En Passant

The elderly Italian gentleman dismissively moved the black rook to c5 on the board leaving his young opponent no choice. The young man walked from the edge of the board to his white king and knocked it over in signal of defeat, offering his hand to shake, but the elderly Italian gentleman had already turned and walked away to the edge of the life-sized chess board to await a new challenger. He stood on the edge of the board by a stone bench and waited. Two men sat on it - one middle-aged, portly, bearded, and forever smoking a cigar. The other young, introverted but attentive, and skinny. Not a man at all in César’s eyes - a child raised by computer games and American TV and emasculated as a result. They were regular spectators and occasional players but only when César had played enough for a day. Neither had ever challenged him.

He scanned the crowd cockily, arms folded, eyes hidden behind visor sunglasses. Tourists sat and stood around the board, waiting for someone to step up. A canopy of trees sheltered the playing area from the intense Sydney heat as Japanese took photos of the aftermath of the last game. The term game had always irked this cantankerous Italian immigrant. It was so much more than that. It was art, a science. A unique synthesis of every opposite in the universe - ancient and yet always new, mechanical in structure yet animated only by the imagination, limited to a geometrical space and yet unlimited in its permutations, always developing yet forever sterile, a logic with no result, a mathematics without calculations. Surely a game wouldn’t have proved to be more lasting than any book, religion, empire or dynasty? Surely something that belongs in every era and among every people transcends the term game. Where is its beginning and where is its end? Any child can learn its laws, any amateur can try himself on its squares and yet on these squares is bred a certain species of master, much different from any other who picks it up. The master was preordained for chess, a specific genius in whom vision, patience and technique interact in as delicately determined a combination as within musicians or mathematicians, only at other levels and with different interconnections. César wasn't a master. No, he was a pawn and he knew this. He had defeated tourists, immigrants and nationals in all his time playing and he knew the key to success wasn’t whether his challengers played chess regularly or not, it was the fact they could no longer look down on the board like god’s or generals. They were forced to manoeuvre on the battlefield, like the pawns who disappeared so fast in battle’s both real and imagined. He was a mediocre player on tabletop and even worse on computer, but down here he was in his element. César had been on the battlefield. He had been a pawn and knew how to fight in the trenches and he knew how to manipulate an opponent to play to his strategy.

An elderly gentleman of a similar age and wearing a straw hat eventually appeared out of the crowd. He doffed his hat and nodded in a gesture of greeting, an amiable smile on his face, and immediately began setting up the white pieces on the board. César nodded his head, a thin smirk on his face, and began to do likewise with the black pieces in a manner of deus ex machina, moving them behind imaginary lines and to a designated square that matched either their colour or what they aspired to capture. With the pieces returned to their rightful position, the battlefield could be assessed and strategized anew. All possibilities lay within this grid of eight by eight, each of the 64 squares holding a singularly important role of capture, escape or vital manoeuvre. And these two men held the key, if not to their own destiny then to 32 others.

“You any good?” César asked the old man, the twinge of an Italian accent still present in his voice even after all his years in Australia. The other man shrugged his shoulders with a smile and moved pawn to e4. This was the opening. In many respects it was also the end.

The two elderly men observed. A selection of life-size pieces now lined the sides of the chess board, their presence bringing a ghostly atmosphere to proceedings. They stood mute and observant, waiting patiently for reincarnation or to be restated to fulfil a new destiny. Most frustratingly of all they were unable to offer council to their designated god despite their years of experience in countless campaigns – taking part in innumerable variations of the battle and yet not even scraping the surface of potential moves to come.

The old man’s stillness irked César. There was no pacing back and forth, no faux posturing, no interaction with the crowd like so many others he had played against over the years. People came and went. The noise increased and decreased as the lunch hour passed by. The game continued on with moves and countermoves and desperate moves and long, draining thought in-between. He could not get a read on this stranger. He had looked men in the eyes, his bayonet buried in them to the barrel, and knew what occurred within - if not at that precise moment then in the moment leading up to it. He knew manoeuvres and he knew the line and the importance of holding it and he knew the desperation wherein people had forgotten these instructions, either in panic or pressure. But this man, this little old man in his straw hat, chinos, and short sleeved shirt, he could not get a read on, nor could he telegraph his moves or thought process. As such, there was no thinking ahead. No planning or manipulating. Instead he was relying on age old military tactics of adapting and overcoming, and as the gentleman finally moved his knight to take César’s rook, he realised it wasn’t working and he couldn’t figure out why. What was in front of him was not just a problem on the board but a conundrum in charge of the pieces. The game had been through a variety of plays from opening to middle - sensitive feeling out, a variety of gambits, attempts at various strategies - all leading to a form of stalemate due to this man’s unpredictability. Unpredictability that could no longer be met with adaptation because that didn’t lead to overcoming, it only led to further problems. At this, César understood that unpredictability could only be matched in kind. The strategies he had learned and cultivated over the years were thrown out, the problems and potential plays became a non-issue. He had to react in ways not to be expected and pray he could reclaim his standing, that the end game wasn’t too far gone. In answer to his rook being taken, César immediately moved a pawn ahead because he knew it wasn’t expected. He looked the old man in the eye, waiting for some form of reaction, a change in body language, but received none. The old man held his stare on nothing save César’s black king, unaffected by the move or the state of the board thereof. Some murmurs came from the crowd but he couldn’t tell if it was just general chitchat or in response to his choice. He looked back to the two on the bench, the portly man and the skinny boy, in hope for a reaction but received none there either save the portly man leaning forward in perplexity, propping an elbow on his knee as smoke billowed from his cigar. That the previous move, as inconsequential and lacking in thought as it had been, seemed to only tip the game further into the man’s hands annoyed César. It appeared that zero thought went into the elderly man’s reply but the glib nature of the move signified danger as he moved his bishop to take César's queen. How had he not seen the opening? In a form of self-destruction he had been sucked into playing recklessly and this precise recklessness had been foreseen and it had resulted in the capture of his lynchpin. César mumbled something in Italian under his breath and took stock of the board. He paced. He rubbed his chin. He cleaned his sunglasses. He reached for pieces then put them down. He stalled. He stalled for he had no idea how to respond, no idea what tactic was being played. He felt that he was being tricked into making moves foreseen long ago, even ones that were nothing other than chaotic. He observed the board. It was sparse now but he could see he was backed into a corner. He had a knight, his king and a pawn at his disposal but no obvious avenues to counter attack. As time ticked away and the high-noon heat dissipated, it became obvious that the only way he would be able to retain any semblance of control or power over his destiny was to resign. It seemed contradictory, petty even, but it was the only victory he was being allowed, if it could be classed as a victory at all. The idea irked him, he was a proud man after all. César paced, desperately looking for a new gambit, an escape, an idea, but it always came back to resignation, to giving up, something he’d never done before. He looked to the elderly man, standing tall and tense and rigid, staring once again at César’s black king but never at César himself, the smile long gone from his face. His focus on the piece chilled the Italian immigrant but he could not say why, and it was this final observation of hatred or desire in those eyes that made the choice for him. There was no breaking this man’s resolve, no amount of tactical play and stalling could produce a different result to the inevitable.

César felled his king. Not offhandedly and stormily, as maybe would have been expected by the people who had watched him on other days, but in a delicate and deferential manner, lying the king on its side. This suicide snapped his opponent from his reverie and the genial smile returned to his face. He approached f2 where César momentarily stood and stuck his arm out in acceptance of the surrender. It was only in being close to the man that César’s aged eyes noticed the heavily scarred throat, and as they shook hands he saw with some portent of horror the number tattooed on his forearm. They were men of a certain generation and victims of worldly circumstance in their own unique way and the reason the game had played out in its dogged and draining way became obvious to the Italian. There was no strategy for there had never been a battlefield for this man. He was no god and he was no pawn. He was a survivor.