The hall was hollow and impersonal. It echoed dismally, mostly with the irritating click of ping-pong balls. Julian scouted out the least offensive spot—a semi-partitioned corner—to which he carried a card table and two folding chairs. From a felt-lined case he took out his chessmen. Their elegance, in the midst of such banality, was too incongruous. He put them back, setting up the plastic ones instead. It was 1:45.

He waited. A gaggle of bridge-players shuffled cards nearby. Pool balls broke. The crass linoleum reverberated with recreating feet. Smokers fouled the air.

He tried to withdraw, to edit distractions, to find the inner refuge he had lost—his meadow. It would not come. He stood and paced, ill-temperedly, slapping his soles down on the glossy floor. He sat again. It was worthless, this bid to gain the confidence of a mere adolescent—a pawn whose chances were slim to none of ever reaching the queening square. Why bother? What could possibly be in it for him… besides the win? He lowered his nose to the tabletop and peered out through the ranks. White vs. Black. Papp vs. Zoe. He could almost visualize a habit mantling the hostile King, the King in drag. Perversely, he found the image fitting.

"Hello."

Marcy arrested his reverie. He rose.

"Am I late?"

It was their first meeting since they had mutually astounded one another with their fits. Marcy was inordinately nervous. Julian was simply irritated.

"These conditions are unbearable. Do you mind if we move?"

She looked around, not really understanding his objection. It was, after all, just a game they were going to play. But he was the teacher. She deferred.

"No, I don't mind. Where to?"

"My room."

She balked.

"You needn't worry. I don't bite—except my own tongue from time to time."

"I don't think Sister Zoe would like it."

"I'm sure not. But if I'm to teach you anything about 'The Game of Games,' peace and quiet are essential."

She still hesitated.

"Tell you what, you run along to ole Ms. Zoe to get permission, and, if you get it, make sure she writes you a little note and pins it to your blouse. I'll be in my room, East wing, second floor, 'suite' nine."

He gathered up the sets and walked away. Marcy followed. At the double doors she stopped, watching as he crossed the common to see if he would look back. He did not. Not once. All the way. She knew he was trying to intimidate her into doing what he wanted. Sister had warned her that he was clever. She had also said the chess classes were optional. All the classes were, in fact, but Julian's in particular. And if Julian did anything to make her feel uncomfortable, she was to excuse herself and go straight to Sister Zoe. That seemed a bit extreme, however. He had been mean that first time, true, but he had just suffered one of his seizures; Sister had explained about those. She had also said that Julian seemed better, since a seizure had not happened in a while, and that his teaching offer was another healthy sign. Then there was what the Miniature Man had said—and the question of the poisoned pawn.

 

 

When Marcy reached his room the door was open. Julian obviously was expecting her, which made her mad. He sat in a straight-backed chair at a little table, a second chair placed opposite. The board and chessmen were beautiful. She was instantly reminded of the Miniature Man, for the pieces each looked startlingly real. And though a lot of them were exactly alike in shape and size, no face was carved the same. Even the short ones (the pawns, she guessed), which outnumbered all the rest, were clearly individuals. Absorbed with their enchanting features, her pique at being 'predictable' dissolved. She took the seat awaiting her.

Julian took no notice she was there. She found his reflective glasses rather irksome. They really made it impossible to tell where he was looking. Yet now that she was sitting right in front of him, she somehow knew his eyes were not on her. She utilized the interim to re-inspect the figures. They were all lined up like soldiers on parade—two separate armies facing each the other with a frozen expectation, poised to be engaged by the touch of a human hand.

Like a striking snake, Julian's arm shot forward. Marcy flinched. When her heart stopped pounding she saw he had merely pushed a pawn to another square.

"You scared me."

"Chess is a game of peremptory advantage. Your fear gives me the edge, just as would your inattention, lack of confidence, poor imagination. In other words, any flaw you carry to the board."

"But I don't even know how to play."

"One flaw, I trust, we'll soon amend. Tell me what you do know."

She looked down at the board.

"I know these short ones are the pawns. And the tall ones are the King and Queen."

"That's all?"

His question was dispassionate. It told her nothing of how he felt about her nearly total ignorance of the game. She tried, by way of compensating, to hazard some assumptions.

"All the pieces line up with each other at the start… A pawn can jump two squares at once."

"On its first move only."

"Oh."

Within three-quarters of an hour, Marcy knew considerably more.

"You haven't mentioned the poisoned pawn."

He sat back in his chair, bemused.

"Where did you hear that term?"

"Tell me what it is first."

"It's a reference to the twenty-ninth move in the second game of the 1972 World Chess Championship—Spassky vs. Fischer."

She looked perplexed.

"You asked; I told you. So where did you hear it?"

"What does it mean, though?"

He paused a moment, then using the crisp, aggressive moves he consistently made with the chessmen, he set up the position.

"This won't mean much to you yet, but here's how things looked before that move. It's about even. Black could play for a draw but instead does this."

He snatched the King Rook's pawn with the Bishop.

"After that the game was lost." He held up the captured piece. "That's why this was called 'the poisoned pawn.' By taking it, Fischer killed his chances. Most think it was the worst blunder of his career."

Marcy thought a minute. Her ambivalence toward Sister Dana was disturbing. And since the courses had begun, the nun's behavior confused her even more. Yesterday she had escorted Marcy to every single class, was with her every second in between, asking how things went, whether she liked the teacher, checking assignments, offering help, hovering like a bee. Today, she knew, would have been the same, had Sister Zoe not intervened. And Marcy was glad she had. But why? Sister Dana was her closest friend, her only friend, really. Why, then, was she so relieved to be spared the nun's loving presence?

"And was it?"

"Was it what?"

"'The worst blunder of his career'?"

"Who knows? It may have been a genuine flash of brilliance. Though if it was, he didn't follow through."

"You mean he could have won?"

"If the move was based on what he saw, not on what he didn't. Why? Does this really make any sense to you?"

"No. No, you're right. Not yet."

Julian pointed to the plastic chess set on the bed.

"That's for you, if you're interested enough to practice. I'm going to give you a chess problem every class. They're like riddles—and, when you understand them, poems."

He cleared his own set, and motioned Marcy to open hers.

"As I call out the positions, you place the pieces. There's a simple notation system I'll show you so you won't have to memorize everything."

She caught on quickly, and without much difficulty reproduced the problem from his symbols.

"It's White's turn. If the proper moves are made, Black is mated in two. The play is forced, which means that White's first move necessitates Black's reply, White's second move causing Mate. Understand?"

"I think so."

"Well, I don't expect you to solve it anyway. It's just to help you get familiar with the way each piece moves."

"I'll solve it."

"Your confidence is charming, but don't count on it. You barely know a Bishop from a Rook."

"I'll solve it."

He laughed.

"Class dismissed."

Marcy focused one last look at the position, gathered up the pieces, and closed the notation slip between the covers of the folding checkerboard.

"See you Friday… Julian? Or Mr. Papp?"

"If you solve the problem—Julian. Otherwise, it's Mr. Papp."

"Friday, then, Mr. Papp. And thanks."

"My pleasure."

He saw her out, shutting the door behind her.

 

 

How well it had gone! His gambit for location seemed successful, for when Ms. Zoe was told the class had proceeded without incident, he doubted she would take issue with the change. The girl apparently enjoyed herself. In fact, she had been enthusiastic. Coupling that to her ready comprehension (not to mention that Julian found her rather likeable), the teaching part might not be such a drag. And most important of all, she had relaxed. She seemed to trust him.

No doubt about it, the climate for The Game's commencement could not be more favorable.

 

A knock on...

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