Shortly they came across a restaurant modeled on a Greek taverna, with tables on a terrace under a roof made of vines trained along poles and wires. Three or four games of fencing were in progress, each watched by a group of intent kibitzers.
“That’s an idea,” he muttered to Kate, halting. “Maybe I could pick up a bit of credit if they play for money.”
“Are you a good player? Sorry. Stupid question. But I’m told competition here is stiff.”
“But they’re playing manually. Look!”
“Does that have to make them poor players?”
He gazed at her for a long moment. Eventually he said, “Know something? I think you’re good for me.”
“So I should hope,” she answered tartly, and pulled the same face he’d seen at their first meeting, wrinkling her nose and raising her upper lip so her front teeth showed like a rabbit’s. “Moreover I knew you liked me before you knew it, which is kind of rare and to be treasured. Come on, let’s add fencing hustler to your list of occupations.” They found a table where they could watch the play while eating pizza and sipping a rough local wine, and about the time they finished their meal one of the nearest players realized he had just allowed his opponent to notch up the coveted hundred-point margin with a single slender triangle running almost the full width of the field. Swearing at his own incompetence, he resigned and strode away fuming.
The winner, a fat bald once-fair man in a faded pink singlet, complained to anybody who cared to listen, “But he didn’t have to be such a sore loser, did he? I mean did he?” Appealing to Kate, who smiled and shook her head.
“And I can spare at least another hour before I have to go, and—Hey, would either of you care to take over? I noticed you were watching.” The tone and manner were unmistakable. Here was a full-timer, counterpart of those chess hustlers who used to sit around anonymously pretending to be no good until someone was fool enough to stake money on a game.
Well, it’s a way in…
“Sure I’ll play you, and be glad to. This is Kate, by the way, and I’m—” He hoped the hesitation would go unremarked; one could convert to Alexander and since Kate was accustomed… “I’m Sandy.”
“I’m Hank. Sit down. Want to think about odds? I’m kind of competent, as you may have gathered.” The bald man tailed the words with a toothy grin.
“Let’s play level, argue about odds when we have grounds for debate.”
“Fine, fine! Would you care to let—uh—a little cash ride on the outcome?” A glint of greed lighted Hank’s eyes.
“Cash? Uh… Well, we’re fresh into town, so you’d have to take scrip, but if that’s okay — ? Good. Shall we say a hundred?”
“By all means,” Hank purred, and rubbed his hands under the table. “And I think we ought to play the first one or two games blitz-tempo.” The first game aborted almost at once, a not uncommon happening. Attempting on successive turns to triangulate, both found it was impossible, and according to custom rather than rule agreed to try again. The second game was close and Hank lost. The third was even closer and he still lost, and the expiry of his hour gave him an excuse to depart in annoyance, two hundred the poorer. By then many more customers had arrived, some to play—a dozen games were now in progress—and some preferring to kibitz and assess a stranger’s form. One of the newcomers, a plump girl carrying a baby, challenged the victor and went down in twelve turns. Two of the other watchers, a thin young black and a thin elderly white, whistled loudly, and the latter promptly took the girl’s place.
What is it that feels so weird about this evening… ? Got it. I’ll be damned. I’m not playing Lazarus’s game, or even Sandy Locke’s; I’m playing mine, and I’m far better than I ever dreamed!
The sensation was giddying. He seemed to be walking up steps inside his head until he reached a place where there was nothing but pure white light, and it showed him as plainly as though he were telepathic what his opponent was planning. Potential triangles outlined themselves on the board as though their sides were neon bars. The elderly man succumbed in twenty-eight turns, not beaten but content to resign on a margin of fifty points he was unlikely to make up, and ceded his place to the thin young black saying, “Morris, I think we finally found someone who can give you a hard time.” Fault warning bells began to sound at that stage, but he was having too much fun to pay attention.