Under the Black Sun:
Revised Edition

(Extract © 2017 by Eric Harrington Woro)

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Foreword to the Revised Edition

In 1992 Bobby Fischer played a world chess championship rematch in Sveti Stefan, off the coast of Montenegro, against his former rival Boris Spassky and emerged victorious in the unofficial, illegal match (Yugoslavia was under heavy UN sanctions). I was working at Inside Chess magazine at the time and was involved in the editing of No Regrets, Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan’s book on the Fischer-Spassky rematch, which came out that year. Seirawan was the only journalist Fischer allowed to interview him at length in Sveti Stefan, and had many stories to tell and blitz games with Fischer to share when he returned from overseas.

That was the year I began thinking about a novel with a schizophrenic protagonist. Fischer was an enormously gifted but tormented soul, and I had long been fascinated by this mythic coupling of “wound and bow,” going back to Philoctetes, whose foul-smelling wounds from war led to banishment by his fellow Greeks until they realized only his magic bow (bequeathed by Heracles, son of Zeus) could help them win the Trojan War. Fischer’s chess talent was mythic, and yet on a personal level he suffered greatly. The American government put him under indictment for playing in Yugoslavia and violating economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, despite his previous contribution in 1972 to winning the cold war with an American victory over the Soviet chess school. Adding insult to injury, Grandmaster Kasparov commented dourly that Fischer’s performance rating was hardly 2600 or 2650 at Sveti Stefan. Nevertheless the rematch drew more worldwide attention than any other “official” world chess championship matches in those days.

My work as magazine and books editor for Yasser’s International Chess Enterprises meant that everything that came off my computer had one readership in mind: the chess world. When I started writing Under the Black Sun, whose main character is a gifted but schizophrenic chessplayer, it did not occur to me that I was writing for any audience other than the chess world. I used algebraic chess notation in the novel, delineating specific moves in specific games, even knowing this had hardly ever been done before by chess fiction writers. My book came out in 1995 and was an immediate bestseller in the chess world, but some readers who were not devotees of the game wrote me about the use of chess notation in the novel. Mostly they commented that they had read the book but “skipped the chess parts.”

I took note, but financial considerations led to another job at another company, and I had little time left for writing. For more than a decade I was sidelined by an engineering career. Eventually I gave that up and started teaching English in private schools and community colleges around the world.

Travel always gets the creative juices flowing. I remembered the comments of friends, fans and hard critics, too, over the years, and decided at last to revise Under the Black Sun to make it readily accessible to mainstream readers. This revised edition, coming out in 2017, is the result, and in my opinion is a much improved read. I’ve retained the critical games from the first edition but removed the technical chess notation, and I’ve made a few changes to improve the narrative arc. The vampire Monique is still a dark, revelatory force in Martin’s internal and external worlds. But there is yet friendship and love, and humor, and good and bad outcomes in the novel. I wish all my readers the best in discovery.

Eric Harrington Woro
December, 2017

Chapter 1

Martin Fairchild finished the first half of his run and turned back. He ran shirtless in cutoffs and tennis shoes, near the water’s edge, avoiding the lovers arm in arm on their way to Black’s Beach behind him now; running like a panther into his fourth mile, glancing off to the right where a lone surfer fought the choppy waves north of the pier. Not much further now! he thought. The last half was grueling, up Torrey Pines Road back to campus, but he liked it. It was the best part. Was it just endorphins, the runner’s high? Or was it something more, a mystical state emanating from the rhythms in his blood? On his lips as he ran was a haiku of Basho:

Mad with poetry,

I stride like Chikusai

Into the wind.

Primal harmony. As long as he concentrated on his breathing, kept it rhythmic and unforced, the pain would not matter. Through his breathing his spirit soared, above all matter.

* * *

“Forty-one minutes,” he said to Rachel back in the dorm. “Not bad for an old man, eh?”

“Eighteen is not exactly what I would call old,” she replied. She lay on her side on the floor, doing leg lifts. “If it is, then I’m in big trouble.”

“Yeah. Twenty is already on that greased downhill slide.” He came up behind her and kissed her lightly on the neck. “What are you saying, you’re not impressed?”

“Martin, Martin. Such a glutton for praise.” She raised her leg again.

“I have no brother, I am like no other. I am myself alone.”

“You’re a god, Martin. You could qualify for the Olympics. As for your age, you might be my old man, but you’re not an old man. Get it?”

“Sure.” He nuzzled her a little more on her neck.

“Don’t do that, Martin,” she squirmed. She turned onto her right side and continued her leg lifts.

“What? My little nympho’s turning coy?”

“No. Didn’t you hear about the murder on Black’s Beach?”

“What are you talking about?”

“They’re saying there’s a vampire in La Jolla. They’re even calling it the ‘vampire murders’ in the papers.”

“Calling what?”

She turned to face him. “Where do you live, anyway? I know, I know, on the chessboard.”

“That’s not fair.”

“True. You don’t spend eighteen hours a day at the board. Only four. Or is it six.”

“Smart ass.”

“Hey, hey! I’m all for it. When have I ever criticized you?”

He poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the window sill. “So what’s this about a vampire?”

“They found a nineteen-year-old UCSD student with her neck ripped out on Black’s Beach this morning. Happened last night sometime, I guess. Anyway most of the blood was missing.”

“Ex-squeeze me?”

“You know. There’s like six quarts of blood in the human body or whatever. She only had about half a pint left.”

“So, she bled into the sand.”

“Oh,” said Rachel. “So the murder itself—being ripped out by the throat on a beach where we’ve made love so many, many times—you don’t find a little disturbing?”

“I guess you’ve got a point. Sorry, I’m still high from my run.”

“Yeah, well, anyway they checked the sand. The blood’s not there, either.”

“Oh, I see. A vampire attacked her and ripped open her throat and drank all her blood.”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

“So you don’t want me to nuzzle your neck because there’s vampires loose in La Jolla.”

“Well, it’s a thought.” She smiled. “Kind of creepy, though, don’t you think?”

He looked at her acutely intelligent face, the planes and angles, a geometric study, the face of the future physicist. He looked at her shoulder-length, raven-black hair, big and frizzy. Her eyes were benevolent but piercing, dark and large and glowing, wide set, epicanthic folds in the inner corners. The effect overall was more gothic than oriental. And that way she had of lowering her eyes when she smiled. Rachel was like no one he’d ever seen before. Her body was lean, and lithe. Her dark armpits glistened with sweat.

Indeed, she was beautiful. But her understanding of spiritual things, as far as he could judge, left something to be desired.

“Rachel,” he said, turning serious.

“Yes, my love.”

“Rachel, Rachel.”

“Why do I have the feeling you’re about to inflict some of your father’s corrosive theology on me?”

“Don’t speak evil of the dead. Nil nisi mortuum bonus, or whatever.”

“Close,” she said, laughing. “Go on.”

“Well, it’s like this. I’ll grant you demons. You read the piece in Psychology Today. But vampires? I don’t think so. Or werewolves, or leprechauns, or poltergeists, or hooded figures with scythes. The pantheon of the supernormal. No, it’s about God and Satan maybe, maybe some invisible spirit beings. That’s about it.”

“Oh, I see. I’m supposed to concede that you know everything and I am an intellectual worm.”

Martin shrugged.

“You know,” said Rachel, adjusting the strap on her Danskin so that her breasts were properly supported, “I guess I’m the one who has to tell you that you don’t know everything. As for the spirit world, all you know is some fundamentalist Calvinist bullshit your father hammered into your pliant brain early on, before he put on that dress and hung himself in the basement.”

“You shouldn’t talk about him like that.”

“We have to talk about him like that.”

“Forget it. Just forget it.”

“No, Martin,” she replied. “I don’t think so.” He turned away and she took him by the chin and made him turn back. “You still haven’t dealt with him—not really. Or his teaching. Maybe you got over some of the guilt from his suicide, but aren’t you still hung up on the doctrine? And is that where you want to be for the rest of your life? You know, his very suicide proves the bankruptcy of his doctrine.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Okay. But he didn’t know everything.”

“Didn’t know shit about vampires, did he?” Martin said, chuckling contemptuously.

“Hey, go ahead and laugh. Other murders also happened at Wind ’n Sea and in Point Loma, all in the last month and a half. They keep finding these bodies with no blood in them. How would you explain it?”

Martin shook his head.

“Well, they’re saying it’s a vampire.”

“Seems to me,” said Martin, “it’s about as likely that some lunatic is opening up their throats and draining out their blood with some kind of mechanism, some kind of device or whatever. A vampire wannabe. I mean, that’s about as likely as the work of a real vampire.”


“I don’t know,” he continued, “vampires are pretty popular nowadays. I even heard on the radio vampires are in, and Richard Gere is out.”

“Damned relevant corroboration of your theory, Martin,” she said, winking at him.

“Screw you,” he replied.

“Maybe,” said Rachel, “that’s a better idea than debating who is sucking whose blood.”

“Sucking,” said Martin. “I think that’s the key phrase.”

“I don’t think so,” she replied. Now she was pulling off her Danskin. “Screw was the word, if I’m not mistaken.”

“I think women are—” Martin began.

She waved an index finger in rebuke. “You can’t end that sentence favorably, at this moment.”

“Why not?”

“Do you want to do something, or do you want to talk about deconstructing the blatant sexism of American males?” Rachel replied.

“Let’s do something.”

“I await thee.” She stood naked before him.

“I’m coming.”

“Just don’t bite me in the neck.”

* * *

Martin Fairchild was born in 1974 in Lemon Grove, California, a small town on the periphery of San Diego county. Good student, athlete and all-round charmer, Martin had the spirit and artistic sensibilities of his mother, a beautiful Russian emigrée, and the perseverance and sedulous industry of his father, a fundamentalist preacher. When Martin was fourteen, his father committed suicide in an extraordinarily unexpected and perverse fashion. Martin found him in the basement of their home, swinging gently from the rafters, a surprised look on his face. A note scrawled on a piece of paper, pinned to the strap of his dress, read: “Auto-da-fé.” When the police arrived, Martin had already pocketed the note, taken down the body and removed the red dress, nylons and red pumps his father had put on. He had re-dressed his father in slacks and a denim shirt, lugged him upstairs and laid out his corpse on the thick shag rug next to the fireplace.

The police were more than a little suspicious, and furious that Martin had tampered with the body. But his mother intervened and adequately explained her son’s behavior, and after some reports were filed, the event was never spoken of again. There was an understanding between them that someday, perhaps, they would speak of what happened, perhaps hold each other and let the tears flow. But even four years after, they had not broken the silence that followed Zachary Fairchild’s suicide. Martin never mentioned or showed the note to anyone, even his mother.

Marguerita Fairchild decided to move at once to La Mesa, escaping the grisly scene and also enabling Martin to attend Grossmont High School, one of the best in the county. The next four years proved to be an unqualified success for Martin. This had much to do with his development as a chess prodigy.

Marguerita had taught him the moves when he was seven, and they played occasionally over the years. He loved the game, and might even have become obsessed with it, had his mother allowed it. But in the old country she had seen too often how the game could be the ruination of a personality, and she refused to allow that to happen to her son. It was good for him to know the moves, but better to study mathematics and foreign languages, and when school was out to ride horses and hike the hills with his friends. Chess was too narrow, too limiting, at such a young age.

But in the summer following his father’s suicide, Martin and his mother attended a neighborhood party which precipitated a change of direction in his life. He would never be the same again.

It was 1988. The Baileys, two militant, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, threw a political fund-raiser disguised as an open party one Sunday afternoon. Martin went with his mother. Marguerita did not think much of Republicans but the Baileys were close neighbors and she thought a brief appearance was in order. It added cohesion to a neighborhood. And she liked from time to time to sharpen her wits in debate with Republicans.

She made some spiked punch, a pink, frothy, joyous concoction with thin spirals of lemon floating on the surface, and they walked over to the Baileys at two o’clock. They arrived in the midst of a heated argument between Dolores Bailey and the principal of the local high school, a lifelong liberal.

“If you don’t want to get involved with this,” Marguerita whispered to her son, “go look around. Personally, I’m kind of in the mood to sit in on Scylla and Charybdis here.” She put the punch on the table.

“Sure, Mom.”

Martin wandered into the next room. It was a large den with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls, a pool table at one end, and two voluminous armchairs where two men sat intently focused on a chessboard. Martin approached hesitantly, so as not to disturb the players, but one of them acknowledged him immediately and motioned him over to watch.

“Come over here, kid, you’ll learn something.” He was a big man with a big head like a bowling ball and big expansive gestures and a hearty guffaw. “My venerable opponent here, a Mr. Zoran Nobody—”

“How am I supposed to concentrate,” said the other, a middle-aged ectomorph with greasy straight hair and thick glasses, “if you just keep nattering on and on?”

“—refuses to give up that quaint move in the Pirc Defense. He plays it the old way and I beat him the easy way. What he has to discover is the modern move, where the Knight goes to the rim—but I fear this discovery is beyond his capabilities. It is too modern, or may I say postmodern, for his archaic sensibilities.”

His opponent shook his head without looking up from the board. Martin stared at the position without moving. The big man of braggadocio lit a cigar and studied Martin’s face. Finally he turned back to the game. “Now I will kill you, Zoran,” he said, regarding the move his opponent had made. “It is . . . thus!” and his hand came down over the Queen’s crown as he picked her up, high in the air, and smacked her down deep in the enemy position, near the black King.

The noise of the impact of the Queen shattering the enemy position was deafening to Martin. The Queen move was impressive and the sound of her arrival in the enemy King’s camp an explosion in his ears. But he had been looking at another move, one with the white Knight, a subtle, surreptitious, sinewy move which did not win material, as the Queen move won the enemy Rook, but which, as far as Martin could see, brought about checkmate in five moves.

Was he wrong? The man at the board was so big, so sure of himself; he must be right. But the more Martin looked at the position, the more he thought the Knight move was immediately decisive. Perhaps the big man just wanted to win material and torture his opponent slowly.

“What do you think of that?” said the big man to Martin suddenly. “He drops a Rook, you see!”


“Yes, yes?”

“Well, sir, I was just thinking—”

“Out with it, boy!”

The other looked up. “It’s all right,” he said to Martin. “Say what you think. We’re all students in chess. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong.”

“Well. I was just looking at this move instead.” He pointed to where the Knight could hop over to the edge of the board.

“What is that?” replied the big man instantly. “He just goes Bishop to e7.” And he pointed to the square.

“Sure, but then the Rook can sacrifice on this square—” and he pointed to the square, “—and then if he takes, he gets mated. In fact he gets mated whether he takes or not. Do you see?”

“He’s right,” said Zoran immediately. “He’s found a mate in five, by force.”

The big man erupted into great, obese, resounding peals of laughter. “Excellent!” he cried. “Very good, young man. We must play sometime. I can see you will be a formidable opponent!”

But Martin was still looking at the board.

“Don’t forget,” said Zoran, “our game is not yet over.”

“Pshaw!” cried the big man. “You lose a Rook and the game.”

“It’s not that simple.” Zoran made a quiet move with his Queen Bishop. His opponent could now take his Rook. He did, without hesitation, and stuck the cigar back in his mouth.

“The only problem with that,” said Zoran, “is the long diagonal. It’s kind of drafty around your King, wouldn’t you say?” And with a smirk he brought his Rook to the seventh rank.

Martin had already seen it. White had no moves. He could have won with the Knight move, but taking the Rook was poison. Now he just lost.

The big man studied the position for a long time. Small gusts of smoke rose from his cigar. His bushy eyebrows lifted and lowered, and lifted again. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and he made intermittent groaning sounds, as light gradually dawned.

At last he took his King and turned him over quietly on his side. It was the only quiet move the man had made, at least while Martin was there. Then he got up without saying a word and left the room.

Martin looked steadily into Zoran’s eyes, and Zoran looked at Martin.

“You saw it all, didn’t you?” said Zoran.

Martin lowered his eyes and did not answer.

“Don’t be humble,” said Zoran. “Humility is the last thing you need in chess. You have to be an egotistical monster to win at this game.” He smiled wearily, studied the boy for a moment. “Do you hear me, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But you’re not looking at me.”

Martin raised his eyes and looked at the man. “Yes, sir,” he repeated.

“You saw it all. Neither of us did. I gave him the Rook because I knew he would take it without even thinking twice, and meanwhile I would be able to envelop his King. But the variation you showed us proves that my play was unsound.”

“Well,” said Martin.


“I mean, if you knew he was going to take the Rook, then you did right.”

Zoran smiled. “That’s what Lasker would have said.”


“He always talked about playing the man instead of the position. But Fischer would have condemned my play.”

Martin shook his head.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Martin Fairchild.”

“My name is Zoran. I assume you live in the area?”

“Yes, sir. Two doors down.”

“Who taught you how to play?”

“My mother.”

“Your mother. Very interesting. Usually it is the father.”

“My mother is Russian.”

“I see. I am from Yugoslavia.”

“I wondered about the name Zoran.”

“Would you like to play sometime?”


“Let’s go back to the party. Your mother is here?”


“Please introduce me to her.”

Chapter 2

"Mom, there’s someone who wants to meet you. His name is Zoran something.” He tugged at her sleeve to follow him.

Marguerita, a stout, middle-aged woman with dark coarse hair pulled back with a scarf, followed Martin into the den. She saw the chessboard, felt a vague disquiet.

In the old country she had seen young chess talents become grandmasters before they turned twenty, sometimes paying for it with the disintegration of their personalities. Vladimir Boronov, for example, had astounded the chess world by winning three international tournaments right after becoming World Junior Champion, and by FIDE rating was in the top ten in the world by the age of seventeen. But those who knew him said that he could not even feed himself; were it not for his loyal girlfriend, spoonfeeding him every meal, bite by bite, he would have starved to death, whilst studying the intricacies of the King’s Indian Defense. Marguerita knew other horror stories, too, some involving suicides. Less horrible but also disturbing, and common: the way players fell into a life of petty crime to pay for their habit, an obsession with chess to the exclusion of all else. She had long understood that the bottom line in chess, even for most strong grandmasters, was that there was no money to be made. Only a few at the very top could make a living at the game, and only a handful of those few could actually get rich. Chess was a great heartbreaker, and for many was a life destroyer. She agreed with H.G. Wells’ dictum that to destroy a man it is not necessary to murder him: just inoculate him with a love of chess, and that will suffice. So she bristled when the man introduced himself as “Zoran Maricich, International Master,” and offered to tutor her son in the Royal Game.

“Mrs. Fairchild, I must tell you, your son may have a special gift for chess. I honestly believe it is worth some effort to find out.”

“And why would you care, one way or another? Presumably for the money. What else?”

“Please, please. That is not true at all. In fact I suggest merely that Martin and I play a few games together—let me spend an hour or two with him—and if it looks as though it might be fun, perhaps we could get together once a month and talk about chess. There would be no charge on my part.”

“Fun?” She regarded him steadily. “Fun?” she repeated.

“Yes, ma’am, I think we could have—what I mean is—”

“Please, Mr. Maricich. I am no fool. First of all, I do know something of Yugoslavia. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe there are more international masters in Yugoslavia than in any other country in the world. Chess there is like baseball in America. Or hockey in Canada. It is perhaps even more the national sport in your country than in my native Russia. Consider: Bobby Fischer is absolutely worshipped in Yugoslavia. Talk about a prophet without honor in his own land! Americans scarcely appreciate Bobby Fischer at all. But in Yugoslavia he’s almost a god. He is treated there as Tal is in Russia.

“Second, I like to think I am a good judge of character. As I look at you, I do not see a man who makes important decisions on the basis of ‘fun’. In fact you demean both yourself and me with this statement. Are you suggesting that my principal interest regarding my son is that he have fun? Lots of laughs?”

Zoran blushed and looked down. “I am sorry to have offended you, Mrs. Fairchild,” he said.

“Please raise your head and look at me,” she said to him. “I understand why you would approach me in this fashion. Fun is worthy in America. Pleasure is a worthy goal in this culture. You might easily have assumed that I want my son to be healthy and happy. I understand. But let us be open with each other. I think I can say that fun is not the point for you. The point is mastery—and that’s all that matters. Am I wrong, Mr. Maricich?”

He looked her in the eyes. “Please, Mrs. Fairchild. Call me Zoran.”

She smiled. “Then you must call me Marguerita.”

“All right, Marguerita. You are right. I do have a very unusual feeling about your son. I think he may be one of the special ones. He seems to know little about the game and yet he can really calculate. This is a sign.”

“Now I will tell you a secret,” said Marguerita. “I know that he has this ability. Do not forget, it was I who taught him the game. Not that I play so well, myself. But I am Russian. I knew Tal, and Polugaevsky, and Geller. I am not just dropping names. Please.”

“Yes, go on.”

“To be candid with you, Zoran, I was troubled—to say the least—” and she looked off into the distance, as if querying the Fates if she must submit to her son’s destiny, “—I was more than troubled to discover my son’s aptitude and love for the game. The two in combination are, well, how should I put it? The two together almost spell out a specific fate. I have not wanted chess to be my son’s fate. It is not, to say the least, a necessarily auspicious one. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course I do. For some it is tragic.”

“Precisely. And that is what I fear most. And yet if it is truly fate, then I should, I must embrace it.”

“Let us be sensible, Mrs. Fairchild.”


“Yes, Marguerita. Let us be sensible. Martin may have a special gift, but this in no way inscribes for certain his future in the Book of Destiny. If you know Karpov, you know that he played blindfold at the age of five after his parents took away his chess set. He would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and play game after game in his imagination. Perhaps this is closer to the notion of an ineluctable fate than your son’s ability to calculate.”

“You are quite right. And in any event, realization is something that seldom comes to Americans. There is all manner of talent in this land, but few ever come to realize it. This is a culture of fun, of self-indulgence. This is not a culture of mastery. Bobby Fischer is an exception.”

“Mastery, if you will forgive me, always involves exceptions. But I agree with what you say about the American culture. However, we speak as if your son’s apparent talent might be a curse. Is this good?”

“We will not speak this way again.” She looked at Zoran and smiled. “I like you, Zoran. Let us see what we will see. Go ahead and spend some time with Martin. Perhaps—perhaps it will be fun.” Her lip curled up distinctly on one side.

“Yes, Marguerita. I will do it. And yes, perhaps Martin and I will have some fun. That is what matters, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, of course. That’s all that matters.” She winked.

“I will not quote you.”

“Thank you, sir. Let us just see what we will see.”


It was on the basis of this conversation that Zoran took on the task of being Martin’s private chess tutor. He did not do it for free, either: Marguerita paid him handsomely for his work. They arranged that he and Martin should meet once a week on Sunday morning for three hours of intense concentration on the Royal Game.

Zoran first played a series of games with Martin, both slow and fast, to determine his potential strengths and weaknesses. What he found did not surprise. Martin’s great strength was his calculating ability. With lightning speed he saw variations three, four and five moves deep. Only fourteen, and with no experience in serious chess, Martin was not at all confident of his ability. But that would soon change. Zoran had to teach him the vocabulary, the language of chess, so they could freely discuss the parameters of mastery. Martin had to learn how to think about the game, and that involved a very specific discourse. Once he understood how quickly and accurately he could calculate and had learned the language of how this would insure victory, he began to see it and believe in himself. This gift soon became the cornerstone of his self-confidence in chess.

But Martin’s teacher observed other interesting factors in his play. He did best in complicated positions requiring deep and accurate calculation, of course, but Zoran noticed that despite this Martin often happily went into exchanges that left him with only a miniscule edge in a dynamically equal endgame. And then he often misplayed the endgames and lost what, at worst, should have been draws. He was fascinated with the endgame, but had no technical mastery of it.

Finally, Martin was weakest in opening knowledge and preparation. This was hardly surprising, given his background. His mother had taught him to play only one or two basic opening schemes as White or Black. This he did religiously. But when Zoran opened a game with the move of a Queen’s Bishop pawn against Martin, he was intrigued to see the kid respond with a kind of King’s Indian formation.

Zoran’s conclusions were straightforward: Martin had an extraordinary feel for the game, and tremendous calculating abilities. Added to that, he had an inborn love or fascination for the endgame. So it was Zoran’s task to give him concrete opening knowledge along with a complete program of study for the endgame, starting with Rook-and-pawn positions, which occurred more often than any other in competitive chess. Later, if Martin proved really serious about the game, he would work with him on opening repertoires designed specifically for specific opponents. But much was to be proven before that step.

Martin asked him an interesting question in their first lesson.

“Zoran, how good was that big man you were playing? How is it that he was winning? I mean, he could have won. Is he an international master like you?”

Zoran chuckled. “Hardly. I would say that Bob is probably about a 1950-strength player. That’s what you would call a pretty strong coffeehouse player. Nothing at master level, but he can beat most of his friends in the neighborhood, so to speak. He has opening knowledge and stays tactically alert. But strategically he is very weak.”

“But he could have beaten you.”

“You are right, he could have won that game. But it is often the case that an A-class player ‘could have won’ the game he plays against the master. This is a secret in chess: the path to victory in many games is quite narrow, and treacherous all the way. There are often chances for both sides until the very end. The player who wins—that which separates the master from the amateur—is the player who is more alert, more opportunistic, more determined. You see, even after our big friend took the pawn on h7 he could have drawn, easily, and he still had winning chances. But he was so convinced that taking the Rook meant an automatic win, he stopped calculating. He stopped thinking. You saw the Rook was poison, but he didn’t. He was just too sure of himself.

“What I am saying is more important than you now understand. If you stick with the game, you will play tournaments and hear amateurs doing post-mortems and saying, ‘Look, he was busted, I could have put him down right here with such-and-such a move.’ The truth is, they’re right, often enough. Many serious games are dynamically equal right to the very end, when either the more tactically alert player wins, or the player who is more technically proficient in the endgame. In my casual game with Bob, he lost through over-confidence, his mind shutting down completely when he saw he was winning my Rook. He did not realize that I was setting a trap I figured he would fall into.”

“Would you have played that way against a master?”

“Of course not. Nor would I have played that way against you, my young friend. Because I know already you could calculate further and would have seen that my combination of Bishop on the long diagonal with Rook on the seventh was killing, even though materially speaking, I was much inferior.”

“So space, and time—these are just as important as material.”

Zoran smiled. “You have just enunciated one of the deepest principles in the Royal Game, and this is only your first lesson!”

“What if you don’t know the strength of your opponent? How do you play then?” Martin asked.

“To become a master you need not only learn technique through specific exercises on the chessboard, you must also learn to evaluate your opponent merely by looking at him.”

“What? How could I do that?”

“You will understand, as time goes on. In some competitions you will face unrated opponents, which means there is no concrete measure of their chess knowledge or performance capacity. You must learn to size up your opponents over-the-board, at a glance. You must learn to look at a man and determine whether certain kinds of play will be effective against him or not. And failing that, you will play like Petrosian.”


“We will discuss him later.”

Martin joined the chess club when he got into high school. He had had two months of lessons with Zoran. Already he knew many fundamental concepts: rapid development of the pieces, control of the center, the safety of the King, the importance of every tempo. He knew that Rooks were strong on open files because they could penetrate deep into the enemy position, and he knew that the King was especially strong in the endgame. The endgame! He marveled at the hidden subtleties of the simplest looking positions. He loved this final phase. He made it his goal to learn everything about the endgame.

It was the quixotic dream of a fourteen-year-old, but Zoran was more than happy to comply. Most chess players disdained the endgame, found it boring. Martin was different. So Zoran force-fed him one endgame problem after another, teaching him the Lucena position, the Philidor position in which Black draws with Rook against Rook and pawn, and a hundred other fundamental endgame positions. Martin learned that a Rook and four pawns was a theoretical draw against a Rook and three pawns, if all the pawns were in one half of the board; but the player with the extra material had tremendous practical chances, and the draw could only be achieved with great care.

“Never give your opponent the draw in this kind of position,” said Zoran. “Play it out. Make your opponent prove that he knows how to draw it. Let him claim the draw all he wants. Make him play it out. When you are satisfied, give it up and take the half-point. But always make them prove it. I have seen grandmasters unable to draw these kinds of positions. Remember what I say.”

The same was true of many other positions. Rook could draw against Rook and Bishop, for example, but Zoran taught Martin that only the best players in the world had mastered the technique of such endings. “Always play them out,” he insisted. “Make them prove it. If they protest, if they call over the tournament director and say it’s a book draw, just shake your head and say: ‘Prove it.’ Remember what I say. Chess players study openings. They do not study endgames. Therefore you must demand that they prove what they have merely heard from others.”

Martin’s head was full of chess when he started school in the fall, and Marguerita was a little concerned about it.

“Don’t forget, Martin, high school is about more than just chess.”

“I won’t, Mom.”

“High school and college are about broadening your horizons. You want to find out what is out there before you focus on just one narrow band of the spectrum.”

“I understand.”

She looked him over before sending him out the door for his first day. “I think you’re trying to appease me, Martin. I’m not sure you’re listening to what I’m saying.”

“But I am, Mom. I swear I am.” He fidgeted, looked away from her and back again.


“Yes, Mother.”

“You like Zoran, don’t you.”

He broke into an irresistible grin. “Oh yes, of course I do! He’s a great teacher.”

“How is it going? You haven’t spoken to me lately about your lessons.”

“Oh, I think I’m doing great. You wouldn’t believe how much he has taught me. Last Sunday I actually drew Zoran twice in speed chess. I—”

Marguerita was smiling, but her expression held the hint of sorrow.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

She shook her head. “It’s fine, son. You’ll find your way. I just—” and she began to falter, “I just did not think—”

“Didn’t think what? Have I done something wrong?”

“Not at all. You’re doing just fine. Only please remember what I said. Perhaps you will give your life to chess, perhaps not. Only please do not decide now. Go to school with an open mind. There is so much to this world. There are so many paths. Be open. For God’s sake, Martin, you’re barely fourteen years old.”

“I know what you’re saying. Really I do.”

“All right. Good luck. Have a good day.”

“I will.” He embraced her. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Martin. Be careful.”

“Of what?”

“Of the other boys. Many of them will not like you.”

He looked puzzled for a moment, then brightened. “But the girls will?”


“Then there’s no problem, is there?” He skipped off, laughing to himself.

She watched him as he took off down the street with his pack thrown over one shoulder. “Dearest Martin,” she sighed. “You have such difficult times ahead.”

Her prediction might turn out to be true, but not on the first day. All his classes were interesting: French, German, English, algebra, biology. He wore tan corduroys and a T-shirt with a silkscreened design of surfers descending a huge wave in Hawaii, and he sat roughly in the middle of each class, two rows back from the front. He thought sitting in the front row was too nerdy, and from the back he couldn’t sense what was going on. The middle suited him fine. When he looked around him he saw an infinite sea of faces and could not process them. But one face struck him: a sloe-eyed beauty, the girl next to him in German.

They walked out together after class. “Most people around here think Spanish is the language to take,” Martin said to her. “What’s with you?”

“My parents wanted me to take Spanish,” she conceded. “But I think Europe is more interesting than Mexico. Don’t you? I want to go there.”

“So do I. In fact, I’m taking French, too.”

“Two foreign languages? Are you crazy?”

Martin shrugged. “I heard at our age anything is possible. It’s just a matter of attitude.”

“Really,” she said, sizing him up. “How old are you?"

“I’m fourteen. I skipped two grades.”

“I’m almost sixteen.”

“Well,” he said. “You’re older than me. But I’m taller.”

“What’s your name?”

“Martin. What’s yours?”


“Well, Rachel. I guess I’ll see you later.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The bell sounded. “Where do you go now?” he asked her.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she replied, and turned off towards the Old Main building.

“Yeah, okay. Whatever.” He stood and watched her as she melted into the distance. Finally, just before going through the door into the Old Main, she turned and looked back. He smiled and waved. She did not wave back.

But she had turned.

Tennis came last period and the chess club met afterwards, at 3:00. Martin’s heart raced as he went down the corridor to Room 224.

A hand-scrawled sign reading “Chess Club” was lopsidedly scotch-taped to the door. Martin pushed the door open, imagining something exotic like a casino with sensuous baize tabletops under Tiffany shades. What he saw was anything but what he expected.

The room was bare except for a few tables and some folding chairs. On one side of the room a large coffee tureen sat self-consciously on the drainboard by a sink. But no coffee, or any other amenities. Five teenage boys sat together in the center of the room. Four were playing—all together, it seemed, although they were using two boards, two sets of pieces—and one watched.

“I need a Rook!” cried one.

“Okay, okay,” said another—his partner? He looked up sullenly as Martin entered the room, and immediately back down at the board. “How could my position get any worse than it is? I know, I’ll sac my Queen for the Rook. I can’t find any better way to worsen my position. Is there a better way?” he said, to no one in particular.

“Just give me the damn Rook,” said his partner, clearly the oldest boy in the room.

“Sure, sure. I’ve got Custer’s last stand over here while you’re leading your army victoriously over the Alps on elephants.” He looked up again at Martin. “Or was that camels?” he added.

Martin smiled at the kid—at what he perceived to be his joke—and the kid, seeing Martin’s affirmation, became even more animated and talkative as the game neared its end. Martin walked over, stood behind one of the players, and watched. All four were yelling and throwing pieces around and punching their clocks and laughing. Finally the oldest kid delivered checkmate. Then he leaned back in his chair and addressed Martin. Martin’s presence, that is.

“We have a sixth, it appears. Or are you looking for the Latin Club?”

“No, I’m pretty sure I found the right place,” Martin replied.

“Well, as you can see, we have all the modern conveniences here,” said the older. “Tables, chairs—”

“And walls, too,” said his partner.

“And a ceiling.”

“Well,” said Martin, “there’s a coffee pot too, right? I think it’s kind of sleek.”

Silence all around.

“My name is Martin,” he continued.

“Okay, Martin,” said the oldest. “I’m Peter. I’m a junior and my rating is 2136. My partner here is Ralph. His rating is 1940 or something. What is it now, anyway?”

“1928,” said Ralph.

“Whatever.” He continued with introductions. Peter and Ralph had the highest ratings, but two of the others were A-class players and the third a high B-class, with a rating of 1770.

“How about you, Martin?”

“I’ve never played in a tournament,” he confessed. “I’m unrated.”

Peter smirked. “Okay,” he said. “At least we’re six now. Round-robins. Sound good?”



“What are we doing?” Martin asked.

“We divide into two groups of three, and we play a round-robin,” said Ralph. “We’re playing twenty minutes. Do you have a clock?”

Martin nodded his head. “Yes,” he said proudly, “I do.” He reached into his pack and brought it out. It was an official United States Chess Federation clock. Zoran had given it to him as a present at his last lesson. He looked at the clock and saw Zoran’s face, and remembered.

“Martin,” he had said. “This is your first clock. You will beat it into the ground until it refuses to work any more. You’ll take it apart and try to fix it. One day you’ll take it to some smart-ass who claims to be able to fix any clock for a fee. He won’t be much help, but he’ll get it going for a while. Someday it will completely die on you and you’ll get another one. Or maybe you’ll already be using another clock. But this one, Martin—” and he held it up in his hand for Martin to see, “—this one, my friend, is your first clock. Your first blood will be shed to the ticking of this clock. It is like a heart, the way it beats. It is—I am sorry, I do not have the words for it. It is like your first woman.”

Martin was filled with emotion and did not know how properly to receive this gift from his teacher.

“Just do not overwind it, my friend,” said Zoran, smiling.

Tears filled his eyes as he took the box from his teacher and opened it.

“I will make you proud of me,” said Martin. “I promise.”

“You already have,” said Zoran. “Even so, I expect great things from you.”

Now Martin produced his clock and looked at Ralph eagerly, waiting for some kind of affirmation. Instead, one of the others sneered when he took it out of the box. “You’ve never used it, have you, fishcake?”

He did not know how to respond. He just looked down at the clock in his hand.

“Lighten up,” said Ralph.

“You’re all fish,” said Peter.

Martin remembered. “Never be humble,” Zoran had said. “You have to be an egotistical monster to win at chess.”

Martin looked at Peter: “Why are we just sitting around talking? Why don’t we play?”

“I like the sound of that,” said Peter. “I think it’s time to show our little friend what real chess is all about!”

They drew lots and Martin was paired with Ralph and Denny. Martin had White against Denny and then Black against Ralph.

“Can we use my clock?” said Martin to Denny.

“I’ve got Black,” said Denny. “I get my choice. That means my clock and my pieces.”


“Do you know how to use the clock?”


“We each have twenty minutes.”

Martin was filling out the scoresheet. “Your rating is 1770?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

Martin held out his hand. “Good luck,” he said to Denny.

“You’re going to need it,” said his opponent.

The open contempt in this remark, almost spitting into Martin’s face, decided Martin on the opening he would play. He remembered the Orangutan, the one example Zoran had given him of “unorthodox flank openings,” and how he had summed it up afterwards: “It’s fine to play occasionally against weak players, Martin. Alekhine once said its only real drawback was that it was too committal. In fact you are committed to an early queenside pawn storm from move one, in most of the principal variations. But the best thing about it is that if your opponent is not familiar with it, he’ll think you’re a fool for playing it, and may push too hard through overconfidence.”

Martin shrugged his shoulders, picked up his Queen Knight pawn and moved it two squares forward, and punched his clock.

His opponent broke out laughing, and began to mock him. “Really,” he said, “if you want to develop your Queen Rook, start with your Queen Rook’s pawn!”

Martin did not look up from the board, even when Denny announced to the others that Martin had played the “Orangutang.” Denny finally ceased mocking him and played up his Queen pawn in response. Martin placed his Bishop on the long diagonal. He liked the way it looked. If Denny castled kingside, the Bishop would be aiming at the King’s throat. Castling queenside was out of the question, as a principal characteristic of White’s strategy was the queenside pawn storm.

They each continued with standard developing moves. By early middlegame the situation on the board seemed crystal clear to Martin. He had advanced his queenside pawns as far as he could, and Black had exchanged off one pair and blockaded the others. Martin thought the critical point was the enemy Queen Rook pawn, which sat on its original square. That was his “blockading point.” Martin’s plan was to keep the pawn under observation with a Knight or a Bishop, and at just the right moment sacrifice the piece for the pawn, and push his a6-pawn forward to the queening square. Black had castled kingside, and was too far away to stop the a-pawn with his King; and since he was involved with his own pawn storm on the kingside, hoping to break open Martin’s king protection, he might not notice the threat of sacrifice on the other side of the board.

This was almost exactly what happened in the game. Denny did manage to move his King Bishop pawn forward and exchange it off, opening up Martin’s King cover and activating a Rook on the semi-open file. But it was too late. Martin’s stoic Knight, positioned for the longest time to observe the Queen Rook pawn, must have been so quiet and so stationary that it had acquired invisibility, because suddenly it sprang to life, sacrificing itself in the far corner, and Denny’s reaction showed that he had not seen it coming. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, he fidgeted in his seat, he picked up his pencil and chewed on it and put it down again. Several times he looked around wildly. Finally, his time running out, he captured the wayward Knight, as otherwise it would simply retreat and clear the way for the advance of the a-pawn in any event.

Martin calmly exchanged a pair of minor pieces and took over control of the Queen Knight file with his Rooks. Denny tried a desperado attack against Martin’s King, giving a piece back to try to open up lines for a checkmate, but it wasn’t there. Martin advanced the pawn to the seventh rank and was ready to move his Rook to the eighth, followed by the queening of the a-pawn, when Denny’s flag fell.

“Flag!” Martin announced, and he stopped the clock.

Denny glared at him, while behind him his friends snickered.

“You were completely busted!” Denny insisted.

“How’s that?” Martin replied.

“Once I opened the King Bishop file and brought my Rook into play, you were busted!”

Martin shrugged. “The Queen Rook pawn was more important,” he replied. “There was no mate on the kingside.”

“Yes, there was!” Denny cried. His voice was shrill. “It was there, anyone could see it!”

Martin eyed the boy calmly. So this is how they are when they lose.

“Denny’s full of shit,” said a voice behind them. It was Peter. Martin looked up gratefully at him. “I saw the game,” he continued. “You crushed him like a bug.” He turned to Denny. “And you,” he said. “You’ve been mocking this kid since he walked in the room. And here, he just mopped the board with you. Kingside attack, my ass! You had to hold the a7-point. Martin is completely right. And you didn’t even see it coming. Fishcake.” He looked around at everyone else in the room. “Has there ever been such a fishcake in all the chess world, guys?”

They all shook their heads.

Denny jumped out of his chair, grabbed his set and clock, and stomped out of the room.

Peter turned to Martin and held his hand out. “At least let me shake your hand,” he said, with genuine respect in his voice.

Martin shook. “What if it had been you?” he asked.

Peter stared at the younger boy for several moments. Finally he said: “I’ll just tell you one thing. That opening is no good.”

“I know,” said Martin. “I only played it because he insulted me before the game.”

At this, Peter broke out laughing. Tears came to his eyes.

“I like this kid!” he cried. “How old did you say you were?”


“So why didn’t you play the Spike, if you really wanted to get him back?” said Peter.

“What’s the Spike?”

“What’s the Spike? Here, let me show you. You open with the King’s Knight pawn.”

“That’s ridiculous!” said Martin.

“Yes, but there is a certain logic to it. Let me show you.”

Peter quickly demonstrated some of the ideas in what was usually called the Grob Attack. Martin liked the sound of his voice, the assurance with which he moved the pieces, the speed of his calculation, and the precision of his explanations.

“Next time you play White against Denny,” said Peter in summation, “try the Spike. He fears it. He can’t stand playing against it. He’ll despise you forever.”

“I think he already does,” said Martin.

“You might be right, my friend,” Peter chuckled.

“Anyway,” said Martin, “maybe I’ll just play the Orangutan against him. Always.”

“That’s funny,” said Peter. “But very cruel.” He addressed the others, who were gathered around the board. “Our new friend has spirit, wouldn’t you say?”

“Talk is cheap,” countered Ralph. “Unless I’m mistaken, you’re Black against me now, isn’t that so?”

Martin nodded.

Peter said, “What’s it going to be, Ralph? Flank opening?”

Ralph flipped him the bird and looked at Martin. “You’re Black,” he said. “Your pieces and clock?”

“Yes, I think so. I mean, I’m sure.”

“Sure you are.”

Martin produced his set and got his new clock out of the box. He wound it up tight in the back and set it, twenty minutes for each side. He held it before him in both hands, and stared.

“Are we going to play,” said Ralph, “or are we just going to admire our new clock?”

But Martin sat transfixed by a voice—not Ralph’s, nor anyone else’s in the room. A voice in his head. He rolled his eyes, he shut them, he rubbed them, but the voice did not go away. Every word was distinct. It was narrating:

The White King knelt over the dying sentry, giving him false assurances as he passed from life into death. He laid him down gently on the stones, and stood to look out again at the field of battle. They are all falling, he thought. The time has come at last. In the distance, the sound of horses’ hooves, plangent on the earth, approaching, coming soon for him. They would not stop, they were coming for him now.

“What’s it going to be?” Ralph demanded. “Are we going to play, or not?”

He could see some of their faces. Soldiers with fists lifted in affirmations of glory. Horses with flared nostrils and the steam of their breath cutting the frosty air as they neared their destination. The Black King distant, in black robes of black victory, sauntering slowly in an oblique, almost desultory approach. And there, on a glowering steed, riding side saddle in a long robe, naked he knew under her thick dark purple robe, the enemy Queen, the Black Queen.

“Hello, hello,” said Ralph, waving his hand in front of Martin’s face. “Anybody home?”

There was nothing left now. Dizzy from vertigo, he fell over on his side, on the hard stones behind the dusky crenels of the castle, beside his faithful, already dead.

“Martin, wake up!” It was Peter, shaking him.

“What, what? What is it?”

“Sorry to play T.D. here, but you’ve got to start your clock.”

“Oh, sorry.” Martin put the clock down in the middle of the board, facing his opponent, the way Zoran had taught him. Ralph checked the settings and put the clock on his right side. They shook hands. Ralph gestured for Martin to punch the clock, but he seemed utterly distracted. Finally Ralph just made opening move with the Queen pawn and punched the clock.

Martin, wide-eyed and shaken by the auditory hallucination, gazed at the clock and heard its fateful ticking. He could see the minute hand move; he was mesmerized. The voice had faded, but still he saw the dead and dying on the battlefield, the King at last giving up the ghost.

“I don’t want to disturb you, Martin,” said Ralph, “but twenty minutes isn’t very long. You ought to be moving, not staring at the clock.”

Martin looked at the boy. Pinched and sullen, his face was swollen from squeezing a myriad of pimples. His red hair was the color of geraniums, wild and disheveled, almost beautiful, Martin thought. But his pale cerulean eyes were unsteady, full of fear, and Martin looked away. He sensed that even a casual glance would make him squirm. He looked down at Ralph’s hands, saw nails chewed to the nub, the skin of hangnails ripped instead of clipped, spots of dried blood here and there on both hands. Zoran had said: “You will learn to size up your opponents over-the-board.” Martin knew Ralph’s rating of 1928 was respectable, but as he looked at his face and hands and sensed intuitively the boy’s absolute existential insecurity, he knew his opponent didn’t have a chance. Not a chance in hell.

“Oh, thanks,” said Martin at last. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Your move.”

Martin reached out and moved his King Knight, and punched his clock. But after Ralph moved his Queen Bishop pawn, Martin hesitated again for a long time. He was captivated by a strange-looking move, the advance of the King pawn two squares, which gave up a pawn immediately. Should he sacrifice a pawn against an A-class player in an opening he had never played, never tested, never studied? When he at last played the move and punched his clock, he had already used up nine minutes out of the twenty allotted. What the hell, he thought to himself. I don’t know what it is, but I like the way it feels.

Without hesitation, his opponent took the pawn. Then Martin did a strange thing. He had planned to move the Knight out to where he could attack and regain the pawn, which ought to be sufficient. But almost as if driven by a siren song he moved the Knight into the center instead, and before he knew it, he had punched his clock. The square e4 seemed to vibrate with importance. It was so central, it had to be the right square for his Knight. But a pawn is a pawn! When would he regain the pawn? He shook his head. He saw some possibilities, but not in the way he wanted to play. He had an idea as to where to put his pieces, and if it all happened as he envisioned it, there was no regaining the pawn. This was pure sacrifice. Did he have anything for it? He analyzed the position again. He loved the active squares he was going to get for his pieces. He thought his Knights, in particular, were going to be extremely dangerous.

A wry smile. He liked this way of playing. Zoran might chastise him later, but he liked it. He had given up this pawn on the second move, but the more he thought about it, the more he liked his position. He would not have traded places with his opponent for anything. Ralph had an extra pawn, but Martin had all the activity.

The game did not go as he expected. Ralph played his Knight out at once, knowing the opening, and after Martin moved he played a cautionary advance of his Queen Rook pawn without hesitation. It was clear that b4 was a critical square; his pawn move kept minor pieces out of there, and also prepared a later advance which might embarrass Black’s Knight after it retreated from from its central position. Martin at last played up his Queen Rook pawn and anguished over the loss of tempo; but if White continued with a pawn expansion, at least Martin’s Queen Rook would come into play.

But after a few moves, Martin could see that White’s pieces were not working well together. Ralph took a long time before deciding to fianchetto his King Bishop, but Martin, sensing a critical moment, showed he could sacrifice a second pawn for tactical possibilities. Ralph looked undeterred and moved his Rook without hesitation. Martin chuckled, crashed his Queen down into the enemy fortress around White’s King, punched his clock and looked at his opponent. Ralph’s mouth fell open in utter astonishment.

Peter was watching this game too, in between the moves of his own game. He also chuckled, and Ralph turned red. Martin looked at Peter, saw the respect in the older boy’s eyes.

For ten minutes Ralph stared at the board. Finally he stopped the clock, got up from his chair and left the room, saying nothing.

“That’s two,” said Peter.

“Why do they all leave like that?”

“Because you’re unrated. They figured you for the rabbit. If you had a 2000 rating or something, they’d still be here all friendly and cozy, whether they won or lost.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Martin.

“So, you’re a Budapest devotee?”

“What do you mean?”

“You like this opening a lot?”

“You call that the Budapest? I’ve never seen it before. But I definitely like Black’s chances.”

Peter stared at the boy.

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