The Deepest Mysteries of the Game
By Jordan Chase-Young
Only grandmasters knew about chess daemons. You had to reach an ELO rating of 2500 and meet all your grandmaster norms before the International Chess Federation would send you a daemon-seed to water into adulthood with your suffering. And you had to keep the daemon a secret, the rules said, or it would perish in a burst of wood-scented smoke. Only other grandmasters could see your daemon, just as you could see theirs.
Grandmaster Basil Demetriou’s chess daemon was a skewbald centaur with a shield of gleaming gold and a red-tasseled spear. When Basil was playing, the centaur would trot across the chessboard, pointing out ley-lines of possibility with his spear, the subtle stratagems and tactics Basil didn’t always see on his own–an ingenious trap at the outset, a deadly fork eight moves down, a queen sacrifice to vouchsafe the rival king’s demise. Or the centaur would leap from board to board during a simultaneous exhibition, jabbing with warlike joy toward one easy victory after another. Or clash with the daemons of other grandmasters–Villoo Mavalvala’s fire-kindler, Jacques Sheawaquanep’s wendigo, Mikhail Stepanov’s baba-yaga–until one was knocked off the board, or neither was.
One day, Basil was in Yerevan for a big chess tournament. He was practicing with the waist-high chess set in Charles Aznavour Square, so his centaur had materialized to about the size of a Labrador. Mikhail Stepanov’s baba-yaga, equally large, was strutting in its chicken-legged hut across the ragged ruin of pawns that embodied the endgame. Both daemons were bruised and bloody from battle.
When Basil’s centaur gave him a sullen shake of the head, Basil accepted that victory was no longer possible.
“Draw?” asked Basil.
Mikhail gave a nod, and the daemons faded.
“Do they ever feel like cheating to you?” asked Mikhail while they put the pieces back. “Like when you’re going against someone low-rated?”
“The daemons are just an extension of us. They tell us what we already know, deep down.”
“I read the letter they sent with the daemon-seed, just like you.” Mikhail rested a hand on the polished noggin of a pawn. “Separating our talent from the rest of us is what keeps us sane. Is what keeps us from becoming….”
“Like Fischer,” Basil said.
“And many more like him. Yes. But still.” Mikhail took a papirosa from his jacket and plugged it between his pale lips. “Maybe madness is the price we’re meant to pay for seeing further than everyone else. Ever thought of that?”
“No. But if it came down to greatness versus sanity, I’d rather keep my sanity.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Mikhail, lighting his cigarette.
The tournament hall creaked as two hundred players settled into hard wooden chairs. The warm stuffy air reeked of body odor and desperation.
The World Champion, Xiaokai Mackenzie, had been hiding for a year in Alice Springs–contemplating, it was said, the deepest mysteries of the game. On this day, the first day of the tournament, he looked more like a disheveled adjunct professor with his crooked wireframe glasses and scruffy beard.
“Your centaur looks impressive.” Xiaokai sat down across from Basil at the chessboard arranged for them. It was the first time they’d ever been matched in the fifteen years that Basil had been playing. “I’m sure it has many secrets to tell me.”
When Xiaokai’s chess daemon materialized, Basil and his centaur both winced in disgust.
“What on Earth is that?” said Basil.
“My daemon,” said Xiaokai.
But Basil had seen Xiaokai play a hundred games, and his daemon had been a sea serpent in all of them, leaping out of the chessboard in a checkered spume when not swimming beneath the squares.
This was no sea serpent. It was a heaving, roiling mass of grey-green protoplasm, with eyes and teeth and limbs and pustules burgeoning as quick as they were gone. Like the shoggoth from that Lovecraft story, but somehow creepier.
“What were you studying in the Outback all year? That thing’s not right.”
“Just play,” said Xiaokai.
So Basil did.
He began with his favorite opening, the Ruy Lopez. He knew Ruy better than his father. Knew the hundreds of lines branching away from that ancient neighborhood of 1. e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6, 3. Bb3, until the possibilities frayed to raw tactics a couple dozen moves down.
On the third move, the shoggoth raised a tendril at Xiaokai’s black knight, and the World Champion hopped the piece to f6. The Berlin Defense.
So he wants to lead me into that dark forest. But we know the way.
The centaur pounded his spear against his shield fearlessly.
But soon they were deep into a line Basil had seldom played before, and he was starting to feel uncomfortable.
The shoggoth formed a mouth to whisper something in Xiaokai’s ear. Basil had never seen a daemon speak to its master before.
The World Champion moved his bishop to e3 and took the knight standing sentry there. Basil sent a pawn from his king’s security detail to take care of the bishop. But this opened his f-file to Xiaokai’s queen, putting his king in peril. Xiaokai nudged his queen onto the e-file with his pinky, and Basil slid his rook onto the file it’d left in case it had a mind to return.
Both players made a few small managerial moves–pushing pawns, calibrating symmetries–then Xiaokai shoved his rook on a8 all the way down the board to capture one of Basil’s. The centaur snorted, gesturing with his spear, and Basil got revenge with his rook on f1. But now his back rank was a one-piece ghost town. And his king was defended by two measly pawns.
Basil moved his lone rook to the d-file. He tapped the clock, wrote the move in his scorebook, took a sip of tepid Red Bull.
For a dozen moves, the rooks and queens danced around each other. And each time they claimed a piece, the daemon on the offended side lashed out in rage at the other.
At one point, the centaur thrust his spear at one of the shoggoth’s transient eyeballs, plunging into gooey protoplasm instead. Xiaokai smiled. His first flash of emotion all game. With a low squelch, the shoggoth ripped the spear out of the centaur’s grip and flipped it around on him. Then it sprouted four sinewy horse legs, a pair of human arms, and a hideous grey-green double of the centaur’s shaggy head.
Now Basil understood Xiaokai’s smile. It said: You have indeed taught me much. Now I will use it against you.
While the shoggoth finished transforming into a mockery of Basil’s centaur, Basil took a pawn with his queen. Now the queens were huddled precariously on d6 and e7, each with protection from a dutiful rook on the same file.
Xiaokai nudged his rook a square lower to nab an unlucky pawn. His shoggoth charged Basil’s centaur, raising the spear. Basil cut down Xiaokai’s queen with his own, savoring the heft of the captured piece as he winched it off the board. The centaur deflected the spear with a hoplite’s swiftness, sparks showering off his shield, and galloped out of the enemy’s range. The shoggoth hissed a command to Xiaokai, and the World Champion took vengeance on Basil’s queen with his rook.
Who’s really the daemon here? Basil wondered with a chill.
Now the two rooks stood alone among the rout of pawns, like a pair of sinister trees.
Basil’s calculations verified what he’d known in his gut for ten moves now: Xiaokai was going to win. It was five pawns to four in Xiaokai’s favor, and one had already advanced to Basil’s side of the board. None of Basil’s pawns had passed beyond the third rank.
He should resign. End the bloodshed. Spare his daemon the humiliation of defeat.
The centaur gave him a dour look that said he knew it was futile too.
But Basil could not bring himself to surrender. Not to something as loathsome as the shoggoth, which was stalking its way across the board, inexorably. It smelled as rancid as a rotting carcass and dripped dark slime as it moved. It did not deserve to win.
As Xiaokai made his next move, his daemon raised the stolen spear–and threw it. The centaur lifted his shield a split-second too late. The weapon found the space between his ribs, clean as a nail through wet lumber. He reared on his hind legs with a wail, stumbled to the edge of the board, and fell.
Basil did not realize the fuse his opponent had lit–a long sequence of forced moves that would end, as sure as anything, in Basil’s checkmate–until he looked up from his slain daemon a moment later, tasting bitter despair.
Basil was nursing his daemon back to life at a chess bar in downtown Yerevan when Mikhail Stepanov brought him a snifter of Ararat brandy. Mikhail couldn’t afford Ararat, of course, but it was tradition to pamper fellow grandmasters when their daemons died.
“A few more easy wins against these patzers and your daemon will be good as new,” said Mikhail, plopping into the chair a national master from St. Louis had left a moment ago.
The centaur was inspecting his wounds, which were finally starting to close after six hours of play, while Basil glumly put the pieces back into their positions on the chessboard-table, shifting each into the exact center of its square as propriety required.
“It was unlike anything I’ve seen,” said Basil for the hundredth time that evening. “He knew. He knew how the game would unfold on move three.”
“You’ll get another chance next year.”
Basil shook his head. “I’m twenty-eight, Mikhail. It’s downhill. I can feel my neurons calcifying already. You know how old Garry was when he beat Karpov?”
“You want me to open my wrists? Drink the brandy.”
“Twenty-two. Probably hadn’t lost his virginity yet.” Basil drank, tasting notes of grape and tobacco and a few other things as the brandy went down. “But this Xiaokai, he’s even better somehow. He’s a monster, Mikhail. He’s like….”
Fischer, he wanted to say. But Mikhail’s eyes had riveted to the back of the bar. And Basil knew the monster was here.
The surge of noise confirmed it a second later–scampering feet, cries for selfies, laughter. Basil kept his back to that maelstrom, sipping his brandy patiently. He knew what to do.
The restroom was the only place Basil could corner him–a small, gray dungeon at the back of the bar that stank of Armenian piss. Xiaokai was zipping up at a rusty rook of a urinal, his shoggoth tucked away in whatever plane daemons went to when the games were done.
“Twenty thousand euros,” said Basil, “PayPal’d to you, tomorrow, if you tell me your secret. You won’t be number one forever. No one is.”
“I don’t care about money,” Xiaokai snorted, turning the sink faucet into a firehose with a rusty shriek. The mirror misted over while he washed his hands. “Besides, you don’t have it in you.”
“It’s true. Oh, you can calculate, and your positional skill’s alright.” He ripped down a handful of paper towels, peering over his wireframe glasses at Basil with faint scorn. “But it’s not enough. You’re too…ah, but I almost gave it away.”
He made to leave the bathroom when Basil stood in his way.
“You killed my daemon. You didn’t have to, but you did. I want to know why.”
Xiaokai pushed up his glasses. “You’re a persistent one, aren’t you?”
“I just want to understand.”
Xiaokai shrugged. “The truth is, your daemon feeds on victory. Mine feeds on something else.”
Xiaokai smiled. “The people at the top want us to keep our genius separate. Store it in these strange vessels–these daemons–away from the rest of us, so they can’t turn us mad, can’t turn us cruel, can’t turn us into all sorts of bad things. But what if you separate the madness instead and keep the greatness inside you?”
“You’ll still go mad, eventually. The daemons are part of us. If you let your madness roam, it will feed.”
“Eventually is a long time. Until then, I’m the World Champion and you’re–whatever you are. Will you step aside now?”
The door squeaked shut as Xiaokai left, and Basil was alone with the drip of the faucet echoing like flowstone in a deep, cool cave.
As the mist on the mirror faded, his reflection materialized against the black and white tiles of the bathroom wall, like a daemon arriving on a chessboard. The fluorescent light made him look ten years older.
He stood there a while, listening to that steady drip-drip-drip and wondering how long his savings would last him in Alice Springs.
About the Author:
Jordan Chase-Young is an American-Australian SFF writer. He’s obsessed with the future: What will it look like? What sorts of creatures will shape it?
His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in F&SF, Escape Pod, the Zombies Need Brains anthology When Worlds Collide, and many other venues.