[This story’s over a decade old now, and was originally written for one of my daily LiveJournal posts. Like most of my stories, I had the idea for years before I bothered to write it down. The inspiration for this comes from a story called Von Goom’s Gambit written by Victor Contoski; I don’t think that mine is in any way derivative, but it is what initially got me thinking about other uses for chessboards. –M]
Mr. Pimbury sat in his apartment, fiddling with the chess pieces. It was Tuesday, which ordinarily meant he’d be out in the park playing chess with Mark Spitzer from down the street, but not today. Not next week, either, or ever again, for that matter; he’d spent last Tuesday in a suit, listening to people he’d never seen talk about how close they were to Mark, and how much they’d miss him. The man who’d delivered the eulogy referred to Mark as “Dad” and manfully kept from crying during a few parts of his speech, so Mr. Pimbury assumed he was Mark’s son. From the close and loving relationship he described, though, Mr. Pimbury would have had to assume he was talking about another Mark entirely. It occurred to him that perhaps another Mark Spitzer had also died, and that the speaker had somehow showed up at the wrong funeral; it was closed-casket, after all, and who would stop him in the middle of his speech? The idea amused Mr. Pimbury, and he played out a scenario in his head wherein the eulogist, having finished his speech and returned to the audience, suddenly heard the preacher mention Mark’s middle name and realized his mistake. He imagined the man’s panicked look as he attempted to decide whether it would be better to excuse himself in the middle of the funeral and flee immediately, or to wait until the end and slip out when everyone was milling about.
In the end, though, there had turned out to be no such confusion, and the funeral had ended uneventfully. Now Mr. Pimbury found himself back in his own apartment, twirling a knight in his fingers as he examined the Pelikan variant of the classic Sicilian defense. It provided a solid set-up for black, but it assumed a fair level of naivete on the part of the white player to have allowed himself to be put solidly on the defensive so early in the game. He shuffled the board backwards a few moves and considered a more unorthodox move; an early advancement of the queen to capture d4, then a retreat at black’s assumed e5. It was unusual, but if followed with a knight progression and proper placement of the bishops, while the rooks moved to the third rank — then within eight moves, near complete domination of the board could be guaranteed, all while keeping black on the defensive. Mr. Pimbury moved the second rook into position and sat back, satisfied. White had total control of the central square, without actually having a single piece in any of the four spaces.
As he reached for black’s queen, considering the best response, he smelled something burning. He had turned halfway around and begun to rise out of his chair, preparing to go turn off whatever he’d left on in the kitchen, when he saw the cloud of smoke drifting up from the center of the chessboard. Befuddled, he stared as it billowed upwards and resolved itself into a hideous, well-muscled humanoid shape. Its skin was the glossy black of obsidian, and streaked brown ram’s horns curled outwards from its brow. Its face was set in an expression of low cunning, and glistening slaver dripped from its prominent fangs. Each finger ended in a great curving claw, and its legs were those of a goat. It was also no more than three inches tall.
Mr. Pimbury stared at the tiny creature. “Who are you?” it boomed, in a voice that was extremely deep, if a bit quiet. “Give me your name, sorcerer, so that I might wait for the day when you shall be in my control.”
“What are you?” Mr. Pimbury asked, ignoring its question.
The demon snorted in derision, and twin gouts of smoke burst from its nostrils. “I am the demon you have summoned, fool.” It peered at the pieces arranged around it, and added, “Using the Valanian rite. You could not have made a slightly bigger form? You are right to fear my power, but diminishing my size does nothing to control my might.”
Mr. Pimbury gaped at it as it spoke, but perked up at the word “Valanian.” He didn’t recognize the term, but it sounded like the sort of name chess gambits often carried. “Do you mean this feint has already been created?” he asked. “It’s not in any of the books I’ve read.”
“Feint?” roared the demon. “Do you believe I am merely a diversion? I shall consume you, wizard!”
It raised its clawed hands, and crackling bolts of lightning leapt forth, only to diffuse in a shower of sparks when they reached the edge of the chessboard. The demon lowered its hands. “I see,” it said. “You do have a protective circle in place, after all. You are more cunning than I had believed. What will you have of me?”
“Tell me more about the Valanian technique,” Mr. Pimbury urged. “When was it created? I’ve never heard of this chess strategy.”
The demon looked lost. “What is chess?” it asked.
“Chess,” Mr. Pimbury repeated, sweeping his hand over the board. “Maybe you know it by a different name — sakki,ficheall, sataranji — no? Board of 64 squares, two opposed sides, sixteen pieces each, trying to capture each other’s king…surely you’ve played!” A note of desperation crept into his voice.
The demon suddenly grinned widely. “Ah, yes. Chess. So — all you want me to do is teach you what I know of chess, and you’ll dismiss me?”
“Teach me something I don’t know,” Mr. Pimbury agreed, “and you can go.”
The demon frowned at this rephrasing. “How can I be assured that you will not simply claim to have already known what I show you, and keep me here?”
Mr. Pimbury looked offended. “On my honor as a gentleman,” he said indignantly. The demon crossed its arms and tapped a hoof on the board. “How about this, then,” Mr. Pimbury offered. “Win a game against me, and I’ll release you.”
The demon snorted again, but said, “Very well then. The conditions are set.”
Mr. Pimbury smiled and began to reset the chess board. The demon watched him for a moment, then seized one of the advanced black pawns around its middle and lugged it back across the board. Despite being no larger than some of the chess pieces, the demon had little trouble moving them; it bearhugged the pawns, and simply balanced the taller pieces over its shoulder. As it was moving the last piece, Mr. Pimbury tapped the board with one finger.
“Queen goes on her own color,” he said. The demon shrugged and shoved the king and queen past each other. “Your move, sorcerer,” it said ominously. “Your death shall be as long and agonizing as this game shall be short. No mortal has ever beaten me at chess.”
Ignoring the demon, Mr. Pimbury opened with e4. The demon responded by matching the move, with e5. Mr. Pimbury then moved f4, to begin the king’s gambit — but the demon neither accepted the gambit, nor answered with the Falkbeer counter-gambit, but instead matched again, with f5. Frowning in surprise, Mr. Pimbury moved fxe5, capturing black’s king’s pawn. The demon roared in outrage.
“What is this trickery?” he demanded. “How dare you break ranks!”
Mr. Pimbury looked at him in surprise. “It’s a standard move. Pawns capture diagonally.”
The demon sat cross-legged in the space its two pawns had vacated and muttered something inaudible. Mr. Pimbury said slowly, “You’ve never played chess before, have you?”
Scowling, the demon admitted, “I have never, in my existence, so much as heard of this game.”
Mr. Pimbury sighed. “Okay. The ones in front, the pawns, they move forward one space at a time, except when capturing, where they move diagonally, or on their first move, where they can move two spaces at once. They can promote if they reach the final rank….”
“And that’s mate,” said Mr. Pimbury, carefully placing his bishop. “You know, you’ve really gotten much better in recent weeks.”
The demon glared at him. “I practice every night while you sleep, old man. Soon, I will defeat you, and escape your prison. Then you will rue the day you ever captured me.”
Smiling gently, Mr. Pimbury set the pieces back in their original positions. “Yes, so you’ve said.” He advanced a pawn to e4.
“You grow predictable, fool!” exclaimed the demon, hauling its king’s knight to f6. “I will crush your offense before it ever materializes.”
Mr. Pimbury smiled, saying nothing, and moved his own knight. The game progressed as most of them did, with the demon constantly throwing its pieces into combat; despite its haste and bloodthirsty playing technique, it was quite a good tactician, and Mr. Pimbury found himself working harder and harder to defeat it. However, he won in the end as always, pinning the demon’s king back in a corner after having captured nearly all of its defenders. The demon swore and accused him of cheating, witchcraft, trickery, and sorcery, as always. Mr. Pimbury left it there fuming and went for his daily walk.
When he returned, the demon was sitting in the middle of the board in a throne made of intricately stacked pawns. It was pretending to sleep, but when he entered the room, it opened its golden eyes and demanded, “Sorcerer! You will come play me now.” It rose from its chair and began sliding the pawns into position.
Surprised, Mr. Pimbury crossed the room and took his seat in front of the chessboard. “You’re unusually enthusiastic,” he remarked, taking his standard opening move. “Devised something new, I gather?”
“I have,” gloated the demon. “You will cower before the might of the Nihzkantan Gambit! None have ever seen through its guile or withstood its supreme crushing power.”
The demon’s strategy was markedly different. It played much more defensively than usual, arranging the pawns in a two-pointed wall to fend off attacks, and moved its pieces seemingly aimlessly on its side of the board — until, in a flurry of captures and trades, Mr. Pimbury found his king cornered by the demon’s queen, cornered and trapped behind his own pawns. He looked at the demon with appreciation as he laid his king on its side.
“Well done!” he said softly, but with genuine admiration. He settled back into his chair and leaned his head against the cushions. “Good game.”
The demon strode to the edge of the board and leapt off. Its body flexed and expanded in the air, growing at an incredible rate; by the time its hooves impacted the ground, it stood just over eight feet tall. Its horns stretched almost six feet across, tip to tip, and its skin seemed to absorb the light, reflecting nothing back. Smoke gushing from its nose, it leaned over Mr. Pimbury, reached out one clawed hand — and gently closed his eyes. “Good night, wizard,” it growled. “The game was long, and so, as promised, your suffering was short.”
It considered the chess board for a moment, and quickly shifted several of the pieces to new positions. It then advanced a rook, and a gaping black hole opened in the space above the chessboard. The demon made as if to step into the hole, hesitated, then swiped his hand across the board and scattered the pieces. The portal collapsed in on itself and vanished. The demon pushed the chair out of the way and crouched before the board. It gathered up the pieces in the palm of one giant hand and began to set up a new configuration. As it moved the final piece, a burning odor arose from the center of the board, and a tiny green shape started to materialize, with shiny green scales, a prehensile tail, and fiery red eyes. It hissed, “For what reason have you disturbed me?”
The demon glared down at it. “Tell me, imp: what do you know of the game called chess?”