A Memorable Encounter
It was a big day for the town’s chess club. All but one of the forty-seven members were present, together with about twenty interested people from the general public, including a reporter from the local newspaper. The great attraction was to be a simultaneous exhibition given by the grandmaster Leonid Gronik, paying his first visit to Britain and fresh from his triumph in taking first place in a major tournament on the Continent.
Ten of the club’s best players were ready to do battle with the great man. The tables had been set up in two facing rows of five, separated by a wide aisle to allow Gronik to move from game to game. As usual in such events, he was to play white against all opponents. In accordance with common practice, the use of chess clocks had been rejected. Everyone knew that the master would set a brisk pace and his opponents were expected to react in a timely manner. Play was scheduled to start at 2.00 p.m. Gronik arrived at the last minute. He was a commanding presence, six-foot-two and hefty, with a mop of black hair and hypnotic eyes of the same colour. Most of those present expected that he would stick to his preferred queen’s pawn openings, but he surprised them by varying his approach, making king’s pawn starts in the even-numbered games.
Casualties were not long in coming and by the end of the first hour, four of the locals had resigned, all having made early blunders from which they had no chance of recovering. Others offered slightly sterner resistance, but none survived far into the second hour and the last one capitulated at 3.25.
Almost total silence had reigned during the games. As soon as the last one ended, spirited conversations began. At a sign from club president Jackman, a group of hotel staff members entered the room and unveiled a buffet-style afternoon tea. The president circulated, keen to chat with as many of the non-members as possible. In doing this, he encountered a middle-aged man of medium height, with close-cropped hair the colour of iron filings and a sallow complexion, perhaps, Jackman thought, indicative of much time spent indoors. It was with this man that the president had a startling talk. On being asked what he thought of the proceedings, the man replied that Gronik had taken too long to dispose of several of his opponents, having missed a number of opportunities to make shorter work of them. “That’s quite a statement,” said Jackman. “Would you have done better?”
The man nodded. “Yes, I would. I noted that the average length of those games was nearly thirty-two moves. If Gronik had seized every chance he was given, that figure would have been well under thirty moves.”
“Remarkable,” the president replied. “So, if you were to take on the same opposition, you would produce a more emphatic result than our stellar visitor, right?” “I believe so.”
Jackman was a quick thinker. He asked the man to stay where he was for a little while, then bustled away. Twenty minutes later he was back. He had spoken with every one of the grandmaster’s vanquished opponents. “Right,” he said to the stranger, “you can have your chance. It’s only quarter past four and the tables are still in place. All of those ten players are prepared to try again. If you’re willing, we’ll start in twenty minutes. By the way, what is your name?”
“I am willing, and the name’s Simpson.”
Jackman announced the unexpected supplementary event, which caused much excitement.
Simpson was as good as his word. By 5.40 he had disposed of all the locals. On average, they lasted just under twenty-seven moves.
Gronik had stayed to watch the extraordinary performance. He was about to leave when the president, having had another brainwave, asked him to wait a few minutes. Everyone wanted to speak to Simpson, but all made way for Jackman, who took the amazing guest’s arm and sought a relatively quiet spot to speak with him. “Truly astonishing, sir,” said the president. We should all have heard of a man who can play as you can, but none of us has. What is your tournament record, if I may ask?”
“No record,” was the answer. I’ve never played in a tournament.”
“What about man to man matches then?”
“I haven’t played any of them, either.”
The president shook his head. “Astounding. So how did you learn to play?”
“I was in prison for a long time. The warden took an interest in me and at one point he lent me a chess computer. I was supposed to give it back, but he died. Nobody asked for the thing, so I kept it.”
“This gets weirder as it goes on,” said Jackman. “Have you ever played against another person at all?”
“Well, look, I’ve had an idea. I just put it to Gronik and he’s happy with it. There’s still plenty of evening left, so I’m suggesting the two of you have a game, on the same fairly informal basis that you’ve both played against our members. It might mean a delayed dinner for all of us, but how about it?”
For a moment, Simpson seemed uncertain, then he agreed.
The two gladiators started their game at 6.45. It was a fiasco. From the beginning, Simpson was fidgeting and sweating. He made three big mistakes in his first fifteen moves, the last one catastrophic, causing him to concede the game upon Gronik’s prompt and crushing response. Play ended well before eight o’clock
The anticlimax was not all that emerged from the clash. It so happened that one of the spectators was a bookmaker. When the two titans were matched, he had scuttled around, taking bets left, right and centre, most of them on Simpson. After that dismal performance, there were those who thought that something fishy was going on. A group of suspicious attendees accosted the president, asking him to look into the matter. He took Simpson aside. “How do you account for what just happened?” he said. “I mean, forgive my forthrightness, but you played like a beginner.”
Simpson gave a rueful smile. “I should have mentioned this,” he answered, “but I got carried away. When the prison warder lent me that chess computer, he said he’d lost the handbook that came with it. I knew how to make the moves, but had no idea about the subtleties. I worked them out as I went along. The thing is these machines are usually set so that the owners play white unless they decide otherwise. Without instructions, I didn’t realise it was possible to switch colours. So when we tossed that coin and Gronik got the white pieces, I knew what was coming. You see, all my one-sided practice made me a wizard with white, but I’m useless with black.”
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