A Queen



 A Queen


  Dubliner Thomas O’Gorman died from multiple knife wounds

 sustained during a chess game.

—Sky News


“There’s nothing more pointless than chess,” the downcast grandmaster in the hat with the sunken crown confided to my ear. “You concoct ambitious plans, you’re an emperor, a strategist, a master of elephants, cavalrymen, siege towers, an entire army awaits your orders… and all for nothing. You can be a little more adroit, a little more whip-smart than your opponent, but that’s it. Someday they’ll invent an engine that’ll learn all possible combinations of moves and calculate all possible positions. It’ll outplay all the champions, and then the whole affair will become nothing but a meaningless game of high-aspiring wits.”    

The grandmaster broke into a fit of coughing and pulled his crumpled hat further down on his brow.

“Believe you me. Chess is a lie. An illusion. The game’s monomaniacal greats… just recall who they were. La Bourdonnais, Morphy, Pillsburyall mentally disturbed. Schlechterdied of starvation and privation. Steinitzwent insane. Rabinovichcommitted to a mental institution. Capablancadied of severe cerebral sclerosis.  Alekhine—cooperated with the Nazis, died desperately alone after choking on a piece of meat. The game imparted meaning to their lives. Lives they ended up losing to it. Before killing himself, a Jinhua man named Liao killed his chess partner—didn’t want to be left without an opponent in the hereafter. ‘Chess is ruthless,’ the deranged Short has said. You have to be prepared to kill’. Is the pursuit of an illusion worth such a price?” 

    The grandmaster fell abruptly silent. He took a backward step; furious now, he began flinging chess pieces from out the pockets of his old speckled overcoat. Pawns, bishops, knights scattered across the road. Wretched things,” he bellowed. “I detest them!”  

    His pockets emptied, he wrenched his threadbare hat from his head and hurled it in the same direction. He stood in the light of a streetlamp, the tails of his overcoat flapping open in the wind. I moved off, glancing back at him, alarmed by his tirade. On gaining the ill-lit entrance to the nondescript hotel where I was lodged that evening, I turned around. My accidental interlocutor stood stock-still beneath the streetlamp.      

    His aspect astounded me. The upturned chin, the sharp profile of the head, the black corner of the collar, the open overcoat—all this recalled a sculpture forged from iron by a proficient hand.    

    Yesterday, while attending to a tedious business matter, I found myself on the town’s main street. I remarked a souvenir shop and decided to call in: I would purchase a trinket as a gift to my solitary sister. The little copper bell overhanging the door dully announced my entry. The portly waistcoated proprietor waved a hand in greeting. It was really more of a junk store, this souvenir shop. I was, I suppose, one of those rare droppers-by looking to while away an idle moment there. But, with the exception of a few cheap handmade knick-knacks, Indian and Chinese, I found nothing that captured my interest.       

    I was making to leave when something familiar caught my eye from the depths of the shop. A human-sized figure stood in a shadowy nook.

    “What’s that back there?” I said to the proprietor, who’d been bustling about in the hope of flogging me something.

    “Ah, that’s a chess queen,” he said, scrambling to seize the figure by the waist and drag it over. “Weighs a ton!”

    “That can’t be,” I whispered, drawing involuntarily back. Before me stood the grandmaster I had happened upon in the street a few days prior. I saw it all: the upturned chin, the well-worn speckled overcoat, the sharp profile of the defiantly-held head. Regaining my composure somewhat, I reached out to touch his sleeve, but only to withdraw my hand at once—my fingers encountered an iron silence.   

    Seeing my bewilderment, the proprietor launched into a rapid-fire explanation. The figure, he said, was very valuable, a uniquely designed queen which, its weight notwithstanding, could be delivered to any specified address. I stood there, dazed, but at length composed myself enough to inform the proprietor that I did not play chess and had no understanding of it. The proprietor, though, had already scented the turmoil that gripped me when I saw the figure, and set about convincing me that I must buy it. I don’t know what took hold of me in that moment, but, possessed by a mania of sorts, I scrawled my address onto a scrap of paper, paid the now-beaming proprietor, and dashed out.              

    Today the figure was delivered to me. I had no sooner returned from my trip than a trio of removal men hauled it into my first-floor room. What am I to do with it now? The grandmaster stands in the corner, by the window, head still held high, and regards me with unblinking eyes. One night, perhaps, he’ll let derangement set in, after the fashion of his fanatic idols, and strangle me with an iron hand.      


Translated from Russian by Leo Shtutin   


Jonathan Vidgop



Jonathan Vidgop is a theatre director, author, screenwriter, and founder of the Am haZikaron Institute for Science and Heritage of the Jewish People in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Born in Leningrad in 1955, Jonathan was expelled in 1974 from what is now called the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts “for behavior unworthy of the title of Soviet student.” Having worked as a locksmith, loader, and White Sea sailor, he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in the Arctic Circle. He is the author of several books. Two chapters from his latest novel, Testimony, published by the leading Russian Publishing House NLO, “Birdfall” and “Man of Letters,” were published in English in Goats Milk Magazine and The CHILLFILTR Review. A story was recently accepted by Los Angeles Review, and another by Pembroke Magazine. The story “Nomads” is the recent winner of the Meridian’s Editors’ Prize in Prose. Vidgop's last publication in the Singaporean Kitaab was also published by the Japanese Kaidankai.


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us! My son plays a lot, and I am his sparring partner. I appreciated the new perspective.

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