Something is rotten in the world of chess.
Darla Martin is perfectly content to live in Denver, work at a library, and play chess every night.
That’s before she meets Mikhail, a mysterious and proud Russian grandmaster.
And Maxwell, who is charming and handsome and speaks of dark things.
And Fred, who warns her not to look into his eyes.
Before she knows it, Darla’s comfortable world is turned upside down.
Read the beginning chapters!
Darla Martin was a rare thing: a chess-playing female.
As a child of four, she had lain on the living room carpet, watching her brothers play chess. Daniel usually won, mostly because he was the eldest, but Oliver didn’t do badly. Chip played the loser. Afterwards, the three of them would congratulate and heckle one another, laughing and slapping backs and making bets.
Darla would watch them over her coloring book. She recognized one of the pieces as a horse, and originally thought her brothers were playing out the Disney films her mother put on for her. By the time she was six, she had begun to comprehend the game: horses were knights and moved in L-shapes (L came between K and M in the alphabet; she could sing up to it if she forgot), and the king was a lazy fellow who let everyone from his foot soldiers to his wife do all the work.
One day, when Daniel and Oliver had played and then Oliver had beaten Chip, Darla plopped herself down in front of the chessboard and began setting up pieces.
“What are you doing?” Daniel asked in amazement.
“It’s my turn,” Darla said. “Chip lost, so I get to play him.”
Oliver laughed contemptuously. He had turned fourteen the previous week, and was confident in his own superiority, especially over little sisters. “Shut it, Darla. You don’t even know how the pieces move.”
“I do too!”
“No, you don’t. You’re a stupid girl.”
“Don’t pick on her,” Daniel warned. “If she wants to play, let her. It doesn’t hurt to pretend.”
“I don’t want to play against her,” Chip protested. “It won’t be real chess.”
“Then we’ll get out Candyland,” Daniel said, “or Snakes and Ladders. She can manage those.”
“I want to play chess,” Darla insisted. “See? I’ve made it ready.”
“Set it up,” Oliver corrected, sneering. “And no, you haven’t. You’ve got the king and queen backwards.”
This was easily remedied. Chip again refused to play his baby sister, so Daniel sat down. He put aside both his bishops as a handicap and played black, but still won in ten minutes.
“You see?” Oliver said. “Girls are useless.”
“But she did know how the pieces move,” Daniel pointed out. “Good job, Darla.”
Darla beamed at him, taking the compliment rather than the condescension.
Daniel was somewhat less nice about it the second time Darla decided to play, and plain-out sarcastic the third time. But she kept insisting until, finally, her brothers became used to the fact that one of them would have to thrash her at chess every time they played.
Darla didn’t care about her brothers’ scorn; she only cared about the game. And although she didn’t win against her brothers until she was in her twenties, she kept her confidence up by beating her father about a quarter of the time. When she found out that he was throwing their games, she insisted he give her a handicap instead, and she won that way.
By that time, Darla had beaten all the other kids on the block and at school. Soon after, her father started taking her to the chess club at the public library, and she beat people there, too. In high school, she joined the chess club and played against everyone from freshmen to seniors. Some of the boys were better than she was, some were worse, but she never met a girl she couldn’t beat in a dozen moves.
Nowadays, Darla played at the Denver Chess Club’s weekly tournaments, and had been for several months—ever since she had moved to live with her aunt and cousin in Colorado. The chess club was a fun environment with plenty of banter (both kind and cruel, but none of it worse than the things her brothers had said; they had prepared her well), and she liked most of the people she met there.
But that’s not why she went. She went for the chess.
Much as she loved her cousin and aunt, it had long puzzled Darla that they viewed sightseeing and tourism as more attractive pastimes than chess. After all, she reasoned, one could visit geysers and mountains any time, but four-day tournaments in Cheyenne were rare.
“That’s very nice, Darla,” Aunt Lily said, “but we’re going to Yellowstone. We’ll only miss the first day of the tournament; they’ll be plenty of time to watch you trounce everyone.”
“I’m not that good,” Darla said, blushing with pleasure despite herself. “I’m only rated sixteen hundred.”
“Which means you can beat absolutely everyone who doesn’t constantly play chess,” Marcia put in. “Don’t be so modest, Darla; you know how proud we are of you.”
“And we’ll show it,” Aunt Lily promised. “After Yellowstone.”
Darla rolled her eyes, not truly annoyed, and booked two motel rooms.
The tournament was taking place in August, when the sun was hot and the land arid. Golden fields of wheat and barley endlessly decorated the plains, the only things to look at as far as the eye could see, except for the curiously pinkish Interstate-25 that connected Denver to Cheyenne.
Darla drove the first leg, partly because she wouldn’t have to drive the extra seven hours between Cheyenne and Yellowstone, but mostly because the driver got to choose the radio station.
It was well before lunch when they arrived in Cheyenne and Darla waved her aunt and cousin off. Nothing was scheduled until later, so Darla spent a pleasant day alternatively wandering Cheyenne and catching up on her reading before returning to her motel to register for the blitz tournament that evening.
The chess tournament was taking place in the Thistlewood Suites Inn. It was an ordinary motel, with clean rooms, robin’s egg blue bedspreads, and a love of pine-scented cleaning products. Best of all was its ballroom.
The ballroom was by design an elegant room, all polished wooden floors, gleaming chandeliers, and curtains in the motel’s signature blue. For the tournament, banquet tables had been stretched lengthwise, four of them, each neatly covered in a white tablecloth. Other than an abandoned water bottle or two, the tables were empty. There were no chess sets, no clocks. Players were expected to bring their own, although there were always plenty who came empty-handed and had to beg and borrow.
Darla had not had to beg or borrow for years; she had received a chess set from Daniel for her twenty-first birthday, two weeks after the first time she had beaten him.
“You deserve it,” he had told her.
“And here’s a bag to keep it in,” Oliver had said, not to be outdone. He handed her a soft padded case, colored the most vibrant scarlet.
“After all,” Chip had added, giving her a clock to complete the collection, “you’ll have to practice hard if you want to beat any of us again.”
Darla joined the short line just inside the ballroom’s entrance. She was not surprised to find that she was the only woman present, and one of the only females (the other being a pigtailed little girl who was giving her father firm directions). Possibly one or two more would arrive by the tournament’s official beginning tomorrow morning, but likely as not the only other women to arrive, if any, would be mothers or wives who understood about as much about chess as Darla had at the age of six.
Darla hiked her red bag over her shoulder and stared absentmindedly at the bald pate of the man in front of her.
“Apparently he’s come from California, although he’s Russian originally, of course. Name’s something unpronounceable.”
“Damned Russians coming to take our winnings,” said the man next to him, a wide specimen whose sides drooped over his jeans.
“He’s a grandmaster. What else did you expect he came for?”
“There’ll be the blind simul, though. That’ll be worth watching—or even entering. Wonder how many people he’ll take on at once?”
“Probably all of us,” the drooping man said sadly. Then, with a certain amount of pride, he added, “Mad as damned hatters, the lot of them.”
Darla paid her fee and wandered off to the board, to check her number and pairing. She spent some time gazing at the board in what probably looked like confusion, but was really her way of settling her board number, opponent’s name, and color in her mind. She had never understood the people who could glance at the board once and instantly remember everything. How could they do it? Oh, it was easy enough to remember the people you knew, but strangers (and not only the Russian ones) often had long and difficult names without enough vowels.
It sometimes made her wonder if she was smart enough for chess tournaments. She happened to know her pairing for this game: Walt Scarlet, the president of the Denver Chess Club. He, she remembered clearly, didn’t have to stare at the board like an idiot. He could look at something once and commit it to memory. He didn’t need to recalculate variations over and over to figure out the best move; he could get it at once.
That’s why he’ll win, she thought, irritated, although she hadn’t played him yet. Photographic memory. He’s not a creative genius; he’s a computer.
A thought that had, admittedly, made it far more satisfying the few times she had beaten him.
Although Walt might not have been one of them, Darla had played a multitude of creative geniuses over the years. One that always particularly came to mind was Sean Hugg, a child prodigy who came to the board in an oversized cowboy hat and great big glasses he didn’t need. That in itself was pretty creative. More creative still was his chess playing. Whenever she watched in wonder and horror as he pulled off a win in a dead lost position, she said to herself, Oh well: I never was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistoffelees, which made her feel better, even though it didn’t help her win.
She had tried to tell Sean’s mother one time how great a chess player he was. Sean’s mother had said, “Well, at least he’s not skateboarding.”
“I guess you can’t appreciate it,” Darla had acknowledged thoughtfully, and without her usual tact. “It’s like music you can’t hear.”
The mother had nodded and accepted this without either protest or comprehension.
A chess player would have understood. Playing chess was playing music nobody but other chess players—good chess players—could hear. It wasn’t enough to know how the pieces moved; you had to be able to dance to the symphony.
Darla hummed as she plunked down across from Walt. He too had brought his own chessboard, and had set it up while she had been waiting in line. He also had a clock set, a score sheet out, and a pen in his hand.
Walt wore his usual cocktail of amused curiosity and slight contempt. He raised his eyebrows as Darla sat, and shook her hand, but offered no further greeting. Chess players usually didn’t, especially to known opponents. Occasionally, they might say “Good luck” to each other (in the mutual understanding that neither meant it), or double-checked name spelling, but that was all.
It had been a long time since Walt and Darla had spoken over a chessboard. For them, there was only the silent acknowledgement that Walt would almost certainly win.
Darla was white. Walt hit the clock. Darla cupped her hands over her eyes to shut the world out.
The orchestra struck a chord.
Grandmaster Mikhail Rabinovich Preobrazhensky arrived at the Cheyenne chess tournament the next morning to flurries of admiration, jealousy, curiosity, and attempts to find out how one should pronounce his surname, and if it was acceptable to avoid saying it altogether. It was a great relief to everyone to discover that he answered to his patronymic, which was generally more manageable for the English-speaking tongue.
Darla, no less curious than the rest, had the opportunity to observe him at length as he stood with the man who had accompanied him.
Her first observation was that Mikhail Rabinovich looked intensely Russian, especially next to his all-American golden-haired friend. He had a straight, narrow nose, pale complexion, brown eyes under intense brows, and dark brown hair neatly combed. Her second observation was that these features were altogether flawlessly placed and gave him exactly the penetrating look that chess players ought to have, even though few of them did. Following this were several other linked observations, such as the fact that his semi-casual grey suit fit him beautifully, that he had an excellent physique, and that he was almost certainly too rich and intelligent for her—which was just as well because, in the words of the unknown man in line, he was almost certainly mad as a hatter.
Anthea Carson is the co-author of the bestselling chess book, "Tactics Time," co-author of "How to Play Chess Like an Animal," a children's chess book based on chess openings with animal names, as well as a children's tactics puzzle book, and several novels and novellas including "The Dark Lake," a psychological suspense as complex and twisted as any chess game. She is a tournament chess player, a chess coach, and the Game 60 Female US Chess champion of 2004. Anthea obtained her bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, with an emphasis in literature and mathematics. Her fiction writings include a trilogy, several novellas and short stories, some of which, unsurprisingly, are about female chess players in the male dominated world of tournament chess. She currently resides in Colorado Springs with her husband and two children.