Thursday, March 29, 2012

A pawn makes all the difference

[This is basically me trying to think of ways that you can have an ordinary person go to a strange and wonderful world and end up being an integral part of saving the day without it being, "People from here are the most awesome thing ever."]

[One of the things that main character had with him when he was transported to strange and wonderful world in need of saving was a chess set.  He's not actually good at playing, but he likes it anyway.  After explaining the rules, and a bit of European history (once you say en passant is French you have to explain what "French" means) he and a native play a game.]

And then, like that, the game was over. It hadn't actually ended yet, but it was clear I'd lost. After a series of checks pushed my king across the board, I made a stupid mistake. I blocked her queen with my rook, I figured either she'd have to back up and give me some breathing room, or she'd take the rook sacrificing her queen in the process and maybe, just maybe, I could use the loss of her queen to pull off a draw.

Which would all be well and good if not for the fact that the only thing protecting the rook was my king, and as soon as I moved it I realized it was threatened from two different directions. She could take the rook with her queen and put me in instant checkmate, or she could take it with a bishop and toy with me a bit. Either way I'd lost.

“It's not fair,” I said.

“What's not fair?”

“That this is your first game of chess.  It's not fair that you're already so much better than me.”

She seemed confused, “Are you considered a very good chess player by the standards of your world?”

“No. I'm considered a horrible chess player by the standards of my world. But I'd like to think that I'm good by the standards of people who have never played the game before.”

She smiled, “I have my strengths, you have yours.”

And suddenly all of my anxieties came pouring out. “No. I don't. I don't have strengths. I'm nothing. I'm no one. I'm...” I wasn't sure what to say and then I snatched a pawn from the pile of pieces she had captures, “I'm this. This is me. You're acting like I'm going to make some huge difference to this world but I'm not that kind of person. I don't have any strengths. I'm just a pawn, except I don't promote when I get to the other side of the board.”

“What do you do?”

“I don't know. Hang my head and walk home maybe.”

She held out her hand. “May I see you?” I put the pawn in her hand. She looked it over. Then turned her attention back to the board. “Let me ask you something, who is going to win?”

“You are.”

She put the pawn on the board, threatening her queen and guarding my rook. “Now who is?”

Whether she took the rook with the queen or the bishop I'd have her queen, and I'd have it with my king still against the side of the board, without her queen threatening it that was actually a pretty safe space, she'd have to shuffle some pieces to put me in check again so my position would be stronger than if I'd been able to capture with my king like I'd intended and from there... I cut off that line of reasoning. She wouldn't risk her queen. At first I thought that she'd just use the queen to take the pawn and push everything a move or two down the line, but then I realized that the pawn was protected.

I'd given up on the knight a while back.  I'd actually tried to trade it for another piece and she hadn't taken the bait, the trade was long since made impossible, and she could take it whenever she wanted to with impunity, and just about everywhere it could move would lead to immediate capture, and nowhere it could move was particularly useful anyway.  But now one of those places had a pawn in it.

If she wanted to protect her queen she'd have to retreat, and her pieces cluttered up the board, there were only so many places she could go, and none of them set up for an immediate attack, in fact... I looked at where my few remaining pieces were. Her king was boxed in by several of her own pieces, her position wasn't really all that good. The only thing that had stopped me from exploiting if before was being in check every damn move leading up to that point. If I wasn't then...

I thought about every move she could make. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. I looked at the board in silence. And finally I answered her question of who as going to win, “I am.”

She tapped the pawn, “You made all the difference. Because right at this moment, you're," she tapped the pawn again, "the most important piece in the field. It doesn't matter if you're not the strongest, it doesn't matter that you're not the most experienced, or the most skilled. It doesn't matter that half the time you don't know what you're doing.”

“More than half the time,” I said.

“You're in the right place, at the right time, and more than that you're completely unexpected. No one's plans included you being here. No one's strategy is designed to cope with you. The other side has been factoring me into their plans since I was four years old, and we've been paying as much attention to them. But you, you've just been dropped on the board in the middle of the endgame.

“This is you,” she said, again gesturing to the pawn, “And you can change everything.”

I thought maybe she was taking the pawn metaphor too far. Maybe I underestimated the pawn, but that in no way meant that I was underestimating myself. Just because a pawn wasn't useless didn't mean that I wasn't.

“Unless, that is,” she said, “you'd rather hang your head and walk home.”