The Cat’s Pawn By Robert T. Tuohey For 12 years Ernest Whitlock had reigned as World Chess Champion; and yet, it had never really meant anything to him. Human opponents, as well as the best silicon monsters, had fallen before his razor-sharp analysis, his faultless, relentless penetration. Whitlock understood every adversary as no more than a flaw, an inaccuracy, awaiting exposure. He applied a searching, awful pressure to all who dared to face him ~ and all had slowly weakened, gradually cracked, and finally selfdestructed. “The fault,” he liked to paraphrase, “lies within.” But Chess (Whitlock always thought of the game as a living entity) was something entirely different. She (oh, yes, she!) remained forever elusive, maddening in her mockery of perfection… Mockery?! Certainly! Chess was not perfect, she merely paraded as so. In his deepest heart, Whitlock though of Chess as little better than a common street-walker – a 20 buck strumpet who had somehow snuck into the palace and fooled everyone into thinking she was the queen. It was Whitlock alone who saw through her ridiculous pretensions. “An idle, trifling amusement,” the World Champion was wont to say of her. As a small child, he had, at first, been puzzled, and then, finally, affronted by the thing called Chess. How was it, he asked himself, that a mere 32 pieces within the confines of 64 squares governed by a scanty set of rules could prove beyond human mastery? Or, in the very least, beyond his mastery? No, it was impossible! And so, the six year old child had taken his ferocious IQ of 216 and unleashed it upon Chess. She, however, proved difficult. By 12, although Pennsylvania State Champion, he knew he had not conquered her. By 15, although no one in the U.S. was his better, and Whitlock was now a Grandmaster to boot, still Chess eluded his grasp. At 23, Ernest Whitlock was crowned Undisputed World Chess Champion – but what difference did it make? Chess herself was as mysterious as ever… Twelve years of victory has passed. Whitlock was lauded as the greatest player that had ever been. Indeed, in all likelihood, that would ever be. And yet, it rankled, it tasked, it heaped scornful contempt upon the innermost recess of his soul –the damnable bitch had not been solved! At best, he would be remembered as first among the slaves that had worshipped at the feet of the harsh-singing Sphinx. Just another chump who had been had… No! Not Ernest Whitlock, he had assured himself. My fate, my proper place in history, is the man, the only man, who managed to prostrate the pretender. The man who exposed, who reduced, Chess to the plaything that she truly is.
And, so, on he had struggled. Laboring year after secluded year, always working with the great golden goal of the Final Game in mind – the Chess game that would answer all Chess games. Thus, and only thus, would She be defeated. She would be his slave.
The autumn evening was cool, and the Pennsylvanian woods “lovely, dark, and deep”, as the poet has said. All this beauty however was lost to the eyes of Ernest Whitlock. His entire mind, nay, even his soul, was entangled in the chess position set before him. Awestruck at his creation (indeed, at himself), with gloating gaze, he beheld it. Is this it? Is she finally mine?? It had taken a lifetime of effort, but here it was: the 52 nd, and last, move of the Final Game. At his elbow, in a small strongbox, rested some 500 pages of densely written manuscript. Herein were contained all possibilities, all variations and sub-variations, every conceivable (and inconceivable!) continuation. Nothing had been overlooked. Nothing else was even imaginable. This was the end: dead-locked, drawn, absolutely and always, in 52 moves or less. At last, here she lay, shorn of conceit, stripped naked… Thutt! Startled out of himself, Whitlock looked up. There, standing in the middle of his desk, appearing as if out of nowhere, was a large black and white cat. The tremendous, luminous eyes peered at him. “What the devil?” he exclaimed, looking about. The study-door was open… How was that? Well, just to the rear of the house lay the small backyard, beyond which rolled the miles and miles of rugged, unbroken woods. Occasional strays and wild animals were the price to be paid for privacy. Cautiously, daring not to make a false move, Whitlock regarded the staring feline. He had never had any particular warmth for animals; in fact, usually, as now, they rather evoked in him a sense of dread. The entire point of living in this backwoods was to escape two-legged nuisances, to better focus on his work. Well, four-legged pests were, at least, more easily disposed of. Whitlock had not always known this, however. Some years back, just after purchasing the house, he had awoke one morning to find a fat, jolly raccoon rummaging through the kitchen garbage. In panic, he had fled to the town gun shop (a twenty minute drive through the thick woods). A hefty little .45 was acquired. “’Nuff punch to knock a horse on its ass,” the proprietor had assured him.
Retuning home, Whitlock was pleased to find the bandit still merrily munching away. KABOOM! What was left of the carcass was tossed out the back door. By week’s end every room in the house contained a strategically placed handgun. It was for the .357 in his desk drawer that Whitlock now reached. Slowly, he withdrew the weapon and leveled it at the black and white figure before him. She did not move, but simply remained gazing at him, here huge beautiful eyes afire. Expertly, with a practiced ease born of many a backyard session, his right thumb smoothly cocked back the powerful hammer. Grinning slightly, he steadied his seated position in preparation to fire. She continued to observe him, curiously, as if witness to some vaguely amusing, though slightly ridiculous, pantomime. Finally, evidently satisfied, she gently glided down, reclining fully across the desk. The perfect victim. As she did so, her right paw slid into the chessboard, nudging the Black Queen forward one square. Whitlock’s dark eyes darted from his prey to his violated creation. What had she done? Anything ruined? Queen to c5… It means nothing. Fully accounted for in the annotations. It… But something was wrong. This particular move, apparently so weak, ostensibly so pointless, didn’t it lead into…unforeseen complications? Indeed, an entire thicket of nasty traps was but the foreground. Then there unfolded the labyrinth of variations, hideous in their complexity… Slowly, with amazed disbelief, Whitlock’s face contorted. How did I miss that move??? The cat, now purring contentedly, had utterly disappeared from Whitlock’s stunned consciousness. Shocked, he sank back in his seat, woodenly dropping the still-cocked .357 onto his desk with a clatter. For some minutes he gazed mesmerized at the silent Black Queen… It was only gradually, and with effort, that he managed to rouse himself from this stupor. There had to be an answer… A lifetime’s work could not be toppled by a – Whitlock blinked, suddenly looking about him. But the cat was nowhere in sight. Indeed, the study was empty ~ save Whitlock, the chessboard, and the cool of the Autumn night. “This is absurd!” he said aloud. But the tone of his voice (had he dared to listen) more than betrayed his fear – it bordered on hysteria.
This was not however the time for self-examination, nor emotion. It was the time to finish what he had started so many years before. It was time to put the bitch in her place. Face now recast into a stony, inhuman concentration, Ernest Whitlock placed himself directly in front of the chessboard, head in hands, and began to calculate. Inevitably, inexorably, the Night, like the smooth, black waters of the Styx, flowed on, unseen, unheard. When Dawn approached, her rosy fingers gauze-grey over the dark, brooding Appalachians, the analysis was nearing its end Finally, his arms uncoiling from his bowed head, his right hand reached forward, firmly taking hold of the White Bishop. He moved it across the expanse of the board, capturing the Black Queen. She was removed from board and set aside. Thutt! From behind him, perched high on top the bookcase, she had sat concealed. Now, aroused, she had jumped down, landing with that dynamic agility her species is so admired for. Her brilliant eyes flashed. Quick, with pleasure, her tail twitched. She wanted to play. Wide-eyed the man stared as, insouciantly, the feline traipsed across his game. Her right front paw blithely toppled the proud White Bishop, and, in the blink of a cat’s eye, her following left rear foot slide her own dark Knight onto the vacant square. Instantly, Whitlock’s hand shot forward, snatching up the offending onyx horseman, replacing it with his own fair monarch. The cat turned, giving her tail a swing as she did so, nudging a Black Pawn forward. Contented at the little feat, she sat, looking up at Whitlock. A sound of enigmatic quality, partaking of both purr and hiss emanated from the cat’s throat. Whitlock’s eyes were riveted to the board. Checkmate!!! Utterly crushed, he stared for but a moment. He had been playing this game all his life. The rules were quite clear. With head bowed, he stood. Barely raising his eyes, unable now to look upon either the goddesses’ emissary or her work, he simply said, “I admit defeat.” With the firm resolution of despair, the .357 magnum was raised and leveled against his right temple.