THE NOBLE GAME

Bruce Alen Klaiss


The three figures sat at the table in Father's study, heads bowed or cushioned in a hand, deep in thought over the complex situation before them. The thick tapers in the candelabrum shone down on their hair, making highlights gleam as the light flickered &endash; touches of red in Vincent's thick, tawny mane, the brighter gleam of gold in Catherine's honey brown, flecks of silver in Father's salt-and-pepper curls.

Father glanced up. "This is a very delicate situation, Catherine. Are you certain that you don't want some help?"

"No, thanks, Father," Catherine replied, "I got myself into this; I'll get myself out...if I can." She returned her attention to the table, glaring at the mess she had created.

She had carelessly fallen for Vincent's diversion on the queenside of the chessboard and lost a bishop there. From that point, Vincent had launched an attack on her king that she was barely able to hold back. The game, though, had reached a crisis point. If she made the right move, she would gain some breathing room. But the wrong choice....

She finally moved a knight to block Vincent's queen from capturing a vital square. She smiled sweetly at him: "How's that?"

Vincent nodded slightly. "Good...except for this." He moved his own knight and murmured, "Check."

Catherine stared at the position in surprise. She had forgotten that knight in worrying about his queen. Worse, she could not move out of the check, and the only piece she could capture the attacker with was her own knight...the one guarding the queen. She forlornly played knight takes knight; Vincent moved queen to rook's seven: "Checkmate."

Father softly chuckled as he patted Catherine's shoulder. "If it's any consolation, my dear, I did not see it coming either. I would not have been of much help after all."

"Thanks for the sympathy," she mock-growled back, then turned to Vincent. "You're just too good for me, and I never was great at chess. Is there anyone here that can beat you?"

"Only Kipper," Father interjected. "He has made great strides in learning; he's even becoming a threat to Vincent's reputation of indominability."

"Father takes particular pleasure in being the one who first taught Kipper how to play," Vincent added, with a sly look in his eyes.

"Yes; well, I take any vicarious pleasure I can from other's triumphs since I lost my advantage over you...when you turned fourteen!"

Catherine laughed at son and father's sparring. These two cared so deeply for each other that they could banter with no worry of hurting each other's feelings. It was a delight to listen to them. She said to Vincent, "When Kipper plays you again, let me know. I suppose I'll need to take indirect revenge on you, too."

"Rest assured I shall," he replied. Then he turned thoughtful; his hand played idly with the black king on the board. "I suppose that a true master or grandmaster would fear little in my play; I have no experience against such strong players.... I have seen grandmasters play, though, a few times."

"What!?" Father gasped. "When was this?"

"When Devin and I were boys." Vincent leaned back in his chair, and his eyes filled with memories. "We would creep into the garden behind the Marshall Chess Club at night, and we would watch the players through the windows from the shadows. We saw Evans, Reshevsky...even Fischer was there one night. We could not follow the games, but just to see the players was a thrill."

Father shook his head in awe, exasperation and amusement. "It will be the death of me one of these days to listen to your exploits with Devin." Catherine, though, was fascinated. She asked, "Have you been back recently?"

Vincent said, "No," and smiled. "I am too big to hide there now.... But I can still enjoy the games played there, and elsewhere." He rose and went over to one of Cullen's new bookcases, where the vast clutter of Father's library was slowly &endash; and finally &endash; getting organized. He pulled out a few small magazines and returned to the table. "Peter is a member of the Marshall; he sends us the club newsletter after he has read it. I learned what I know from Father's tutoring, and chess books and magazines such as these. The world's greatest players have taught me...shared their secrets with me."

Catherine grinned. "Now I know what I can get you for a Christmas present."

"The true chessplayer can never have too many books, Catherine."

 

Catherine had to leave shortly after that, reluctantly as always. Back in her apartment, she changed out of her sweater and jeans into a nightgown and absently began brushing out her hair, but she was replaying the conversation with Vincent in her mind.

He had long ago accepted the consequences of his life, and would never demand different of fate. Yet something in her sensed a desire in him to test himself against a well-known, skilled opponent. It was not surprising to Catherine; in her experience, though small, most chessplayers were very competitive. She was herself, every time she sat down across the board from Vincent, although it was a foregone conclusion who would win. She counted herself lucky to ever salvage an occasional draw out of their games.

There must be a safe way to find a master for him to play, she thought as she lay down the hairbrush. And I'll search until I find one. Then she grinned wickedly; if nothing else, she could get that vicarious vengeance. Good grief, I'm getting as bad as Father! And she laughed as she turned out the light at what Father would say to that.

The next morning, Catherine called Peter Alcott and asked him to have supper with her that night. Meeting him at his office and walking to the restaurant, she told him of her goal. "Is there anything you can suggest, Peter? I don't have the faintest idea where to start; I don't know enough about anyone in the chess world to make an attempt."

Peter shot a hand through his hair and grinned. "You're not afraid to dream big for him, are you? Myself, I don't see how you can pull it off. But I'll give it some thought; maybe we'll come up with something between us.... Say, how would you like to come with me to the club after dinner? I could show you around."

"Yes, I would. Thanks!" Catherine had heard of the Marshall Chess Club before, as her father was also a member while he was alive. But she had never visited the place while growing up; her interest in chess had been small before meeting Vincent. So, after a leisurely meal, the two hailed a cab and were soon at the brownstone on Tenth that housed the Marshall. Peter ushered her in the door, and there her images of a chess club were broken.

She had always imagined such a place to be loaded with dark-stained oak paneling, deep leather chairs, heavy wood furnishings and a tomb-like silence. Instead she found a pleasant, brightly-painted and well-lit room. Windows opened onto the street in front, a small garden in back that must have been from where Vincent and Devin spied on the members. The fixtures were far from ponderous; and, though the talk was somewhat hushed in deference to ongoing games, a pleasant buzz of quiet conversation drifted to her ears.

A regular thump and click attracted her attention to one corner. There, two men were playing the fastest chess game she had ever seen. Whenever the players made a move &endash; and a piece was moved about every three or five seconds &endash; they would punch buttons on top of a double-faced clock sitting beside the board. Then she noticed a small red marker flip down on one of the dials. One of the players saw it too. He pressed the buttons, pointed at the clock and said a few words to his opponent, who winced, grinned and started to set up the pieces again, while the first man reset the clock.

"Five-minute chess," Peter said quietly. "Each side has five minutes to play. The clock controls the time; if the flag falls, that player loses."

Catherine said, "That's too fast for me. I have enough of a struggle playing a normal game."

They drifted deeper into the club. Peter paused now and then to say hello to a friend who was free or looking up from a game, and introduced Catherine to them. He pointed out a coffee pot on a side table; she nodded yes, and they went over and drew cups. Catherine sipped, and said, "This place is wonderful."

"It's a rarity in America, or in most of the world for that matter. Most clubs meet once a week in town recreation halls or libraries, or members' houses...even bars and restaurants. But the Marshall owns this building and is open every day. A lot of chess talent earned their spurs here...Bobby Fischer was a member, for instance."

"Where is he these days?"

"It depends on your viewpoint. His body is living in California, the last I heard; but some say his brain lives on another plane entirely at the same time. That would explain many things, I suppose."

A man in his early forties came around the corner, carrying a briefcase-like affair that Catherine recognized as a laptop computer. Peter recognized him and said, "Andy, how are you tonight?"

Andy turned around on hearing Peter's voice and came back. "Pretty good, Peter. And who's the new member here?"

Catherine grinned. "Sorry; my ego's too fragile to join."

Peter performed introductions. "Are you checking out the championship tonight?"

"Yeah. I'm just going to get permission to tie into the phone line now. Gonna watch?"

"Sure; we'll be right over."

Andy nodded and ambled off, while Catherine asked Peter, "What's going on?"

"Andy is bringing in his computer during the World Championship so we can keep up with the games. CaissaLink has a correspondent at the match site who reports back the moves, and some grandmasters in the press room give commentary and analysis."

"Mmhmm, that's good.... Now, what's a CaissaLink?"

Peter chuckled. "You'll see. Come on; Andy's waving us over."

Andy was plugging a phone cord into the back of his computer as they approached his table and pulled up chairs. He turned it on, then typed in a few commands; a new screen came up, the machine quietly beeped, and the words You are LINKed appeared.

"CaissaLink is a dial-in computer service," Peter explained, while keys clicked in the background. "You pay for your time online, and in return you can play chess with people from anywhere while sitting in your own living room. They also have columnists, instructional articles, and reporters send in news on big events, sometimes live like tonight. You can even 'talk' to each other while playing."

Catherine turned her attention to the computer screen, intrigued by the concept. Edie had shown her how some of the law-enforcement data networks operated, but this was the first time she had ever seen such a hookup for leisure-time use.

Meanwhile, Andy was typing in a series of commands; he finally grunted in satisfaction and called out, "Gentlemen, we're connected to Hamburg. They're resuming the game from yesterday's adjournment." A crowd gathered around their table; someone opened up a wall-mounted cabinet, revealing a large hanging board with magnetic chess pieces. Two tables were drawn over and the same position as on the wallboard set up. All was ready for heavy thought and work.

Andy read out the moves as they were printed on his screen, along with the supplied analysis. Each piece was then moved on the wallboard, while the members stood around the two tables and worked out their own ideas for what to play next. Catherine just sat back and watched the action, both fascinated and amused. So much brainpower thrown at a game, and one in which they could not even take a direct, active part. Yet it was an enjoyable challenge to try and anticipate what the champion and challenger would do next.

Then, recalling Peter's explanation of what this network could do, the germ of an idea started coming to her....

The game in Hamburg lasted only a half-hour; some in the room groused that it should have been drawn yesterday instead of restarted, as there was no point in "pushing wood" when nothing more could be accomplished. The two players must have finally felt the same way, for the computer suddenly said, The game has been drawn by agreement. Andy said, "It's a draw, folks. They split the point on move 76. They'll play the next game in two days; I'll be here then. A transcript of these moves will be posted then as well." The crowd behind him broke up and drifted away to their own games, while some few remained at the two analysis boards to keep worrying the problem over.

Andy was preparing to sign off the network when Catherine touched him on the arm. "Excuse me; Peter tells me you can actually play games with others on here?"

"Yes, that's right," Andy said with a smile. "Would you like to see?"

"Please, if you don't mind. I'll be glad to pay for your bill."

"Don't worry; it's my pleasure." He turned back to the computer and punched keys, while Peter leaned over and whispered in Catherine's ear: "Cathy, are you thinking...."

She nodded, a happy smile brightening her face. "And you showed me the way to it. If this works, then it's the perfect way for Vincent to play someone!"

 

It took a month to set up the details, most of which was spent waiting for CaissaLink to send Catherine's membership package. During that time, she bought a good-quality computer with the best graphics she could find, and talked Edie into helping her set it up, as well as teaching her some basic skills.

Edie was willing, but she was also curious. Sitting in front of the screen on a Saturday afternoon, she asked, "Girlfren', don't you have more fun things to do than play computer games? Or are you worried about job security and want to improve your skills?"

Catherine giggled at that. "No, I'm just doing this for a friend. Anyway, I can always use it for my own work&endash;"

"Yeah, that's what they all say. Then you spend all night trying to beat the high score on Fragglezoids." Edie's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "Don't worry, though; your secret's safe with me.... So, will your secret boyfriend enjoy this setup?"

Catherine's smile suddenly felt frozen to her face. She said, "What's a boyfriend? You know how busy Joe keeps me; I'm lucky to have this time with you."

"Then you're not still seeing that Vincent?"

Good God, that's right; she saw the book of sonnets when Vincent was captured by Hughes. The blood drained out of her cheeks as she looked away, struggling to say something that would be truthful and yet not endanger Vincent and the Tunnels. It hurt &endash; Edie was her best friend at the office outside of Joe, but Catherine could not share the most vital thing in life with her. She finally said, quietly, "I am seeing him, Edie. But it's too complicated to explain, and I have a promise to keep to him. I can't tell you any more."

Hurt flickered through Edie's dark eyes, and Catherine was instantly sorry; maybe it would have been better to lie and say no. But then Edie shrugged and smiled and said, "It's okay, Cathy.... He must be some special for you to be so devoted to him. That's all I need to know."

"Oh, I wish I could tell you more...." Catherine could not say more, for she found herself held in a tight embrace, her face buried in her friend's dreadlocks.

"It's all right, girlfren'. Just tell this dude that I'm comin' for him if he ever jilts you." And Catherine had to laugh at the picture springing into her mind: Edie chasing down a tunnel after Vincent with a baseball bat in her hands and bloody murder in her eyes.

Edie said, "That's better." She let go and regarded Catherine with mock severity. "Now, time for a quiz."

"Oh, no, not a quiz! Please, not that!"

"Hey, just 'cause you got me all soapy doesn't mean I'm goin' to let up on you. Now hit that keyboard!"

"Yes, sir!"

 

Catherine learned well under Edie's tutelage, quickly becoming able to "boot up" the computer and run a program with no assistance. Then the package arrived from CaissaLink; she accepted the envelope from Henry the mail clerk with eagerness and sat down to learn how to sign on to the service and reach the areas she wanted.

She made it in on her first attempt with no fumbles whatsoever. As was normal, a short bulletin of upcoming events appeared; she read it and smiled in delight. Fate for once was conspiring with them instead of against them, and her desire was taking shape.

 

One week later, Vincent looked up from his book and saw Father walking out of the chamber &endash; clad in his old suit instead of Tunnel patchwork. Vincent arched his brows at that. "Father, is everything well? Why are you going Above?"

"Oh, everything is fine, Vincent," Father replied soothingly. "One of the Helpers sends word that there is something I must absolutely see for myself, and they cannot possibly bring it here." He grinned. "So I am going there."

Vincent regarded him curiously. Father had been Above only once in thirty-plus years, and that trip almost turned into a major catastrophe. Whatever drew him Up Top now was either incredibly wonderful, or wonderfully distressing. But there was no distress present in Father. Rather, he sensed excitement; more and more puzzling. He said, "Would you like some company? You have me curious now."

"And a little worried, correct? Don't fret, it's perfectly safe &endash; at least as safe as Above ever is. Anyway, I know you're going to see Catherine tonight. You will enjoy her company far more than mine. Goodnight!" Before his son had a chance to say another word, Father was out the door.

Vincent was tempted for a second to follow behind anyway, sending Eric or Kipper up to Catherine's with a note of explanation. But then he relaxed and sighed. Father should be able to take care of himself, and apparently did not desire Vincent's presence. Whatever was going on, though, he would get a full report on it when they were together again. He smiled inwardly at that: the father reporting his movements to the son instead of the other way around.

In the meantime, it was time to leave himself. It would be full dark just as he reached the Door closest to Catherine's apartment, and she had asked him to arrive as early as safely possible. He went down to his chamber to retrieve his cloak, and turned for the Great Stair.

Arriving on Catherine's balcony, he was surprised to find something he was familiar with only from pictures &endash; a computer. Catherine had never mentioned owning one, and this had never sat on the balcony table before. And a chessboard and men were set up beside it. Vincent chuckled as he considered the combination; perhaps she was attempting to improve her game so she could defeat him once. Honor was at stake here, no doubt, else she would have come to him for aid.

Then he sensed her approach. The French doors swept open, and there she was, dressed in a Victorian blouse and skirt and carrying two glasses of wine on a tray. She said, "Welcome to the Chandler Chess Club, sir. Are you ready to meet your opponent?"

He smiled as he accepted a glass. "I am always ready to meet you, Catherine."

"Oh, no, not me, sir. I'm only the manager of the club; your opponent is someone else tonight."

"Indeed so, Vincent." Father's voice??? Hair flying, Vincent snapped back toward the doors. From around the corner appeared Father, followed by Peter, both carrying drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces.

To say that Vincent was surprised would be an understatement. Peter in Catherine's apartment was not that shocking, but Father here? He turned to Catherine, mutely appealing for explanation.

She smiled, and the bond echoed her joy, as she set down her glass on a side table. "I knew they would like to watch you as you played your first real master chess game. So I invited them up."

Sadly for Vincent, the explanation did not help much. "You wish me to play the computer?"

"Not play the computer, but play through the computer." She touched a key. The machine, which had been idling in readiness, suddenly flashed a list of prewritten commands; then the screen cleared and displayed CaissaTerm in large graphics. "Peter helped me come up with this last month...."

"By accident, Cathy," Peter objected. "You're the one who took the leap of imagination."

"Well, if you hadn't taken me to the Marshall that night, it would have been much longer before I found this." She turned back to Vincent. "With this, you can play against people anywhere without their seeing you. And if you like, your first game can be against a Soviet master!"

She was incredible. No matter the limits that seemed imposed on him, she searched until she found a way to circumvent them. He reached out and folded her into his arms. "Thank you so much for this gift," he said. "I will cherish it always."

Catherine leaned into Vincent's chest, enjoying every moment she could of his touch &endash; until a throat being cleared brought them both back to earth; Father was glancing away in embarrassment, while Peter just stood there grinning. Turning businesslike, she said, "We had better get you signed on. Things will begin soon." She released Vincent and struck another key. A second routine took over, dialing the telephone plugged into the computer and completing the connections. Vincent read the words as they flashed by:

 

Connected at 14400 bps

You are LINKed!

Your name, please? candlemaker

 

Password? xxxxxxx

 

Welcome to CaissaLink!

Tonight's special event: a 30-board simultaneous exhibition by Soviet

grandmaster Sergei Murov. 8:00 p.m. ET; go to page EXHIBIT.

 

Type GO <page> or press Enter for the main menu.

! go exhibit

"Murov!" Vincent gasped in amazement. Father and Peter were taken aback as well. Peter said, "Cathy, do you realize just how good this man is? He was only a few steps away from the World Championship when he lost. He's one of Russia's best!"

Catherine shook her head. To her, Sergei Murov was only a name. In her zeal to do something for Vincent, she may have sandbagged him! Then a slow smile crept back, and she said, "Well, Father...we may get our revenge on him yet!"

In the meantime, the computer had reached their destination. The screen flickered; a chessboard filled an upper quarter, with black pieces at the board's bottom. Below it was a message: Grandmaster Murov is 10 boards away; please wait for White's first move. The number kept counting down, then the white king's pawn moved two squares. The screen printed, [Murov] Good evening and good luck, and below that, Please make your move, while the countdown started again from 30. Catherine said, "I'll type in your moves for you."

Vincent's eyes glowed. "Algebraic notation? Pawn to c5, please." He moved the two pawns on the board beside the computer and sat down on the appropriate side.

The balcony fell silent except for the dim rumble of traffic from the street and the periodic click of computer keys. Father and Peter sat across the board from Vincent to watch the game; occasionally they would whisper quietly to one another behind cupped hands. Vincent called out his moves, and Catherine relayed back Murov's replies as they were printed on the screen.

Gradually, she noticed that the Thinking....sign, which appeared when Murov was on Vincent's game, was staying on longer each time. This did not surprise her too much, for any chess game will hit unknown land eventually. But Peter had told her that an exhibitor moved quickly in a "simul" like this, so that things did not drag out for the opponents.

On Murov's next move, he took four minutes. Then a message line appeared: [Murov] Would you mind telling me your Elo rating, please? Catherine read it to Vincent with a puzzled frown and asked, "What is an Elo rating?"

Vincent said, "It is a measure of strength in serious play...." He pondered a bit before continuing, "Queen to e8. Tell him the truth, I suppose...that I have no rating."

Catherine nodded and typed the move and message. Ten minutes later: [Murov] You have never played in a serious game before??

"No, but I have studied extensively."

 

[Murov] Quite extensively, my friend!!!

Twelve moves later, Murov's game was in a shambles. By skillfully trading off knights and sacrificing a pawn, Vincent had developed dangerous threats that his opponent could not ignore. A black queen and rook were ready to cut through white's protection. It was only a matter of time; Murov's remaining pieces were too scattered to stave off defeat. Murov, "arriving" at the board, stayed only a few moments before the computer flashed, White has resigned the game. Then: [Murov] An excellent game, my friend Congratulations!

Vincent, through Catherine, replied, "Thank you very much. It was an honor and great privilege to play you."

 

[Murov] The honor was mine. May we meet again one day. Good evening to you!

 

Immediately after that, the balcony went mad. Catherine jumped over and pulled Vincent into a gleeful hug, while Father and Peter slapped him on the back and cried congratulations. The bond was radiant within as Catherine said, "You really did it!"

"I never had a doubt," Father said. "After all, I have played him for twenty years."

Vincent replied, "I had my doubts.... But I placed them aside and just played."

Catherine rushed into the kitchen and returned with a chilled bottle of champagne and four glasses. As she poured, Father remarked, "You certainly know how to run a chess club, Catherine!"

She handed him a glass with a pert smile. "This club has a very exclusive membership, sir. The management is determined that they receive the best."

They all raised their glasses, then Father proposed, "To Vincent... who can give the best in the world a run for their money." Peter and Catherine murmured, "Hear, hear," and they all drank the toast.

 

Catherine and Vincent sat on the balcony floor an hour later, she resting back against his broad chest and his arms about her shoulders. Peter and Father had left some time before, so that the lovers could have privacy. Now she quietly said, "I'm so glad you enjoyed the evening."

"It was a dream fulfilled.... You constantly amaze me with all that you do to increase my world."

"I could do no less for you. You deserve the chances that others have so easily." She slipped the fingers of one hand in between his, glancing over at the computer. "Whenever you would like a game on the computer, just come; I'll gladly sign on for you."

"I will do that in the future. For now, though," and he breathed deeply, "I am content." A few minutes of loving silence passed, then: "I wonder which he would have preferred?"

"Who are you talking about?"

"Siegbert Tarrasch, a grandmaster of the past. He said that chess, like love and music, has the power to make men happy."

"And which do you prefer, Vincent?"

His smile warmed her heart and soul far more than the wine as he replied, "Need I answer that, Catherine?"

THE END


Bruce Alen Klaiss is a librarian, living in Brent, Alabama. He was working on his bachelor's degree when "Beauty and the Beast" was first broadcast, and used his writing classes for things other than school papers. Bruce was a founding member of South of Oz, the Central Florida B&B group, and president of South of Oz 1991, the B&B national convention held in Orlando, Florida. He is married to Kitt, an osteopathic family practice doctor, whom he met because of the show. They share the work of raising their two children.