‘The game we’re playing is all about focus. Don’t heed to propaganda unleashed by spectators.’
Silence reigns supreme as they mull over their next move. Some obvious shots are stark. But they won’t take it. Making the game obvious for their opponents is not in their rulebook. Like veterans, they love to keep their rivals guessing. After all, the game they play is cunning to the core.
The man playing with Black objects is a notorious trickster, doubling as a politician, in town. And the one playing with Whites happens to be a seasoned sleuth known as the ‘master manipulator’.
The deadlock ends when the intelligence man sets his knight in motion to devour one of the politician’s pawns.
“Nice,” hollers the politician in a room filled with smoke, intermittent silence and tactless suspense. “So far, you’re living up to your name in this game—a stormtrooper of spycraft.”
“I hate compliments,” replies the sleuth in an indifferent tone, “especially when they come from an old fox like you.”
Amid tricks and turnarounds, a burst of transient laughter rings in the grim room.
“There you go,” now the politician calls his move by knocking out sleuth’s knight with his knight.
“Good shot,” the snoop says. “Some political moves even baffle intelligence at times. Just when I was aiming for your knight, you proved it to me why it is called the ‘oddball of the game’ bestowed with jumps.”
The politician could feel some warmth rising in his cold heart. Unlike his opponent, he loves compliments — even if they come from the branded bootlickers.
But then the praise he got was nothing but a ploy of the shrewd spy. Being an old wolf capable of reading minds, the gumshoe knows how his warm words are enough to keep the politician in good humour and obscure his focus on the game.
“There,” the sleuth calls his next triumphing move, “your Bishop is gone.”
“God!” bellows the politician. “I didn’t see it coming!”
“No rocket science here,” replies his focussed rival. “You just need to be true to the game — or, there is every chance, you will end up losing the dear. Like this pawn of yours, gone!”
“Let me tell you a funny thing about pawns,” the politician after losing another object turns thoughtful analyst. “Despite being the indispensable part of the game, they are allowed to two squares forward on their first move and one square forward thereafter. You see, they act in restricted mode. I mean, there is nothing much for them in this game. They just bleed in the name of the front wall.”
“Don’t underestimate pawns like that,” the sleuth grins at his rival. “Pawns do make an exception by capturing enemy pieces by moving diagonally, no? That means, my pawn is just doing that by dismissing your another knight! So, here is a piece of advice for you: never try to worry much about the funny side of your objects. The game we’re playing is all about focus. Don’t heed to propaganda unleashed by spectators. Pawns, let it be known, are still our best bets in this mind game.”
“Some wise words indeed. But listen, pawns don’t always make good exceptions. They lack creative moves and masterstrokes. And this is where the plot thickens for me.”
“In your sweeping understanding of the game, you tend to confuse your objects,” the sleuth still hawking the game curiously says. “That’s not how we play this game. Rules should be there. They are much-needed for posterity. Otherwise, those disgruntling game critics would dismiss it as another macabre sport. I’m sure you know what name-calling does to the game, no? And yes, stop calling some other shots in the guise of the game. Let pawns have those powers of exception. For me, it makes the game intriguing and more complicated. The more complicated games we play, the more are chances of rewards and awards.”
“Now, you’ve started sounding like a textbook spy,” the politician trying hard to focus on the game says. “You know, there exists a trick called pawn promotion, right? So, you can advance a pawn across the board and promote it to a rook, knight, bishop, or even queen. This increases the number of powerful pieces in your army. Promoting a pawn to a queen is typically the best bet.”
“Just do me a favour,” the sleuth jabs at his rhetoric rival, “stop teaching me the moves of my own game. But hey, I like that queen mention though.”
“You mean, a pawn for a queen?”
“Yes,” the sleuth says. “Isn’t this game all about your queen? But you must rescue her. She is living dangerously here.”
“Just when I was thinking about my king, who is both the game’s weakest piece and its most important, you aimed for my queen — the game’s most powerful piece.”
“I tell you something,” the sleuth looks directly into the politician’s stoned eyes, “with those wild powers she got, she can wreak havoc. And being the larger object of the game, she can equally prove destructive if she will have her own way. That’s why, dear politician, learn to guard and guide your queen—unless yes, she will end up spoiling your whole game on the mercy of some rookie pawns.”
“Don’t appreciate everything I say, for god sake! Rise above this political tokenism.”
“But still,” the confused politician persists, “the prime goal of this game is to checkmate your opponent’s king.”
“I will come back to that, but first, let me take down your another Bishop. There you go,” the sleuth outsmarting his rival yet again says.
“My friend,” he addresses the politician, “I believe, you’re yet to understand this game. You know, sometimes, I feel I should give your tribe some serious lessons on the gameplay. Anyway, since you asked, let me tell you something. When you play with your 16 pieces lined up in two rows on a board with 64 squares, pawns shield your privileged row containing a king, a queen, two rooks, two bishops and two knights. King being vulnerable is nothing but an Achilles heel of this game. And my game ethics teach me: never go after the feeble lots. They otherwise will crumble if you mount an attack on their guard. Real strength still lies in queen. And it’s fun to go after her because they taught us women are deadlier — especially when they’re powerful.”
“I can see a clear pattern now,” the politician sighs. “So, allow me to knock down your rook.”
“Good, but I’m also pouncing on your last but one pawn,” the sleuth baffling the politician yet again says. “This tiny shit was eyeing for a near possible promotion by advancing to higher squares.”
“You’re clearly reading my mind now,” the politician states. “But certain rules of this game are still baffling. I mean, the rules say it’s illegal to move into a square occupied by one of your own pieces. If you enter a square held by your opponent, the occupying piece is deemed captured and removed from the board. Does it really make sense?”
“Whether it makes sense or not, but since it is part of the game, so make peace with it,” the sleuth responds with a cold stare. “And stop making sense of the rules here and better start taking care of your queen. Look, she is again living very dangerously.”
“I thought, you’ll checkmate me as my king was trapped by your pieces with no available escape route. To be very frank with you, I wanted to resort to Castling—you know, the same defensive manoeuvre involving moving two pieces at once. Since I was staring at a situation where my king and rook were both in their original positions, the king isn’t in check, and there’re no pieces blocking the manoeuvre.”
“I told you, I ain’t playing this game for your king…”
“Yes, I know, how badly you want my queen,” the politician smirks. “But shall I tell you something? The way I see it, you won’t even touch my queen. This game is full of manoeuvres and the way I’m looking at the turn of events, I’m winning hands down.”
“You politicians always see some kind of silver lining in your doom,” the sleuth scores one more point. “Keep playing, let’s see who’ll checkmate whom?”
“Well, you know what en passant is, right?” the eager politician says. “Sorry about the obvious, but here is the thing. This rare but useful offensive move is legal only when one of your pawns is stationed in the fifth row and an enemy pawn in an adjacent column attempts to advance two squares on its first move. Normally, the enemy pawn would evade capture. By employing an en passant, I can move my piece diagonally to the empty square behind the enemy pawn to capture it. So, checkmate!”
“What!” the sleuth shrieks over the politician’s last move sealing the fate of the game. “How could you… I mean, I thought, I was looking at my certain win here!”
“And I was giving you that pleasure of delusional victory by setting the table for one last trick,” the politician reclines on his seat.
“You see,” the politician’s rhetoric rages on, “don’t try to outsmart politicians in the game they play their entire lives. And yes, the queen survives despite her wild, wild moments. That’s the nature of this game. Even the vulnerable king survives at her behest. So, hail the queen.”
(This Short Story appeared in December 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)
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Iqbal Mehraj is a Srinagar-based writer. He is currently working on an anthology on the prowling behemoths, Dark Knights.