Jul 19, 2009, 12:58 PM |

I put my book down and began to set up the pieces on the board. An elderly African-American man was crossing the park towards me, a manila envelope in his hand. Looked like Danny Glover, I thought. I slowly adjusted the pieces on their squares. It was hot,sunny and humid, but at least the oaks provided some shade. Without a word, he sat down across the stone table.

"You are black," I said loudly without looking up.

"You got a problem with that?" he shot back immediately. A pair of teenagers standing close by turned, surprised, towards us.

We both laughed. I've known Vernon Adams for over a decade. He was one of the city's finest homicide detectives, about to retire soon. In my job as a private investigator, our paths crossed many times. Playing chess in the park was a convenient way to discuss crime, and somehow it helped us solve some of the more difficult cases. Just two weeks ago, we closed the well-publicized "disappearance" of a celebrity rock star, which turned out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt. In the last game be played, I was black. Now it was his turn.

After a couple of unusually peaceful Sicilians, it was time to talk business. "So, what's up?", I asked. Vernon leaned back, and put the envelope on the table. "Yesterday night, Clyde Smith, the FIDE master you probably knew, was found dead in his apartment, a gunshot wound to his chest." He paused, but I said nothing."A Smith&Wesson was found with the body," Vernon continued,"in fact the victim had in his hand." "Suicide?", I asked. "Well, he never had any guests in his apartment, according to the neighbors. And the cops on the scene who were called in thought so," Vernon said. "But you didn't?" I said. "No. There was a chessboard found on the table next to the body." Vernon opened the envelope, and took out a picture. "Have a look and tell me what you think."

I stared at the photograph for a while. "Clyde Smith was a master, I knew him a little. I find it hard to believe he was alone playing against himself" I said. "Why do you say that?""Well, look at the black side of the board. Some pretty meaningless moves were made - ...a6, ...b6, ...h6. It's almost as if two different persons were playing.""Exactly what I thought", Vernon said, "anything else you see?" I squinted at the picture, the shade not quite enough to block the sun. It was hot, a pair of joggers ran past, about ready to collapse. "No, I really don't see anything out of the ordinary." "How about the captured pawns?" asked Vernon. "You mean the fact that they are far apart, rather than together? I played enough of solitary games myself, and I do tend to separate the pieces of different colors myself." "That's not what I mean, why don't you show me how you place the captured pieces. Show me that poisoned Najdorf line." I set up the board, somewhat puzzled. After twelve moves or so, I paused. "See, I instintctively separated the white pieces form the black pieces". "But you are right handed, and you did the separation on the right side of the board", Vernon said. "Anyway, it would be awkward to reach across the board and place the pieces on the left side." For a while, I was quiet. "You're right, this just reinforces the suspicion that there was someone on the scene. But is it enough to launch any kind of an investigation?" "There is no need. Today I arrested the murderer and got his confession."


"Smith left a clue to the murderer's identity right on the chessboard," he pulled out a computer printout "I had a list of all of Smith's acquaintances prepared, and the clue matched." 

I stared at the board again. Minutes passed. I tried to imagine Smith at a gunpoint, thinking of leaving a clue. After a couple of minutes, I asked Vernon to show me the printout. One name stuck out like a sore thumb.

"Is it him?" I asked quietly.

"Yes, that's the killer."

I put the picture away. "He knew he was going to be shot. That's why he didn't interpose. He only had a couple of moves to give us a clue to the murderer's identity. But how did he know you would solve it?"

"He didn't know. He believed."

I wondered about the incredible twist of fate that let Smith use the chessboard to identify his murderer. The sun was setting. Smith would never see the sun again, but at least his murderer would face justice.