"Mate in 42"

"Mate in 42"


When the elderly gentleman with unkempt hair shuffled in to the chess club for his first and only visit, no one paid much attention.  He was dressed in a tweed jacket with what appeared to be a gravy stain on the left sleeve, ill-fitting trousers, and scuffed brown shoes.  In short, he was not unlike many of the locals who frequented the busy club.  Although they had never exactly met, the gentleman slowly, but directly made his way to where the club’s strongest player was seated playing a game of speed chess.

William Jackson was known to his friends as “Willie” and to the tournament circuit as “Willie the Vise”, for he would methodically squeeze his opponents until their position fractured like a rib.  When he was in his prime he had been rated a more than respectable 2516, and even now was no trifling foe to visiting grandmasters.  Willie generally gave odds of a piece, even a rook, and always won against the players at this club, many of which were fine players themselves.  Willie’s religion was chess and he was Lord over this club’s paradise; Shepherd over its flock of members.

When Willie's game had finished, the elderly gentleman made himself known by clearing his throat.  He looked Willie in the eye and asked if he might have the pleasure of a game.

Willie looked the stranger up and down, saw the gleam of intelligence in the old man’s eyes and finally responded simply, “Sure, why not.”  A couple of muffled chuckles could be heard in the room, and a voice from the side observed that Willie was always happy to spill some fresh blood.

As they sat at an open board, Willie hid two pawns in his massive paws and held them out for the man to choose.

“Oh, I’m perfectly happy to play Black,” the old man said, not choosing either hand.

“Choose!” Willie commanded.

Without hesitation the stranger tapped Willie’s right hand, but did not look for the result.  He just turned the board around to play as Black while Willie opened his hand exposing the black pawn.  Willie looked at the man suspiciously, but said nothing.

Willie set the clock at five minutes each and waited for the old man to hit his side and start the clock running.

“Oh, I prefer to play slow, if you don’t mind.  I’m just here to relax and take my mind off work,” said the man who was clearly well past retirement age.  “Strangely enough, I get bored and would really enjoy having a good think, if you don’t mind.”

Willie’s face showed his disapproval as he began to suspect the old geezer was a patzer, come here just to waste his time.

“We’re playing fast.  Hit the clock so I can get back to the others,” Willie said impolitely.  He was an intimidating man by the triple threat of mood, size, and skill and not one to make concessions to anyone, anywhere, least of all where he had been the king of kings for the past twenty odd years.  “Play!” he commanded.

The elderly gentleman just smiled.  “My pleasure,” and hit the clock.

Willy’s right hand picked up the Queen’s pawn and slammed it onto d4, smacking the clock with tremendous disdain on his face.  The old man let a full five seconds tick by and Willie’s face got redder with each of the five, he was so angry at having accepted this fool’s challenge. 

Then the man said confidently, “Mate in 42,” moved his own pawn to d5, gently tapped the clock and waited for Willie’s reply.

“What?!?!?” Willie roared in fury.  “You come in here to talk trash to me, you old fool?  Mate in 42!?!  Who the hell you think you are?” he fumed as he played his queen bishop pawn to c4 and hit the clock.  He wouldn’t bother toying with this offensive old duffer; he was going to crush him within a minute.

The room had become quiet with Willie’s outburst, and a crowd was gathering to watch the old man’s humiliation.

“You’re angry with me,” the gentleman said calmly, “but I forgive you.” He then took the pawn on c4, accepting the queen’s pawn gambit, and hit the clock.  The chuckles returned to the room.  The stranger must be a beginner thinking he could hold onto the captured pawn. 

Willie immediately played his knight to f3, and the game accelerated not only in speed but intensity of play.  The old man wasn't as fragile as he first appeared. He not only kept up with Willie, but began to play him well as mouths hung open in disbelief.  Willie’s initial red hot anger turned to cold blue steel as his mind focused on the task at hand.  He had played countless games in his mind's eye and committed tens of thousands of intricate positions to memory during thirty-four years of repetitive manual labor, which had allowed Willie’s God-given gift for chess to grow in the garden of his fertile but otherwise unchallenged mind.

For six minutes and forty-five seconds the only sounds that could be heard in the room were the clack of chess pieces on the board and the slapping of the clock as the two combatants engaged their armies and their wits.  

It was the old man’s turn and he took a long 15 seconds to look at Willie and say, “Checkmate” and he slid a forgotten pawn forward exposing Willie’s king to the bishop that lay behind. 

The entire game had lasted only seven minutes.  Exactly 420 seconds.  On average five seconds for each of the two player’s 42 moves.

“Like I said, mate in 42,” the old man said to Willie in a matter-of-fact voice, not gloating. He extended his hand to shake.  “Would you like to play again, this time slow?”

Willie and his entire entourage of admirers were stunned.  It had been years within these walls since Willie had been defeated by anyone less than a visiting grandmaster.

His suspicious eye looked at the old man carefully, trying to find an earpiece or other hidden method of trickery.  He refused to believe that this stranger had just defeated him in a fair game.

“Old man, I don’t know how you just did that, but that was no mate in forty-two.  Fifty-two maybe or forty-seven, I don’t know, but don’t insult me by claiming you knew at the start that you’d win in forty-two.”

“Willie, you’d be better off if you had a little more faith in me,” the old man advised.

Willie ignored that statement and said simply, “Yes, I’ll play you again, and we’ll play slow.”

The two warriors, one skinny and bent, the other an enormous hulk of a man, set up their pieces to play again, this time with Willie as Black.

The skinny old man opened with pawn to e4.

“What?” barked Willie.  “You’re not going to tell me when you’re gonna mate me this time?”

The elderly gentleman innocently returned his look and answered, “I’m sorry, I thought that offended you.  I didn’t want to say.”

“Go ahead and say it,” sneered Willie, waiting.

“OK, then,” the man replied. “But you’ll have to make your first move before I’ll know.”

A gasp arose from the men gathered around the table.  Willie stared bullets through the old man, but played pawn to e5 and again waited.

“Mate in 27,” the old man said simply.  “Twenty-eight moves in all.”

“Write ‘em down,” Willie ordered one of his underlings, as Jake Robins fumbled for score sheet and pencil.

“And mister, tell me one more thing before we play out this game.  Why is it you can’t tell me when you’re going to mate me until I make my move.”

The elderly gentleman looked at him and answered.  “Well, there is such a thing as free will, you know, and because of it I’m really just guessing.  But your e5 narrows it down a lot, so I’ll stick with my mate in 27, if it’s all the same with you.”  The room filled with raised eyebrows.  The old man continued with knight to f3 and poor Jake Robins scribbled out the move for posterity, his arthritis throbbing in his right thumb.

The game played out as follows.


With the game over those around Jake quickly looked at the scorecard to see how many moves it took and the hushed words “Twenty-eight moves, just like he said” passed around the room as Willie just stared mutely at the board. “It’s a miracle,” someone whispered.

“You play me one more time, mister.”  This time his voice was not threatening and he wasn’t making a demand.  Willie was asking.

For their third and final game, Willie was again playing White but opened this time with pawn to e4.  Everyone, including Willie, then looked and waited for the old man to call it.  He did not fail their expectation.

The old man looked around the room.  “Mate on the 59th move,” he said cheerfully, and played his own pawn to e5.  Willie bit his lip, held his tongue, played his knight to f3 and the game progressed into a Ruy Lopez opening.  After more than 50 moves had transpired, the following position was reached with the old man ahead on material and close to queening one of his extra pawns.  But it was Willie’s move and the game finished out as shown.


Willie had won their third and final game!  Loud cheers burst from the onlookers' released tension as Willie’s honor had been vindicated with his defeat of the old man.  His friends crowded around, slapped him on the back, and shook his hand.  Willie was rather quiet through all of this, and felt uneasy even though he couldn’t explain why.  After all, he should be feeling good about being victorious and proving that the old man was just a crazy coot. 

In the distraction of this aftermath he did not notice the old man slowly shuffling out, a smile on his face.  What Willie did notice was Jake making his way toward him through all the well-wishers waving a scorecard in his hand, shouting something that could not be heard above all the chatter and I knew it’s being said.  But finally he got close enough for Willie to hear what Jake was yelling.

“Look at this, Willie, you won’t believe it!” Jake was crying.  His face looked crazed and his eyes were bugging out of his head.  Willie, afraid of the answer, asked him what he was all worked up about.

“Willie, it was like he said.  He called it right!” Jake shouted loudly enough for the others nearby to hear.  The wave of quiet spread from them outward with shushes all around to push it along.  Everyone wanted to hear what Jake had to say.

“It was just like he said, Willie!” repeated Jake.  “It was mate in 59!  He called it right, he just didn’t say it would be you winning instead of him.”

Willie stood as still as a pillar of salt as his mind tried to process this information.

“But that ain’t the half of it!” Jake continued.  He held out the scorecard for Willie to take.  “Willie, look!  The old man never signed it, but …well… his name is on it all the same.  Look at his name, Willie, look at it!”

 Willie gingerly took the unsigned, yet signed scorecard in his hand and stared at the short name for a long moment, oblivious to the entreaties around him to read it aloud.  His quick mind recalled all the telltale details of what had just taken place.

Then William Jackson did what he had not done for decades, not since he went to the funeral of his long-dead mother who had taught him how to do it when he was known to his family simply as “Wee Willie”.  But it was something that he was observed to do frequently from that day on until he himself passed to a better world. 

But before he did it, Willie looked up in vain to catch a last glimpse of the old man whom he would never again see in this life.  And with a look of wondrous rapture on his face, Willie’s right hand slowly and deliberately touched his forehead, his chest, and finally his left and right shoulders.



While this story is a work of fiction, the 2nd and 3rd games were real.  Game 2 took place in 1870 between Steinitz and Bird.


You can view the full 59 moves of game three between Mackenzie and Steinitz, played in 1883.