'How to Beat Your Wife at Chess,' a Short Story by Paul Maliszewski
A husband sleeps in the basement and schemes about how to outmaneuver his wife at chess, while she may be having sex with a man from Berlin in their bedroom.
Photos by Mirka Laura Severa
My wife and I (along with Elgar) had just finished up with dinner—turkey meatballs with some kind of cream sauce poured all over them. She and Elgar were chatting in the kitchen, doing the dishes. Elgar is my wife's friend. He's from Germany. He was crashing in our basement for a while. I was in the den, in my chair. I turned down the volume on the TV. "Honey?" I said.
She didn't answer. "We should totally play chess tonight," I said. It was all I could do not to laugh, but it's very important that you not laugh while making your opening move. Chess, after all, is a game of planning, cunning, and wits.
I didn't hear what she said—if she said anything—so I just continued.
"What do you think?" I said.
My wife called back, "OK, dear."
"They're playing chess on TV," I said. "It's the world championships or something."
My wife said she'd be in just as soon as she got done taking out the fucking garbage.
I watched her and Elgar lug the garbage out the back door. Half an hour later, they were back, smelling like cigarettes. I had my chessboard out with all the pieces in place. "You ready for this?" I said.
She and Elgar were heading up the stairs.
"Where you going?" I said.
She said she had to go fold the laundry.
Upstairs they put on some loud music. It sounded like one of Elgar's playlists. Elgar likes American country music, songs about trucks and dusty roads, women in jeans, that sort of thing. After a while Elgar and my wife came back downstairs. She looked tired. She gave him a big long hug and then he went to the basement. This, I thought, was the perfect time to make my opening move.
The whole queen's gambit had fallen apart. I really hate the queen's gambit.
I got a white pawn in one hand and a black pawn in the other, and I presented her with my fists, and she looked at me like, what now, Gene? It was a look she made a lot.
"Pick," I said. I couldn't help smiling.
She pointed, with some reluctance, at my left hand, and I opened it. It was the black pawn. The first move was mine. I started to do a little dance.
The Spanish Game
The most classic opening in the game of beating your wife at chess is known as the Ruy Lopez, or Spanish Game. Lopez was a Spanish priest who played chess a long time ago. I think he played against other priests. I mean, I don't think he played against the nuns, you know? So while Lopez was never himself married, he did develop a way to beat wives at chess, and it's still working today. Here's what you do:
Now, your wife has many options, but if she's anything like my wife, she'll probably whisper a bunch with Elgar and the two of them will start giggling and then she'll take the pawn that's directly across from your pawn, which is her king's pawn, and move it forward two spaces, thus stopping your triumphant advance. That pawn was going places, and now he's stuck, unable to do anything except go to the coffee shop and talk about ideas with the guys, ideas like the Civil War or World War II. Wives all think this blocking move is hilarious. They think they can play the whole game this way, copying whatever you do. As if you're playing yourself in a mirror.
Next, do something with one of your knights. Just pick one. It doesn't matter which. You're probably going to lose this game, let's be realistic. Your wife may just be objectively better than you. My wife turned out to be really good at chess. Half the time I play her, I go down in flames. Maybe more than half.
The Queen's Gambit
Perhaps you prefer a subtler game than Father Ruy's all-out assault. Maybe you're a long-term guy and like to plot very slowly about how best to methodically beat your wife at chess. If so, then the queen's gambit is for you.
One night my wife and I were playing chess. I had my positions all staked out. The queen's gambit was like a noose slowly tightening around her little neck. She was pinned good, with a rook and a bishop and my queen. I had her right where I wanted her. That's when Elgar came up from the basement.
Elgar stood behind my wife, studying the board, rubbing her shoulders. Then he said to me, "Is dis dee Queen's Gambit move you are trying?"
I glared at him. Elgar was nodding, grinning, like he had some amusing joke that was sure to slay them back in Germany. I was silently wishing he'd just fuck off. He bent over my wife's shoulder and pointed at her queen. Then he was whispering to her and I couldn't hear what he was saying but she moved her queen and that threatened my queen, so my queen had to retreat, thus severely crippling my attack. The whole queen's gambit had fallen apart. I really hate the queen's gambit.
My wife gazed up at Elgar. It was like they were some kind of fucking team.
"I sink chess is so inneresting," Elgar said. "So many moves and combinations and whatnot."
"Yeah, that's great, Elgar," I said.
"Yes," he said. He was grinning again. "I was, how you say, reigning junior champion when I was a little schoolboy. And at university I was dee chess team captain."
My wife said that must have been so great, being captain.
At this point the pieces came off the board. I don't know what happened. Maybe I did kick the table. I couldn't remember where all the pieces had been, so I just packed them up for another time, a time when Elgar wasn't around.
Let's say you've gotten your wife to play you at chess a dozen times, and maybe you beat her two times or one time, or maybe you haven't won at all—it doesn't matter! The point is, your wife, being the bright lady she is, has started to pick up on the fact that each and every time you get to move first, you're all about
So what if one time she gets to move first—it's going to happen, if it hasn't already—and what if what she does is
Right back at you! What then? I will tell you what then. You need a defense, my friend, and fast. Or else you have like zero chance of beating your wife at chess. What I recommend is the Sicilian defense. The Sicilian, as it's called, is a very aggressive defense and unless your wife has been reading about chess in her spare time (and I very much doubt she has, because if she's anything like my wife, then she's always in the basement watching movies with Elgar), then this defense is going to be like a trusted friend. Think of the Sicilian as your friend, from Sicily, only difference being your friend doesn't need to watch romantic comedies all night in order to brush up on his English nor does he have to cuddle under your favorite Navajo blanket because of circulation problems.
Fortress of Pawns
I was at the coffee shop with the guys. I was in the middle of expressing my theory, which I'd been developing all summer and intend to publish sometime in the next year, about how if General Lee had just ordered Pickett to shift his troops into a more classic defensive posture, if they hadn't fucking tried to charge, why the whole course of the Battle of Gettysburg could have changed, just like that, and, with it, the war itself perhaps.
My friend Chad interrupted. "Dude," he said, "is that your wife?"
I glanced over my shoulder. It was. She and Elgar were strolling toward us. "Yeah," I said. "They're going to the German embassy. Elgar needs to renew his visa or something."
Chad said, "Do they always hold hands?"
"Yes," I said. "When they're walking they do." I was getting impatient with Chad. I wanted to get back to my theory. I pictured Pickett like this king and his troops were like a fortress of pawns surrounding him. Sometimes I do that, build a fortress around myself and just hunker down, wait for shit to blow over. I looked at Chad, who was watching Elgar and my wife over the top of his coffee cup. "Since you asked," I said, "Elgar has trouble crossing American streets, so my wife helps him. OK?"
"Oh," Chad said.
Elgar and my wife walked by. They were chatting in an animated fashion. I waved. I guess she didn't see me, though.
The Grand Divorce
I like watching videos of old chess games. You can find them on the computer. All the old grandmasters are there: Kasparov, the other ones. Martindale? Is Martindale one of them? I don't know all their names! In any case, I was watching this one video, with Kasparov. Now Kasparov is someone who gives no quarter. You just know he beat his wife at chess every time. If he was married. I don't know if Kasparov was married. Why don't you google it later? Kasparov is just so methodical in setting up his traps, and then, you know, hours into the game, the trap will come to fruition, and it's like a trap within a trap—or even a trap within a trap within some larger third trap—and before you know it, before you detect even that first trap, you're right in the middle of it. With Kasparov, things always get nasty by the end.
I was crying, watching him play. Just tears rolling down my face. The beauty of it, how pure it was. No mistakes. And I was thinking of Pickett at Gettysburg, his mistake, and what if he hadn't made any mistakes ever. It was sad, all the mistakes in the world. What if there were no mistakes? Would everyone be happy then?
I love to castle. It's like escaping, the king whisked into his bunker, living to battle another day. I didn't think my wife knew how to castle.
My wife came upstairs from the basement and asked if we could talk. I looked around like, I guess, I'm sort of in the middle of this video.
She wanted to know if I wanted to go out, perhaps, and talk.
I sighed elaborately. I was sort of settled in here. Already had my jam-jams on for one thing. "If you want," I said. "Is that what you want?"
"We don't have to," she said. "Unless you want to." She did the thing where she smiled broadly, and then just stopped. It was like smile on and then smile off.
"Would Elgar want to come?" I said. Sometimes we all went out together. It was alright. I tried to make Elgar feel welcome.
She looked toward the basement. "Elgar's in the shower," she said. "We were watching Sleepless in Seattle."
I nodded then and shut my laptop. I always shut it down the proper way, exiting Windows. You get faster processing speed that way, and longer battery life.
That was when my wife said she wanted more space. It was clear to me she wasn't talking about remodeling the kitchen. The idea—her idea—was that I would be moving into the basement.
"What about Elgar?" I said.
She looked at me funny, like what do I mean?
I just didn't want to share the basement with him. I didn't think I should have to.
"I'm not stupid," I said.
"I never said you were."
"And you're not that smart either," I said. "Or crafty,
"Elgar is moving upstairs," she said finally.
It was like castling in chess, when you sweep your king behind a line of pawns. I love to castle. It's like escaping, the king whisked into his bunker, living to battle another day. I didn't think my wife knew how to castle. She'd never done it in any of our games, but here she was executing a more complex move, exchanging kings, white for black. The black king took his place behind a row of white pawns. And the white king—I always preferred to play white—was tossed clear across the board. Exiled, in effect. I'd never seen anything like it. Kasparov, I bet, had never seen anything like it either. It was masterful, I had to admit.
The other night Elgar came down to the basement. I was under my blanket, in the dark, watching chess videos.
"What is new?" he said. He looked at my computer, then looked at me.
"It's chess," I said. "I'm watching chess."
"Oh," Elgar said. "I thought maybe was pornography."
"Yeah, no," I said. "Just chess."
Elgar looked around, nodding, as if he'd misplaced something.
"You know, Elgar," I said, "you think you could maybe knock next time?" It didn't seem like too much to ask.
"I am sorry," he said "to bother you."
"It doesn't matter," I said. "What can I do you for?"
I set my computer aside and looked at him. He was grinning. He was always grinning.
"Eet's dark down here," he said.
"Yeah, I didn't realize how dark it had gotten," I said. "Sorry."
"Eet is OK," Elgar said. "My eyes will adjust."
"You want to sit down?" I said. I didn't really want him to sit down, but I indicated the daybed that was now my bed. He could sit at the foot there. I shifted my legs to the side a bit.
Elgar waved his hands. "Eet is alright," he said. "I am here because I have a little favor to ask."
"I am out of condoms," he said. He held up a foil wrapper, empty.
"Oh," I said.
"Right," he said.
"Well," I said, "there're condoms in my nightstand, I think. Upstairs. Last time I checked. I'd look there. In my old nightstand."
"Good," Elgar said. "Very good. I will check dee nightstand. Thank you, Gene."
I went back to my computer then and resumed the video. It was Kasparov vs. Karpov, 1984. Kasparov was down five games to nothing against the world champion. He had to win. And he did; he broke him; he broke Karpov. It was one of the greatest games of all time.