White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
Brett Biebel
Brett Biebel attends the MFA program in Creative Writing at Minnesota State-Mankato. He recently earned an MA in Communication Studies from the University of Minnesota. He enjoys the Milwaukee Brewers, Thomas Pynchon, and teaching undergraduates.

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Square Table Knights

Brett Biebel

River Port Inn, Winona, MN. Five Round Swiss System. Game in 45 Minutes. Saturday, October 15th.

Round 1, Hans Lasker, White

It is a game of possibility. A player can open with any one of twenty possible moves, to which there are twenty possible responses. After each has made this initial choice, the board will show one specific position out of four hundred total possibilities. Strangely, these are manageable numbers. After one move, barring something outlandish, neither will have a clear advantage. Perhaps the same will be true after two or even three moves. Each successive decision, however, gains more importance. Only in the end game is the board as limited as before that opening salvo. A seemingly infinite number of combinations stem from that initial twenty, each providing the opportunity for a player to demonstrate tactical skill, foresight, and psychological superiority. From the outset, paths are limited, but opportunities tend to increase as

the game progresses. Until, of course, some unknown tipping point somewhere mid-game where it begins to collapse on itself and each move suddenly sends both sides hurtling towards -mate, either check or stale.

In rare cases, however, a player knows he (at least in this case) is doomed before the first pawn is moved. Indeed, the feeling of defeat sets in before his opponent is even seen. All it takes is a name.

Aside from being a game of combinations, it’s also a game of confidence. Of mental acuity and focus. Of internal strength. Without any of these, combinations and positions are close to useless. Even in a game of skill, there’s no substitute for a reputation. And Hans Lasker is certainly reputed. From the first time I saw the pairing, there was resignation. Not quite tip-over-the-king-before-move-three variety, but resignation nonetheless. To begin with, he just sounded like a chess player. I don’t know if it was the European flair or the whispers making their way across tables in the hotel lobby pre-tournament. It also could have had something to do with the 1580 next to his name, putting him very close to the 1600 division cutoff.

Whatever the case, I never had a chance, despite what the numbers may have said at any given point.

I started typically. The openings, at least the first two or three moves, come almost automatically by now, though that could be because I usually just want to start trading pieces as quickly as possible. This attitude becomes a distinct disadvantage around move five or six. We opened thusly:

1. e4 e5 (Surprising in its own way. Most

wannabe experts open Sicilian as black,

something I’ve never quite figured out how to

attack, most likely due to lack of effort.)

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 (Standard Spanish Opening, a personal

staple. Perhaps to the point of becoming

predictable and, thus, a weakness.)

3.… d6 (Making for a tight board).

From there we played largely even, exchanging occasionally. I even let myself believe for a time, but it quickly slipped with a bone-headed maneuver in the early middle. Left the knight at f3 too long

after a castle, allowing him to play his own variation of Spanish Torture, and suddenly the initiative was forfeited. Sleepwalked through to the end game (a usual strength, thanks to the dwindling number of available choices), giving away too many pawns, and lost. Death by tiny increments. One of those games where you know where it’s headed after a certain point, but have no choice but to play it out as well as you can.

You wonder if it’s worth it. I will never be an expert. Never be a master. No pawn promotion in the cards, and yet I still toil away at these weekend events in small town hotels. Across the street is a hospital. Assuming they have a Psych Ward, it’s beckoning. Why else engage in such futility, unless you’re a little unbalanced? Wasn’t there something about the brain reaching its maximum potential at 25? And here we are, two years later, still working to improve. It’s a game of math, and the numbers are no longer on my side.

I ran into Dad on the way across the parking lot and into Perkins (no cure for chess blues quite like a Tremendous Twelve). There was the obligatory exchange.

“How’d you do?”

“The usual. One mistake. Lost interest. Let it add up.”

“It’s like you can’t stand anything that isn’t perfection. And you tend to play awfully fast for someone so intent on flawlessness.”

“It’s a curse. What can I say? Damn if I didn’t get it from you.”

“Not so fast. I got a big win. I think he was twelve.” There was downplayed success in his tone, but I’d have taken it. It was funny, though, I think I was rooting for him even more than myself. We’d been playing together for years, off and on at tournaments and clubs, but mostly together and while sporting events unfolded on the living room television. We’d fall into familiar patterns over the board, pieces guided by guts and intuition more than anything else, stacks of unread chess books signaling the appeal of an idea more than a practice. These one-day getaways were just a change of pace, filling a competitive void created by aging knees and exorbitant city league basketball fees. It was a temporary purpose, a two-hour structure with

clearly defined outcomes. Both success and failure were right there on the board, its possibilities yielding an indisputable result. Even at our admittedly low level, there had always been some impetus to keep going, some addictive impulse guiding us both to punch clocks recreationally, fingering plastic ivory and hoping to win some small victory. Or, better yet, put together a string of them. Now, though, it all seems like empty nostalgia, both of us slogging through these one-day affairs, neither necessarily excited but both willing and feeling in some sense obligated. The game promises equality, potential, and possibility, but lately it only delivers disappointment. Piece by tiny piece.


Round 2, Teresa Springer, White

There was something about her that recalled Colette. I know now that it was the ivory complexion, enhanced thanks to the contrast provided by our opposing sets. It was her pale green eyes, hidden behind neat, square-framed eyeglasses. Mostly, I think, it was the coquettish way she intoned each “Check.” Almost appealing

enough to make me want to move into it. All of these things are so clear looking back, but, over the board, it was elusive, scrubbed out by the distraction of the game itself, certainly, but perhaps even more so by a poorly quarantined feeling of guilt.

I shouldn’t be thinking of Colette at all is the thing. Our futures are not intertwined, not connected with the same umbilical tether that exists with others. In fact, it strikes me that this short scene, this moment of pining for the unattainable, would make an awfully good PSA. Me sitting, staring not at the board but over it and into a shielded emerald sea, hoping somehow to be released from a two-color square prison now filled with digitized images of Danielle and Little Ellie dancing between files b and d and practically begging for my attention. Caption it how you like. It is a warning. It’s the curse of unsanctioned Vatican Roulette. Not its result, necessarily, but its obligation. Its etched-in-stone future. Eighteen years (perhaps more if my life is any indicator) of visits and smiles, trips to and from soccer camp, and constant, polite denials of requests for ponies and puppies and other cute accessories, animate

and inanimate alike. Engagement and marriage eventually, though thankfully not yet. There has been pressure, of course, tears, evangelizing, etc. But the power of children is their ability, temporary though it may be, to wash away adult objection and demand the display of love and compassion.

If only they could also remove the doubt. The feeling of tedious entrapment. Of eighteen or so years of dull routine. They find comfort in routine, you know. And how can anyone avoid comforting them? Yet it sometimes seems to be slowly killing its main practitioner, even after a mere eleven months. That was going to be the point of this trip, of course. Momentary escape. Now, though, even the game feels like dull routine. And, more often than not, Colette feels like a way out.

I know she’s thought about it. It’s not always there, but it comes in flashes and they tend to be bright. The same reliance on intuition that subdues potential chess greatness allows me to see it. She must know my moments as well. It’s there, felt by both but never to be acted upon, hanging in the air, visible, reachable, but also impossible. It’s enough of a betrayal to even entertain the thoughts. Imagine if the actions came along with them.

Danielle suspects. There is discomfort. But she also trusts, and, I think, maybe she forgives.

There is a limit to forgiveness, however, and it’s one that I don’t want to discover. Most days, I’m content being honest enough to recognize that the feelings exist. There seems to be a quiet nobility in that, though it also brings on the guilt.

It’s the guilt that distracts me most during the course of the game. I make one big rookie mistake. Fail to provide an escape for a castled king. Fall victim to back rank trickery and go down in the middle game. It’s disappointing, but Dad pulls one out, at least. He gets Lasker next round, I think he said. A shot at familial revenge.


Round 3, Bye

There are deep breaths. There is a walk along a river. There is a lower-than-normal water level, at least if the locals nearby are to be believed. There is reflection on each match, internal consensus being that both losses resulted from improperly handling isolation. There are musings on protecting the king, on losing once due to vulnerability and exposure

and once thanks to overcrowding and insulation. There is a minor epiphany (the king must perform a wire act), and, at the end of it, there is only one family member who doesn’t lose.


Round 4, Bryant Colfax-Dupont, Black

I feel breakthrough coming. You’ve had a mental rest, time to get focused, all of that. This round is yours, Garret.

– Arthur Gates


Wise man, wise words. Of course, no one can be right all the time. It’s possible this one was the toughest to take, the most discouraging.

We played right through to the end game dead even. Bishop, two pawns, king. He had slightly better position, pawns adjacent by column, while mine were on f and h respectively. Each was at 5, while his h was 4 and his g 2. My move. Pushed to f4. King was on e7, en route to becoming an attacking piece. The push was where it went wrong. Snuck his bishop to g5 for check, forking the pawn, and he eventually finagled promotion out of it. I

fought it off as long as I could, but resigned as soon as the queen showed. At that point, it was over.

There was a handshake and the usual pleasantries. When I walked over to Dad afterwards there was mutual hand-wringing and frustration. We’d both blown it. He was, however, anxious for the final round, typically optimistic about victory and a winning record. Maybe it’s a resilience that comes with age. I wish I had the same fortitude. At this point, I think I just want it to be over. It’s stopped providing escape. Stopped being an enjoyable distraction. I run to it still, but now there’s the recognition that what I’m fleeing isn’t meant to be fled.

“I fucked it up for good this time, I think,” I remember telling him about a month in. I’d mentioned it that weekend, focused the trip around it even. Danielle had wanted to come, but I’d said no. Wanted to prep them first. Looking back, I underestimated them.

“Listen, Garret. Of course this wasn’t part of the plan. Of course you didn’t want it, and you’re right. You’re not ready for it. But that’s the funny thing. Sometimes you can only prepare when what you’re

anticipating is inevitable. We have to be forced into change. It’s how we deal with the pushing that matters.”

“More than the change itself? This seems like a pretty big one. The Change, really.”

“You’ll be surprised how you feel when it happens. How focused. How determined. Yeah, you’ll be scared. Everyone is. But you’ve got supporters, and, when we finally meet Danielle, she’ll know that we’re in her corner as well. Now, set it up and let’s go again. No chance you get two in a row.”

He was half right. I’m doing okay dad-wise, I think. Or at least, I feel more capable, more able to live up to the title than before. It happened, and I adjusted. Then, though, it was all about that one moment. That instant I became responsible for another person. It was all focused on an event with a definite date and a well-documented trajectory. Now, it’s all sprawling unknown, this endless expanse with her centrality the only certainty. That night, chess was refreshment. A mental vacation. Now, it mirrors the problem itself, the toil clear and the payoff either nonexistent or entirely intangible.

The game has officially turned cruel. Every match magnifies your own weaknesses, and every move lays bare your deficiencies. If you’re not at the top level, you’ll find yourself floundering at least once a contest, searching for the right answer, scouring for that tidbit of detail you read in How to Play the Chess Openings and then promptly discarded as overly rigid and burdensome. The initial move always holds promise. Somewhere in that green and yellow minefield, there is beauty. Somewhere, there is the perfect move, the perfect gambit, the perfect game. Opportunity lies in every square, and, for those first few moments, you can bask in the knowledge that glorious possibilities will stem from initially limited options. There is, above all, the promise of complication. Of providing enough input to demand full attention. There is the lure of escape. There is, in short, Colette, flattened out and rendered as a square in 64 parts. There is the hope that one day it will deliver. Mostly, it doesn’t. Today appears to be another one of those days.


Round 5, Elizabeth Knight, Black

The chessboard is an 8x8 universe populated by

ivory and wood. It is clear. It is black and white. Mostly, it is controlled and structured. And, yet, that very structure promises some kind of freedom. It taunts players with its variety, its endless combinations, its deep blue yonder uncertainty. Its opening is scripted and its finale deterministic, freedom reigning only in that all too brief middle.

I am suffocated by its openness and lost in its rigidity. My path is always set out, stemming from that one middle game mistake and ending in sideways or cornered kings. For some reason, there is no victory today, or even most days now. It’s somehow different for Dad, some sort of late-life flexibility giving him all the advantages. Age is wasted on the old. He battles to 3-2. Today, he’s a winner.

Dr. Meyer always talked about parallel universes, and chess is as close as I get. It’s an alternate reality, more clear at least than the original, though the outcomes are often the same. There is an inherent equality in it, though skills of course vary widely. Still, each player comes with the same tools and the same limited set of options. After several moves, the game promises more, and

there is a brief moment where anything seems possible. Then, the board shuts it down and skill reasserts itself. It’s a square table disguised as a round one, dressing up the same outcomes in the guise of openness and fairness. Each middle is a Colette, standing there, waving flirtatiously, knowing it won’t happen but unable to help herself. Each end is a Garret, searching for perfection but having always to be content with flaws. With single, defining mistakes. There is mental exertion, and there is defeat. There’s a reason this game’s victors toe the Genius-Insane Fault Line.

She was more like Danielle. Short. Auburn hair. No glasses. Like me, 0-3. It should have been easy, but this game never is. Psyched myself out perhaps. Never got comfortable. Shut down the board early, French Defense, fearful of the possibilities. Reduce so as not to be seduced. Limit choices, let guts guide. The game was certainly cramped, with her taking control of the center early while I packed in, trying to be conservative and defensive. Trying to find hope in protection. For a time it worked. Strong position, tactically sound. Exchanged a knight for a bishop, then played carefully with the other, hoping to use it as a weapon in mid-game.

Failed. Traded queens late middle, and gradually whittled things down to a king and a few pawns each. Played very carefully, thinking 5, 6 moves ahead, trying to avoid a big mistake.

It was long. Nearly the whole 90 minutes. Each of us playing not-to-lose. Result achieved. She steals a pawn after a blunder, but I salvage with the king-in-front-of-pawn draw. Down to nothing but the most important piece, it’s an even result from uneven circumstances. It is the best I can offer, a refusal to give in but a failure to emerge victorious.

Thus, it is a winless event. But also not a total loss. There is a thought creeping in as we sit dissecting over buffalo chicken wraps.

“So, you managed a pretty tough draw, then? Can’t be too disappointed in that, can you? Sort of heroic, actually. The kid’ll be proud. Danielle too. Maybe they’ll even let you come to Stillwater in a few weeks.” He is nothing if not good-natured. That same uplifting tone that was present that night and after his first loss today is again here now, offering encouragement. Can I be like him?

I’m unsure of how to respond. I don’t know what it means anymore. Don’t know if it holds the same

promise, the same magic. Worse, don’t know if it’s become empty, mechanical, played out. Don’t even know if it’s needed anymore. I shouldn’t have to escape. Shouldn’t have to feel simultaneously tempted and trapped, the two working together in some kind of tango of tantalization. Is it mirror or outlet? Entrapment or escape? Selfish or necessary? This tournament begs all of these questions. Yet, I’m not sure gut instinct can be right here, seeing how much it means to him. I hesitate, internal battle matching what’s just played itself out over five rounds. At least some part of me will win this time. Without knowing what it means, I look at him. I breath, and then I smile.

“You know, Dad…I think maybe I’ve taken this game as far as it can go.”






Copyright© Brett Biebel. White Whale Review, issue 4.2

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