The Female Word Record--Part 8, Conclusion ("Stalemate")

May 16, 2010, 9:08 AM |

(In the previous installment, Cassandra Aragon found what she felt was her ticket to eternal chess fame and began to study the art of stalemate.)

During the summer before she entered college, Cassandra Aragon—like every college-bound student—spent many hours thinking about her future. She weighed the pros and cons of various pre-law majors. She thought about the most-interesting aspects of law versus the most lucrative aspects. She thought about which law school she would ultimately attend. And she refined her goal of setting a chess world record: she set her heart on the record for the longest, continuous series of stalemated chess games in open tournaments.

Like every aspiring chess champion, Cassandra was very bright and was confident in all her abilities, especially her ability not to win at chess. But she also understood she needed intensive study and practice to achieve her goal. It would take several years, she knew, and simultaneously she would have to earn her bachelor’s degree with honors if she hoped to attend a world-class law school.

Cassandra, though, knew how to juggle multiple tasks. It was this image of herself as a juggler that suggested a specific type of chess to her: simultaneous chess.

‘Maybe I don’t need a long series of games to make the record books. Maybe I should try for a single, spectacular stalemate against a world champion in a simultaneous chess exhibition.’

An exhibition was likely the only venue where such a low-rated player as she could hope to compete against any world-renowned chess champion. (She was rated an ELO 11.) She had earned that embarrassing rating on a technicality—a few times in high-school-level tournaments she had managed a stalemate when her male opponents were distracted by her good looks. Once she even achieved a draw.

Cassandra’s research into chess records had taught her that Guinness world records have often been set in simultaneous chess, and simultaneous chess exhibitions are always covered in the press. It’s a rare chess photo op.

If Cassandra could find a large, world-famous city where such an exhibition was scheduled in the next couple of years, and if she could trick a world champion into an ignominious ending, she might not qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records and she might not have her name enshrined in a chess association’s hall of fame, but she would surely get her picture taken shaking hands with a world chess champion. The picture would sweep across the internet like wild fire. A YouTube video would be made—if for no reason other than her spectacular good looks.

When Cassandra entered college that fall, she joined a well-regarded local chess club. It took her several months to go from constantly losing to constantly moving her king into stalemate. A few times she put her king into perpetual check. Once she accidentally swindled a male opponent by distracting him with her décolleté. That panicked her; if she wasn’t careful she might actually learn to win. It would be the end of her quest for a record. At her age, occasionally winning chess games was nothing special.

In her third year of college, Cassandra finally found the perfect venue for her “try for the gold.” The reigning world champion (a handsome Eastern European man) was scheduled to perform a simultaneous chess exhibition in the ballroom of Chicago’s old Hilton, a place made famous by the 1968 Democratic Convention’s “police riot”  and just up the street from Al Capone’s famous, empty vault in the old Lexington Hotel.

The ballroom was large enough to hold at least a half mile of tables for the world champ to stroll past. Any member of an officially recognized chess club with the entrance fee could sign up. Cassandra was first in line.

At 21, Cassandra was a tall, gorgeous woman, curvaceous, with unblemished skin, and incredibly long, thick, black eyelashes that required no mascara. (This was fortunate since she had a habit of fluttering those lashes when she was nervous and that could leave ugly mascara smudges on her cheeks.)

In honor of the event, Cassandra bought a tight, short-sleeved, deeply scoop-necked, black-silk dress and new five-inch heels from Nordstrom’s. She had her nails done in her favorite fire-engine red. She wore her lucky jewelry—a Celtic cross that dangled suggestively between her breasts, a ruby birth-stone ring, and long earrings in the shape of a red queen, which stood out in sharp contrast to her long, black hair.

Before she took her assigned seat at the table in the Hilton ballroom that morning, reporters were already snapping her picture as if she were a movie star. (In fact, many of them thought she was a movie star.)

“I’m Cassandra,” she said, introducing herself to the gray-haired man who had the seat to her left. He smiled shyly and accepted the hand she extended to him.

“I’m John,” he said. His handshake was tentative. “I’m sure you want to be careful of those nails,” he said. “My wife won’t let me touch her hands when she’s got a nail job like yours.”

“Not to worry,” she said. Then she turned to her right. The player there was a little boy. “I’m Cassandra. Nice to meet you.”

The boy said, “I’m Freddy.”

Suddenly the room burst out in wild applause. The players all stood. Through the central doorway, a phalanx of suited men had entered. Cameras flashed.

The next instant, Cassandra saw the great man. He exuded confidence and alpha-maleness. He was slim and agile, impeccably dressed, with gold cufflinks gleaming out from under his tailored suit jacket sleeves. Stepping out in front of his entourage he strode to the center of the ballroom and turned 360 degrees to survey his competitors seated at the tables with a chess board in front of each player.

He noticed Cassandra instantly and caught her eye when he glanced at her table. Then his gaze moved on around the room, but Cassandra knew he had singled her out. There was no mistaking the electricity that passed between them.

Then, without further ceremony he approached the table to the right of the entrance. He pushed the king’s pawn forward to e4 on the first player’s board, paused long enough for him to respond with e5 and then moved Nf3 and stepped to the next board. There he pushed the queen’s pawn to d4, paused for the obligatory response, moved c4, and stepped to the next board. Like this, he moved clockwise around the ballroom, varying his openings as he inched closer to Cassandra at “two o’clock.”

Of course, Cassandra as Black was prepared to play her unique Celtic Cross defense in which she would attempt to tie up her pieces in a knot in the center of the board, a closed position so ugly that even a world champion would blink twice before he made a hasty tactical move.

When the world champ reached her board, he played the king’s pawn. It wouldn’t have mattered to Cassandra if he had played the queen’s pawn, she was planning to play e5 in any case. Then he moved Nf3 and paused an instant to catch her eye again. He smile flirtatiously. It so shocked Cassandra that she looked down and without pausing to think moved an uncontroversial Nf6.

She left her red-tipped talon on the horse, expecting him to move on. Instead he stood there until she looked up at him, looked her in the eye and smiled again. “Ah, the Russian Game,” he murmured as seductively as Rasputin to Tsaritsa Alexandra.

Then he folded his arms across his chest and gazed at the board for thirty seconds. He moved d4, then stepped to the next board, as she had hoped.

During the world champ’s second circuit of the ballroom, Cassandra almost gave up on her plan to try to force a blunder on his part that would lead to a stalemate. He “exuded male sexuality,” as the romance novelists say. She couldn’t help herself; she wanted to please him with her moves.

But when he reached the little boy to her right, she steeled herself. She lowered her head, focused only on the board, reached out her long fingers to the d pawn, and, when he side-stepped over to her, moved it briskly. Then she folded her arms across her chest and sullenly refused to look up at him. Cassandra had played her stunning (or perhaps it should be called her mind-numbing) d5.

Unfortunately for both of them, when she crossed her arms over her lovely breasts, Cassandra inadvertently emphasized her cleavage, and the Celtic cross dangling from her neck drew his eyes in that direction. He was so distracted from the board that without thinking he accepted the odd gambit.

As the exhibition continued, Cassandra grew more and more sullen as she realized the world champ was nothing but a typical male when it came to female charm. He thought she was a dimwit. He spent far more time with little Freddy than he did with her, as if none of her moves interested him, no matter how strange and self-defeating they were. If she looked him in the eyes, he smiled slyly and then pointedly looked down at her chest.

He also must have known she found him attractive. Frankly, she had to admit it, she did. She had always been drawn to smart men, because as she often said, “The brain is the biggest sex organ in the body.” 

But acknowledging her attraction to him just made Cassandra more angry, and as her anger grew, her lower lip pouted more and more seductively, and her skin flushed—a pinkness, which the champ took for arousal.

At move 10, the champ played a reasonable Bc4, to which Cassandra had planned to respond b5. But she was so angry by then that she foolishly innovated with Re8+, which was an accidental check on her part.

The champ naturally saw that Black’s position was ludicrous. For that matter, so was White’s. Neither side had any pawn structure to speak of. It suddenly occurred to him that Cassandra was making fun of him, and if anything can make a male, chess world champion mad, it’s that.

He stood there in front of her so long she finally had to look up at him. Her lower lip jutted out seductively again. He breathed a sigh of relief.

‘She isn’t trying to humiliate me,’ he thought, ‘She’s trying to seduce me.’ He winked at her. ‘She’s just trying to lose to make me feel good.’

He smiled and stepped to the next player. Then he stopped abruptly and returned to Cassandra. The idea that anyone would have the gall to think they needed to let him win was maddening.

‘The arrogance of the girl,’ he thought.

It completely flummoxed him. He missed Qf7# and instead responded to her check with Be3. The little boy beside her gasped. Cassandra had no idea why; she didn’t see the mate either. She moved Be7 and the champ moved on.

As the morning wore on, the champ spent less and less time on Cassandra. What little time he spent at her board was dedicated to forced exchanges and capturing pieces, confident he could easily win the endgame.

Unfortunately for the great man, in the process he forgot that “pride goeth before the fall.”

By the 25th move, many players resigned and shook the world champ’s hand, including the little boy next to Cassandra. He hung his head in shame—inexplicably, she thought. ‘Why should tears come to anybody’s eyes when they lose at chess? Especially to the world champion!”

By the 30th move, less than a dozen games remained, among which was Cassandra’s. That’s when she saw her opportunity for a stalemate. She pondered several strategies. It was obvious that her opponent was distracted by her chest, a flaw she thought she could exploit. But she also needed some trick or feint on the board.

Her heart began to pound. Her goal to achieve a unique record in chess was within her grasp.

Cassandra was sure she could stalemate the champ’s king on the next move. She had nothing left on the board but two hopeless pawns and a useless single bishop on black, with his king near a safe corner. If she could achieve this against the world champion it might be enough to get her into the chess-history books, but if the feat alone interested no one, it would at least serve as the first stalemate in a long line of open-tournament stalemates to come. That would surely make her famous as “The Stalemate Queen.”

She watched the champ finish off the other players, one at a time. A middle-aged club player across the room achieved a draw, and as he shook the champ’s hand, the observers applauded him.

Then no one was left at a chess board except Cassandra. The champ turned around and looked at her from across the ballroom. It was High Noon. The duelist approached his target.

Cassandra kept her head up and tried her best to hide her excitement. The champ swaggered up to the table, unbuttoned his suit coat, pulled it open, and put his hands on his hips. He was tall, and the stance had the effect of seeming to thrust his crotch into Cassandra’s face. And he knew it.

She looked away and up at him. He was smirking at her. Then he turned his attention to the board. He leaned on his hands over it.

What he saw there caused the blood to drain from his face. He realized—too late—that he had not been paying sufficient attention to the game, that Cassandra’s beauty had thoroughly distracted him.

He watched in horror as her blood-red talons reached for the bishop and slowly pushed it across the board to e1. He had no choice but to move his king, Kh3.

Then she reached for the g2 pawn and advanced it to g1.

He held his breath. He knew she could eventually mate him if she resisted the temptation to do what any normal amateur would do, that is promote the pawn to a queen. If she promoted to a queen, she would stalemate him.

Cassandra smiled to herself and then looked at the board carefully one more time. Suddenly the checkered squares swam before her eyes. The misguided neurons of her chess-dyslexic brain deceived her. She became convinced that promoting the pawn to a queen would win the game.

She panicked. Instead of picking up her discarded queen, she picked up the least likely minor piece, the second bishop, and plopped it down on the dark g1 square. She sighed in relief. Now she had two dark-squared bishops on the board. ‘Even I know that’s absurd,’ she told herself.

She looked up at the great man, smiled her best self-deprecating smile to indicate she realized she had foolishly stalemated, and then she extended her hand to shake his.

But, to her surprise, the champ’s face turned beet red. He frowned. Instead of shaking her hand, he gestured for one of the exhibition organizers to approach.

When the man arrived, he said, “This stupid girl has broken all the rules. It’s clear she repositioned the board while no one was looking. She used deceptive, distracting tricks. Just look at what she’s wearing. She flirted with me shamelessly all afternoon—very unprofessional. She tried her best to distract me, and that’s what she did. I should have expected something like this from chess players in Chicago. You have no taste or grace here. A bunch of gangsters.”

Then he turned on his heel and marched out of the ballroom without acknowledging the puzzled photographers.

“Is that right? Did she cheat?” the startled official asked John and Freddy. Both shrugged. They had seen her do nothing wrong.

“What did you do?” he asked Cassandra.

She struggled to hold back the tears. “Nothing but stalemate.”

They both looked down at the board. “No you didn’t,” he said. “You won. How did you do that?”

Cassandra stared harder at the board.

Then she saw it. By under-promoting the pawn she had insured victory. A queen or a rook would have been stalemate. A knight would have led to a draw. Her heart sunk. She would never achieve a chess world record.


NB: The Chicago Open will be held during the last week of May, 2010. Perhaps we’ll see “Cassandra” there.