Like most summer afternoons in the park, the chess tables were full when I arrived. The familiar old faces were all there, mostly idle retirees or office jockeys blowing off a little steam during their lunch hour. I had noticed in recent months an influx of new blood, middle-aged fellows who are normally too busy being important to find the time to play.
I found an open table away from the main knot of players and set up the board, then sat back to wait for an opponent. It didn’t take long before one showed up. It was one of the new faces, but not an unemployed businessman. No, I would describe this character as more of a pulsating cluster of flesh and nerves then person. It looked more or less like the stuff of nightmares and broken dreamscapes and I wasn’t the only person who thought so; many of the other players in the park ran away screaming at its presence.
“Uh, you new here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.” I said, trying to be friendly.
“I am Cerebrate, I live for the swarm.” It projected into my mind with a thousand disembodied whispers.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s play.” I said.
Rather than playing with a traditional Staunton chess set it dropped a handful of skittering insects onto the board, and they quickly arranged themselves on the playfield. I would have protested of course, but it was clear from their position and appearance what value each bug had. I didn’t have a great deal of time before I had to be back in the office so I opened with the Queen’s Gambit to ensure a fast paced game.
“A bold move. We shall add your genetic distinctiveness to our own.” Its mind spoke to me.
“Don’t get so fussy, it’s a legitimate move.” I said.
Trash talking has been a part of the game since the Indians invented it back in the 6th century. Still, I didn’t like this thing’s tone so I resolved to wipe the smile off wherever it kept its mouth. One of the front runner bugs, a “zergling” he called it, shredded my pawn on c4 giving it the advantage, but letting me take the center early on. It was pretty good. It threw its first wave at me like it meant nothing; I barely managed to absorb the assault. When the dust settled on the initial exchange its forces were badly depleted, but it had spread some kind of living sludge over most of the board. Thankfully, the late game is where I shine. My remaining pieces broke its right flank forcing it to abandon the offensive entirely. Before long we were dancing rooks and ultralisks. I got one of my pawns to the other end and exchanged it for a queen. It shrieked something unintelligible about “the metamorphosis” as I went to town on what was left of its forces. In the end I pushed it into a corner and brought the game to a close.
“No! I have failed the Overmind. You have sullied the glory of my birthright.” the creature wailed.
“Nobody likes a sore loser, buddy.” I said.
The globular mass shuffled off in defeat, retreating to a nearby Starbucks. With no other players around and only a few minutes before I was due back at the office I started clearing up what was left of my pieces. While picking little bug parts off one of my knights I took a moment to reflect on the game itself.
I learned chess from my grandfather, who I imagine learned from one of his forebears and so on back through the ages. I don’t know the full history of the game, but I can imagine that if one felt so inclined they could trace the line of teachers and students all the way back to India where it originated. Back then, very few of the pieces were what we would recognize today and I imagine the rules would seem strange to us. Still, as long as there has been free time, there have been games, and as long as there have been games there has been competition. What a strange and exciting time to be alive, I thought, when the parameters of those competitions have gone beyond the chess table and pushed to the very limits of our imagination.