Even then you were a loser, dear. I wish I’d known.”

“Bunnish lost, damn it,” Peter said. “It was just like him. He had a Class A rating, and that trick memory, but as a team player he was worthless. You don’t know how many matches he blew for us. When the pressure was on, we could always count on Bunnish to fold. But that time was the worst, that game against Vesselere. I could have killed him. He was an arrogant asshole, too.”

Kathy laughed. “Isn’t this arrogant asshole the one we are now speeding to visit?”

“It’s been ten years. Maybe he’s changed. Even if he hasn’t, well, he’s a multimillionaire asshole now. Electronics. Besides, I want to see E.C. and Steve again, and Bunnish said they’d be there.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred