I wondered if I moved close enough to the guard if my brain would swallow him up, too.
The guard stopped. “This is his room. He is ready for you.” He unlocked the heavy metal door and pushed it open.
I nodded and smiled to the guard, and watched as he too vanished into my eyeball.
Looking forward to the game, I stepped through the doorway, eager to meet the man I had heard so much about. The room was dingy and metallic, but there was enough light to play, and Charlie was already waiting patiently, sitting quietly at the other side of the table.
I stepped into the room, pushing the door closed behind me. There was hardly any furniture. Just one wardrobe, a bed, a toilet, a sink, and the table – a square table with viciously sharp metallic corners.
The chessboard was already set up.
I could not tell exactly where Charlie was looking, but it looked to be somewhere between the board and the vacant seat opposite his own. He raised his right hand, gesturing to the empty seat. A long and unbuckled strap hung loose and limp from his sleeve.
“Thank you, Charlie,” I said, and sat down opposite him at the table.
Charlie’s head was clean-shaven and there were black rings around both of his eyes. His mouth hung open, too, revealing one missing tooth as well as a broken one.
I glanced down at the board, noticing that I was to play as the white pieces. “I’m white,” I said, feeling that I should perhaps validate how he had positioned the board.
“Very well,” he replied, and moved his target-less gaze down to the board. He seemed to be taking in everything and nothing.
I took a deep breath, and wondered if I could recall the rules. I had not played the game since I was a child, over twenty years ago. I moved a pawn forward two spaces, eager to see what the master’s first move would be.
Without really looking at the pieces, the same arm he had used to gesture to me hovered over the table, the strap still hanging down low and dragging over the board. He took hold of the pawn on the far left side and moved it forward one space.
“I don’t know why,” I chuckled, “But I expected you to move a knight first.”
Charlie raised his head slowly, but his eyes never really met mine. I thought he was going to say something, but instead he simply took a deep breath and lowered his head back down to the game.
I moved my bishop out, hoping to make some good early use of the powerful piece.
Charlie’s arm moved again, much like the claw in one of those arcade machines where you try to win a small teddy bear. His hand descended and he moved the same pawn as before forward one space.
The move shocked me at first, mainly because he could have moved this pawn to that space on his first go, but then I realized he had probably responded to the movement of my bishop.
Only, that did not make much sense.
I shrugged, and moved my bishop out to the center of the board.
To my astonishment, Charlie’s hand descended on the same pawn and he moved it forward one more space. I tried to read his face to see if I could glimpse any betrayal of an expression that could clue me in to these bizarre moves, but he gave me nothing. Just those empty eyes and a half open mouth in a head that was cocked down towards the board.
I decided to try and forget about what he was doing and focus on winning the game. I moved another pawn forward, wanting to free my queen. What would he make of that?
Charlie’s hand came up, moved over, and he took hold of the same chess piece, moving it forward one more space.
There was no way he could know what he was doing!
I could take the pawn on my very next turn. But is that what he wanted me to do? Was he setting me up somehow?
I decided to throw caution to the wind and take it, anyway. I could take the pawn with one of my own, or I could jump my knight out of the ranks and take it that way. There was something more satisfying about this latter option. I grasped my knight by the head and imagined a bold and gallant horse leaping over my foot soldiers and trampling the enemy combatant. I knocked his pawn to the side, triumphantly, positioning my knight on the space before moving his pawn to the side of the board.
I looked up and smiled, wondering how an expert would respond to such an act of bravado.
For the first time since entering the room, Charlie’s eyes found mine and he punched me so hard in the face I fell backwards over my chair and hit the floor.
I screamed out loud and clutched my face to contain the throbbing behind my fingers. “Oh my God, Charlie! Why did you do that?” I yelled, wondering if my nose was broken.
Charlie did not reply, and when the tears and water stopped gushing out from around my eyes, I could see that he was still sitting placidly in his chair.
I picked myself up off the floor, soothing my face with my hand, checking to see if there was any blood on my fingers.
I dusted myself off and sat back down at the table. I was determined to keep playing. “Dammit, Charlie,” I said, “That was completely unnecessary.”
Trying to put the incident behind me, I went to move my queen out from the back line, but his hand came up like lightening.
I quickly moved to the side, anticipating another punch, but instead the hand moved over the board, and I realized that it was still his turn.
I watched with intrigue as his hand moved mechanically over the board, wondering if he was about to take his next pawn in line and move that forward with each turn.
His hand kept moving, however, and he picked up the pawn that I had just taken, put it down on his queen’s space and moved the queen to where the pawn had started.
“Are you sure you can do that?” I asked, wracking my brains to see if there was a rule I had since forgotten.
For the first time, Charlie’s left arm lifted up from underneath the table, and he was clutching a stack of yellow Post-it notes. He put the stack down on the table, and then pulled the head off his queen to reveal the nib of a pen. He wrote on the top Post-it note with his queen, and then pealed it off the top and handed it to me.
It read, “I just did.”
“Touché,” I replied, eyeing him suspciously. He replaced the head on his queen and put her back down on the board.
I put the Post-it note into my mouth and chewed on it, not wanting anyone else to to share in its secret, and I watched as Charlie took his queen and moved it all the way up diagonally next to my queen. “Kiss,” he yelled, staring at me.
There was now fire in his eyes.
“What?” I yelled back.
Charlie looked painfully confused.
He pointed to his queen, and then to my queen and yelled ‘Kiss!’ one more time.
I knew he was a master, but I was also sure that this was just madness.
I shouted. “There is no kissing in chess!”
Charlie continued to stare at me, like he was trying to melt me with his eyes. How could I communicate with such a crazy man?
I picked up his Post-it notes and pulled the head off my queen, only there was no nib and I had only succeeded in snapping her head clean off her body. I tried to swallow the head before he would notice, but he saw me and laughed.
“You lose,” he snickered. He lowered his head and spun in his chair to face the opposite wall.
The game was over.