Chess is a scary game – as Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his book The Luzhin Defense (which, if you haven’t read, you should!):
Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain - and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess.
So, in honor of the Halloween season, here is a chess ghost story.
The flickering computer screen lit the dark room where I was staying that fall, next to the St. Peters Cemetery in Philadelphia. It was Thursday evening, around 9 pm. I was not planning to play anywhere that weekend – there weren’t any tournaments anywhere which seemed worth playing. I had checked the ads several times in the previous weeks, but it looked like I would be taking that weekend off.
On a whim, I took another look at the advertisement page online for tournaments in the United States. Suddenly a tournament jumped out at me, which I had not seen before. “This is strange,” I thought, “why had I not noticed this before?” It was a seeming quite decent tournament, with a guaranteed first prize of $1500. It was to take place in a community center in Buffalo. The organizer was one McGregor, who I had not heard of before. Strangely, the round times were not listed, only the words “Report to the playing site at 9 AM on Saturday morning”. I decided to go. Chess was both my material and spiritual sustenance, and I couldn’t afford to miss a decent tournament.
The next day I set off for a long trip through farmland, fields and forests, and finally alongside Lake Erie. It was night by the time I arrived at the area just north of Buffalo where I had reserved a hotel. This town – Tonawanda – seemed to consist almost entirely of yards full of truck cabs, unused machinery, and warehouses. Peppered throughout were a few "beverage stores" and cheap motels, at one of which I had a reservation.
I walked under the flickering “Economy Inn” sign and knocked on the door. An old man answered, took my name and gave me a key. As I was starting to go to my room, the phone rang in the reception area. The old man answered, and after a bit I heard him say in an eerie voice, “Sorry, we have no rooms left. We are…all sold out.” Strange, I thought, since there were very few cars in front of the hotel.
I took my bag from the car and went into my room. It wasn’t the nicest place – what can you expect from a $40 hotel room? But all I was asking for was a quiet place to rest. I lay down to sleep.
But sleep wouldn’t come. I felt a restlessness, a shaking throughout my being. Playing some peaceful music didn’t help to calm me. Finally the music stopped, and I was still awake. This was when I heard a strange sound, exactly like breathing. I turned the lights on and looked for the origin of the sound, but couldn’t find anything. It seemed to be coming from all around. I decided that it must be the air conditioner, since there is no way that anybody in the room next to mine could be breathing so loudly that I heard it like that in my room.
By 6 AM I still had not slept. I would need to play three games that next day – true, against much weaker players. But when you play in a sleep-deprived state, anything can happen. I resolved to take a bye in the first round. Four and a half points out of five would be enough to win the tournament anyway, so all I had to do was win all the games. Finally I slept for a few hours.
On Saturday I drove on the empty highways to downtown Buffalo. The tournament took place in a community center across from an abandoned steel mill and some overgrown train tracks. I walked up to the tournament director’s desk, and said that I would like to register for the tournament.
“So you’re Bryan Smith, international master, eh?” McGregor said. For a second he grinned, and I could see rows of decaying teeth.
In the tournament hall were only about fifteen players. How were they going to pay the entire prizes? I wondered. I asked McGregor, “The prizes are guaranteed, right?”
“Of course,” he answered. “We always keep our word here in Buffalo.”
The first game I played was with a very old man. He continuously pointed out his last move to me, as if I couldn’t figure it out myself. The game was a Dragon, a classical variation, where he made the mistake of letting my a-pawn advance …a5-a4-a3. Soon some tactics ensued, and the rook on a1 was lost.
In round two I felt very weary. My opponent was rated around 2000. I had white and he adopted the French Defense. The pawn chain I created in the center gave me plenty of space. Suddenly, around move 22 I thought I saw a long worm crawl across the board, right between the e5 and e6 squares. I blamed my sleeplessness for this hallucination. But right after seeing this, I looked up at my opponent, and saw he was looking right back at me with an eerie stare. He resigned at move 33, and I shook his ice-cold hand.
That night I returned to the hotel, relieved to have escaped from the tough situation my insomnia had put me in with two and a half points out of three. On the last day I would probably need to win both games, but the only hard one would be with the one other international master in the tournament – an older guy who I had heard of but hadn’t been in the chess circuit for years. All I needed to do was to get a good night’s sleep, win the games, and go home happy with $1500 in my pocket.
I logged on to Internet Chess Club for a moment, out of boredom. Suddenly I received a “tell” from an unknown person. “You are in our thoughts.”
Who is this? And what does it mean? Maybe somebody is crazy, or just playing a game with me?
“Who are you?” I answered.
“We like you, but why won’t you play our game with us?”
Again I asked, “Who are you??”
“Come to room 114, we are playing blitz.”
This was really frightening. How does this person know where I am? “It will be fun. We play every night,” he continued. “But it has been a long time since we played against…such a strong player.”
I answered, “Hey man, I don’t know who you are, or where you are. But I am definitely not getting up at this time to play blitz with somebody.”
And now he responded “YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND SIR. WE ARE PLAYING BLITZ. YOU HAVE TO PLAY BLITZ.”
“No I don’t.” I answered.
“We will let you go home, if you win the tournament. But if you don’t…then you will have to play blitz with us forever. We play for teeth. After you run out of teeth, then fingers, and then eyes. Have a good night.”
There was no way I could sleep after that. What could I do? Just go home? I definitely thought about it. But clearly this was just some psycho trying to mess with me.
I decided to ignore whatever had contacted me, and tried to go to sleep. Again without success. Along with the breathing sound, I heard the clicking of a chess clock. Probably just the radiator.
The next day I came to the tournament hall once again. My opponent was a master, rated around 2200. I noticed that he was missing several teeth. On board one, with three out of three, was the one other international master. He had a bandage on his left hand.
That game was a King’s Indian, which quickly became complex. I pressed forward with the attack on the kingside, and managed to break through. When my opponent offered his hand in resignation, he grinned widely, showing his missing teeth. “It’s been a long time since I played against…such a strong player,” he said. I suddenly felt cold, hearing the exact same words as I had seen on ICC the previous night.
The last round began in the late afternoon. My opponent, naturally, was the other IM. He had four out of four, and I had three and a half. This meant that I needed to win. He was rated about 150 points less than I, and I had white, so I felt I should be able to do it.
Before the game, I asked him what had happened to his hand. I had not noticed any bandage during the first day. “Chess accident,” he said with a grin. I looked at him quizzically. He grinned again, somewhat more ominously.
After a tough battle, the following position arose:
My passed f-pawn looked decisive, but I realized that winning the knight for it would not be enough. Even after I took both f-pawns, the following kind of position would arise:
This would be a fortress. Black will move the king back and forth between a8 and b8, and any attempt by White to approach will only lead to stalemate. Even with the black king on c8/d7, there would be no way through. This meant that 1.Bh6 would not be enough to win. The black king would come over to take the f-pawn, and if I promote it, then a draw.
And the eternal blitz battles with these…creatures…in room 114 of the Economy Inn.
The only way to win was to use Zugzwang. So I played 1.Bf4! Now I expected the obvious 1…Nf8, after which I would win by 2.Bd6 Ne6 3.Kf2. Eventually, the knight would have to move away, allowing the pawn to promote.
With a sweeping movement, my opponent played 1…Nd8!! Instantly, I realized that if I promoted to a queen or a rook, it would be stalemate. And if I did not promote, he would simply take the f-pawn.
So I promoted to a knight, 2.f8=N. The moment I sat the new knight down on the board, my opponent flashed out the move 2…Ne6!!
Again, I couldn’t take his knight because of stalemate. My own bishop was under attack, so I had no choice and quickly played 3.Ng6!, at blitz speed.
At this moment a crowd gathered around the board. They moved in very close, so that they were almost leaning over the board. I saw on the players…missing teeth, bandaged hands, and someone had an eye-patch. For a moment in the crowd, I thought I saw a beautiful dark-haired girl. But the moment I looked again, she was gone. I began to feel like the ceiling was hanging impossibly low over the board.
The next thing I knew, I was in my car, driving down the highway along Lake Erie. The magenta hues of the setting sun were just disappearing over the lake, and on my left, the city of Buffalo – abandoned warehouses, unmoving cranes, dreary houses. I moved out of the city. First came sleepy houses, then forest. And then…
I saw the move in my mind’s eye, but in my real eyes I saw the dark car pull up very close behind me. I began driving faster and faster.
My retreat from the city continued. For a second the car behind me was a horse, a black horse with the form of a person riding it. And then it was a car again.
To escape my pursuer, I turned off the highway and began fleeing down a dark country road, lined with trees close on both sides. Again the car seemed to me not a car, but a horse.
I looked behind me, and couldn’t see the car. Had I lost them? Surely not. But I decided to use the moment to turn off the road, into the forest, where they could not find me. I know it sounds like a stupid decision, and that I should have stayed on the lit highway. But honestly, I was not thinking so clearly. I was only thinking how to escape from whatever was pursuing me. I turned onto a dirt forest path and cut my lights.
Behind me, I saw a shadow in the road. Now it was clearly a horse. A light shone in the rider’s eye, which I could see even from 100 yards away. I pressed the gas pedal.
My car groaned as it raced over the unpaved dirt road. Ahead shone the moon, highlighting the fir trees with a blue glow. I could see the horseman in the rear view mirror, its eyes glowing. I hit a muddy patch and for a moment the wheels spun futilely, but then it caught again and I continued to careen over the uneven ground. Ahead I could see clear sky, and suddenly I realized that I was rolling towards a cliff. Slamming on my breaks, my car skidded sideways just before I fell into the abyss.
Desperately I looked back and saw the dark horseman coming closer. I realized that the horse was missing a leg – it took two steps with its right, and one with its left. Yet magically it stayed upright and moved with lightning speed.
As it came closer, I could see its rider. It was not the terrifying demon I had expected. In fact, it was the beautiful girl with long dark hair. But as she came still closer, her beauty turned into something sinister. I saw that one eye was higher than the other…the next moment the other eye was higher than that one. Fire came out of her dark eyes, and her hair turned into parasitic roundworms, writhing in the wind.
Then for a moment I was back in the tournament room, the only sound around was the clicking of the clock. I looked at the board. The black knight was ready to take my knight, after which it was a draw and I would be stuck in the Economy Inn forever, attending the terrifying blitz game with the ghostly chess players. But if my knight fled, I would lose my bishop and all hope of winning. And if I took the black knight, it would be stalemate.
It was only at this moment when I realized the move I had to make…
And so, I played it. 7.Nd5!!
I pressed the gas and turned my car – my horse – sharply over the cliff. As we plummeted, I looked back in the rear view mirror. Above the cliff stood the three-legged black horse and the girl, with a look of agony in her eyes.
I woke up in my bed in Philadelphia. The sun was starting to come up. How had I gotten home? Had the tournament happened at all? What about the messages on ICC, and the players with missing teeth and fingers? What about the girl on the dark horse? What had happened after I fell off that cliff? Maybe I had dreamt the whole thing?
I got up and looked out the window. My car was parked in the driveway, apparently in fine condition. Suddenly I felt something heavy in my pocket. I reached in, and pulled out…a black knight.
P.S. This composition used in this story is by V.Vlasenko. The point of 7.Nd5 is that after 7…cxd5 8.Kxg2 it is no longer stalemate. White can then carefully capture the black pawns and win the ending with an extra piece. And avoid the ghostly blitz match…