La maîtresse des échecs

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic

This short story was posted here as a book a month ago. Reposted for those who like a continuous read. Warning: 6,300 words, perhaps 45 minutes reading time. Image by Victoria Borodinova at Pixabay.

1. The First Day: Martin

Martin Brown, aged 24, spent the flight to Carcassonne playing Stockfish on his phone. It could have been Komodo but he preferred Stockfish when it came to end-game practice. Not that he expected to need any real preparation against Ms Schelling. That chess wonder-child was not taken seriously, not by real chess professionals, her sometime wins against the odds assumed to be flukes.

People think of chess as a cold, objective thing, that players are efficient automata. In reality nothing could be further from the truth. Spirit, élan is everything: even experts may make frightful blunders.

But that, thought Martin, did not apply to himself.

Martin was dressed, as always, in a plain grey suit which had seen many better days. His shirt was worn at the collar, his shoes scuffed and his tie held evidence of previous meals. Most would say he had ‘loser’ written all over him - and had he lacked his peculiar talent, that would have been most decidedly correct. The cabin crew - who did not know who he was - wondered how this junior clerk had somehow ended up in business class. Must have been some last minute mix-up, they decided.

2. The First Day: Petra

Petra Schelling did not fly to the French national chess championship. She was driven by her parents all the way from her home in Bavaria. Hans Schelling was a former IBM engineer and chess master who had worked on the abortive productisation of the famous DeepBlue chess program. IBM had got this, like so much else, completely wrong and Hans became embittered. When his growing daughter Petra showed aptitude, Hans was determined to amplify her abilities to the limits of his engineering skills. No-one now wins at chess without access to chess machines; Petra’s father was able to source and configure the best.

Someone once asked disingenuously, ‘Why are there separate men’s and women’s games in chess?’. There is of course a third category: machines. The last time a human being won against the top-ranked machine was in 2006; since then the machines have been barred from merely human contests.

Why do people persist? Because chess is, above all, an arena for the very human contestation of skill, nerve and character. Players routinely spook each other: threaten, intimidate, stare each other out. Male and female dominance strategies are rather different and perhaps this is the reason for gender segregation. But in these enlightened times such categorisation no longer washes. The championship in Carcassonne for the trophy of France was open: gender neutral.

And so to Petra’s mother. By background Anne-Marie was a psychologist freelancing as coach to high-performing women. No-one was better placed to help Petra with glass ceilings, aggressive males and other exotic denizens of elite chess. It helped that Petra was an apple not far fallen from her parents’ tree. She had her mother’s good looks and her father’s systems thinking. She was focused, persistent and not altogether agreeable.

And so this dream team made its tortuous way westwards, tracking the mediterranean coast of France.

3. The First Day: the Game

The tournament consisted of three games, to be held in the Basilique Saint Nazaire within the mediaeval walled city. The dais had been set up in front of the altar, spotlights playing upon the table, the chess board, the two chess clocks and the seats for the players. The audience - the press, organisers and selected fans - were seated in the body of the church facing an elevated screen which would show the state of play.

Martin had taken his place twenty five minutes early at 1.35pm - he hated to be late for anything - and was still engrossed with Stockfish. He was keen not to waste time before the match officials took his phone away. The first warning of her arrival was a spreading hush, the hubbub of the hoi polloi in the nave fading as she led her parents through a side entrance marked by flashes from the photographers. She wore a burgundy trouser suit which hugged her buxom figure in a silken embrace. Elegant in her high heels, she offered views of her painted fingernails to the assembled throng; they lapped it up.

Martin was perhaps the only person there entirely oblivious. Never very observant at the best of times, his mind was cluttered still with end-games. It was a real effort to drag himself away, to absently acknowledge his opponent and to discover he would be playing black and therefore second (the weaker role).

She moved - a standard opening - and he started his clock. Now he was in his element. Where normal folk would have just observed a jumble of pieces, for him the board was a structured and familiar landscape - one which was malleable, as if he had plate tectonics and millions of years in his control. Moves came and went as the board topography flexed under his sure command. Petra was competent, that much he implicitly conceded, granting her a measure of respect, but so conventional. In less than forty moves it was over and Petra had flipped her king.

She would now have to win both of the two final games to triumph.

After a tedious debrief with organisers and the press, Martin went for a long walk following the ancient and picturesque Voie Médiévale to recover his spirits. Social interaction had tired him. He looked forward to a meal alone in his room followed by an early night.

Back in her parents’ room, Petra went into a huddle with Hans and Anne-Marie. She was not upset - far from it. A fly on the wall (there were none) might have concluded she was almost merry as were her parents. There was a detailed discussion of tactics for the second game the following afternoon and then the family headed off to a local restaurant for a good meal. After that, Petra, with some new friends she had made, headed off to the disco.

4. The Second Day: Martin

It was a perfect summer morning. At 8am tourists were already in the square outside of the hotel, sipping coffee, nibbling at croissants at the tables laid out on the worn stone pavings. They glanced at the cathedral and the fairy-tale towers so distinctive of the ancient Cité, and watched a few of their fellows embarking on the mandatory walk along the walls. The beauty of Carcassonne, famed throughout the world.

Martin Brown was oblivious to secular beauty, ambient weather and any affaires du jour. In his room he attacked his breakfast tray of cereals, toast and tea... and planned his morning. He was not present on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - he left those sorts of things to his PR team who didn’t bother him. In fact this morning would be like all his mornings: he would roam his favourite chess websites and blogs, explore some intriguing positions and perhaps continue his study of chess variants. He was looking forward to it.

But Martin could not remain forever within his own head. As the current holder of the French championship he had to show himself, at least a little. The second game was at 2pm and so he would lunch in the hotel restaurant at 12.30.

---

The restaurant was a repurposed former ballroom in a hotel which had been a former château. The maître d' stood at the servery end amidst the plate-counters and racks of patisseries. The long, high-ceilinged room stretched out before him, arched with filaments of cast iron, light and airy. To his left a corridor ran parallel to the restaurant, a walkway visible through ranks of glassed arches. The corridor provided visibility to the main square through its own long window. As it was lunchtime he could see a busy crowd of tourists: visitors to the many cafés.

To his right there were similar arches and windows which gave a view to the hotel’s botanical garden, ferns and massive brown-ceramic pots. It was all thoroughly in keeping with the hotel’s nineteenth century décor

Straight ahead were circular, cast-iron tables, widely-spaced permitting guests their privacy. Many of these tables were beginning to be occupied by journalists, camera crews and the logistics teams for the event.

Sweeping his gaze slightly to the right again, a faint frown touched his lips. You can carry privacy too far, he thought, the two screens which had been placed against the right-hand wall half way down disrupted the room’s symmetry. The maître d' felt a stab of aesthetic pain.

Between the two screens was positioned a solitary dining table. Sat at this table, his back to the wall and botanical window, was Martin Brown. The screens, large wooden rectangular contraptions covered in felt, functioned as did horse blinds: all Martin could see was a narrow wedge extending across the width of the restaurant, across the corridor and to a sliver of the square outside. Eating his burger and chips - a special order - Martin was, as usual, oblivious of his surroundings. In particular he failed to register that Hans and Anne-Marie Schelling were sitting at a table for three within his eyeline.

They, however, favoured Martin with intense scrutiny.

5. The Second Day: Petra

At twenty to one a hush descended on that part of the restaurant near the entrance, marking the entrance of Petra Schelling. English does not really have a good word to describe Petra: ‘zaftig’ comes from a German-Jewish tradition; the French could say ‘bien galbé’ but naturally have many other terms; we Anglo-Saxons are stuck with words such as ‘voluptuous’ or ‘curvaceous’: mere tabloid fare.

This lunchtime the voluptuous, curvaceous Petra Schelling wore a little black dress that had been crafted by a minimalist genius. She ignored the cameras, the rapt faces of the press and slowly sashayed between tables, passing that of her parents without acknowledgement, and entered the cubicle containing Martin at his table. He had not yet noticed her, being a daydreamer and also engrossed in his bun.

She stood in front of his table, her back to that section of the audience which could actually still see her (a number that was growing by the second). Her posture was erect and respectful, her legs slightly apart, her hands at her sides and her attention fully on him. After a few seconds, Martin’s eyes focused and he stared up at her. Petra’s unexpected appearance startled him, and this aroused both annoyance and withdrawal. His first reaction was to shrink back into his seat.

A tiny part of him, his conscious part, processed what he was seeing. A full-figured girl with thick red curls tumbling onto her shoulders, shoulders which were bare. He could just make out earrings, large black pearls pressed against her lobes.

He studied her black dress, which swooped down to barely contain her ample breasts. His eyes descended further, noting the way the dress tightly followed the curve of her body. It reminded Martin of the shape of a cooling tower, a hyperboloid of revolution. A fabric remnant flared over her hips and ran its course; the whiteness of her thighs pressed against his table, just a few short feet away. He looked up at her face: finally he recognised her, his opponent Petra Schelling. He sought for self-control, brought his breathing under control, reined in a deep need to call for help... and steeled himself for whatever came next.

“Martin,” she said gently, with a friendly little smile, “we haven’t really got acquainted,” (she knew him better than he might have thought; those extensive analyses with her mother) “But I think we do have some responsibilities to the organisers and to the public, don’t you think?”

This was a clever ploy. Martin was under the impression the game started at 2pm but unbeknownst to him, Petra had already begun it. Her question hit Martin at a weak spot. He hated tournaments: the travel, the platitudes and hype, the having to meet people. In an ideal world he would have been left alone to further explore the infinity of chess. But public contests paid the bills. So having no good answer, he simply sat there, saying nothing.

Petra now took a spare chair, slid it round to Martin’s right and decorously sank upon it. She, like Martin, was now facing a spellbound set of diners (people had left their tables and moved into the centre of the restaurant, others were coming in from the corridor to see what all the fuss was about, phones were switched to video mode, little cries of ‘shush’ facilitated audio recording).

Petra’s eyes, however, were only for him. She  leaned sideways towards him, so that her arm pressed against his - he could not escape without making a scene - and stretched her right hand across to lightly grasp his tie.

“Honestly Martin, you do look rather… uncared for. It’s not good for your reputation. For either of us really.”

These sensible words were uttered in a low, husky, pleasantly-accented voice that would in years to come seduce a million male fans, though it only made Martin more panic-stricken. Petra watched his head turning this way and that, saw incipient catatonia in his eyes and did not require the subdued cue which buzzed in her pearl earring. She glanced briefly up to where her father sat and saw him give the briefest nod. She whispered, “Let me come up to your room at half-past one, before we’re on. I could look at your shirts, your ties and help you dress to impress. Wouldn’t you like that?”

She pressed her hand, still holding the tie between finger and thumb, into his chest and rubbed it there ever so slightly. Trapped and almost paralysed, Martin could only stutter: “No,…, no thank you.”

“”Such a shame,” she breathed and released him. With practiced decorum she stood and sauntered casually out of Martin’s enclosure, stopping briefly at the entrance for the pack of photographers, before making her way to her parents’ table for a well-earned lunch.

Mission accomplished. Martin was most thoroughly intimidated and rattled.

6. The Second Day: the Game

Let us now accompany Martin back to his room after he rapidly demolished the last of his meal and beat a hasty retreat to the privacy of the ascenseur, batting away reporters who want to know what was said.

Martin is not stupid. Sometimes he may be a little slow, having to make conscious deductions which more normal people process easily and intuitively, but lying on his bed, finding his balance, he has time to reflect.

Chess is a hard old game. You don’t get to be a champion without playing thousands of matches against opponents - overwhelmingly male - who are trying to browbeat and bully when they can’t out-think you. Petra’s little episode, he now sees, conforms to a wearily familiar template. Yet he can control his emotions, can put this behind him. Once at the tournament table he will blank out the past and be in the moment: all that will exist will be the board - and the contest to shape its evolution to victory.

We will give Martin half marks here. He is right as far as he goes, but he never considered that Petra’s little cameo might have been aimed at a broader audience than just himself.

---

Two o’clock in the cathedral. The chairs - which replaced pews a long time ago - are entirely occupied; more are being delivered. Suddenly this competition has come alive, has caught the world’s attention. The lunchtime contretemps is on Youtube, getting millions of views.

The large screen high in front of the audience shows the board, pieces lined up ready to go. The camera is directly above the players and clever software replaces the images of the pieces with easy-to-see icons. This is being live-streamed to a popular chess site and commentator Angelo Márquez is setting the scene. He has few words for Martin Brown, sitting to the right (‘calm, almost bored’) and misses the extent to which Martin, mindful of the wisdom behind Petra’s intervention, has taken some pains to spruce himself up. He spares few superlatives in describing the eighteen year old, thoroughly dolled-up Petra. A sideways view shows what a poor job that skimpy black fashion item is doing in covering her alluring flesh. The website coordinator whispers on the backchannel: “Keep it up: viewing figures are going through the roof…”

Hans and Anne-Marie are sitting together in the front row: Petra’s father regards the screen, her mother the players. Despite the heat outside, it’s cool in the basilica. No-one comments on Hans’s light coat with its many pockets, or on the thin gloves he’s wearing - against allergies if anyone were to ask (they won’t).

Martin gets to play white and at first everything is conventional: the first ten moves or so a standard book-opening. Martin begins to get the feel of the development, lets his subconscious find the shape of the play, the wave of advance he must surf, the momentum which will force his opponent into passive reactivity, sucking all initiative from her game. Petra in her personhood and individuality has been erased: the game now abstracted to dynamics in space and time.

There is a small gasp from the audience. Martin is jerked from his comfortable flow. What did she do there? Why was that pawn moved to form an echelon? That part of the board is sterilized, inert, dead. He briefly raises his head, fixes a deadpan stare at Petra. Is she shocked by this careless mistake, does she wish she could take back that move?

She looks at him serenely, giving nothing away. There had been that subliminal buzz again, so faint he could barely hear it. Where did it come from? Some piece of equipment, no doubt. He dismisses the thought.

Eleven moves later there is a similar glitch in Petra’s play. Her bishop retreats from a promising stance to a defensive posture near that pawn echelon. Again a murmur from the audience: comments on the Internet are going crazy. Martin is suspicious - could there be method in her madness? He takes a glance but her expression gives him nothing.

He decides not to rush things. His clock ticks. He settles into a deep zen state, absorbing the board holistically, immersing himself in the shifting swells of possibilities, monitoring his psyche for gut feelings of anxiety or concern. There are none.

Fifteen moves on and Martin is done. Her rising arc of firepower should have been easy to stop, once it had arisen from nowhere. Yet all his key pieces had been pinioned. Her errors, he now sees, had been crucial, yet had taken so long to pay off. How, where had she learned that?

He tips over his King. Most of his being does not believe it, the act of surrender is almost that of an automaton. He wants nothing more than to get back to his room and feverishly replay the whole thing, to understand what has happened here.

Petra is not so retiring. She lingers for the reporters, for photographs. She is an engaging interviewee. She claims to have little insight into her unorthodox moves: “I play by instinct, by intuition,” she breathlessly tells the thrusting microphones, “They just felt right at the time.”

Petra makes primetime TV in France and Germany, a Eurostar seeing-off a perfidious Brit. Other countries pick up on the thoroughly photogenic challenger; mainstream presenters and camera crews are dispatched at pace to Carcassonne.

Tomorrow will be the decider.

7. Intermission 1

According to Wikipedia, Leela Chess Zero (abbreviated as LCZero or lc0) is a free, open-source, neural-network-based chess engine based on DeepMind's AlphaZero. It is competitive with Stockfish and Komodo as the best chess engine in the world, and unlike the mind-numbing crunching of its competitors, its machine-learning roots give it superhuman flair and insight.

Hans has a forked (and modified) copy running on a small microcomputer the size and appearance of a small packet of mints, handy to slip into his pocket. His gloves are his own design of chorded-keyboard: the left talks to the amped-up LCZero; the right uses an ultra-low-power frequency-hopping radio to talk to the device secreted in Petra’s earring.

Hans’s comms protocol maps chess’s algebraic notation into something like Morse in a code which Petra has intensively practised. When her ear lobe vibrates, she visualises in her mind’s eye the coded move. A move conventionally written, for example, as Nd2xe4 (a Knight capturing a piece on e4).

The system is almost perfect. There is that slight buzz of the tapper batting against her ear but experience has shown that hardly anyone can hear it. Especially if there is any kind of background noise... or a distraction.

This is the mode of use. Hans sits in the audience, entering moves as they appear on the big screen into his modified mint box. Hans considers the countermove Leela proposes back. No mean player himself, he uses a ‘surprise’ heuristic. Mostly the suggestions are what he would expect Petra to play anyway and he just lets his daughter get on with it. But occasionally something utterly counterintuitive emerges, something profoundly alien. And that is passed to Petra who proceeds to confound her opponent and commentators alike.

Her intuition has a great career ahead, he thinks.

8. Day 3: Martin

Let us consider Martin’s feelings after losing a match he had anticipated, had assumed, he would comfortably win. He retired to his room disoriented, his expectations thoroughly violated. Initially his mind felt frozen but gradually a dormant emotion emerged: shame. Somehow he must have made a mistake.

His intellect raced - but to no avail. He was exhausted. He reviewed the game on his laptop and could make no sense of it. Fatigue sapped his every intuition. Eventually he fortified himself on room-service pap and settled into an armchair, prepared to lose the evening in some pulp fantasy the size of a brick. When that failed he was early to bed.

After a fitful night, he felt considerably sharper the next morning. His subconscious had been busy and suspicions accumulated. First he ran the game again, using traditional chess engines (Stockfish, Komodo) to play her moves. As he expected, the engines’ moves were solid rather than flashy, merciless grind rather than innovative flair. There was little concordance with the Petra of the previous day.

He moved on to Maia. This was a neural-network chess engine trained not by self-play but by digesting human matches. Let no-one say that Martin was not diligent in his preparations. His Maia configuration has been trained on Petra’s published games (along with many others of course). It was in fair agreement with most of yesterday’s game-play when he set it to play Petra. But it missed all of her stunning innovations. Martin’s intuitions grew stronger - he sensed where this was going. He now turned to Leela Chess Zero.

Leela Chess Zero is not one thing. There are different forks of the codebase plus an ever-changing menagerie of plug-in neural-net modules. Martin used the most powerful (the highest rated) configuration currently in stable release... and quickly discovered how it might have been used. The AI engine did not of course recapitulate Petra’s entire game (left to itself it would have been far more innovative - and would have pulverised Martin or any other human player) but at those points where Petra had done something unexpected, the program produced moves not dissimilar in elegant genius.

Martin now took careful stock. Was there anything in Petra’s history which suggested an innate, quirky and superhuman talent? He reviewed her record with fresh eyes, but as far as he could tell the answer was no. He was forced to the only possible conclusion: she had to be cheating. Subtly and with help no doubt, but there could be no other explanation. And then he recalled the faint, subliminal buzzing he had heard. The answer had been there all along in the earrings.

Martin picked up the hotel phone and called the championship director, Pierre Étaix.

9. Day 3: M. Étaix, le directeur du match

Late morning Martin and Petra each received a call from M. Étaix to come down to his office for 1.15pm. The stated reason was to review arrangements for the final and deciding game. This was no surprise of course: media interest was now intense. Petra’s surprise win plus her glamour had captivated TV channels and major print outlets alike. There had been a steady stream of taxis and limousines from the airport to the Cité de Carcassonne all morning.

The Director’s office was a small conference room off the hotel’s concourse. Martin had been summoned fifteen minutes earlier, at one o’clock, to explain further his startling allegations and M. Étaix reluctantly agreed that a prima facie case had been established. Martin was feeling pleased with himself, rather vindicated as they waited for Petra to turn up.

At the appointed time, as the quarter hour tolled on the bells of the Basilica, Petra, accompanied by her parents, knocked and entered. Her appearance was even more stunning than the previous day. She was draped in a red dress colour-coordinated with her auburn hair. One strap fell artfully off her shoulder. The weave varied in mesh across the contours of her body, both concealing and revealing. Tight and very, very short, it forced the question as to whether it might be the only garment she was wearing. And on her ears were pearl decorations, as red as the rest of her outfit.

The Director now fell to his difficult and worrisome task. It was not just that he felt personally nervous, it was also the thought that a whiff of scandal would certainly destroy this championship, ruin months of effort and the reputations of those involved: perhaps that of France herself.

As he haltingly outlined the suggestion, the charge which had just been made, he was even half-prepared for violence from the accused’s family. He cast a cautionary look at two of his stewards and put out his hand, “If the mademoiselle could just hand over her earrings? We have machines here which can test…”.

And indeed they had: electronic sniffers, portable X-ray machines and more.

Petra, her face a furious glacial white, removed the requested pieces and handed them across. Hans and Anne-Marie glared at the assembled officials as if they had never been so insulted. Her father’s bare hands were balled into fists, aggression restrained by iron discipline.

And Martin? His cheeks were burning. He wished himself anywhere else in the world but here. What if he was wrong? But how could he be?

Everyone stood still as the technicians did their work. One came forward with an airport-type scanner and waved the wand all around the two contenders and Petra’s parents. But there were no lights, no beeps, no audible warnings of any kind. Finally the person who had been working the complex equipment looked up and addressed the Director.

“M. Directeur, they are all clean. As far as I can tell they are exactly how they look, a pair of rather expensive earrings.”

The Director looked at Martin appraisingly. Martin felt the Director's changing mood, his new assessment: Martin Brown, the loser who accuses his victorious opponent of cheating. His world imploding, he turned and bolted from the room.

Petra glared as the Director stammered his apologies, “... we always have to act when accusations such as these are made… .“

In a frigid voice she replied: “You keep them!”

She and her parents exited the Director’s bureau with considerably more dignity than Martin.

10. Intermission 2

A flashback to earlier that morning, to 9.30am when Martin was playing with his chess engines, trying to emulate Patra’s quirky and devastating plays. Petra is sitting in her parents’ suite on the top floor of the hotel. The black earrings - so useful yesterday - have been comprehensively destroyed: rendered to powder and the remains flushed down the toilet. A substitute pair - black and beautiful, perfectly genuine, perfectly innocuous - await any unlikely inspection.

Anne-Marie starts the meeting with an assessment of Martin Brown’s state of mind and likely course of action.

“He’s a classic introvert, on the spectrum. Yesterday’s events will have knocked him stupid but by now he’ll have recovered. He’ll figure out what was done to him - there were clues enough - and then he’ll complain to the authorities. We should expect a call shortly.”

Hans now; Petra listens with close attention.

“Here is how we do it today. He holds up the tampon. “The communicator is embedded - no more audible cues. And no-one is going to ask to take a look.”

He smiles.

“You apply it just before the game, just before you go down. And excuse yourself afterwards and dispose of it.”

Her mother adds practically, “We’ve practiced in the past so you need no reminders. Wear plenty of perfume. That will also keep him off balance.”

Hans sums it up: “Today we go in hard.”

11. Day 3: the Game

The Basilica has been transformed. Cables now flex across stone paving, snaking their way to TV cameras and lights. A press of observers crowds the walls at the back. Feeding an already febrile atmosphere there are new rumours of cheating: rebutted claims which make Petra a Wronged Woman. In the audience’s eyes, an audience now global, Martin Brown’s name is already mud.

And Martin is more sensitive than people imagine. He feels the hostility, dare he say it, the contempt of the crowd. His morale, already at rock bottom, takes a further tumble. His being is dominated by the spot where his guts knot and writhe. He feels he cannot stay here: but of course he cannot flee. He sits in the spotlights (he is as early as ever). Sits at his place by the table on the dais, and waits, unable to concentrate, battling abhorrent emotions.

Three minutes to two and Petra walks into that cavernous crowded space. She wears her vêtements du jour, that fishnet red dress we have already encountered - without facial adornment. At first only those near the side door spot her, and they stand up to get a better view... and bring their cameras to bear. As she turns into the main aisle, advancing to the front of the assembly, a hush comes over them all.

She daintily sits as before on the seat to the left and gives Martin a warm, magnanimous smile. TV cameras, in extreme close-up, linger over it. Martin doesn’t, because his face is turned resolutely to the board. The Director says a few words, gets things started - Martin will be playing black again - and the game gets underway.

A wronged Petra, an exonerated Petra, will this time show no mercy. Right from the off she plays an out-of-book opening, something machine-chess has made possible. Tiny, exciting twinges in her abdomen instruct her: she is Leela’s slave now - and Leela is an alien.

Martin is immediately off-balance. Normally when a player goes off-piste, ignoring the learning of centuries, they rapidly fall into error. There is a reason humans don’t do that, why those forays into novelty never made it into the book. But Leela has a different book: so much bigger and better… .

In Martin’s visual comprehension the board before him is a city in an earthquake. Positions he thought secure crumble like sand; volcanoes rise on plains he thought backwaters, spew ash and lava on his forces.

He is a chess grandmaster, still an excellent player. Occasionally he grits his teeth, feels his way to a killer counterblow, prepares to strike back. The audience draws in its breath, commentators murmur excitedly, the audience waits on Martin’s move.

And Petra leans forward. Her flushed breasts, so eager to escape, settle on the table. Cameras and Martin’s unwilling eyes cannot avoid them. Her perfume wafts across the board, assaulting his delicate senses.

His crystal city of abstraction collapses into fog. Pieces poised to pivot and crash through Petra’s defences are now just… pieces. He had screened out the clicking clock; the lights had long ago become invisible. But assailed by super-stimuli - and a terminal sense of his own worthlessness - his talent has fled. He looks at the board and sees as a novice.

He stands up. Noises in the room deaden, subside to nothing: an anechoic chamber. Mechanically, he pushes his chair back and slowly walks off the dais, between the rows of stupefied onlookers, out of the Basilica into the afternoon sun of mediaeval Carcassonne; escapes into centuries of deep time and a square which knows nothing of chess.

12. Epilogue

Every organised activity has its superfans. See that big guy over there in the bar, watching the sport channel with his mates, the one with the beard and the dad-bod? He’ll tell you more than you want to know about the offside rule. See that aging gentleman in the blazer? The one with the rough bristly moustache which fails to hide impacted teeth. He has his fund of tedious anecdotes about the perils of fielding at short leg. And that slim young man in his lycra who just cruised effortlessly by? He knows a thing or two about the tactics of the breakaway from the Peloton. These fans know their heros and heroines, obsess over them, are polarised by their feuds and animosities.

They are not typical.

They are too few and don’t suffice to pay the global circus bills. What the world wants is volume: revenue streams in torrents, crossover market share.

What the world needs is stars.

When the American, Lance Armstrong, went to Europe in the nineteen nineties he found that road racing there was riven with drugs. An unaided rider could not win against the best cyclists on dope. Armstrong came to a cold decision: if that was what it took then he would apply his formidable intelligence, his logistical skill and iron determination to be the very best doper. For more than a decade Armstrong dominated the sport, winning the Tour de France seven times in succession. The public loved to watch him, commentators were in awe. His fame brought riches to the cycling authorities: wealth and power and prominence. There were those who thought it was all too good to be true, dogged reporters who were literalists on morality. But who really, had an interest in killing the golden goose? For years he was protected by the authorities: the good and the great.

Yes, Armstrong was eventually brought down. Perhaps the culture of total-doping was just too egregious to survive. But does ‘good’ always win-out in the end? How would we know?

When Martin had his nervous breakdown, resigning the match in a fugue state, Petra was catapulted to superstar status. She was the pop superstar of chess: sassy, good-looking, a competent woman in a world of men where she had bested the best. So it was reported.

Most pundits, most executives, think she is the best thing which ever happened to chess. The purists may pore over her matches which seem to them, as to Martin, too good to be true. Yet her play is not perfect: many of her moves are sub-optimal according to the omniscient engines. She does just enough, her wins are effortful but relentless. Her growing fan base empathises with her occasional setbacks and her more frequent successes. Drama beats perfection: Petra’s become the leading character in her own reality show.

Petra talks to her father. They’re in a New York hotel. Tomorrow Petra will play in a major US tournament but tonight she is pensive.

“I don’t worry too much about being caught. You’re so clever and no-one important wants to rock our boat, but do you think it’s right? As far as I can tell, none of my opponents are getting help during the games.”

“They’re dinosaurs,” Hans says, “They don’t understand the world we’re moving into. No-one cares about chess anymore. There’s nothing new for people to explore - the machines have stolen all of that. All that’s left is spectacle: drama and confrontation. That’s what the machines will never provide.”

“Chess as show business?” Petra says.

“The difference is we know it, Petra, and your opponents don’t. Maybe chess used to be like boxing but the engines changed all that. Now it’s wrestling: choreographed emotion, a canvas for catharsis. And you, Petra, you are the focus for millions of people and long may we keep it that way.”

Petra is doubtful.

“Don’t you think that the excitement depends on my opponents not realising that it’s not just me that’s killing them? Isn’t their naïveté what keeps them so highly-strung, so serious and so determined? Doesn’t my audience crave authenticity above everything?”

And finally, “Do you think what we have here is really stable?”

To these questions Hans has no answer.

---

Martin’s star has fallen so deeply into the pit. The world now echoes that aircrew judgement we saw at the start of this story: behold the loser. He is not vindictive - Martin does not do vindictive - but he does do truth. He knows he was not wrong. He simply underestimated her cunning. He doesn’t know how she does it but to an expert the tracks are clear enough. He follows her games obsessively, compiles his mounting dossier, waits for the day the reporters come to visit, the day when he will finally be vindicated.

Yet what if he succeeds, if he manages to bring Petra down? He is too honest not to let this worrisome thought run on. Chess would return to its former drab state: mere obsessives contending in an eternal second division as the machines go forth to chart an astral but ultimately sterile space... while an uncaring world passes on by, regarding not.

His entire life would revert to meaninglessness.

Could it be, he wonders, that victory is not everything.

END


Submitted: March 01, 2021

© Copyright 2021 AdamCarlton. All rights reserved.

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