Staunton chess pieces, the standard in competition
Games are something like stories. In role-playing games, the connection is obvious, but it’s true even of board games. So I want to tell the story of one such game, a game of chess.
I was on my high school’s chess team my senior year. Although I compiled a record of two wins, one draw, and no losses in interscholastic competition, I was not really all that good. It’s symbolic of my playing that my best game was probably the one I drew.
It was my first game playing against another school. Not that I was worried, more fool me. I drew white, we sat down to play, and at first, everything went well.
Reproductions of the famous chess set from the Isle of Lewis
But you see, there was a problem. We were playing by strict competitive rules. That included touch-move. You touch a piece or pawn, you MUST move it. You let go of a piece or pawn, and you cannot move it again, ESPECIALLY not to take back your move.
I’d never played touch-move before.
So I did the obvious stupid thing. I picked up a piece, moved it, let go, and then realized I had made a stupid move. Not JUST a stupid move, a fatal move. I was going to lose a piece. (I think it was one of my rooks.)
Which I did. And as a natural result, I soon lost another. In a game when the players are of comparable ability, that’s it, folks. One does not recover from being down two pieces.
But this was my first game! I couldn’t lose it. No. I thought, I thought, I thought. And then I came up with a plan. It was based on something I’d read in a chess book.
If I couldn’t win on skill, I was going to win by using psychology. No, nothing like making weird noises, or trying to irritate my opponent. That would be bush league, and probably have caused me to forfeit.
I played stupid. If I could fumble once with touch-move, I could do it again. I was going to get my opponent to underestimate me. And that way, he would not see the dreadful surprise I was going to spring on him.
18th century chess piece from India
I lost more pieces. I ran my king almost to the corner of the board as it dodged attacks. (That was my plan.) I worked to ensure all my pawns were blocked from advancing, and exchanged as many pieces as I could without giving away what I was doing.
We arrived at the end game. There were few pieces on the board, more of them his than mine, of course. My king was trapped on the left-most file, second row, as my opponent’s rook was on the next file (knight’s file) over. It was protecting a pawn that was blocked by my last rook from moving one more square and being promoted. (If a pawn reaches the other side of the board, it can be exchanged for any piece, even ones you haven’t lost.)
By this point, all the other games were over, and most of the other players were gathered around, waiting to see how my opponent would finally defeat me. For defeat me he must. There was no chance of my winning.
The key to what happened next is to understand that the rook was the only piece or pawn I had left that could move, apart from the king. I pulled a long face, picked up my rook, looked like I was deciding what to do with it, put it down on the bishop’s file next over, and then let go!
Naturally, I looked horror-stricken. I’d moved my rook so my opponent’s pawn could not only capture it, but be promoted! Without a moment’s thought, my opponent reached out, took my rook with his pawn, and replaced his pawn with a queen.
Kings and queens, that’s what it’s all about!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Andy Burgess)
I said one word. “Stalemate.” The room burst into chuckles. I’d drawn the game.
In his haste, and sure I was a bad player, my opponent hadn’t looked carefully at how all the pieces were arranged. By promoting to a queen, he had not put my king in check (where it could be captured by another piece), but he had made it impossible for me to move my king without moving it into check. I had no other pieces, and all my pawns were blocked. That meant I HAD to move my king, but under the rules of chess, one cannot move a king into check. So I had no move. Under chess rules, the game ended there, a stalemate, a draw, with neither of us winning or losing.
What made this such a devilish and risky play on my part, is that if my opponent had figured out what I was doing, he could have taken my rook with his pawn, and promoted his pawn to any other piece except a queen, and won. But he was already convinced I was a bad player, and could make such obvious mistakes. So he didn’t look carefully, and naturally promoted his pawn to the most powerful piece, a queen. And so blew his victory.