(Volume I, Numbers vii-viii, December 1968-January 1969)
***BETTER DEAD THAN READ***
by DARRYL E. DEAN
Ignoring the persistent, musical tinkling of the doorbell, Herr Dekan carefully studied the position of the huge chessmen which were arrayed over the vast marble table. Very deliberately he moved one of the pawns up two squares and stared frowningly for several moments at the result. Then he hurriedly returned all the pieces at their original squares so that the board appeared undisturbed and ready for play. After taking a few more seconds to smooth the ends of his mustache, he slid back his chair and moved toward the door.
The man outside stepped gratefully into the warm, comfortable room, bringing with him a breath of icy air. He was slight and round shouldered, somewhat shorter than Herr Dekan, and his rough clothes and hard calloused hands stamped him as a member of the laboring class. He stood unnaturally still, awkwardly fingering the fringes of his cap.
Herr Dekan took the man's coat and offered him a glass of sherry, which was nervously refused. Shrugging, the host settled back in the deep chair next to the chess table and regarded his visitor thoughtfully.
"From your letter, Herr Kranz, it is plain that you are a chess player, but it is also obvious that this is not your main occupation."
"Indeed not, Mein Herr," the man stammered. His hoarse, rasping voice echoed strangely in the tiny room. "I'm a cobbler by trade. I play chess at night, sometimes with my wife and young son. Never, Herr Dekan, have I so much as read a book about the game. I am all too painfully aware of my ignorance; yet, this opening I have discovered..."
He stopped, groping for words. Herr Dekan lit his pipe and carelessly blew a wide circular smoke ring, which spiraled toward the ceiling.
"I think I understand, Herr Kranz," he said easily. "Under the rather amazing circumstances you felt that you should come to me, because I am generally recognized as our nation's leading player. Unfortunately . . . ." Herr Dekan paused to flick a tiny gray ash off the collar of his tunic. "Unfortunately, I have found time to give your notes only a most casual perusal. As a matter of fact, I had just sat down with the intention of going over them more thoroughly when you rang the doorbell."
With a sweep of his hand he indicated the freshly arranged chess table. "Now let me see whether I understand your claim correctly," he said. "The basis of your most extraordinary idea is that, given the white pieces, you can force a checkmate inside of twenty moves regardless of what moves your opponent may make. In other words, no defense by Black will prevail against the attack you have devised. That, I believe, is the essence of your theory?"
Herr Kranz rubbed his rough hands together nervously. He was clearly awed and embarrassed in the presence of the master. "Yes, Mein Herr."
Lifting one hand to his face to hide a delicate cough, Herr Dekan picked up a piece of paper that lay on the chess table.
"In your letter you may have overlooked the possibility that Black may quite logically move his king's knight to bishop three on his eighth move instead of exchanging pawns; then the white bishop will be under attack."
The cobbler half rose from his chair, his normally tranquil features contracted with excitement.
"I didn't include that variation in my notes, Mein Herr, because it seemed to me to be flagrantly obvious, hardly worthy of your attention. If Mein Herr will but glance at the position, he will see that, in the event he mentions, the bishop does not retreat; instead, the rook occupies the knight's file, and if Black captures the bishop, the white queen gives check, and mate is threatened in three directions simultaneously!"
Herr Dekan laughed. It was a bored, condescending chuckle. "Of course, you are right, Herr Kranz. I merely wished to ascertain whether you were familiar with this phase of the attack. Now, perhaps, it is time I gave this theory of yours some serious consideration. If Mein Herr will but glance at the position, he will see that, in the event he mentions, the bishop does not retreat. Although I must confess," the master's eyebrows rose in good humored skepticism, "that I fear I am wasting my time."
Leaning across the table, he began, with the sureness and dexterity which comes from long practice, to move the giant pieces to the various positions designated in Herr Kranz's letter. Occasionally, he would pause and frown at the board, at which times the cobbler shifted uneasily in his chair, anxious to be of assistance. Suddenly aware of his guests nervous fidgeting, Herr Dekan handed him on of the captured men. It was beautifully carved out of pure ivory and was nearly as tall as a man's hand.
"Perhaps, Herr Kranz, you would like to examine on of these pieces. They were fashioned for me personally and, as far as I know, there are no others like them. I think the bishop, in particular, is a perfect bit of craftsmanship. Notice the broad base and slender, tapering top. Is it now well suited to its role as guardian and chief advisor to His Majesty?"
The cobbler looked at the huge piece cursorily, then placed it back on the table. He was unable to share in the master's enthusiasm, for he had no thoughts for anything other than the men on the board. For a few minutes more Herr Dekan occupied himself with the chessman; then he pushed back his chair and sat staring dreamily through half-closed eyes at nothing at all. Herr Kranz anxiously studied the master's face, attempting to interpret his imperturbable expression. Ten minutes went by; fifteen, twenty, and still the great man did not speak. Finally, the cobbler could stand it no longer.
"Mein Herr! Please. My theory... ."
Herr Dekan opened his eyes with a start as though he had forgotten his visitor; then he settled back and began speaking musingly, with looking at Herr Kranz.
"Surely, my dear friend, you must realize that this so-called 'theory' of yours is the purest nonsense. There are so many flaws that I cannot begin to point them all out."
He picked up the white bishop and began turning it over slowly with his long, slender fingers.
"I suppose you are wondering why I did not tell you this sooner, but I was just thinking how ironic it would have been if your ideas had been valid. In one quick stroke you, a common working man, would have relegated the immortals of the chess world, Spassky, Tahl, Botvinnik, Unsicker, and the rest, to the ranks of blundering fools who wasted thousands of hours and untold effort in evolving brilliant combinations when actually any idiot capable of understanding the moves of chess could have defeated them simply by memorizing your system. Imagine! The exacting position play of Steinitz, the marvelous intuitive sacrifices of Alekhine - nothing but unnecessary, superficial, meaningless pushing of pieces! The concept is hideous; it leads one to believe that perhaps the greatest writings, the principles by which men have governed themselves for centuries may likewise be empty and foolish. No, Herr Kranz, I am happy that your system is not infallible; indeed, if it were . . . ." The master shrugged and looked straight into his guest's eyes, "I should hesitate to permit you to leave this room alive."
The cobbler's shoulders sagged a little lower as he reached for his cap.
"I am sorry, Herr Dekan, to have taken so much of your time," he mumbled. Rising, he turned to shuffle from the room.
"I am sorry too, Mein Herr," said Herr Dekan as he fiercely plunged the long, pointed bishop into the cobbler's unguarded back.
[The Bridge, (Spring 1968), 30-32, quoted in The Fianchetto, II (July 1968), 30-32.]
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