“If you want to do it, you absolutely should,” The Magician said.
“What Alfen is saying,” Garf said, “Is that you would be an absolute moron to try.”
Alfen Vrodie-Stangster, known everywhere to people who followed the game as The Magician, winced and tried to smile at the same time and Sal felt a sudden stab of pity for her. “I don’t think the Leviathan is a – uhm – well, a moron, necessarily, in anything, Garfield,” she said.
They had been talking for a while and it was clear to Sal that Alfen was one of those people so monomaniacally nice that they became sort of boring. In Alfen’s case she was so flatly unaware of her banality that it was touching, in a way, an impairment that elicited sympathy.
Alfen was also the 6th-best player of the game on Stize, that is to say, stupendously, horrifically, strong. She was possibly, behind the World Champion, the most popular onplanet player. Alfen’s over-the-board inclinations were diametrically related to her personality; her over-the-board style was hyperaggressive, antipositional, wildly speculative, sacrificial. In her first ever First League tournament a 15-year old Alfen had played two games where she sacrificed, almost at whim, huge amounts of material for vague compensation that had evolved gradually into a welter of murderously subtle mating threats; the games were enshrined in brilliancy collections everywhere. The second, an Old Sicilian with a queen sacrifice on f6 on move 12, was held as a kind of rallying totem for attacking club players. “A magician,” the commentators had said then, had breathed as beautifully coordinated, classical positions withered under wild attacks, “This is the work of a magician.” The name had stuck. Alfen never stayed at the board when she was playing; she made her move and immediately walked off, to look at other games. Whenever she did choose to remain at the board she bowed her head as if praying, eyes closed, often with one hand covering them, unmoving, a pose that made her look as if she was weeping and was trying to hide it, but was rigid with concentration. Everything about it spoke to a magic, yes, this was The Magician.
Alfen’s style was fundamentally unsound; engines found refutations, obscure and cold-blooded but refutations nonetheless, to most of her ideas. “But sound chess is not so fun,” Alfen had said, earnestly, when she had been asked. “You know, I don’t understand the positions I get OTB. But my opponents don’t understand them either. So at the very least both of us have something to talk about after the game.” “I see,” the interviewer had said, looking skeptical. “That’s all there is,” Alfen said, “Really.” “And why do you walk away?” “The board gets in the way of calculation. If it’s a messy line then looking at the board makes you hallucinate, makes you see ghosts, forget that things have moved.”
“He is being a moron, Alfen,” Garf said.
“It does take time,” Alfen said, agreeably. She moved her head from side to side slightly as if considering seriously a suggestion she had just made to herself, confirming something. “I was at it for 8 years before I made it into the First League.”
“But it wasn’t so bad once you were there,” Sal said.
Alfen paused. “No. But that was not, uhm, so typical, really.” In fact Alfen was one of the very few Grandmasters that had not begun their FL careers with a string of agonising losses. Her particular style had come as something of a shock to most people. Most aggressive players who entered the FL did miserably. Aggressive players relied on two things for wins: getting good positions from which attacks could be launched, and on opponents cracking under consistent pressure. There was nothing shameful about the latter, nothing dishonest about the technique; it was just the way humans were. Four hours of perfect defense could be ruinously spoilt by a single slip. Everywhere outside the very highest levels of chess an asymmetry of economy existed; attackers had an advantage. Attacking moves were easy to find; defensive responses were often subtle and difficult to spot. For the attacker calculation was easy because the moves came in a neat sequence, like the path of an arrow: I will push my h-pawn, I will place my knight on f4, I will place my queen on g3. Mate will then happen. But for the defender, seeing even three moves ahead was difficult because there was no straight path; there was no arrow. Instead the lines branched and branched again, a thicket that extended beyond the horizons of brute calculation: if this, then this? or this? or this? And if that, what then? Is my endgame worse? Do a sacrifice a pawn now to stave off the attack or do I cling to my material? Do I defend or try to drum up my own initiative? And then a mistake would come, or a series of small inaccuracies that swell and crest into something greater, and out of the blue a forced sequence – a line with no branches at all, where each move and countermove allowed for only one response, a continuation rigid with clarity – that caused the position to fall apart.
None of this was true in the FL. Everywhere else, yes, this logic held, but not in the FL. A part of this was due simply to brute playing strength; the GMs of the FL could sneer at what their intuitions told them were unsound attacks, and they could simply sit and cold-bloodedly calculate their way through the wildest variations. And a part of this was because they knew enough theory that they would never allow an attacking player to get a good position in the first place. But there were threshold effects at work too. Any attack tended to burn bridges – often material would be sacrificed by the attacking side, so that if the attack was beaten off without a countersacrifice the attacker was left with fewer pieces with which to play the endgame. It was the most painful game for the attacking player: to see an attack peter out to nothing while the vast desolation of a long defensive grind in a lost endgame beckoned. But more commonly it was simply the case that the attack expended all the positional trumps in a position – pawns aggressively advanced left behind weak squares, pale tremulous things over which the opposing player’s pieces swarmed, weak points suddenly appearing and multiplying until the position collapsed; or pieces clustered around the enemy kingside would leave unprotected other areas of the board where a vicious counterattack would gradually emerge, hints of counterplay that would constantly imply themselves, which would be replied to almost as an afterthought, but would demand more and more attention, would gnaw at the position until the attacker would eventually be defending, and the position would give way.
This was the basic problem for the attacking player: if the attack failed, the game would be lost. There was a general complaint, not unjustified, that in the FL it was nearly impossible to see out-and-out attacking games. Positional manoeuvring was everywhere, yes: subtle attacks on weak pawns, the rarefied combinatorical mathematics of endgames, but few actual attacks on actual kings. Many aggressive players, having made it to the FL, moderated their natural tendencies, traded the neurotically barbaric King’s Indian or Kmoch for quieter positional systems: the Caro-Kann, the Catalan, the Berlin, the Chebanenko-Sprung, the Quiet Game. All except for The Magician. In the cool waters of the FL she burnt like a cinder. She played games that held out the notion of there being some mysticism in the game, that represented gloriously unscientific commitment to complexity, to ideas that could be ramified but not tamed…
“You’re the only really aggressive player to be holding a title now, aren’t you? The only really, you know, romantic player.” Sal said. “The Noa.”
“Yes,” Alfen said, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t like it when my table gets relabelled, though. GM Vrodie-Sangster feels correct. Noa Vrodie-Sangster feels too flattering. I was very lucky.”
“Title?” Garf said. “Noa?”
“Uhm,” said Alfen, and looked unhappy at the idea that she would have to explain.
“Don’t you follow anything about the game?” Sal said.
“Fuck you very much,” Garf said, smoothly. “When you summit K7 on a mountain bike I’ll give you permission to mock.”
“It’s a lot more impressive than being good at the game,” Alfen said. “K7 is pretty ridiculous.”
“Tell her about being Noa,” Sal said to Alfen.
“I’d really rather – ” Alfen said, “Uhm, you know.”
“Hm?” Sal said.
“Please,” Alfen said.
“So,” Sal said. “There are seven tournaments in the FL that stand out, so-called Supertournaments. Invite-only, and very difficult to win. Named after the organising colleges: Intemper, Noa, Learnt, Tityrant, New, Ancient, Estuary. They’re all prestigious enough to be what you call titled, which means that if you win one of those you carry around the name of the tournament and it replaces your usual title. So Alfen is the Noa. Not a GM, the Noa.”
“There is a World Championship, though. I keep hearing about it. Where does the World Championship fit in?”
“It’s the Estuary title. It’s called the World Championship because of the format: you get a Candidates Tournament where all the six other titleholders and four other GMs (selected based on global ranking, I think) duke it out to play a long match against the current Estuary.”
“Murderous tournament,” Alfen said. “Ouch.”
“The current number one holds four titles,” Sal said. “The two most difficult tournaments are Estuary and Ancient. He holds both of those titles, the Great Pair, and is also the Learnt and Intemper. It’s a nice full title, isn’t it? Estuary-Ancient-Learnt-Intemper Saracen.”
“Being called the Ancient is pretty cool,” Garf said.
“It’s a quadruple round-robin,” Alfen said. “It’s quite exhausting.”
“What were we talking about?” Sal said.
Garf knew he never actually forgot what they were talking about. She wondered when she would stop noticing when he did things like that. “Alfen was saying something about doing well when she first got into the FL.”
“Ah,” Sal said.
“She was saying that doing well was not typical for newcomers. Implying, I think we can agree, that you are a moron.”
Alfen was gripped by what looked like genuine panic. “I—”
“I don’t think I’m typical,” Sal said, smiling. He didn’t say it differently but they were all silent for a moment.
“No,” Alfen said. “Of course not.” She looked aghast. She looked from Garf to to Sal and back again. “I did not—”
“Stop it,” Garf said, looking at Sal. “Don’t encourage him.”
“I am truly sorry, Leviathan,” Alfen said, looking like she could not live with herself.
Alfen never used Sal’s name; she always called him Leviathan. Sal did not mind; Garf did, it seemed, but did not say much about it.
Sal leaned back in his chair and put his legs on the table.“It does not matter,” he said. “I’m not particularly fussed by these things. I want to know what it was like. Tell me about theory. Did you have to learn a lot of theory?”
“Theory is really useful. I was not really an opening expert what I first entered but I had to learn quite a lot to keep up.”
Theory referred to positions that were well-analysed and well-known. Most theory was about the opening; there were over 1600 named openings and variants, many analysed to over 20 moves deep. There was far too much opening theory to memorize; most GMs specialised in a few select openings; a few adventurous ones experimented. Some theory was about certain types of endgames: the Lucena and Vancura positions in rook-and-pawn endgames, the Diagonal Technique for winning with knight and bishop against king – it went on. Most high-level games, and nearly all played in the seven titled tournaments, became theory; these games were memorized to be regurgitated as was necessary. Why waste time finding your own good moves OTB when you could play moves that better players had already determined to be good?
“How long does it take to get up to speed on modern theory?” Sal said.
“Uhm,” Alfen said.
“Tell him how long you took,” Garf said, “And he’ll work it out.”
Alfen shrugged. The gesture was comically exaggerated by the way she sat: hunchbacked, peaked shoulders framing her head like the folded wings of a bird of prey. A lump in her throat moved up and down with unreal vigour, like a piston. “It depends on how much of a theoretician you want to be. I know a decent amount but my gift’s not really there. I find wading through theoretical minefields tiring. It took me about five years to get book-up enough to not worry about openings in the FL. But I’ve always preferred sidelines. I think I can bring out a drawing variation if I need it – the Berlin, the Marshall Gambit, but that’s not the usual thing. Those two took me –” her eyes flicked over Sal “—the better part of a year to get down.”
Sal looked thoughtful.
“Could I make a suggestion?” Alfen said.
“If you want to get booked-up fast I’d recommend covering all the basic openings and defences with d4 and e4, nothing fantastically deep unless you really like it, and then move on to largely non-theoretical lines. It’s not, uhm, that great, really, fighting theoreticians on their own ground. It’s better to get them out of book and then force them to find good moves OTB. Force them to actually play a game, to figure things out there and then.”
“Alfen,” Garf said, with viciously calibrated emphasis, “Sal has never played a game before. Not even one.”
Alfen looked surprised. “Well,” she said, is if this was clear and beyond contestation, “You do think he’s going to be the Estuary at some point, don’t you?”
“World Champion?” Garf said, suddenly realising something.
“To begin with,” Alfen said, looking at Garf.
Sal’s expression did not change but there was a shift in it, a new sheen to the smile, a different shade that had come over it and remained there.
Garf looked Sal and Alfen and did not know what to say.
“You’re not dumbfounded very often, you know,” Sal said, very lightly and precisely. His smile grew.
“But the risk,” Garf said. “If you lose, and everyone knows about it – if everyone sees the Leviathan losing – I mean, seriously, why – is it necessary to take this sort of risk? You know what role you play, you know how people will see it. Why would you do it?”
“Pleasure,” Sal and Alfen said, at the same time. But Sal was not smiling as he said this. He was looking straight at Garf and he looked, in a way, Garf thought, possessed, held by something.
“Yes,” Garf said. Her mouth felt dry. “Pleasure.” She saw then how Sal was different but could not put it into words. She looked at Sal. She felt studied. There was a test and she did not know what it was. “Okay. Okay. You know what? I’ll just not say anything about this. You two go on. You know what I think but you probably know better.” She was staring but she was not angry.
Sal laughed. “It’s just a bit of fun, Garf. That’s all. That’s where the challenge is.”
“As long as you don’t get too bogged down in theory,” Alfen offered, helpfully.
Sal was still looking at Garf. “O Garfield Keynes Hunter, you lack faith in your hyperbred superintelligent unkillable God-King.”
“Not so unkillable, I hope,” Garf muttered darkly.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Alfen. Sal raised his eyebrows and then he and Garf grinned.
“So,” Sal said at last, “So.” He turned to Alfen, who was vigorously biting her lower lip, looking a little mortified. “What were you saying? Oh yes. Well. I’d play to play some novelties, you know. It’d be nice for me to add something to theory.”
At the highest level novelties were some of the deadliest weapons available to GMs. A novelty was simply a new move; something in the opening unknown to theory. When one was played in a game for the first time the opponent would be suddenly be left bereft of theoretical lines, and would have to tread water and think as the position risked falling away from them, while the player who had prepared the novelty would sit there in the iron fortress of their preparation, playing every move instantly while vast agonies of thought and uncertainty went through the opponent. GMs agreed that one of the worst moments in a game was when the opponent banged out a new move and then walked off, and the realisation came that one was facing this new position alone, while the opponent came to it with hundreds of hours of glinting engine analysis. Of course not all novelties were devastating. As theory grew it naturally shut out novelties and congregated around the very sharpest opening lines. Most novelties were quiet, subtle moves – moves to which many possible responses existed, or deliberately suboptimal moves not considered part of theory, designed purely to get the opponent out of book.
“I’ve never caught one of the top five in my prep before,” Alfen said. “You’d need dozens of novelties prepared before you have a realistic chance of catching anyone in prep. Too much theory. I’m not saying that you can’t do this, not at all – it’s just, you know, from the perspective of, uhm, efficiency –”
“Yes,” Sal said. “No, you’re making perfect sense.”
Alfen paused. “I still can’t really believe it.”
“That the Leviathan would ask me to tell him about chess.”
“Garf knew you, so it seemed the natural thing to do.”
“We only met in first year, really. As you can tell I’m not overfamiliar with the game.”
“It’s still a bit overwhelming. Meeting the Leviathan and giving, uhm, advice.”
“Oh, Alfen,” Sal said. He put an arm around her, even though he could barely reach around her shoulders. Alfen shrank a little. “It’s very nice of you. Get used to it. I’ll probably be asking you stuff quite often. How are the players?”
“Uhm, in the FL? Or generally?”
“In the FL.”
“Well, they come in all flavours, really. When I started out they were mostly lovely people. But I got to know some who were really single-minded, very competitive.”
“Total towering cockwombles,” Garf translated. “Dickporpoises. It’s Alfen-speak you’re dealing with here.”
“Near the very top it’s all very professional. After a bad game against me they could get a bit, hm, cold, maybe—”
“They fucking detest your face,” Sal said. “They have passionate dreams about you dying in a tragic wanking accident. They hate you with all the metaphysical force they can muster.”
“—but they get over it really fast, and are usually really pleasant to have around. I really wouldn’t use the word ‘hate’, Garf. That’s a bit inappropriate. There’s some – ah – trash-talking, you know? Sometimes, not often. It’s just a way for people to get into the feel of things.”
“They convince themselves you’re shit to get themselves psyched up because the presence of a planet-sized ego sometimes does not get you that extra oomph, you know what I mean?
“Oh, no, no.” Alfen looked nervous, maybe a bit grieved at having to contradict someone so consistently. “We all really respect each other’s strengths. We’ve played each other to many times now, followed each other from one league to the next.”
“It’s all an awful morass of hateful, vindictive bile.”
Sal took Garf’s hand in his own. She thought of how much like a child he looked. “Garf,” he said, grinning, “You’ve really given up trying to persuade me not to do this, haven’t you?”
“Fuck fuckitty fuck fucking fuckery fuck,” Garf said, primly. “Fucks all around for everyone. Great.”
The Magician winced again.