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Loser’s Forfeit Ch. 01

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Amateur

A tale of chess—and losing oneself—by Veeshan

(Author’s Note: This has NEVER happened to me before. I sure wish it would, though!)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA. As I squinted against the harshly-crystalline blue sky of a winter morning, I reflected that they didn’t call this place “Sin City” for nothing. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I didn’t really have the money, but I had the dream. For me, that was enough. My parents always harped about my credit cards and not going into debt, but for now they’d fallen silent. They were on a pre-Christmas vacation to visit old family friends in Florida.

Myself? I was incognito at a chess tournament—the 21st Annual North American Open, no less! Let’s face it: in Sin City, no one knew who Remy Stendrath was. No one knew she was only a small-town girl with a big-city heart, an ugly duckling yearning to transform into a swan and fly away. Was she a white swan or a black swan? Even I didn’t know—at least, not yet. This was the first round of the North American Open, and it was left up to the luck of the draw when it came to which color you played. People say there’s no luck in chess, but they’re wrong. If your opponent doesn’t see your mistakes on the board, then that’s definitely lucky!

Also, as an unrated player, I had not made any kind of an impression in the chess world. Yet.

What kind would I make today? I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my hotel room and debated this. Whether I won or lost, I knew I was “dressed to impress.” Did that count? I was haunted by vague yet apprehensive memories of practicing in high school for job interviews, which never helped when I got out into the real world. My teachers had given me far more credit for my performance than any interviewer ever had. From my teachers, I’d gotten A’s. From my job interviewers? I hadn’t even gotten a rejection letter back from some of them…

Remy! Snap out of it! This isn’t Podunkville. This is Las Vegas, and you’re here to play some chess. I giggled at the sultry female voice in my head—the exact opposite of my mother’s. This one had a face like a Spanish tango instructor and a tone like a drill sergeant. Even though she gave me a jolt, I welcomed her. I christened her “Fernanda”–this mental picture.

Am I schizophrenic? No. I only have a good imagination, which no one around me seems to understand. I have to be careful what I talk about with certain people. Otherwise, I’m toast!

“Fernanda” vanished, leaving me to survey my appearance in the mirror: clean hair, clean face, clean body. I didn’t wear makeup, finding it too itchy and uncomfortable for my sensitive skin. I wore a cranberry satin blouse—one that I had gotten for Christmas—with shimmering gold embroidery. It made me feel like a queen, which was exactly what I wanted to be in this chess tournament. Long black pants completed the ensemble—no more, and no less.

I dress simply because it’s comfortable. So-called “fashionable” clothes make me squirm and try to adjust myself all over the place when no one’s looking. And my shoes? I hadn’t worn a pair that any woman would consider cool since at least my high school prom! They were orthopedic, but I didn’t really care. I needed those. My feet were entirely two different sizes.

Giving my hair one last run-through with a huge comb, I headed downstairs at last.

Why is it that more and more fancy hotels these days don’t have vending machines? It seems counter-intuitive and counter-productive, not being able to buy your pop and bottled water on the floor you’re on! However, I knew the reason behind this, however inane I thought it was:

The management wants you to buy your snacks at the gift shop on the first floor. Go figure! Still, it can be a long and embarrassing hike back to your room just to drink Pepsi in peace. That was why, after buying a double-chocolate-chip muffin and my favorite cola for breakfast, I reclined in a reasonably-comfortable-looking chair in the lobby. Another hotel “pet peeve” of mine: Avant-garde seating arrangements LOOK cool, but can you actually SIT in them?

Not very well, if you have trouble with your body or your back like I did. And they call this art?

Glancing at my watch, I struggled to get my big butt up off of the “chair”. It was 9:00 sharp.

The first round of the North American Open started at 9:30. I’d eat in the tournament room.

Now, I know what all of you are probably thinking: GET TO THE SEX ALREADY!!!

The thing was, Vadim Ilyanovich Startsev and I did not have sex. Not as you know it. Sex involves one person’s body part entering another person’s bodily orifice. Tab A? Meet Slot B.

That is not what we did. Or, at least that’s not what I did.

I simply paid a loser’s forfeit. We touched, yes, but did we go “all the kartal escort bayan way”? Not hardly!

If you’re looking for something more substantial, or hardcore, then you can stop reading. However, if you’re looking for the world’s most delicious account of a sponge bath—read on!

Chess tournament rooms don’t look the part. They’re basically hotel conference rooms or ballrooms, set up with tables on which people can play. What I wouldn’t give to face the chessboard—and my opponents—at a cathedral, like in Searching for Bobby Fischer! As it was, the partitioned ballroom gave off an air of Business as usual, and that’s what you all are here for. Yes? I got the feeling that, for the most part, people didn’t consider chess to be art…

That was why I had so much trouble thinking of it as a science. Bobby Fischer, I was not. My mind was not a calculator or computer. Rather, it was a blank canvas searching for a muse, yearning for the pieces to speak to it, suggesting attacks and defenses. The chessboard was the silent slave of other—better—players, but I considered it my master in any of the games I played. What was it trying to tell me? What was really going on behind the bland algebraic notation on my various score sheets? Sure, the moves were being recorded, but what about the mood? What about the stealthy dance that was quietly taking place between two rivals—enemies? Did that not count? I sighed and began to devour my double-chocolate delicacy.

What opening was I going to play? How would I continue it, whether I was White or Black?

I let my mind wander over the possibilities like I let my hand wander over my cat Sasha’s arched back. So furry, warm and yielding! Hopefully, the board would prove the same way…

My opponent? I knew what he or she would be like: giving no quarter, as I’d try to give none.

As I took a sip of Pepsi, I remembered one of my past adversaries: a thirteen-year-old-girl. She was Asian—not to stereotype, or say that all Asians are super-smart—but she was cold. During our game, her marble-black eyes seemed to say: “Why are you here? You’re not that good. People practice before going to chess tournaments. How about you? It looks like you’re not even trying.” I was trying, darn it, even though our game was over before it had really begun! Elizabeth Ling, rating 1350, had “forked” my queen and rook, attacking them with one of her knights. I had resigned immediately, of course, conceding loss—not that it pleased her.

When I shook her hand and said, “Good game,” the look on her face said Duh. Meaning, “Not that our game was all that good, but duh. I knew I was going to win. You’ve just insulted me.”

I’d walked away from that game feeling stupid and ashamed. Luckily, I’d soon recovered…

People were swarming in. Men, women, boys and girls from all over North America had come to this hotel to try their luck—or, excuse me, skill—at chess. More specifically, at what could be the most important chess tournament of their entire lives. I knew it was that way for me!

A fellow player suddenly announced, “The pairings are up.” Hearing this, I sprang into action and dashed toward the head table. Across from my name—STENDRATH, REMY, UNR—was the name of a man, I presumed, from my knowledge of Russian: STARTSEV, VADIM I., 1885.

Oh. My. Gawd. Was that his rating? If so, I was completely up the river—!

Nevertheless, I sighed with relief: At least it’s not Elizabeth Ling. I hope this guy is nice.

I sat down. A magnificent creature landed in the chair across from mine—a dark-eyed falcon:

“Startsev?”

“Vadim.” He smiled and stretched out his hand for me to shake. I did so, and his grip was strong and warm. Mine was no “limp fish” itself, but we’re talking a guy’s handshake versus a girl’s. Even my English teachers, when preparing us for “job interview” practice, emphasized this difference. They said I didn’t have to try and be what I was not, and for once I agreed.

As for Vadim? I was curious about him. What was his middle name? I tried my Russian:

“Zdravstvuyte. Kak dela? Menya zovut Remy. Pozhaluysta, skazhite: chto—tvoe otchestvo?”

“Vashe otchestvo.” He was still smiling. Oops—I’d made a blunder! “Ilyanovich,” he replied. He didn’t seem to be offended by my using the familiar form of address with him, even though I immediately apologized and corrected myself as per his example. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Me, too!” My cheeks suddenly flushed hot. What was I, a seven-year-old schoolgirl?

Vadim let go of my hand and glanced around the room. “So, this is really Las Vegas?”

“Yep. Sin City itself.” I paused. “Although, I must admit these proceedings aren’t very sinful. There should be more video poker consoles nearby, and more ringing escort maltepe of slot machines.” I was babbling, I knew. I babbled around all men that made my body tense like that. Get my drift?

“I’m not a gambling man myself, unless it comes to chess.” He suddenly sat up straighter.

I blinked. “You want to bet money on our game?” Big pause. “I don’t have all that much.”

“There are other ways to settle a friendly wager,” he answered. “May I suggest one?”

“We’re not going to have sex, are we?” Crap! Why on Earth had I said that?! I was so stupid!

“Not unless you want to.” Perfectly matter-of-fact, perfectly soft, and perfectly sincere. What now? If I said no, I would be lying. If I said yes, I would be heading straight to Hell. No doubt. When he saw my hesitation, shifting eyes and uneasy smile, he said, “Relax. I was joking.”

“No, you weren’t.” Why did saying that somehow put me at ease? “Let’s make another bet.”

“How about this? The one who loses must perform a task that the winner specifies—outside of sex—after this round. Deal?” I nodded, shaking his hand as any proper sportsman would.

The officiator of the tournament stepped up to the front of the room, cleared his throat, and said some blah-blah-blah. You know—”I’d like to thank…” “This tournament could not have been made possible without…” The usual stuff, the BS that everybody has to hear before the fun starts. It was necessary, but that didn’t mean it was any good. I wasn’t paying attention.

“Start your clocks.” THAT was the moment I’d been waiting for, and I was incredibly nervous.

Vadim had been assigned the white pieces. I had black. That meant he had to take the lead, because White always goes first in a game of chess. That was the one of the primary rules. As one of my primary rules, I was better as White. As Black, my defenses were weaker.

Now: What defense to play here? My simple and boring “usual?” Oh, no. Not against him…

I settled on a series of moves that both intrigued and doomed me. I was afraid to play them, and yet I did. It’s not that I hated the defense. On the contrary: I was fascinated by it! Nothing else would satisfy my curiosity right now, especially if I were slated to go up against lesser-rated players in the future. Then I could go easy, but now? I wanted to pull out all the stops.

Thus, I played what I call the “Black Swan Defense” in my mind: the Scheveningen variation of the Sicilian defense. Namely: pawn to c5, pawn to d6, knight to f6, pawn to e6. Seductive. It’s a set of moves that only Masters play, or at least those who were far better than I. As for Vadim? I forget what he did here—something unusual with his knights—but it was epic! There is nothing pedestrian about the Scheveningen, either on White’s part or on Black’s. Those who choose to play it are artists, not scientists. They’re especially not businessmen—sales reps and marketing gurus. They’re not trying to trick with obvious traps and amateur pitfalls. They attack quietly, and when counterplay fails, they seize their advantage with ferocity.

I was both exhilarated and terrified to play it. Why? It’s very hard to explain, especially to people who’ve not played chess, but I’ll sure try. I wrote a song about it, to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro”. The members of my chess team sure loved it, and I hope you will, too!

Hey—If you’re looking for the sponge bath, you’ve got some more skipping to do. Hang on…

SCHEVENINGEN

(Sung like “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga)

(Backbeat part:) “c5, d6, Nf6, e6” (x 8)

(Verse One:)

I’ve got my mind—on the chessboard,
But I won’t look at you, won’t look at you.
You hide tactics—under your chapeau. [French for “hat”]
You’ve got a halo around your King and around you.

You know you play awesome, boy,
Almost like Karpov. Rejoice!
My defense I’ve got to choose. Nothing to lose…

(Chorus:)

EXCEPT the game! EXCEPT the game!
Scheveningen…
Too hard to play, too hard to play
Sicilian.
What’s up with this? That I won’t touch.
I’ll just play 1. …e5 and hush!
Don’t call my name, don’t call my name
Once again.

Scheveningen, Scheveningen…c5, d6, Nf6, e6.
Variant: Sicilian. Variant: Sicilian.
Scheveningen, Scheveningen…c5, d6, Nf6, e6.
Variant: Sicilian. Variant: Sicilian.

(Spoken Part:) Stop! Please! Just let me go, Scheveningen. Just let me go…

(Verse Two:)

In the chess world, I’m just a baby,
But I want to defend like a dad, just like a dad.
In all those games when–I fell before you,
My defense—it was just too hard, and that’s just sad!

You know you play awesome, boy,
Quite like Kasparov. pendik escort Rejoice!
My defense I’ve got to choose. Nothing to lose…

(Chorus)

(Bridge:)

Don’t entice me, don’t seduce me,
Scheveningen.
Don’t call my name. I’ll lose the game–
DARN SICILIAN!
Too hard to play, too hard to play.
Scheveningen.
What’s up with this? That I won’t touch:
Sicilian.

(Final Chorus, with the Backbeat Part of “c5, d6, Nf6, e6” repeating stalwartly)

See what I mean? If not, I’m sorry. It’s just—Vadim! He was unlike any man I’d ever met, and not just unlike any other chess player. It seems like most of the guys I knew had three tracks in their minds, running around one another and sometimes blending right into each other. Most of the time, their trains of thought circled around a single track: SPORTS. SEX. BEER. However, from time to time—like at a bar or something—these three concentric circles of well-worn yet still shiny railroad ties would host one big train simultaneously: SPORTSEXBEER! SPORTSEXBEER! SPORTSEXBEER! Choo-choo, choo-choo! Oh—and with a gloriously executed fart or belch for the train whistle, followed by knowing laughter from all spectators!

Vadim wasn’t like that. I know not all men are like that, either, but he stuck out like a sore thumb. I could see it from the way that he played chess. He wasn’t trying to beat me quickly—wham-bam, thank you, ma’am, and good luck in the next round. He was letting me take my time, as he was taking his time. Sure, he was out to win, but winning wasn’t the only thing to him even in a chess tournament. That was my strong suspicion. My instincts are very good…

His eyes flashed. “Checkmate.” He placed his queen in front of my King, backed by his knight.

I gasped. What was it I saw in that moment? What had his semiquaver-length glance said?

Aha! You’ve lost! Ordinarily, that would depress me, but I sensed a glow of warmth as well as triumph in his eyes. I kept my eyes fixed on the board, staring and staring. He had won…

Vadim stretched out his hand and stopped our chess clocks. “Good game,” he said.

I knew he didn’t mean it. Or, rather, I knew that was not completely what he meant. In many ways, saying “good game” can be as much a pile of BS as what the tournament officiator was pouring out before things started. It’s a smoke screen to hide your real feelings. Resentment, anger, fear, jealousy and disappointment—all can be cloaked behind those two little words. I tried not to do that, but I still had to keep things hidden. What did I hide, mostly, when I lost?

Sadness: in myself, in the circumstances of the game, and that I had not lasted longer…

However, when I looked at Vadim again, I wasn’t sad. Why had I not plunged into darkness?

He took my hand. Instead of saying “good game”, as was proper, I whispered something else:

“Je perdu.” His fingers lifted mine. I sure did not want to let go first. Let him make the move…

He did, letting my hand drop to the table like a snowflake to the ground. “Well played, Remy.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t believe it. “No way. I mean, I only lasted twenty-five moves, Mr. Startsev—!”

“Beautiful.” He paused. “Better twenty-five slow moves than fifty hasty ones, or overeager. You viewed each move as a goal unto itself. In time, this will help in combinations. No move is isolated from the others, as we both well know. Chess is a symphony, not a spreadsheet.”

I suddenly found myself laughing. “You’re right!” I slapped my hand over my mouth and quieted down. Most people were still playing. At this time, I caught a look on Vadim’s face:

He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. I suspected he was my age. However, at the moment when he finished his musings, he looked haggard versus the other players. Chess clocks were being slammed down all over the place—tick-bam, tick-bam. Everybody’s heads were hunched over their chessboards, as if they were overgrown turtles in blue and white polo-neck T-shirts. Something felt wrong, and as soon as I saw Vadim’s expression I saw it:

Is this it? Is this what chess is all about? Tick-tock, tick-tock, check and checkmate, and you’re done. Beat your opponent before he beats you. Conquer the tournament. Earn cash. Everyone wins, especially the good folks at this hotel and the corporations that sponsored us. Is this to what I’ve given my life? A money ploy? Chess is chess, but what on Earth is THIS?

I could see it in the drab red carpet of the ballroom, hear it in the hum of overhead fluorescent lighting, smell it in the odor of ubiquitously-used hotel-strength disinfectant, touch it in the bumpy white plastic whatever-it-is material of the tournament tables, and taste it in my mouth: the weird chemical afterthought of my individually-wrapped, double-chocolate-chip muffin.

It was all around us. None of us seemed either willing or able to escape because it was life.

Vadim shook off a chill. “Et quoi?” he scoffed quietly. “Oh, by the way…I know French, too.”

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