The Grand Imposter

This was to be the most important chess match that Martin would play. His opponent was a high ranking Class B player who was considered to be the best in their league. Martin knew that as an unranked player he was at a major disadvantage playing against her. Plus he heard that she was tall. He’d always been intimidated by tall people.

Marty plays a good game. But although he can use the Sicilian Defense to his advantage with the Benko Gambit, he’s not really considered to be an exceptional player. But he seems to be very lucky in the tournaments. At the previous one, he won the match by executing an impressive bishop endgame, which was lauded in all the reports for its innovative style, but actually he had no idea what he was doing. He was simply at his wits end in a game that had been going against him, so he randomly moved his pieces without a plan. And yet he won the match. Just dumb luck.

This dumb luck was what got him scheduled to play the league’s only Class B player. It was generally expected, for good reason, that she would easily win this match. Her family, friends and fans were present, leading the audience in raucous applause as she confidently walked up to the table. She stopped, raised both arms to the crowd and then turned and shook Marty’s hand. Her grip was strong, and Marty noticed she was even taller than he had thought. He slightly lifted himself up on his toes, but that made little difference.

The two opponents took their seats and chose their colors.

The first move went to Marty. Pawn to E4. A hushed silence fell on the audience as they began to watch closely.

With a dismissive glance at Marty, she moved her pawn to F5 with the hope of luring his pawn away from the center, leaving her free to control that section of the board. A classic approach.

His next move was what she had expected - Marty moved from E4 to capture her pawn on F5. Exactly what she wanted. She was playing the long game. But the audience, most of whom didn’t understand that, expressed their displeasure with a bit of grumbling.

Now it was her second turn. With a confident flair of the hand she moved her knight pawn to G5. She shot a quick glance to the audience, giving a smile and a thumbs up to indicate that she wasn’t concerned about the sacrificed pawn. She had this under control.

Marty hesitated. It was his third turn, and dozens of calculations went racing through his mind. Staring at the board intensely, he came close to running out the clock. He was concentrating on something that at first didn’t make sense to him. It was too bizarre and out of the ordinary. Could it be possible that the move he was considering was invalid? It should not be, of course! But still… He looked up at his opponent, wondering if she was aware of what he was thinking. The whole game came together in his mind in an instant, and at once he was sure that this move would be a smart move, a legal move, a correct move. But he also knew it would be a move that in some way he would regret.

So as if to hide his face out of shame, or perhaps to shield himself from seeing her reaction, he lowered his eyes and delicately picked up the queen, and tentatively placed it on H5. The deed was done.

He took no joy in whispering, “Checkmate.”

Three moves. This is not how he wanted the match to conclude. A game at this level should be difficult and challenging, testing each player’s analytical skills. There should be twists and turns as the board plays out, and the outcome should never be apparent until after hours of play. This ending seemed as absurd as it was surreal. A grievous insult not worthy of their skill. It was beneath both of them, an affront, especially to a Class B player.

Three moves in under a minute. That’s all it took for a chess master to be checkmated, vanquished and humiliated. Staring at the board she sat motionless, her mouth agape, her eyes slowly becoming glassy and her skin turning cold with beads of perspiration. She clasped her hands in her lap, and it appeared as if she were frozen. Frozen by the queen, unable to break it’s spell. Paralyzed with inaction.

As Marty was beginning to suspect something was terribly wrong with her she let out a small chuckle, then a loud full-throated laugh - a laugh that echoed throughout the auditorium, a laugh that resonated from deep within and contained all the degrees of laughter - from a hearty guffaw to a light hearted giggle. Marty was taken aback, not knowing what to make of this. Her laughter was joyous, her eyes were gleeful. Where was the anger?

“Oh, how completely funny this is!” she exclaimed. “What an absolutely stupid mistake I made.” Looking straight at Marty she continued, “I deserved to lose. You won fair and square. Congratulations, uh, what is it… Marty?” He nodded. “Congratulations Marty!”

He had no idea how to respond, except by saying something stupid. “You’re not mad at me?”

She laughed again. An infectious laugh, one that caused Marty to cautiously laugh too. Their laughter reached the farthest corners of the auditorium. Hearing this, the audience became infected with her laughter and they too began to laugh, though somewhat nervously.

“Mad at you? No. Not at all. You know what they say, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Then there was a moment where she lapsed into a bout of self-recrimination. “And I sure played a horrendous game.” She shook her head. “Horrendous.”

Regaining her composure, she wiped away the tears of laughter. “I’m not sure what it is, but this taught me a very important lesson.” She smiled once more. It was genuine, with no anger or resentment.

“Not sure what it is.” Marty repeated this to himself. But he knew what the lesson was. It was Icarus, whose hubris caused him to fly too close to the sun. And it was Aesop’s hare, who lost the race because of his arrogance. And the Book of Proverbs: Pride goeth before a fall. He knew what the lesson was, but had the good sense to know this wasn’t the time or place to tell her.

He smiled as she rose from her chair, towering over him as he remained sitting. As she walked away, defeated but not deflated, he thought about how he learned his own lesson. About the anxiety of being in the presence of taller people. It’s merely a primal recognition of power, necessary for survival in combative circumstances but completely irrelevant at the chessboard, where it’s not whether you’re tall or short, it’s how you play the game.

Misbegotten Places are photos created from dioramas built from pictures of places and things. With proper lighting and camera angles, they come to life.

“…It’s how you play the game” - the quote is by the sports writer Grantland Rice (1880-1954)