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1. Tallinn

Alexander Molokov seems entirely too well-dressed for their apartment when he walks in. But by the time he's taken a seat on the old couch, he fits into its slumps and crevices as if he's always belonged there. He sips his tea with pleasure, racing through Leonid's mother's first cup and then waving off her offers for another. Leonid has barely touched his. He's tired, there's school tomorrow, and he wants to get to bed before a headache sinks in.

“Moscow is a long way away,” says Leonid's father, his muscles stiffening as he, too, reaches for a drink.

“Of course it is, dear,” says Leonid's mother. “And they've come all the way out here because of Leonid's abilities, they're taking this seriously, it's our job to encourage him.”

“You're still young. You have a lot of opportunities open to you, I don't want you to rush into something you'll regret.”

“We have many resources available for our young students,” Molokov interrupts. “Not everyone is competing against each other, to be the best—no matter who wins, who loses, we can support them all.”

“Well, it's Leonid's choice. If you don't want to leave, no one's making you, you can take a couple years to see how things go.”

Leonid takes another sip of tea. It's horrible. They must have even worse tea in Moscow, if Molokov can enjoy this. “Can I see you play?”

“Excuse me?” says Molokov.

“You've been a second, right? In some of the interzonals. So how do you play?”

Molokov shrugs. “You're already far more than a match for me. It wouldn't be fair.”

“You can play my dad, right?”

“It's getting late,” says his father.

“I'll have time after school, tomorrow. I'd like to watch you.”

“Comrade Molokov's had a long journey, we wouldn't want to keep him out here any longer than is necessary.”

“Do you play, then?” Molokov asks.

“A little. Dabbler. I haven't beaten Leonid for years.”

“Of course not. Well, I'm in no rush, I'd be happy to come back tomorrow.” He nods at Leonid's mother. “Enjoy some more of your delicious tea.”

“Please?” says Leonid. “I...I just want to see, that's all.”

By the next day, there's no sign of a headache, just a burning feeling in his stomach that lasts all through school. He thinks the teachers must know that he's not really focusing, that everyone can see his thoughts drift. But nobody pays him any mind.

And then he's home, Molokov deep into a second cup of tea and his father abstaining as they launch into their game. His father attempts a classical opening, while Molokov toys with some pawns on the outer flanks, attempting to fianchetto his bishop and attack from the sides.

It doesn't work. Leonid's father goes up the exchange, losing a knight to capture a more powerful rook, and is able to trade off the bishops after that, making his advantage clearer. He calls “check!” with excitement; it's been a while since he's gotten his opponents on the run.

“Ah, that's enough,” Molokov sighs, “I'll be needing to pack, no sense dragging this out.”

Leonid's mother laughs. “Come play him more often. He needs the confidence.”

So, thinks Leonid, this is who the pride of Moscow sends. A so-called second who can't beat a bitter amateur in a Tallinn apartment.

“I want to come with you.”

“What?” says his father, turning.

Leonid shrugs. “I think you've made it clear. Who am I to say no? The nation needs me.”


 

2. Moscow

Svetlana Sergievskaya is not, in Leonid's opinion, an attractive woman.

And that's okay. His opinion isn't called for, and he's more than happy to keep silent. She's not even unattractive, in the way of those teachers who he could stare past rather than at, focusing on their blocky handwriting instead of their blocky faces. As a child, he thought himself particularly discerning, a true judge of artistry, because he could pay selective attention, while his classmates ignored everyone equally.

Now, it seems, the tables have turned. Because it's his old classmates, back in Tallinn, who seem to have at last found some women who suit them. Leonid sees plenty of faces in Moscow, but they all blend one past the next, until he's stuck at a literal table, with Sergievskaya and a handful of other friends and relations.

“Can I get you—” he starts, and she's turning him down before he specifies “some tea?”

She pauses, but recovers quickly. “Tea would be wonderful.”

“Mmhmm.” He rises and heads for a line in the back. He might have kept quiet during the other functionaries' requests to get her a glass of wine, but that doesn't mean he didn't notice her half-glances down at her rounding belly as she waved them off.

The line moves slowly, but it's nice to stretch his legs, and Sergievskaya accepts her tea gratefully when he returns. Sergievsky's already being dragged around the room, shaking hands as Molokov introduces him to various dignitaries.

So Leonid strikes up a conversation with Sergievskaya, who's pleased to talk about their forthcoming arrival. Sergievsky himself seems apprehensive, worried he'll drop it. “What,” asks Leonid, “Does he usually drop dishes?”

“Never, but don't bring it up or he'll ask me to start pouring his drinks just in case.”

Sergievskaya's father is thrilled to have a grandson or granddaughter of his own; her mother, however, can't quite believe she's that old, and has been delegating the decorating decisions to Sergievskaya (with minimal help from Sergievsky himself, who was screened for color-blindness the last time he tried to paint the second bedroom).

“Personally,” Sergievskaya says, almost whispering, “I hope it's a girl.”

“Oh?” Leonid says. “Well, we can't know for sure.”

It wouldn't do to argue with her, though he can't tell why not hope for a little boy. Even if their son had no gift for chess, he could make a name for himself in any number of fields. Does Sergievskaya enjoy her lifestyle so much, sitting at tables with strangers who occasionally bring her tea, she'd wish it on another generation?

But at last, Molokov tires of making the rounds, and Sergievsky's able to return to the front table, filling in the empty seat next to his wife and belatedly going to work on dessert. He seems happy enough, and if Leonid can't tell what they see in each other, they're not more opaque than any other marriage he's watched. Maybe they see the child on the way, as yet an enigma, carried around, supported, and admired by people who've never really seen it at all, having all the freedom it can imagine.


3. Riga

Frederick Trumper forces a tie in the western Interzonal, and half of the chess federation has its hands full just trying to sort out the top three qualifiers from Rio de Janeiro. “The poor organizers,” Molokov sighs, “stuck out there in the non-aligned world, all sorts of Western tourist traps, and they have to organize a playoff? What kind of expenses will that ring up!”

“After the last championship? I'm sure they can handle it,” says Leonid. “Maybe we'll need a playoff, too. It'll be fine.”

He's seen Trumper's games, and they're as exciting as the hype promises—well, as exciting as the simple algebraic notation can deliver. Trumper doesn't need the sort of brash excitement that leads to silly mistakes: he's left that behind a long time ago. Maybe he's not number one, quite yet, but he's well on his way.

If he thinks back, Leonid can remember actually watching Trumper play, years before. Of course, he didn't know who that Frederick Trumper was, yet. Just some crazy guy with an accent on the TV, talking quickly about how he was going to win the juniors' competition. Or, as likely, criticizing the boring architecture in Finland.

“He's not wrong,” Leonid's father had said, laughing, “say what you will, he knows an ugly city when he sees it.” Then Leonid's mother had come in and changed the channel, snapping at the TV every once in a while in a more familiar language.

He wonders, now, what his parents would make of Riga. Would it feel like home, or is it just another distorted skyline like the distant images of Helsinki, familiar but not quite to the right scale? Molokov and the others are all business, nobody relaxing or calling it a homecoming.

And neither is Leonid. There's more than enough to take in over the board, no need to waste time seeing sights that look just too familiar to be novel, too foreign to be inviting. The round-robin continues, and even in the silence of the arena, he thinks he can hear the echoes of accents—some of the candidates seem out of place, distracted. Surely, thinks Leonid, Sergievsky will be able to pick them apart.

While the other candidates face each other, Leonid takes a break—not officially on-duty, he's able to spectate on the other games, but he'd rather have a change of pace. He sits outside, reading the notation for the games in Rio de Janiero, trying to track both sides of play without a board. To the bypassers, he's just another tourist in Riga, contemplating the view.

And a good thing to, because he doesn't want to actually set up a board and play both directions at once. He'd look like a fool. And at least in proper countries, it doesn't take a madman's ravings to bring chess into the limelight.

By the time he gets back inside, he feels more confident. Trumper's play is brilliant, but it's not untouchable—the other candidates have proven that. And then Leonid freezes up. Maybe he's thought too far ahead. Maybe he should have been concentrating on the interzonal, on what if they need a tiebreaker, what if there's no point preparing for Trumper if they don't even make the challengers' tournament...

He can hear his heart pounding, and then, beyond that, nothing else. The players are too engrossed in their game to notice the buzzing of the lights and the air conditioners, and it's not late enough for the hurried clicks of piece on board or hand on clock as they rush to finish a game. There's no need even to call “check,” they trust each other's intellect to notice it in advance, and Sergievsky's able to hold onto the win.


4. Merano

The arbiter of the world championship, as far as Leonid can tell, seems like a perfectly qualified individual. Maybe overqualified to be actually overseeing the details, he might prefer a loftier desk job where he can make up tiebreakers for the next round of competition. All the same, he's nice enough, dedicated to the position, nothing to complain about.

It's just that Molokov's standards seem loftier than the mountain peaks they're overlooking.

“You didn't find anything about him?” Molokov demands.

“What do you mean, find? Nobody told me I was supposed to play detective.”

“You had all afternoon, you could have gotten to know him instead of playing with those capitalist doodads!”

“What's a doodad?”

“Never mind.”

“I don't see what you're so worked up about, if he means that much to you, you could have gotten to know him instead of that capitalist news reporter.”

Molokov starts pacing. At least they're in a bigger hallway than the backrooms he normally paces in; those grow tiresome much more quickly. “I intend to. For now, see what you can find—he's not a machine, he'll have some sort of weakness.”

“He seems very qualified! I don't think he'll give us any trouble, we just need to play our own game.”

Before Molokov can reply, several of the attachés come in. “Afternoon, Comrade,” one sighs at Molokov. “We've been looking into...”

“...possibilities,” says another, doing a brief double-take at Viigand.

“...and we think they're...”

“...an inefficient use of resources...”

“...considering our limited...”

“...familiarity with the city.”

Molokov nods. “Understood. Have you considered more...unconventional alternatives?”

“Er, comrade...”

“What are you here for! Go be discreet, ask around, and help the cause!”

“Of course,” they both stammer, and scuttle out of the room.

Leonid raises an eyebrow. “What was that all about?”

“Never mind. Precautions,” says Molokov.

“Precautions? What, is some kind of capitalist doodad going to sneak up on us if we're not on guard?”

“No. Well. Maybe. Be careful.”

“If it's all the same to you I think I'll stay in and not risk myself following around perfectly-nice officials.”

“How's the preparation going?”

“I don't think Sergievsky wants to listen to me. He doesn't really pay much attention to the others, either, but they seem—otherwise engaged.” It wouldn't have been hubris for Leonid to remind Molokov that he could probably beat the other attachés blindfolded. He had, during a simultaneous exhibition the previous year.

“The first few games will wear him out,” says Molokov. “Win or lose, don't worry—he'll be ready to hear from you, once Trumper finishes his shenanigans and we get the game underway.”

“You think?”

“Of course,” Molokov promises, and Leonid smiles. “We'll win this together.”


 

(+1. Bangkok)

Anatoly Sergievsky is drawn. Literally and figuratively. He's been playing for half-points in the last few matches, and Leonid can hardly believe that he himself is keeping up with the world champion. As soon as the match ends, it seems to have pushed him to his limits, there's hardly anyone in his camp really worth reviewing the games with—but then another game will begin the next day, and he'll feel refreshed, ready to push for the victory, while Sergievsky looks haggard in the opposite seat.

But that night, Leonid decides to review his previous game alone. At the board, he doesn't want the additional challenge of holding it all in his mind, he still has the black pieces closest to him.

Before he can start, there's a knock on the door, and Leonid fields it, startled to find Sergievsky there. “Hello?” says Leonid. “Is everything all right?”

Sergievsky nods. “The arbiter is getting rather bored with the streak of draws, and would kindly prefer it if either of us won a match and finished this off.”

“What?”

“Just thought you should know.”

Leonid stares, then wonders how many times in the last year Sergievsky's gotten to rattle off a sentence in Russian. “Are you serious? If the arbiter has something official to say, my seconds will let me know.”

“Will they, now? Good for them.”

“What's going on?”

Sergievsky regards him blankly, before muttering “nothing new,” and Viigand really doesn't know whether it's the exhaustion of the draw streak or whether he has something to hide, more secrets than any defector could keep bottled in.

“They...” Leonid trails off.

And Sergievsky doesn't pressure him, doesn't want the conversation to go any further. But Leonid is suddenly curious. “Molokov, the others, they're not bribing you to draw, are they?”

“What? What makes you think that?”

“It's a ridiculous idea. Comrade Molokov finding English money to bribe you with! It'd be beneath him!”

Sergievsky laughs. “Don't worry. They haven't.”

Leonid brightens. “Then they do trust me.”

“They hide it well, I assume?”

“I...I didn't want to get arrogant, but I hadn't guessed the match would take this long, either—either way.” Sergievsky still seemed too good, too in control—even two games before, playing as white, when Leonid had tried to seize the chance to attack, Sergievsky had stultified the pace of play, his defense forcing another draw.

“More games means more profit for the media. Though,” Sergievsky reflects, “that's probably not Molokov's goal either.”

Leonid laughs, in spite of himself, and when he settles down he wonders how tired he really is, because he thought he set up all the white pieces in their initial positions. Instead, one of them has already moved forward. “Was that you?”

Sergievsky blushes. “Force of habit.”

“Scrimmage?”

“At this hour?”

“You're better practice than my seconds.”

“You would say that.”

“Come on. I'll be black again,” Leonid indicates, making a move in response, “this way it's just friendly competition, not practicing for tomorrow.”

“No clocks.” The reply.

“We'll go quickly. You look even more tired than me.”

Back and forth, back and forth. This is the Sergievsky that Leonid remembers, inspired, unhurried, but able to rush through—he doesn't really feel like Leonid's worth his time. Leonid tries to rise to the occasion, attacking in his own right as he deviates from the standard King's Indian. If he comes up with a novelty, something not too mechanical, if it backfires? So what, it's just a scrimmage.

Still fatigued, Sergievsky seems to break first. “No,” Leonid shakes off his move.

“What do you mean, no? I'm not in check, am I?”

“No, but I'm not going to let you blunder all your pieces away if you're too tired. Save your strength. Supposedly, we'll need to attack tomorrow.”

“Oh, take it,” Sergievsky waves his hand, “put me out of my misery.”

Leonid complies. A couple annoying checks follow on—Leonid only has a few moves available, but since those will eat up Sergievsky's arsenal, he gladly complies. But then all of a sudden Sergievsky's rooks are closing in, and it's Leonid on the defensive. He's lost, and Sergievsky must have seen it all that time.

“You've been holding back.”

“I've been under a lot of pressure.”

“You come up with this combination after already playing an official game? I don't think the pressures's getting to you, unless you let it.”

“What's it to you? You're not getting hurt.”

“I don't want to win the wrong way.”

Sergievsky begins snickering.

“What? You don't remember, was it so long ago to you? You had dreams, you knew you could do it—”

“No, I was just thinking, that never stopped Trumper.”

“He was the best in the candidates tournament, just because they couldn't get a championship match in isn't his fault, Karpov was the same way too. This is different.”

Sergievsky sighs. “Of course.”

Leonid reaches for a notepad and begins scribbling on it. He expects Sergievsky to take the hint and leave, catching up on sleep. But then, Leonid's never a great conversationalist at the best of times, and maybe Sergievsky figures that the writing's just par for the course. In any case, he sticks around, staring into space. Thinking about his strategies for the next game? Or his family back in Russia, or his life in England? It's impossible to tell.

“What's that?” he asks, when Leonid finishes.

“Taking notation. In retrospect. I probably can't get it published back home—something tells me Molokov isn't going to be pleased about scrimmaging—but this has been your best game all tournament! It deserves to be seen, somewhere, someday.”

Sergievsky nods. “You were always better at recreating games, from memory.”

“I had to be, to keep up with you. You could improvise on a moment's notice, I'm just the machine.” Already, the moves belong to the past—when Sergievsky came up with the winning sacrifices, they were new, it wasn't even clear whether they'd work. The next time someone moves them, they'll be an actor, retelling a battle that's already been fought...

Sergievsky looks down at the scoresheet, then up at him, seeming as old and as tired as ever. “Leonid, I'm sorry. I need a favor.”

“Of course,” says Leonid, handing him the scoresheet. “I can copy it again as soon as you leave. Take it wherever, give it to your English—friends—they can get it published, anonymously.”

“No,” says Sergievsky, eyes not meeting Leonid's as he begins to memorize the moves; the next day, the board will turn, and he'll be playing black. “They won't need to.”


5. New York

But really, Leonid loses that match, and doesn't qualify for the championship again. And to his surprise, that's okay with him. He's seen Trumper and Sergievsky rise and fall, and if he doesn't rate with them, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

After the Soviet Union collapses, he travels, a little—there are enough people who remember his name that he has places to stay and soak in the world. But he doesn't make a very good tourist, he thinks, not overimpressed by the cosmopolitan edifices. Others are more prone to deep feelings about the skyscrapers and monuments, the trees and the animals. He doesn't feel like he's missing anything, doesn't envy them, but he's still happy at home.

Which is why it's a surprise when he's offered a job in the United States. Sure, he could move, and wouldn't get too homesick, but do they really want him? Yes, they explain over and over again; he's a talented grandmaster in his own right, but not an established champion, an ego with his own way of doing things. He knows how to support a larger project, to contribute background knowledge.

So many games end before the checkmate is officially delivered; both sides know how to assume, to figure when the game is as good as lost. And so many openings are sped through, both sides biding their time and waiting to introduce their novelties. The middlegame is where the creativity comes in, but sometimes it's not about being creative, it's just about being familiar enough with the old heuristics to sense out which position is stronger, which advantages will hold out down the line. His bosses need someone to translate that, from the specific games in databases to the general patterns, and who better than Leonid?

In the end, he accepts. Not to get famous or to stay in chess, not because he's getting rich or enjoying the luxury of life in America. But because he's seen what's happened to Trumper and Sergievsky, and he thinks maybe people would be better off learning that chess isn't life. Before they get to the top of the world.

And sure enough, the day comes when a computer does defeat the world champion at chess. Not through being an icon, able to popularize the sport; not through being a genius or an exile, but simply from having more energy, being able to think ahead. The establishment is disappointed. The old-timers are baffled.

Leonid is, indirectly, a little proud.

“It's just one ability,” he explains, when someone asks him about it—there's a whole host of big names to crowd, but he's gotten roped into giving interviews. He's going to complain about this to his boss, later, but his boss could be a whole lot worse. “It doesn't have to be mechanical, it just can be. It's separate from the sort of creativity that you need to write a poem—or have a philosophical insight, or make a political campaign. Or the inspiration of passion, to love your family, your partner, whomever.”

“And you can just—extricate this chess talent? Bottle it up in a machine?”

“At the end of the day it's brute force. It has the computing power to calculate ahead farther than any single human can, that's all, yeah.”

“It doesn't make us less special, if all our brilliant gambits can be outthought by a computer?”

“I don't believe so, no.”

“But some experts have claimed, tactics and strategy, those are human skills—”

“And you know what? We were wrong. I'll say it. The ability to win a single game of chess, no, that's something you can pull apart. It's not like our identity, as a species, has all this upheaval, no. Chess is just a game, I thought we'd figured that out.”

“We'd taken it for granted, this monopoly on abstract thinking. But you're saying—we can go on without it, we haven't lost too much?”

“Exactly,” says Leonid, “and besides, they said the same thing about the Berlin Wall.”

Losing is still disappointing in the moment, of course—Leonid knows this as well as anyone—but the upset champion doesn't seem to mind. Or maybe, in the crowd of celebrities, he just has other plans. “Did you see where Sergievsky went?”

“Yes,” says Leonid. “But I don't think he's in any mood to talk chess, at the moment.”

“Neither am I. I just wanted to pick his brains.”

“...Dare I ask?”

“He was a defector. I'd like to discuss politics with him, if I can.”

“I've lived on a couple continents...”

“In different times! But if you're interested, I'm sure you can join us, share your perspective.”

Leonid shakes his head. “He went that way, but I think I'll pass, thanks.”

“Your loss!” Kasparov's laughter echoes above the hum of the machine.