I reach for my king. Pick it up. Feel its slight, perfect weight in my hand and smile softly as I trace the corners of the crown.
The stupid, useless, good-for-nothing king. Can barely move one square, scurries into hiding behind the rook, and he’s so, so easy to corner. A fraction of the queen’s power, that’s what he has. He is nothing, absolutely nothing, without his kingdom.
My heart squeezes. At least he’s relatable.
I put the king back on his square and stare at the skyline made up by the pieces—the trivial and yet monumental landscape of chess. It’s more familiar than the view from my childhood bedroom (unspectacular: a busted trampoline, lots of ornery squirrels, an apricot tree that never learned how to bear fruit). It’s more familiar than my own face in the mirror, and I can’t tear my gaze away, not even when the chair in front of
mine drags across the floor, not even when one of the tournament directors calls for round one to begin.
The table shifts as my opponent takes a seat. A large hand stretches into my line of sight. And just as I’m about to force myself out of my reverie to shake it, I hear a deep voice say,
“Marshall Chess Club Player One. Nolan Sawyer.”
He’s not looking at me.
He’s holding out his hand, but his eyes are on the board, and for a split second I can’t figure out what is happening, where I am, or what I came here to do. I can’t figure out what my name is.
No. Wait. I do know that.
“Mallory Greenleaf,” I stammer, taking his hand. It completely engulfs mine. His shake is brief, warm, and very, very firm. “PCC. That is, Paterson. Club. Uh, chess club.” I clear my throat. Wow. So eloquent. Much articulate. “Nice to meet you,” I lie.
He lies right back at me with a “Likewise,” and still doesn’t look up. Just sets his elbows on the table, keeping his gaze fixed on the pieces, as though my person, my face, my identity, are utterly irrelevant. As though I am but an extension of the white side of the board.
It cannot be. This guy cannot be Nolan Sawyer. Or, not the Nolan Sawyer. The guy who a couple of years ago was number one in the world and now . . .
I have no clue what Nolan Sawyer’s up to now, but he can’t be sitting across from me. The people on our left and right seem to be not-so-subtly eyeing him, and I want to yell at them that this is just a doppelgänger. Plenty of those going around. Doppelgänger-palooza, these days.
It would explain why he’s sitting there, doing nothing. Clearly, bizarro Nolan Sawyer doesn’t know how to play and thought this would be a mah-jongg tournament and is wondering where the tiles are and—
Someone clears their throat. It’s the player sitting next to me: a middle-aged man who’s neglecting his own match to gawk at mine, pointedly staring between me and my pieces.
Which are white.
Shit— I have the first move. What do I do? Where do I start?
Which piece do I use? Pawn to e4. There. Done. The most common, boring—
“My clock,” Sawyer murmurs distractedly. His eyes are on my pawn.
“I need you to start my clock, or I won’t be able to respond.”
He sounds bored, with a dash of annoyed.
I flush scarlet, utterly mortified, and look around. I can’t find the stupid clock until someone—Sawyer—pushes it an inch toward me. It was right by my left hand.
Perfect. Lovely. Now would be an excellent time for the floor to morph into quicksand. Swallow me alive, too.
“I’m sorry. Um—I knew about the clock. But I forgot, and—” And I’m thinking of stabbing myself in the eyeball with that pencil over there. Is it yours? Can I borrow it?
“It’s fine.” He makes his move—pawn in e5. Starts my clock.
Then it’s my turn again, and—shit, I’m gonna have to move more than once. Against Nolan Sawyer. This is unjust. A travesty.
Pawn in d4, maybe? And then, after he takes my pawn, I move another to c3. Wait, what am I doing? Am I
. . . I’m not trying a Danish Gambit with Nolan Sawyer, am I?
The Danish Gambit is one of the most aggressive openings in chess. Dad’s voice rings in my ears. You sacrifice two pieces in the first few moves—then shift quickly into attack. Most good players will have learned how to defend themselves. If you really must use it, make sure you have a solid follow-up plan.
I briefly consider my glaring lack of follow-up plans. Well, then. I could really use a puke bucket, but instead I just sigh and resignedly push my bishop into the midst, because the more the merrier.
This is a disaster. Send help.