Robert Palamar-David Jordan
by David Jordan
Fuel Café, 2004 Final Game of Chess Night Veresov–Richter Attack
My opponent has utilized queen-pawn openings exclusively this evening—a wise choice. Queen–pawn games are typically less reliant on sharp tactics than king-pawn openings, and the player with the sounder strategic game often wins. My opponent has years of chess experience, but recent medical problems have kept him out of practice.
Earlier tonight, I watched him waddle across the street and into the café. He clutched his bag of chess pieces like a coed clinging to her notebook. He looked overwhelmed by the noise, and was about to turn around before he heard me calling his name. My call pulled him through the drunk and caffeinated crowd. He sat down and pulled a third chair alongside our table to rest his foot, which was encased in a giant foamy sandal. The area between his ankle and toes was covered in gauze. His nails were talons. I ordered a diet peach SOBE from the bar for him. He thanked me several times and apologized for being late. We played a couple of games, which I won too easily.
This game was my opponent's chance to catch me off guard.
I follow suit. I decide against my usual f5, the Dutch defense, because of my opponent's lack of focus. The Dutch's uneven nature introduces too many new variations to consider; I don't want the match to take all night. I've had two beers and I'm getting sleepy. I hope treading familiar territory will shorten the time between moves.
2. Nc3 Nf6
The Veresov–Richter Attack. More common is c4—the Queen's Gambit— or Knight to f3. The Veresov is rarely seen because it limits White's options and applies minimal pressure on Black. Its advantage is that its logic is easy to follow.
3. Nf3 c5
While my opponent is thinking, I look around at the people at the bar. Five feet away and to my left, there's a girl playing the video-trivia machine. She was here three hours ago when I arrived. She's friends with the bartender and keeps standing up on her stool and bending over the bar. When she does this I can see up her skirt. Her thighs are smooth and chubby, but the peep show stops before I get to see her panties. If I bent over in my seat I could peer up in there, but I'm too embarrassed. Meanwhile my opponent is massaging his forehead. His white sideburns have grown an inch horizontally since last week. There's a brown spot of blood on his collar from a shaving nick. Normally, my opponent arrives at the café freshly groomed wearing a porkpie hat. Tonight he looks like he just woke up. His white hair is greasy, and he keeps moving his mouth like he's trying to release altitude pressure.
A bad move. It gives up control of the center and wastes a move; after e5, my bishop will retake the pawn with tempo.
5. Bg5 e5
I have a clear advantage after only five moves; a win will be automatic. I ask my opponent how he has been.
"My fever's 102 now."
I ask if that was a good thing.
"Well, it's down from 104."
He also has a cold and keeps wiping his nose with a napkin.
6. e3 Bxc5
"This is the first time I've been out of the house in a week. And depending on what the doctors say on Monday, it might be the last time for good."
7. Bb5 0-0
I castle to safety.
My opponent does the same. He takes the last swig on his bottle and shows me the inside of the cap. It says, "Check your jodhpurs." I say I don't know that word, and he tells me they're the tan, baggy pants you wear when you're marching through the jungle—on your way to find Johnny Weismuller.
9 …. bxc6
The idea of trading pieces while under attack is correct, but first he needs to tend to his problems on the other side of the board. Trading bishop for knight has strengthens my center.
10. Na4 Bd6
11. h3 Bh5
I don't trade pieces; if he wants to break the pin, he must weaken his king.
And so he does. He tells me he goes to Shands' hospital, "the poor people's hospital." I ask him what his last name is, but I don't tell him why. I act like I'm only curious because we've known each other for a year. The real reason I ask is that I might want to visit him in the hospital, but I know it could be the beers making me feel sentimental.
"Palamar," he says, then spells it. "Like the observatory, but with an 'a.'"
13. Nc3 Qe7
14. Nh4 e4
The end is near. The trade on the next move won't help; in fact, he should keep the knight for defense. After I retake with my f-pawn, my rook will join the mating attack.
15. Nxg6 fxg6
16. Bxf6 Qxf6
Here come the heavy pieces. I'm getting sleepy, so I sit up in the chair, lean forward and take a deep breath. Big mistake. I catch a whiff of my opponent's foot. The sweet, cabbage-y smell of old flesh and gauze is unmistakable. I cast my eyes aside to his foot for a second. I feel a dry heave stirring in my chest. My shoulders constrict and my breathing becomes quick and shallow. The image of his foot is present in my mind. I imagine the decaying horror that must lurk beneath the bandages.
I smell death.
I lean back and struggle to control my breathing. I don't want my opponent to know that his impending death or amputation is making me uncomfortable.
I'm sure he's not stinking on purpose.
What is he thinking? Has he forgotten that I can take this pawn by en passant?
17 …exf3 e.p.
I take the pawn immediately. He admits his error with a humble nod and asks if I have time for another game. I decline.
"Well, thank you for the games tonight, Dave. I really appreciate it."
I tell him it's nothing while mentally begging him to resign.
"No, really. I know you have to get home. You're so kind. And thank Daneal for me also. She's so nice to let you play till midnight. Theresa just doesn't understand."
After a year of playing chess with my opponent, this is the first time he has mentioned his wife's name. Until two weeks ago, I didn't even know he was married. I thought he may be, but I couldn't tell if he was talking about a person or an institution. He always alluded to a vague authority that would lock the doors when he wasn't home on time. I repeat his wife's name as a question.
"She's my war department." He laughs. "I always liked that phrase. I had a friend in the navy, he called his wife that—his war department."
18. Qe1 h5
The most daring and complicated move my opponent has made all night. I detect his foot again, but it may just be my imagination. Either way, I feel on verge of sprinting through the exit into the cool air. I don't want to breathe in any more of his dead flesh, but I must stay calm, for his sake.
"Good old Dave," he says. "Young, brilliant Dave."
I laugh skeptically.
"And modest, too. That's what I like about old Dave."
20. Nf4 Bxf4
21. exf4 Qxf4
22. hxg4 Qxg4+
He can quit any time. I can't take much more.
23. Kf2 Qg2+
24. Ke3 Qxc2
25. Rxf3 Rae8+
His king must move to d3, and then queen to c4 is checkmate. Fortunately he doesn't think for long. I start gathering up my pieces. I breathe through my mouth while I stand near his foot. My gag reflex is on the verge of kicking in, but I can withstand it as long as I don't have to speak.
I regret leaving so quickly. Rather than speak I pat his shoulders.
I swallow, breathe, and tell him goodnight also. He doesn't suspect a thing. I offer my right hand for a shake. He gives me his left with holds his balled up Kleenex. I squeeze the shit out of it.
The air outside is 50 degrees and dry. I drink in the air and feel my shoulders loosen. I pause while unlocking my car door to look at him through the window. He hasn't moved.
About the author:
David Jordan lives in Jacksonville and goes to the University of North Florida. He drives the blue car with the dent on the driver's side. The car's interior still smells like fried chicken, even though David finally got around to throwing away the remains of the two-piece lunch special.