The chess world held its breath. The grandmaster stared at the board. He knew where every piece was—he could’ve been playing blindfolded, and had on many occasions—but he couldn’t look away. Across the table, an international master, a man in his late twenties, was staring, too.
In the silence, the click of the younger man’s swallow sounded like a gunshot. The grandmaster took a deep breath, felt his lungs protest. Forty years worth of smoking did that. Forty years of smoking and a shock like this. He ran through the openings again: the Sicilian, the French Defense, the Italian, Guccio Piano, Ruy Lopez, Caro-Kann, Queen’s Gambit… Through their variations. Anything he could remember. The international master was doing the same, he knew.
It couldn’t be possible. A new opening?
A new opening.
A new opening that put black in zugswang.
Could it be possible?
The grandmaster stared as though the answer would come to him from the pieces themselves. Common knowledge in the chess world was that all the useful openings had been discovered. To come across one now…
Should he protest? Demand a read-back of all the moves up to this point? See right now whether some mistake had been made along the way to allow this…this thing…to happen.
Had the international master planned this? Had he studied and plotted his days away and lost sleep night after night until he realized that one opening hadn’t been discovered?
A glance at the younger man’s face showed the grandmaster that he hadn’t. He had just played, and damn well. Now here they were.
Here they were.
The grandmaster saw the next twenty-four hours as though he’d already lived them. Officials, along with the rest of the chess world, would start scrambling to refute this opening. It’s actually a variation of this, or the game went awry here. Then the future split into two possibilities: When the officials in the chess world announced that this was a new opening that put black in zugswang, the international master became famous, gave interviews, wrote books. Or when they realized there had been a mistake, the international master suffered through a month or two of ridicule before going back to being relatively unknown.
Either way, tonight the international master and his wife would celebrate.
The grandmaster had watched them in the hotel lobby last night after the tournament’s third round. The international master had relived the match for her, motioning with his hands and showing her the notations in his notebook. From her expressions the grandmaster had realized she didn’t know anything about chess—she didn’t even care about the game. What she cared about was the international master’s smile, the fact that he was happy, and that he’d won.
The grandmaster looked up from the board. The younger man’s awestruck gaze met his. In that second, the grandmaster could see everything in the international master’s life: His mother’s death during childbirth. His father beating him with the shower curtain rod. The day after he turned fourteen when he grabbed a knife and started fighting back. The rec room of the juvenile correctional facility where he learned to play chess. He read all the letters that the girl at school sent the international master because she wasn’t allowed to call him. He felt the softness of her breasts as she hugged the international master the morning of his first day back and the sting of her slap that night when he tried to slide his hand up her skirt. He disappeared with them the night of their senior prom and reappeared the next day to tell her parents they’d gotten married.
When he tried to teach her chess, she refused to learn more than how the pieces moved. Other than how he did, she had no interest in the game. Every time he played, whether she was in the skittles room or looking over his shoulder, he could feel her anticipation. She was his queen and he was her rook; she sent him out to win and he did. In return, she protected him from his nightmares, gave him a son, and never left his side.
Tonight while everyone in the chess world tried to disprove this new opening, the international master and his wife would put their son to sleep, then share a bottle of champagne. It didn’t take much alcohol to go to her head. He would help her off with her dress and lay her in bed, then he would make love to her. A little clumsily because he was never much of a drinker, either, but they had been together for so long that what she wanted was built into his muscle memory. In the morning the people who were jealous of the international master’s meteoric rise through the rankings would either ridicule him or sulk. Publishers would come at the international master from every side whether he was right or not, begging him to write a book about the opening, his approach to chess, his life story, anything.
The grandmaster blinked and when he opened his eyes the international master was looking at the clock. The grandmaster studied the pieces. Nothing had changed. Four moves for white to checkmate. Six if black moved his knight first.
Was there any chance the kid didn’t see it?
No. Everyone saw it.
The grandmaster stopped the clock, then reached across the board and shook the younger man’s hand. He finished his notation, posed for a picture with the international master, then cut his way through the crowd. Let the kid have his day.
In the sitting area of the lobby, the international master’s wife looked up from her book, then looked away again. This was how she’d been all afternoon, the grandmaster realized. Not reading at all, but waiting, glancing up from the page every time someone came around the corner, hoping every time that it would be her husband. On her lap the infant stirred, but kept sleeping.
The grandmaster pretended that he didn’t recognize her as he passed. At the front desk, he put a fifty on the counter and asked for room service to send a good bottle of champagne up to the international master’s room.