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Coin Toss

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King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.

- Ser Barristan Selmy in Storm of Swords by GRRM


There was a coin in Beth’s possession that she will never spend. She kept it in a beaded, blue pochette along with her pilfered pills. It was an ordinary quarter, not enough to afford even a pack of Chesterfields from Bradley’s, let alone chess sets and magazines, or the beautiful clothes she saw on mannequins.

The piece of silver was a reminder of the warning delivered by the man who introduced her to the world of sixty fours squares that became her gift and her curse.

You've got so much anger in you. You'll have to be careful.

Mr. Shaibel was an astute observer, for he was able to see the rage so deeply embedded in her that it was a part of her soul, indistinguishable from the core of her being. It fueled her when all else was gone: hope, happiness, freedom, love, home. It was the one thing no one could take from her.

She would palm the coin in her left hand throughout her chess games, when she played by herself in Methuen, and tucked it into her bra once she started playing tournaments. It was as much a remembrance of the closest thing to a father figure Beth ever had, as it was an irrational hope that it might ward off the prophecy it was associated with.

It was seven years later that another person noticed the fury beneath her calm composure. Despite claiming to not remember meeting her three years prior, Benny Watts figured out something about Beth that most people didn’t. He used that to his advantage, provoking her into drawing on her rage in a moment where she could have easily snatched the title by playing for a draw instead. It was the first time someone had turned the tables on her and she swore it would be the last.

When she couldn’t sleep at night, instead of downing the pills, she spun the quarter on her desk, watching it stumble and fall. Again and again and again. Until her eyelids grew heavy and she could go to bed, only to dream of the same totem. A coin flip to see if she’d be playing white or black, a coin flip to decide if she won or lost, a coin flip that let her survive the car crash.

In the time between the U.S. Open and the Mexico City Invitational, Beth attempted to reforge her temper into a finer blade. A scalpel she could use to inflict a quick, fatal cut on her opponent rather than an axe that could topple her when she raised it over her head to decapitate them.

Once they landed in the foreign nation, Alma’s pen pal annoyed Beth. She could see his slick salesman for what they were, a false front passing itself off as a genuine article, but Alma seemed to be enjoying herself and Beth didn’t want to be the one to shatter her bubble. So she tried to keep her ire restricted to glares and eye rolls, practicing rolling the quarter on her fingers the way she saw the card players in the hotel’s casino do with their chips.

Georgi Girev equally excited and aggravated Beth. He was the toughest opponent she’d ever faced and while she relished the challenge, she was aggravated with herself for doubting her ability to win. Three years earlier, she might have popped a few pills and scolded her own reflection like when she played Harry Beltik. Now Beth has enough battle experience to tactically retreat and do an objective assessment. Lounging in the tub, she ran through sequences until she found the one that would clench her victory. Indeed, anger was more useful on a leash.

When it was time to play Vasily Borgov, she foolishly believed herself his equal on the board and in terms of composure. A few moves in, Beth had the feeling she had already lost the game. Every move she made after that was like an exercise in futility, a car crash she couldn’t look away from, even if neither of her mothers were here for this one.

All of her rage and genius was rendered ineffective against him. His wall of ice would not melt under the inferno she hurled against him. It was like she was trying to melt an iceberg with a flamethrower.

At the same time, it was like looking in a mirror. The savagery of the moves, the steady and relentless advance of the white pieces- they reminded her of her own play. When she looked into his eyes, she couldn’t discern any emotions, but did that mean they weren’t there?

She thought she had gotten a taste of her own medicine when Benny beat her, but this was so much worse. It was like Borgov had proven her unworthy of Mr. Shaibel’s coin and declaration. She wasn’t astounding or gifted or cursed, she wasn’t anything special, not in the face of him.

It should be freeing, but it felt like she had the rug pulled out from under her and now she was falling endlessly down a rabbit hole, with nothing to pull herself back up to the surface with. The coil of her anger was nowhere to be found for perhaps the first time since she had become an orphan. 

She was nearly hysterical when she returned to her suite and confessed her helplessness to Alma, reaching out for a woman who was no longer there to share her wins and losses.

Some of her anger flares back to life, an almost extinguished ember nursed back into life by a passing wind, when Allston dismissed Alma’s death as an inevitability, perhaps even a relief to him, one less burden in his book. Beth resolved to move forward, if only to remember Alma, for it seemed no one else would.

She dragged herself to the nearest pharmacy and stocked up on tranquilizers, bitter about how there was no one left to hide the habit from now.

When she got back to Kentucky, Harry Beltik came back into her life, telling her he could show her how to beat Borgov. When he left her with the title of ‘the pride and sorrow of chess’, his pity threw gasoline on her fury and turned her into a living furnace.

She wondered if the other competitors at the U.S. Nationals could see the fumes coming out of her ears as she played her deadliest games yet. Benny tried his old tricks, trying to goad her into overheating like in Vegas. This time his trap took the shape of speed chess, but she wouldn’t fall for the same gimmick twice. Then she went to New York and no matter how close they got, there was still a distance between them.

When she went to Paris, she was armed with more than Benny’s training. She had a sharpness to her anger that could cut through Borgov’s shield of impenetrability. This time she would draw some vulnerability out of him.

But then Cleo had shown up, tapped into Beth’s buried misandry, and all her hopes and schemes went down the drain. She could feel his disappointment in her bones. He tapped his fingers while he waited for her to move, signaling that she was wasting time, his usually stoic demeanor turning to displeasure. He smacked the chess clock harder than he needed to, as if he wished to strike her for showing up in shambles and insulting both him and chess itself. 

He was better at hiding it, but he was driven by the same furious passion that she was. While she burned hot, he burned cold. Holding onto a cold object would burn you too, even give you frostbite. At least Beth gave her opponents a quick death in the middlegame. Borgov would make them bleed out all the way to the endgame.

Not only did she know they were the same, she could tell that he could see her recognition for what it was. He could see right through her. 

She could rage at no one but herself after that. She stopped tossing the coin and resigned herself to a meltdown that was bound to end ugly. Anything to drown out the memory of the match in Paris and the look on Borgov's face when she resigned.

Then Jolene came by and she went back to the basement where it all started. Mr. Shaibel's shrine to her career reminded her that she owed the man a lot more than ten dollars. He had bet on her when no one else would and she would not let him be wrong. She fished the coin out of its designated storage spot and renovated herself instead of the house.

Moscow would be her Everest. To conquer it, she would need stamina, preparation and an imperviousness to the winter winds that would be personified by the Soviet chess players. In order to beat them at their own game, she would have to play their style better than them. One particular opponent occupied more space in her head than the rest, but she justified that with his title and rank.

One particular opponent occupied more space in her head than the rest. She didn’t hate him though. How could she hate the only person who could understand her? She hated that he was beyond her reach. Beth always wanted the things she couldn’t have: the jar of green pills, a mother who lived, a father who stayed. It was this lack of satisfaction that supplied her fervor to devastate her opponents on the board. Her wrath was a desire to inflict on others the many devastations imposed on her. Suffering should be shared, she thought. 

Soon Vasily Borgov would know how it felt to lose and want something he could not have. Then they would truly be the same. Then Beth would not be as alone in the world.