The Endgame

Observer in the Audience

I would have anticipated many things but not the scenario in front of me at this Grandmaster Championship Game Six in 2021. First, I would never have imagined the eighteen- year-old with the pince-nez to have come this far against the Grandmaster. He has won six games in a row, and were he to win this game he would be the youngest upstart to dethrone a sitting champion. Second, I had never thought that this game was going to end the way it was
wrapping up. The rogue had come out swinging too hard for his own good, and now because of perhaps an overzealous impatient mind, that firepower was too much to bear, and he, the player of the white pieces, had set up a stalemate scenario for the Grandmaster who controlled the black ones. Third, in all my years having garnered a coveted seat at these championships, whether they were held in Reykjavik, Vienna, or in the case of this year, in Berlin, I had never been among a crowd that looked so disappointed.
     In this match, the sixth one, the one in which the young upstart has the chance to shut the Grandmaster out, the twenty-five or so spectators crane their necks from their leather chairs watching every move that the players make. I watch as the players digest them, as they wince, as they gesticulate internally all the feelings they cannot emote out of respect to the venue. I myself have sweated for the past six hours and forgone frequent calls of nature, and even when a ten-minute intermission was called when the air conditioning broke, I did not take the opportunity to walk around Alexanderplatz, the famous square named after Tsar Alexander I of Russia, to commemorate a visit to the city, to inhale some fresh air coming from a southern wind off the River Spree. I am so captivated by the scenario in front of me that I cannot bear to leave my chair. Unlike my companions whose disappointment, as I have said is palpable, I find the prideful behavior of the youth a case worthy of a textbook that I might present to my students at University when I go back to teach in a few days.
I glance at the clock. There are only three minutes until the youth must either extend his hand and offer a draw or, if his cockiness really has gotten to his head, he could allow the time to elapse, tempt fate, and go into tomorrow’s match not undefeated. I have been sitting for almost six hours. The young upstart could easily have put me and my fellow observers out of our misery, not to mention himself out of it as well, three moves ago, but so far he is in no mood to do so. Had this been a football match, at least half the fans would have left by now, but the conventions of The Game of Kings do not permit this, so I wait and watch Narcissus. My once zestful zeal for his success is beginning to evaporate rapidly. He has six more minutes to make his move or resign, and I have started to wonder if he will cut off his nose to spite his face and choose the latter.
Click White’s Turn to Move
You spend countless hours analyzing sixty-four squares. Your eyes traverse the ranks and files as you hope to climb the former. You start to rise in the school cafeteria amongst your friends, then you move into public parks, then to formal clubs as you begin to establish a name. As one’s name begins to grow, you must give up other pleasures you once had. Socializing goes out the door, the friends you shot pool with at the bar are yesterday’s news. You pay lip service to your girlfriend’s feelings, sleeping with her maybe once a week, telling her you love her as you are consumed by holding court with the same sixteen set of pieces every night. You tie them and your mind up in knots as you move them around the board in different combinations, knowing that fortunes are to be made and lost on your ability to manipulate them and exploit them during a game. A microcosm of feudal society at your command, you try to dismember your opponent’s. You try to uphold the ancien régime’s social contract on your end while annihilating another’s.
Such actions, such social revolutions don’t happen in the real “civilized world,” or at least that is what you are taught in the public school which goes to great efforts to show how advanced Western Society is. That’s why it’s so exciting for people to watch you play. They aren’t about to pack their bags and go off to some godforsaken place torn by war and strife, and you certainly aren’t either. Your having defeated a grandmaster in the first six games straight through, all while playing on the black side, which statistically has a greater chance of losing, and doing so in this political climate only ups the stakes, and now you are expected to extend your hand, to capitulate. To have to come to terms with the fact that you will have to sit down across from this bulbous individual for another six to eight hours yet again.
Your hands sweat. They grow clammy. The whole situation is being filmed, and to preserve a modicum of dignity, you’d rather relieve them of their excess sweat on the defunct society you have been commanding for the past quarter of a day rather than extend your hand prematurely in offering a draw, no matter how much you respect and revile simultaneously. Your hand briefly fondles the new queen that you procure by trading in a pawn. The transfiguration, while seeming like a good move at the time, now spells your doom for the day, but you’re not ready to concede. You punch the clock, not with the confidence you had a move or two before, but like some clerk clocking in for a day of work, your day like his is just a means to end.
All the grandiosity that you had dreamed of just minutes before has flown out the window. You keep getting in your own way. You resolve to move the lone knight, the one that has occupied the black squares during the game, the errant Don Quixote. You move him behind the old queen, the one you started the game with so she is surrounded by her confessor, her bishop, a pawn, her page, and the knight. Only her husband the king languishes back on the left side of the board gazing down a file directly at the new queen you just acquired by trading in one of your remaining pawns.
Click Black’s Turn to Move
[In White’s Camp]
“How could this have happened?” a white knight asks a bishop. Of the middle ranking pieces, they were the only two original ones that remained after some six hours of play. “I spent the last three hours by your side looking at your Book of Hours, saying my Hail Mary’s, and what do I have to show for it?”
“Perhaps had his majesty not taken a mistress”— the bishop gestures with his crozier to a second queen who occupied square b8—“divine providence would not be weighing against us.” “I knew I should not have allowed his majesty to castle on his own side of the board,” the queen mutters as she brushes her locks from her eyes. “Had we all closed ranks, perhaps he would have focused on the bigger prize, dragging his archnemesis home in victory.”
“At least your recompense will be that tomorrow you can start again a monogamous couple and face the minions together,” the knight says.
“He will just do it again, once unfaithful, always unfaithful.” The original Queen scoffs as she cocks her head back in the direction of her husband.
“It is still beyond me as to why our master does not call the game,” a pawn comments. “It would put all of us out of our misery.”
Still Black’s Turn to Move
[In Black’s Camp]
“It appears that we will live to see another day,” the castle comments to the king who has been leaning on his scepter during the game, but only now does he do so with a dejected grin across his face. It’s the type of grin that one might see on someone who had hit rock bottom as they do their best to laugh off their woes.
“Yes, but at what cost?” the king asks. “Aside from a roof over my head, in the guise of you, I have lost everything. All my sons have died in battle, my spiritual counselors—they too— have met their maker, not to mention my wife. We may be coming out of this game less intact as a whole, but this is not the case for my psyche. The previous skirmishes were swift. Yes, I lost my dignity in front of my court in front of my wife, but I never had to be the last one standing.”
“Under my ramparts you fall and under them you will rise again tomorrow,” the castle replies. “That is unless our opponent chooses to forfeit the game.” As the castle says these words, the king moves behind him nestling under his eves on whose corners were gargoyle shaped figures. Only a day ago the king had employed these grotesques to gaze menacingly at his opposite number when checkmate was called. Now the gargoyles sing hymns; they attempt to soothe their king as he mourns his court and dreams of
better days, both past and hopefully to come.
Click White’s Turn to Move
[In White’s Camp]
     “One cannot help but admire our opponent’s leader,” the bishop comments. “He has lost everything save his home, and he still goes behind it, negating all the attention. While he may be the most important piece on the board, he still tries to give the impression that the full court, something bigger than himself, is at stake.”
“You give him far too much credit,” the queen snaps. “He would be just as much of a philanderer as my husband was had he been in skilled hands.”
     “Perhaps, my lady,” a knight comments. “But the dysfunction that plagues our house seems to have eluded his.”
Still White’s Turn to Move
You have waited for your opponent to read the writing on the wall for the past hour, yet for whatever reason he apes being illiterate. You know he knows that the only option is to offer a draw unless he wants to forfeit and that you will meet again on the proverbial field of battle tomorrow. You’ve been through the mud, thoroughly humiliated by the young upstart who already has sullied your record and reputation. You are worn down—psychologically broken. Your chance to fight again another day is through no skill of your own but rather through your opponent’s overconfidence and carelessness. He may look like an ass today, but on the whole you look like the bigger one; you have the foolhardier track record for the week. You wait for the sweaty hand to be extended, and as you do, you take your handkerchief from your breast pocket and begin to polish your glasses. They are not foggy, but the alibis to relieve your hand from its own sweat has been established. You lie in wait for a reprieve you probably never should have gotten.
Final Minute for White to Move
You are swallowing hard. How could this have happened? You have sacrificed your best years for this moment. Had you won tonight, you would consider hanging up a shingle and having a normal life. You’d try to salvage the relationship with your girlfriend; you would retrain yourself in the art to socializing with your friends. Maybe you would start with a beer under the Brandenburg Gate to loosen things up as you feel you have forgotten how to relate to others. You now must save face each second that ticks by, making you look more and more foolish in front of people you should not care about, but alas you do, even if their interest in you is just as superficial as yours has been in those you should have been invested in lately. As you debate what to do with your right hand, the one you use to move the pieces, you hold it in cage, in your pocket, but you know it has to come out of its suffocating, hot sauna-like prison, sweaty, either to make a move or be offered to your opponent in a draw. You are conscious of how it will feel to your opponent when you shake but you couldn’t care less. You scowl as you prepare to take it out and offer it to your adversary in a draw.
Final Thirty Seconds for White to Move
I see that Narcissus is starting to crack. I see him look at the clock, then at his queen, then back at the clock again. He cranes his neck going back and forth across the ranks and files of squares, analyzing every move once again, although it will not give him another result than the rank-and-file stalemate. The ending that every spectator hates. The anticlimactic ending makesme wonder if my purchasing tickets so I could observe today’s game was worth it. I  watch as the White player surveys the board again, this time more slowly. He realizes there is no way out. The hand is coming now, slowly, out of the pocket. He extends it toward the Grandmaster like the prodigal son returning from having been out in the world. The Grandmaster who has been polishing his glasses looks somewhat surprised. He will not have to wave a white flag today.
     I watch as he puts the cloth back in his breast pocket and then as he extends his own hand like a shark eager to eat its prey. I watch the hands clasp. Was the shake hard? Who knows. Both men appear stoic in their expressions, but both are broken mentally. They will take up arms again tomorrow. I get up from my seat, dust myself off, and go for the walk I should have taken hours ago along Alexanderplatz, a square named after a king who, unlike his counterpart on the board, burned his own castle Moscow to the ground, when an overconfident Napoleon invaded his homeland some two hundred years ago.

About the Author

Please consider “The Endgame,” a 2,436-word story about a chess game between the youth Narcissus and the Grandmaster. The story is told from six points of view: the first-person narrator, the youth Narcissus, the Grandmaster, the white chess pieces, the black chess pieces, and the audience.

Peter Prizel is a social worker at a nursing home specializing in end-of-life care and a graduate student in the MFA Program at Manhattanville College. His fiction has appeared in The Write Launch and my poetry (as Anthony Chesterfield) in From Whispers to Roars and Meat for Tea. I was the Grand Winner Prize in the Lord Byron Dark Poetry Contest in Wingless Dreamer. Ploughshares is considering his short story “Under a Bulgarian Umbrella with COVID-19.”