'Checkmate!' (a short story)

May 7, 2014, 7:45 PM |

The old man was deaf, had white beard and a brazen face. His sinewy hands were blistered from shoveling coal and like many other, manacled ones of the Camp, he walked with a crouch from days’ work of pushing overloaded wheelbarrow.

Soon it struck him to smuggle a small chip of coal to his den. When the sliver of moonlight would sneak in to their room, the old man would draw a grid on the floor carefully filling it with sigils. In a
muted gesture he would poke his fellow inmate on bunk bed to join him. Of course, the inmate would not budge from the hours of tiresome work. The old man would continue to poke him, and finally the prisoner could not resist the temptation any longer of a ready board.

They would patiently draw a new sign on board and erase the previous move. It would be faintly drawn so that whenever they heard approaching footsteps they would quickly erase the squares. Ever since he was a child, his father – a Polish immigrant- would take him to amateur clubs where games would go on. He was never attracted to the competitions. He would much rather play with the carved, sandalwood pieces feeling the portraiture of each piece with the scent lingering on as a world of imagination of kingly court and castles and knights would open up before his eyes. He was intelligent, and he knew how to play chess. But, he just enjoyed toying with the singular pieces knocking each other down.

His father was a bit disappointed that the poor son never learned to grasp the real meaning behind chess. A mathematician by trade, he understood the purist delight of abstract entanglement. Although his son did not enter any competitions, as he entered his teen years he was engrossed with playing games all day and night. Of course, now his father wished that he would much rather attend to his studies. But, he contended that the dumb lad finally learned to appreciate the real value behind playing chess instead of treating it as mere toy.
Then the War began and everything changed. People were sacrificed like pawns, as gore and bloodshed, gloom and terror splattered and spawned across the globe.

Although, the prisoners knew they headed straight to death, many adapted to the toil and whatever straws they could clutch onto, they applied themselves fully at it. At first, it was the old man
and his friend on bunk-bed who engaged in the patient drawing and redrawing. But others started to take notice and gather quietly around the duo as they engaged in their artistic holmgang. And- and
when the boots would be heard, subdued shuffle of footsteps and pulling of bedsheets would take place as the old man and his friends hurriedly would wipe the floor.

Deception, but could not be kept hidden any longer. A guard became suspicious at the covert nocturnal activities of strange muffled noise of shuffling footsteps and synchronous drawing of blankets.
The guards stormed in the room with every prisoner on their feet like statues in two files. The man in command slowly stomped between them, suspiciously noting the expressions from the features of the inmates trying to decipher any plans of escape or other activities. The poker faces would not give away anything, other than shudders of fear. Like every meticulous toccata of boot steps that carefully fell between them, it rang of death knell of a pantomime tap dancer. Then the gaze fell on the old man’s hand. The inmates washed their hands at the day’s end, so the black marks on his fingertips did not raise any suspicion. Dirtbags would always be dirtbags. But, what did raise suspicion was his rubbing of thumb
with forefinger. He was hiding something. He was hiding something. Then his gaze followed the foolish old man’s subconscious glances and he exclaimed seeing the faint, half-drawn irregular squares on the floor.

The schematic was discovered.
He looked at the squares, and then he looked back at the old man.

He looked at it and looked back at him. The interrogation could not get a word out of the fool. The rage caused him to slap the old
man repeatedly asking him the meaning behind it. A young inmate at the back of the file stuttered as he tried to describe the officer the inexplicability of the old man’s response. The SS soldier bent down and carefully examined the puzzle. And then he broke out in laughter. A loud laugh. He laughed for a minute or so. Full belly laughter, and at first nervous, the guards soon joined him thinking it would be disrespectful if they did not partake in it otherwise.
The word soon reached the Gruppenführer who himself had a reputation for being an avid chess player. Upon hearing this curious nocturnal engagement of the men, the Gruppenführer took great
interest and it was uncovered that the old man was the precursor to the activity. He was not displeased,
but amused at his persistence to find a sliver of enchantment in the stench and dirt.

The culprit was hauled in to his office. The Gruppenführer asked him how he would like to play against him on a real board. A clean board made of real wooden chess pieces. Not the crude coal marks
on floor. He did not respond. Did he really have a choice?
Further, he revealed that he himself was at the Grandmaster level and it would be extremely difficult to beat him. But, should, and if, he manages to defeat him, his freedom would be granted. Fresh
air. No more shoveling coal by the rail tracks on snow. No more licking cold soup from leftover bowls.

The scrawny prisoner did not have much of his life left, but whatever heartbeats he did have left he
could still enjoy the last minutes in warmth.

Arrangements were soon made that at the end of shift next day, the Gruppenführer and the old man would meet in the dining hall and begin their game. He made no proviso as to time per move, as
he knew very well the longer he took it would further delay his freedom which was destined to be in the muck of the Camp.
A stipulation, however, was made that a scribe would jot down the notations in a leather-bound diary in case the game did not finish that night, and in case they had to resume it the following night, or
if the raids disrupted the settings. The old prisoner did not care as he knew little of algebraic notations. But, at least he felt assured that there would be no cheating.

Gruppenführer was even generous that the prisoner will have first-move advantage and offered him White. As, one by one, curious spectators circled around the following night, the old man took a seat on a chair which had armrest. It was after long time he sat on such chair. The comfort was unsettling. He thought. He thought and thought and after pondering for exactly five minutes at least he decided to make his move. The guards were bending over in laughter as one joked that the old Jew would collapse
before even making the first move. The scribe joked what notation to use if he passes away before the first move. Another stream of laughter ensued at this. Then another guard pointed out a worrying
concern if he actually knows how to play chess. But, the old man, carefully taking his time, caressing the round tip of the pawn with his thumb and finger, firmly held the pawn – the King’s pawn- and made his first move to e4 square. The entire room filled with laughter. At least the jewpig did not make a wrong move, remarked
one guard. The Gruppenführer did not however waste any time. He immediately closed the opening with his king’s pawn.

The old man did not know any technical terms for the opening or any positional strategy. He never read any books on chess or anything. What he did know was a clever ruse to trap the opponent
within three moves. So he made the simpleton move of bringing out his queen too early right through the gap.

Again the whole room filled with laughter and this time the prisoners even joined in. His friend on the bunk-bed cried out asking him what he was doing.

The black knight of the queen came out promptly.

But the old man was not as foolish as everyone thought. He knew that he knew that he knew what move he will make. But, he was not playing the board; he was playing the mind. Then, as a gesture
of deepest insult, the old man brought out his bishop aiming for what every child knows – Fool’s mate.
Old man knew this only ploy. He did not know it would be offensive. He just played his natural game. He did not care for rules or technical advantage. This was the only ruse he knew. Or, maybe he
knew. He knew that there would be no way to see daylight, so might as well spit at the Nazi’s face while he was at it.
But, the Gruppenführer was extremely offended to say the least. In a fit of paroxysm, he waved his hand clearing the board as pieces scattered everywhere. Expletives screamed out his lungs saying
that he should at least play a real game. Here he was a Grandmaster and the old man did not even bother to give him that much of a respect. He leaned forward and kept barking in ruddy face.
There was, now, absolute stillness in the room. The Gruppenführer took his coat from the stand, brushed off some dust from the fylfot and walked out of the hall. Next day, the Gruppenführer wanted to torture the old man with attrition and ordered his next-incommand
to give him extra load of work and to leave out a portion of the meal for all the inmates. But, since he served his punishment, the rage simmered down and he was invited to join him. The clock
struck past twelve, but still there was no sign of his opponent. Just when everyone was tired, with yawns as large as a hippopotamus passed along, the Gruppenführer marched in with a smile, and
greeted him politely. He sat down. He took his sweet time and after a careful minute he pushed forward his queen’s pawn and quietly thwarted the oncoming Scholar’s mate. The old man was not to be hammered down
psychologically. He also disrupted the Gruppenführer’s plan. But not until everyone was half-asleep with
yawns and sighs.

He premeditated the next move. The clock chimed away past one…past two…past three. After three hours, he pulled out the next surprise. His queen went kamikaze taking up the bishop pawn,
checking the king leaving the Gruppenführer with no choice, but to expose his king from castling.

The room was awake now. The Gruppenführer stood up. He did not know if the pig was insulting him deliberately, or it was a ploy to prevent him from castling. But, he knew the game was over. He will
have to capture the queen. True his king would be exposed, but at the cost of what? The sore loser was no one but the old man who was cut in half for the sacrifice. He wasted no time to immediately capture the queen, and called it a night.

It fell upon the inmate on the following night to capture the queen’s pawn with bishop. But, the old man did not make his move yet. The Gruppenführer promised him that there is no time limit. In fact, the
delayed responses actually delayed his freedom. It was his loss.
He sat. He sat and sat and sat, all night. The Gruppenführer drank heavily before coming in and he was falling asleep. The chilly attrition however went on and the old man did not make a single move on the third night.

As the war dragged on, so did the game. At the command, the guards would put away the board so that the pieces would not be falsely disturbed. But more importantly, the Gruppenführer did not want to leave it to the open so that inmates would steal glances and help the old man. Every night the scribe would carefully arrange the pieces reading the algebra from the leather diary and recreate the game.

And at the chime of morning clock, he would put the pieces away in the board.

The old man would first spend one whole night contemplating on the move, taking his time and then finally committing to it. The Gruppenführer stayed true to his word and did not seem to mind that
after the capture of the pawn with the bishop, the prisoner would first spend a night, then a week and even a month to make a single move! The Gruppenführer was no fool and slowly and slowly he started to see through the gossamer nexus of controlled madness.
Four months passed, as November and Christmas came and went, but the game was not finished yet. The scrawny man was going more and more rickety deprived of food and from depravity of
work order. The friend perished at one stage. He was taken away with a few others, as new ones came who
soon got accustomed to the picaresque activity at night. Some would make suggestions. But the old man would not pay any heed and go about his merry way playing his own game stubbornly.
And then it happened. The Grandmaster made a mistake. The very first mistake. He already had his king exposed by not castling. And when the game became more and more nuanced with the old man
gaining tempo with each additional pawn advantages, a pawn sacrifice by the prisoner led to a blunder by the Gruppenführer.
One blunder led to another. And another. A knight was captured. A bishop. And after a year and two months, the ultimate fate of the game was slowly revealing. He was swindled.
As the pawns stormed in, the Gruppenführer felt cramped up in space with the disadvantage of an exposed king. The old man would patiently take his time, put up with the abuse next day. But, he
never wept. He never protested.

Then one night, on a cold, winter night of the following year, as snow fell softly, and lamp flickered with distant muffled sound of bomb with wailing siren of raid spiraling out, the old man made
his coup de grace. It would be mate in three. The Gruppenführer knew. And the old man knew. There was little the SS officer could do to prevent the inevitable. May be block the check sacrificing his queen? But what good would that do? He would not resign. No he cannot resign. He knew the old man would have to be granted freedom following day. At the sight of his downfall, ashamed, enraged, and strangely admiring of the man’s persistence, he decided to give the man his freedom. He reached for his holster,
pulled out the pistol and calmly placed it on the table.
But, he wanted to relish the final moments. It would not matter if he sacrificed his queen and the rook as it was the last time he had to see the fossil. As the old man nimbly held one of the pawns
and placed it to the next square, hands shaking and shivering, in cold, in fear and in concealed excitement, he leaned forward, and for the first time ever in his sixty years, he mouthed out in whispers, the first and his only syllables ever: ‘Checkmate!’