Effective Chess Openings Against the Grim Reaper

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by Ryan McSwain, © 2019

“Of course, no one knows how long Death has been willing to play the game.” Professor Bradley (Backgammon) stood in front of the crowded lecture hall, fully in his element. “But the first mention of challenging Death occurs in The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the titular hero returned to life after winning the Royal Game of Ur. Many consider this account a work of fiction, but there’s no arguing with the facts. Beat Death at your game of choice, win a Reprieve.”

A collective murmur filled the room. For General Game Theory 101, this was the equivalent of a trigonometry lecture beginning with a lesson in counting to ten. Libby Wallace looked down at her desk, where someone had carved chess notations into the wood surface. She traced the lines with the pad of her ring finger. Was it the Budapest Gambit? She’d studied the basics like everyone else, but chess had never been her game. Neither had anything else.

Not having a game to play, she might as well be without family, creed, or country. She’d live and die as solitary as an aardvark, with no hope of coming back to life again—even if she wanted to.

“As you are aware,” Professor Bradley continued, “no topic garners as much debate as the specifics of playing Death. The argument over Jesus’s choice of game caused the Great Schizm between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054. The subjective nature of each experience compounds the problems, but several rules are universally accepted.”

The projector hummed to life, casting a familiar text on the screen:

The Ground Rules
1. Death is not athletic.
2. No cheating.
3. Death lets children win, provided they are polite.
4. Playing is voluntary.
5. Death gets better at a game the more he plays.

On the front row, Roger Lang (Stratego) raised his hand. “Is this because we all blew it on the last quiz?”

As the laughter subsided, Professor Bradley paced back and forth. “Thank you, Mr. Lang, for that moment of levity. It’s a pity that, by most accounts, Death is more interested in games than humor. It might have increased your chances. No, I’m running through the basics because I have something important to share with you, directly related to Ground Rule Five. All of you are familiar with Takeo Sato, the world’s premier Go champion.”

On the screen behind the professor appeared a goban, the traditional table used to play the game of Go. Round, black and white stones created an intricate pattern on the playing surface. “Sato is most famous for defeating Death on nine occasions. This was the highest verifiable winning streak in history, affording him an additional sixty years of life following his first death.”

Beside Libby, her roommate Christina Jackson (Pokémon) gasped as she realized what the professor was saying.

Professor Bradley wiped his eyes with a tissue. “Sato was found in his home yesterday, still seated at a half-replayed game. The authorities waited the customary twenty-four hours before declaring the death final. This is a shock, because it’s widely believed Death would never successfully defeat an expert human player at Go.”

Mac Colovini (Power Grid) spoke without raising his hand. “Could Sato have opted out?”

The room murmured, but the professor spoke over them. “We can’t know for sure, but those closest to him maintain Sato planned to beat Death for the tenth time. We may learn more if people ask Death before winning a Reprieve, but that will take time. We all know how reluctant he is to answer questions about other players.”

A pale girl on the back row burst into tears and fled the room. On the way out the door, she tossed her portable Go set into the garbage can, making it ring like a bell. Libby didn’t know her name.

Lang spoke up again. “If the great Sato can’t beat Death, what’s the point of even trying? If skill doesn’t matter, should we join the jocks and challenge Death to Rock, Paper, Scissors?”

Professor Bradley switched off the projector. “My boy, Death has played millions of games of Paper, Scissors, Stone. Don’t you think he can read his opponent? You’d be better off flipping a coin. Or cut out the middle man and choose Russian Roulette.”

They discussed the implications of Sato’s final death for the rest of class. Libby’s anxiety at being adrift, always lingering like background radiation, threatened to shift into a Three Mile Island panic attack. After class, Libby and Christina walked together toward the cafeteria. Neither of them felt hungry.

Christina checked her makeup in a compact as they walked. “Guess you won’t be choosing Go as your game.”

Libby kicked at a stray rock. “Guess not. I was never good at it, anyway. The rules sure sound simple, but you play against someone who knows what they’re doing and yeesh.”

“Too bad. Some of those Go guys are cute, and they’re short on girl players.”

“I just wish more guys dated outside their games.”

“What happened to your last guy, Bruno? The Tiddlywinks guy.”       

Libby groaned. “Believe it or not, flipping tiddlywinks doesn’t transfer to being good in bed.”

Christina laughed, but Libby knew this friendship wasn’t going anywhere. They were only roommates because Christina couldn’t find another Pokémon player. As soon as they hit the cafeteria, Christina would scamper off to find her real friends.

As they approached the crowd waiting at the crosswalk, Christina leaned close to Libby. “Isn’t that the girl who ran out of class?” Libby noticed the pale girl, tears still streaming down her face. She looked lost, and for a moment Libby saw a kindred spirit. But the girl’s eyes came alive as a garbage truck sped toward the intersection. The Go player took a step off the curb.

“Somebody stop her!” Libby cried, pushing her way through the people. No one else realized what was happening. Just as the truck was about to collide with the girl, Libby shoved her out of the way.

Libby opened her eyes onto a tasteful, cozy room. It reminded her of the pleasant home of her eccentric Aunt Pauline (Pick-Up Sticks). Aunt Pauline never hassled her about not having a game, and always offered those hard candies with pictures of fruit in the middle, the ones only the nicest old people could find. At the gaming table, a handsome man waited with shopping bags full of board games.

Libby patted down her body, looking for signs of injury.

“You don’t have to worry.” The man’s voice was deep and polite. “As long as you’re here, you’ll remain free from pain or harm. It’s nice to meet you, Libby Wallace.” He extended a hand, which Libby accepted. The handshake lingered, and the warmth of his dark skin surprised her.

Libby was unsure what to say. She settled on: “You have a beautiful house.”

The man chuckled. “This is as much your house as mine. Your mind created it for us. I didn’t know which game you’d like to play, so I brought an assortment. If you have something different in mind, you only need to ask.”

It had been years since she was invited to play anything, instead of having to awkwardly ask to take part. Libby ran her fingers over the game boxes. Carcassonne. Reef Encounter. Fireball Island. Dreamwell. Monster Mash. Every game she’d enjoyed playing in life, they were all here.

“That was a nice thing you did.” Death pulled out her chair for her. “For the girl, I mean.”

“Anyone would’ve done the same thing.”

“But they didn’t.” Death took his seat across from her. “Please, take your time. Just don’t expect me to go easy on you.” He winked.

Libby turned red. “Why do you do this? Why play the games?”

“I didn’t take you for a theologian.”

“I’m not. I’ve just always been curious.”

“You’re a special guest, so I’ll give you the straight answer. I used to meet people and send them right on to their destination. Simple. Straightforward. But I was lonely. And it’s hard to get to know anyone during a quick layover.”

“It’s hard to know someone, period.” Libby thought of the years of sitting alone, waiting for someone, anyone to reach out.

“Too true. That’s why I decided to make the offer. We play a game. If you win, you get to go back. Never got any complaints from upstairs. Or downstairs, for that matter.”

“Why not just chat a while, then send them on their way?”

Death rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “It’s easier having something to do. Few people want to drop in on the Grim Reaper. Any idea what you want to play?”

“I don’t know.” She blushed again. “I never chose my game.”

He leaned across the table and took her hands in his. This time he did not let go. “You don’t have to choose a game. People abstain all the time. If you like, you can skip this part, go straight to your destination.”

“Will I see you again? If I move on, I mean.”

He looked down at the table. “If that can happen, it hasn’t yet.”

Libby stood up and began pacing. “But we just met. It seems a shame to leave. Could I just stay here with you for a while?”

“It’s been a long time since anyone asked me that question.” The man rose and followed her, always a step behind. “You’re welcome to stay, and I’d love the company. But if you stay long, you won’t be able to return to your body. Even if you win. I could still grant a Reprieve, but you won’t want to use it.”

Turning, Libby put her hands on his shoulders. He wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her near. On tiptoe, she leaned close to his ear and whispered a proposal.

A week later, Professor Bradley arrived late to General Game Theory 101. His posture appeared softer. Christina, already in her seat, mindlessly shuffled her Pokémon cards. She had refused to relocate to a different dorm, and now caught herself staring at Libby’s empty seat. Likewise, no one would sit in the chair of the former Go player, now known to everyone on campus as Evelyn Kofman. She was physically uninjured, but was taking the rest of the semester off to be near family.

The professor cleared his throat. Unconcerned that not everyone realized class had started, his voice floated gently, like a child blowing bubbles in the breeze. Christina put away her cards, hoping for a better distraction.

“I realize this is a challenging time for many of you. After speaking with the dean and other members of the faculty, I’ll be taking a sabbatical.” At this, the remaining whisperers quieted. “But before I go, I wanted to share one more bit of news with you.”

He flicked on the projector, and there was Libby’s photo from her student identification card. Her apprehensive eyes stared through everyone in the room. Christina squeezed the fabric of her skirt in both fists.

“As many of you know, Libby never chose a game, and it came as little surprise when her window of reprieve came and went without her returning to us. I don’t need to tell you what her selflessness has come to represent. But I do have one bit of information that will come as news to everyone.”

He clicked to the next slide, and the familiar rules appeared, with a slight difference. Some students reacted right away, while others took a few moments to realize what they were seeing. Soon the room buzzed with questions.

The professor continued. “Beginning the day of Libby’s death, those tasked with tracking Death experiences and reprieval rates began hearing strange stories. People who came back no longer spoke of meeting Death for a one-on-one challenge. Someone new was there with Death, they said. A young woman. Needless to say, this information was closely guarded until it could be verified. But the news is about to reach the public, so I received special permission to share it with you.”

Christina read the rules again, unable to believe her eyes.

The Ground Rules (Revised)
1. Death is not athletic.
2. No cheating.
3. Death lets children win, provided they are polite.
4. Playing is voluntary.
5. Death gets better at a game the more he plays.
6. Three-player games are now encouraged.

On the front row, Roger Lang raised his hand. “What does this mean for us?” he asked. “Do we have to beat them both? Just one?”

“I have no idea,” the professor answered, smiling at the words on the screen. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

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