Consultation

“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.”

Sal laughed.

“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.

“Please.”

“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.”

“Hm?”

“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.

The Game: 2

“I keep reading about this Dragon.”

“A dragon.”

“Yes, a dragon.”

“Okay.” Sal’s voice was flat but he sounded like he was trying not to reveal something, or maybe he was trying not to smile.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you like – that.

“What’s this about?”

“You’ve been reading about my First League games, haven’t you?”

“I was going to do it sooner or later.”

“Why are you wondering about the Dragon?”

“Well, they keep calling that game against Auerbach a miracle, and it’s got all these names, you know.”

He was up in the chair against the window and his head was back against the glass and his eyes were closed. He always did that when she brought up the games. “They’re terrible names.”

The Taming of the Dragon. Don’t wince. You like it, don’t you.”

“The game’s not that great. No, really. It’s not that great.”

“So what is this Dragon?”

“It’s theory. It’s the name of the opening.”

“But why is it called that, the Dragon?”

“That game really gets too much attention.”

“I want to talk about the name. You were supposed to lose, you know, everything I read says that.”

“Well, no, what happened is that Auerbach prepared a new move against me and I blundered in response to it. It was a good novelty.”

“But you were supposed to lose after you played that awful move, weren’t you? Wasn’t everyone saying your position was a wreck, or something like that?”

“My position was horrific but sometimes bad positions are easier to play. Every move lost more or less immediately except for one. So I played that one.”

“You played that one saving move in the position for fifteen or so moves in a row.”

“It was not that hard.”

“The commentary says that positions like these are impossible for humans to play.”

“You can just ask me directly.” Sal was looking straight at her now. “You can just ask, you know.” It was not pity but it was something like it.

Garf was never sure what to do in situations like this. She shook her head and looked as if she was about to say something but did not say anything. She looked at the computer and started reading something. Then she said, “I just want to know how you do it. Fuck’s sake, that’s all. They all say humans don’t survive positions like that.”

“Well. No, you want to know if I’m a Carrier. You want to know if I’m the carrier for Erkenne.”

When he said the name she stiffened despite herself. It was such a rare thing to heard said. She thought Sal was angry but he was not. Instead he was daring her to say a certain something and she was sure that she would not say it. He looked at her with an open look, one that said – you can go on. “All I want to know is how you do it. That’s all.”

“Calculation. That’s all there is to it.”

“Was that all there was to that game against Auerbach?”

“You know how the reports exaggerate. There have been similar games played in the past.” Sal turned around and let his breath fog the glass. It was pretty warm so only a tiny frosting of white appeared.  “There’s nothing more to it. It’s not that special.”

“Why the Dragon, though? I don’t understand the name.”

“Back to that. Well. The reasons are all quite stupid.”

“I’d still like to know.”

“Well, for a start, it’s one of the sharpest known openings. Hyper-sharp.”

“That’s another thing I don’t understand. Sharp?”

“Hmm. Aggressive. Slightly more precise that that – it means that the positions are relatively tactical, you know, very knife-edgy. One slip and you are mated. Lots of sacrifices looming, big swooping moves – there are other openings related to the Dragon, did you know that? There’s an Accelerated Dragon and a Hyperaccelerated Dragon and the odd thing is you would think from the names that these are even sharper than the Dragon but they tend to lead to quiet positions. Long positional games with lots of moves implied and only a few played.”

“So that’s not the reason for the name, presumably, the aggression.”

“Well, not the whole reason.” Sal smiled suddenly like he had been trying hard not to smile but was not bothering anymore. It was strange how he went from being so perfectly still to something jaggedly childish. “I know why you’re looking at me that way. You’re intelligent so I know what you are thinking. It’s such a relief sometimes. Really it is.”

“Do you always do this?”

He laughed. “I don’t talk about it, so that’s good enough.”

“Go on.”

“You think I’m being very unstrategic. Very naive, playing the Dragon.”

“I don’t very much about the game, so it’d be silly for me to say it.”

“But you do think it.”

Careless, really, was the word I had in mind.”

“No, no, you’re correct. A novice like me –”

“Hah.”

“What was that about?”

“ ‘Novice like me.’ Really.”

“Really!”

“Hah.”

“I’m still new to this, you know.”

“You’re in the First League.”

“I don’t want to argue over this. Must we argue over this?”

“We were talking about why it’s a dumb move to play the Dragon.”

“Because a novice like me should not be playing sharp openings and walking right out of theory into sharp novelties. A beginner should play nice, tame, quiet stuff. Stay solid. Aim for a draw.”

“When you say it this way it sounds even stupider, what you did.”

“I wasn’t just wanting to win, you know. I wanted to play something fun.”

“And you nearly lost.”

“Nearly.”

“And the game wasn’t that great anyway, as you say.”

He stared in mock horror. “You – really – well – it was decent, at least. Haven’t you seen all the names it’s been given?”

“Why am I discussing your idiocy with you? I want you to tell me about the name.”

“So for a start, it’s a very sharp opening.”

Yes. We just –  

“And the pawn structure on the kingside looks a bit like that constellation – ”

“Ah, yes, I see. What a very odd coincidence.”

“And then there’s the DSB – ”

“Look, Sal –”

“Dark-squared bishop. DSB.”

“Ah, okay.”

“The DSB on g7 is really important to the black player because white often castles queenside – that means the king is on c1 or b1 – and the DSB in that little corner rakes down the board, this diagonal  from a1 to h8 that is the books call the line of fire, something along those lines. People talk about ‘that fire-breathing bishop’, you know. So I guess if you think hard you can sort of see the idea of a Dragon sitting there, breathing fire.”

“It’s all very melodramatic.  More broadly I can say that I have no idea what you were just talking about.”

“It is melodramatic, it really, is, but if you think about it it’s also quite appropriate coming from a group of people who sit in front of a board torturing themselves for hours. That bishop on g7 can give you an entire universe of pain. It’s a real monster.”

Games: 1

“I tell you it’s amazing.”

“It is amazing.”

“Surreal almost.”

“Very possibly.”

“If you think about it. If you step back and think about it it’s ridiculous.”

“I don’t even think you have to step back and think about it.”

“Did you notice how many people tuned in to watch?”

“My point exactly. Everyone could see that something ridiculous was happening.”

“The world no.2. One of the greatest. And yet.”

“It was humiliating.”

“It was humiliating.”

“Maybe we should all have expected it.”

“No, no –”

“You put Leviathan in the game, maybe you ought to expect this.”

“Two months, though.”

“It’s still pretty sick. I’m not denying the sickness of the entire enterprise. But maybe we should expect this of Leviathan. QC was being very coy about his expectations, you know? I asked it a couple of times and it went, oh, whatever happens happens…”

“It’s not even the win; really it’s the way he won it. He’s only known the rules for, what, two months?”

“It was – well, it was a model Makagonov.”

“It was the model. I mean that was disgusting. And so ambitious too. That is strange, isn’t it, that kind of ambitious play, that kind of opening? I mean he played for a full-court press. No gaps, no giveaways, no trading of strategic weaknesses, no risks. Just strangulation.”

Boa constrictor.”

“That was one of your brilliant moments, Lev, it really was.”

“Thank you.”

“They’re calling him that now, you know?”

“Of course. It’s such a good name. I came up with it.”

“Did you notice from the commentary box when h3, g4, appeared? People were shaking their heads, they were like, wow, he’s doing this.”

“Maybe this is his kind of style.”

“What? Sluggish brutality? No, no, I know what you mean.”

“The attack at the end. It came so slowly. So slowly. It was totally predictable and yet poor Hearst couldn’t do anything about it. Everything massing around the king. Boxed in and boxed in and then just swamped.”

“Did you notice when I talked to him afterwards?”

“Salix?”

“He was sort of dazed.”

“I don’t really think he was dazed, Mar.”

“I thought he was dazed. It was a long game.”

“I am leaning towards thinking he was annoyed, actually.”

“Annoyed? What about?”

“Never mind. Who knows?”

“Look. I understand he finds this all a bit exasperating. Believe me when I say I understand. I’ve been doing this gig long enough. But there is a price to pay, you see. He of all people should understand that. And I think he knows that we know that he should understand that, and I think he respects us for it.”

“You really think so.”

“I do really think so.”

“Well, maybe – ”

“Why are we talking about this? This is besides the point. What I really want talk about is the fact that we need to keep him playing. We’ve not had views like this before.”

“It’s high drama.”

“It’s such high drama. He still plays like an amateur, you can tell he plays like one, getting all these dodgy positions out of opening and defending and defending for five hours.”

“In the first league, when he walked right into all that preparation in the Dragon…”

“ ‘You don’t fuck around in the Dragon.’”

“ – and we thought, this is it, this will be a massacre, and then all these perfect Engine moves started coming out and then it was a draw.”

“The number of bad positions he’s saved.”

“The sheer number.”

“It must be calculation. Maybe he’s actually a tactical monster but doesn’t know it yet.”

“Did you notice something funny about the way he plays?”

“What?”

“I’ve been noticing things about him.”

“I tell you, this kind of fixation is very unprofessional.”

Unprofessional? You talk like a capitalist.”

“I tell you, I treat this like it is more than a hobby. It’s like I am getting paid for this, you know, getting wages and shit. I wake up and I do this. I have been doing this for a long time.”

“What I’ve noticed is that he never gets up.”

“What?”

“I was telling you I’ve been observing him. And he never gets up. Everyone else gets up. They make their move, they get up, walk around, they look at the other games. You remember when you used to play? There was just so much tension it was better to calculate while walking around. So everyone gets up, gets some coffee, stares at the screens. But he just sits there for six or seven hours.”

“The strange thing is that this should really make him boring to watch.”

“He looks like he’s in pain. Do you see that? He sits down and then he does not walk around. But he does this. Sort of buries his knuckles in his eyes and opens his mouth a little bit. It’s not like he’s thinking. It’s really like he’s gone beyond that. Maybe he’s trying to intuit something and he’s not getting it. He’s trying very very hard to do something and it’s not happening. It’s so strange, isn’t it? I mean this is the Leviathan, Mar, think about it, and he’s just letting us see him in pain for I do not know what reason. When he gets out of Stize he’s going to be doing all these really big things, you know, and he sort of needs to be infallible. But he does not look infallible when he’s sitting there being miserable.”

“But don’t you see? Don’t you see? That’s exactly it. It’s my experience that tells me that the pain and the pleasure of it are inseparable. That keeps the audiences coming, you know. It’s important that it is the Leviathan because now we see him without trappings. It’s like watching a monster struggle. You know when you first started following the First League? You would see this person who was legendary in the Second, a real class act, this person would  qualify and once this person came to the First this person got absolutely massacred. There is a certain obscenity to the entire process. It’s like watching some sleek predator come along and then get torn to pieces, absolutely destroyed, really, by a bigger sleeker predator, no fuss, just part of the job. Well we’ve got the biggest monster now, we’ve got the predator on the top of the pile and we’ve thrown it into a space where it has to struggle. It doesn’t know where or how to direct its powers. It’s beautiful.”

“Is he struggling, though? Since he started in the leagues he’s only lost two games, and he’s not lost one now for I think nearly twenty games. He’s been defending, yes, but he’s seriously good at it. Seb – Gelnik, I mean – said that all the people in the First agree that he’s the best defender onworld, you know.”

“But you see that he is in pain, don’t you?”

“There this thing he does, it’s also another one of the little quirks, where he stops looking at the board and then looks at the audience offstage, like he’s pleading with them for help or something. The first time I saw him do it he had this terrible position against Gelnik and he looked at the audience and I thought he looked so disappointed in himself. I thought he was going to shake his head and shrug at the audience and then resign. I really thought he was going to do that. You cannot think I am soft, Mar, because I am not and you know it, but I really felt sorry for him.”

“That was his famous save.”

“That was the famous save.”

“I think it’s simpler than that. I think he looks at them because he knows what’s going on. He feels it. I feel it too. It’s only a silly board game but he’s made it something greater for people. He’s made it something titanic. You know what I mean? He’s made the whole thing a giant theorem and he’s trying to prove it.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“Meh. It’s one of my best qualities. But you know what I mean.”

“We’re well into subtletyland here, if I might borrow your term.”

“It’s very deep but it’s also fun.”

“It’s fun but, well, you know. Now we have to talk about the big problem.”

“Because, damn it, it is a big problem.

“Vast, really.”

“Tremendous.”

“I don’t understand it.”

“We were just talking about how he’s in pain. I think it’s quite understandable.”

“No, no, we were talking about pain in the context of its allure.”

“In any case, he’s said no.”

“I don’t understand. It’s the Candidates. If he wins he gets to challenge for the world title.”

“It’s big.”

“It’s fucking shitdrizzlingly colossal.”

“Maybe it’s too easy for him.”

“We were just talking about him being in pain – I mean, seriously Lev you say the stupidest shit sometimes.

“I mean yes, he is in pain, but he’s just stopped losing. He’s struggling but maybe he knows the outcome of that process by now. I mean he just crushed the world no.2 in their first game. He wears t-shirts to First League games.”

“Well, it’s a cyclical thing, you know, what the young ones wear.”

“My point was.”

“We should get him to lose, then.”

“Mar?”

“I really like you.”

“Thank you.”

“Professionally I like you. On other levels I like you deeply, thrustingly even. I do really like you.”

“I really appreciate this.”

“But sometimes you are a total and towering wanker.”

“I don’t wank.”

“He’s Leviathan. If you made him lose he’d frown and CompyDust would melt your face off.”

“Hey. It was a joke.”

“It was a joke.”

“It was a joke.”

“A joke?”

“I wanted to see your reaction.”

“You’ve got my reaction.”

“Why are we talking about this? We need to get him to say yes for the Candidates.”

“Because we thought that it would be more interesting for him if he lost.”

“More interesting for the audience too.”

“Mar.”

“Yes.”

“Stop being a turd.”

“I’m not being a turd. I am trying to make this fun for people.”

“Fun for you, you mean. You have all these conceptions.”

“You know this Garfield. She’s good friends with Leviathan. Talk to her about it.”

“You could talk to him directly.”

“Hm. Well. He’s a bit scary.”

“I’ll talk to Garfield. She won’t buy any of your bullshit, though.”

“There’s no bullshit. Just say the true thing, which is that everyone really wants him to play in the Candidates.”

“Yeah.”

“We’re making history.”

“We’re all making history all the time.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

When Garf got up Salix was already in the shower. He came out naked and he went back onto the bed. He closed his eyes but did not sleep.

He got up and looked out of the window. He scrolled through some assignments. He went back to bed.

She sat up and looked at him. “You know Lev.”

He didn’t open his eyes. “Maybe,” he said. He meant yes if he said maybe that way.

“He says that you should play in the Candidates.”

“Hmm.”

“Do you know what I think?”

He turned around and looked at her. “Yes.”

“I think you shouldn’t give a shit what he says.”

She had fucked him but only once. He was asexual. She had not known that. Evolutionary dead end, ha-ha, he had said, sounding very unsorry about it. Two weeks after LHB she got him the stuff they used at the college Burning and then they had fucked. He said he enjoyed it. She was convinced he had. But they hadn’t fucked since. You should use that body for sex, she had said. It’s really a waste otherwise. He had said: I’m designed this way because this makes me more persuasive, you know. And it would be a good body anyway because I’m not designed to die. And then he laughed at something he found very funny.

Salix put his face into the pillow and exhaled forcefully. “People.”

“Breakfast,” Garfield said.

“Naked.”

She went and got something. When she came back Salix was no longer naked and he was again looking out of the window as he sat on the bed.

“Hey,” she said. She looked at him sitting over there. He moved his head like he was listening but that was it.

“Hey,” he said, into the air.

“Are you thinking?”

“No,” he said. And then he thought for a bit and said, “Yes.”

“Well, you should say no. You are too much about what other people think.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, and threw a pillow at her.

“Please,” she said.

“This is all crap, you know. I don’t want to play. I don’t want to play.”

“You sound like your age.”

“I’m hungry.”

“There’s something downstairs.”

While he was eating he abruptly said, “I know what it is, you know.”

“What?”

He put the fork down and went to the sink with the plate. “Audiences.” Salix had a voice he used, without knowing it, or maybe he was trying to look like he did not know it, when he was saying something serious. “The problem is the audiences.” He sat down again.

“Well,” Garf said, “The fuckers are mostly there to see you lose.”

Salix made a brief pained look. A not-wince. “Not the same.”

“As?”

“Enjoying something more because I might lose. I’ve not been doing that too often.”

“What’s the problem, then?”

“I don’t know. Well, no, I do know, but I’m not going to say it precisely. I look at them in the middle of a game and all their faces are just frozen in this strange hungry rictus. All the white faces in that light – the light makes them all stand out – and I don’t like it. It’s like if I walked over and slapped them they wouldn’t move. It’s just a mass of symbols down there. I don’t like it.”

“They’re enjoying it.”

“I tell myself, am I going to have to care about these people?”

“Do you find people very stupid?”

“No,” Salix said, slowly.

“Really.” Garf found Salix sometimes unreadable. “I always thought that you should.”

He grinned. “I find you pretty stupid.”

“Well,” Garf said, “You should tell Lev something if you are going to say no. It will be the official story.”

Salix yawned hugely. “They don’t need an official story.”

“Say that you detest these people, you detest the game, that it is altogether and without a shadow of a doubt so far beneath your station that you only play because you want to size up the shape and texture of people’s stupidity.”

Salix laughed. “I don’t mind people,” he said, “at all.”

“Say that Lev and Mar are total shitheads and they physically repulse you.”

“I could say that I love it too much, that’s it’s killing the rest my life, that the worst thing I could do to everyone is have me shoved down some solipsistic sinkhole built around a game wholes rules are arbitrary and whose entire central being is the idea of passive aggression. I’ll say that I know I have responsibilities and that I cannot betray these responsibilities even before these responsibilities have come to be. I’ll say that it pains me but that even now I understand the necessity of sacrifice, and I hope that what little I have left recorded will give some people somewhere some small happiness, some peephole that goes straight to my medulla. ”

“Say that your grades are slipping.”

Salix put his feet on the table and spread his hands. “They could check.”

“Say that you can’t stand the audience. Say that their breathing is hideous. Their eyes are hideous. You fucking detest their faces. Their pulpy ophidian faces. You hate the air in the playing hall. It’s too warm, it’s too cold, you have a neurosis they must build around you. You hate the sound the pieces make. You hate their gloss and their shine. You hate the way people move the pieces. You hate it when they remove the captured piece and put down the capturing piece in the same action and you hear that gross click. Say that it’s alienating and monstrous. Say that the players are arrogant and worse bathetic.  They have bad teeth. They twirl pieces beneath the table. When they leave the table they don’t pay attention to their swivelling chairs and the backs face you  and you are forced to sit there in the stink of their recently departed being looking at the back of a chair and you cannot calculate anymore. You will not grace their inattention, their slovenliness, their torpidity, with your effort.”

“Maybe I am bored by it. Maybe I feel I have exhausted the game. Maybe I am tired of closed pawn structures and the knights crawling to g3 in the Najdorf. Maybe I am tired at the stupid binary structure of it all and am frustrated at the perpetuation of a game that disencourages dialectic thought. Perhaps the real issue here is that the game is a shallowly disguised metaphor for sex and I am appalled at it because I can’t fuck. I have tried everything. I have spoken to Quistclose, I have spoken to Petromyzon, I have let little robots feel me in my soft places and nothing works, I am a great sucking antilibidinous vacuum and I am a constant that even a Haccieter cannot solve. The pieces are grotesque and tumorous. They are crenellated and thorny and bald. They take too much out of me. The entire performance requires of me faculties which I do not have.”

Boa constrictor. You know that is your name.” Garf looked at the clock. “I should head to the Centre.”

“I want a walk. I’ll come.”

“Have you seen the stuff we are doing?”

“You could show me.”

“You’ll be interested.”

Salix put his face in his hands and rubbed. “I should decide what to say to Lev.”

“I’ll get the car.”

“Can we walk?”

Garf made a face. “I can continue making stuff up all the way there.”

“Sure, do that.”

“Where’d we get them?”

“Last war.”

There were ten people in this room. There were many rooms but this was one room. The people in this room were very old. Their hands and faces were like maps. They leaned over their tables. They were allowed to drool. They had wires in their heads and wires in their ears. They looked at Garf and Salix when they came in and some of them smiled. “I tell yuh whot,” one of them was saying, “I tell yuh whot, I tell yoh whot.”

Garf looked at Salix looking at the people. “It’s these people,” she said.

Salix did not say anything. Then he said, “Audience.”

“It’s these people,” Garf said again. She didn’t hear.

The thing Salix was doing was finding an uncanny gap, and finding that it was moving.

“And what happens?” Salix said.

“I’ll play them something from the Trove. Watch.”

The people started moving. Their eyes bulged and their fingers warped. Their heads moved from side to side. Swung one way and then another way. Some of them eventually closed their eyes and moved their arms. They opened their mouths and made wavering noises. The one who kept speaking was silent.

“They’re very happy,” Garf said.

“I’m happy for them,” Salix said. “That they’re here.”

“Only works with stuff from the Trove. Not quite. But that’s basically it. We can’t really use any other music. That’s very interesting. Isn’t it interesting? We get a big load of stuff from a random metavirus we happen to meet in an obscure space, it does not tell us what the significance of this is or where it’s from, and it has this effect.”

“I’ve never listened anything from the Trove. Everyone listens to it now but somehow I never got around to it.”

“Look at these people. They’ve never heard this stuff and yet then can remember it. Doesn’t that say something interesting?”

“Maybe,” Salix said, and maybe he used his yes voice.

On the way out he said, “You’ve got stuff from the Trove, haven’t you?”

Garf said, “Oh yes. Lots.”

“What were they listening to?”

“It’ll pass it to your Buds. Wait. Can you hear it?”

“Yes,” Salix said, and then, later: “It’s very good.”