The End Game

“Are you going to take all day to move?” 

“I’m thinking,” Smolinski replied, tersely.
“Don’t let it bother you that the world’s going to end in less than an hour.”

“I know, I know, but if this is our final game together, then so much more important that it’s my victory. So allow me, please, this small indulgence.”

Smolinski had always been a slow player, and I was beginning to wonder whether, despite the circumstances, I should have insisted on using clocks.

While he thought, I surveyed the board again. My black pieces had formed a sound defence, and were well positioned to make a king’s side counter. He hadn’t castled yet, and I had to concede that this was a crucial move.

But even so, with the meteorite due to wipe out the planet in less than an hour, I thought he could be quicker. A draw would be disastrous.

Smolinski finally grasped a pawn in his thick red Polish fingers and advanced it one square, protecting his exposed knight. He’d been anticipating a threat from my bishop, but not the other, craftier plans in my mind.

Smolinski had been a chess genius once, a London champion. In those days I couldn’t get near him. But as he had aged, his ability had waned, and he could now no longer see more than a handful of moves ahead.

I thrust my knight forward to put pressure on his king pawn.

“Try that, Smolinski.”

He sat back again to study the implications. I knew I was in for another long wait, so I left him to it and ventured out onto the balcony to see how people were preparing for the end of the world.

We were on the fifth floor, and I had a good view of the mayhem in the streets below. Gangs were roaming around and I could see people of all ages. Most were very drunk, but there was no common emotion; some were angry or in a panicky hysteria, while others were calm, filled with love, even.

My curiousity was taken by a woman, in late middle age, who was presenting herself to any man who still had the strength to find a final moment of pleasure. Though this party had been growing more intense for days now as the meteorite’s trajectory had become more threatening, and whatever freedoms people had discovered in that time had already become less interesting.

The skies were busy too, thick with helicopters, and planes above them. I’m not sure the pilots had any idea of where they might land, if they could land. Or what they might find. I knew I did not want to be one of those who had to face whatever might be left, if there was anything.

Yet it wasn’t certain the meteorite would hit. Most ‘experts’ had put the chances at about 95 per cent, and some had put it much lower.

“Can you close that door, please, the noise is disturbing me,” said Smolinski.  

I stepped back into the room, pulling the glass door closed, and then the heavy curtain. I was thankful when the shouts and screams from below, and the buzz of helicopters above, became more muffled.

Then I turned my attention back to Smolinski’s wiry frame and wrinkled skin. He was toying hesitantly with his bishop. But then he put it back and quickly moved his queen to threaten the black kingside knight.
I smiled. I had wanted his queen out in the open. Maybe all this talk of the end of the world was unsettling him.

I moved my bishop in line with the queen. Then I sat back, and poured some more whisky for us both.
We didn’t know how close it was to midday. The clocks had been hidden away. And if phones were still working, we wouldn’t hear them. I hadn’t told anyone I would be spending the final hour playing chess with Smolinski, not even my children or my grandchildren. Though anyone who knew me would have guessed.
‘Goodbyes’ seemed pointless. Everything seemed pointless, except, of course, our final game – and all the better for beating Smolinski with the black pieces. 

Smolinski took the bait and removed my knight, replacing it with his queen. He looked up at me, expecting a sign that I had blundered. Instead, he saw a wider smile. At that, he fidgeted and knocked back everything in his whisky glass. Soon he would realise he was in extreme danger.

“My trap, Smolinski.”

I manoeuvred the bishop to threaten his king. 

He moved his king, and I followed him with the bishop again, this time protected by the knight.

He fell into deep thought, but it couldn’t change anything.
I got up again and paced round the room. The noise from the street was getting louder. Screaming and wailing now. It was horrible, and I had no wish to go on the balcony again.

I sat down again as Smolinski defended his king with a bishop. Before his hand had left the piece, I’d removed his queen with my bishop. That too was off the board in a flash, its work done.

I poured more whisky, even though it wasn’t really to my taste. Too peaty. It was Smolinski’s, a bottle he’d been saving for a special occasion. But I was wishing I’d brought my own.

The game was mine now. I advanced my pieces, and forced him to surrender his, falling in front of their king one by one.

“It’s annihilation, Smolinski.”

After a while there was just his king and a pawn.

“Whatever you do, Smolinski, the result is the same.”

He groaned.

I removed the pawn and his king was alone.

“You’re delaying the inevitable, Smolinski.”

The cacophony from below was deafening, now, even with the window closed.

I slid the bishop across the board to administer the last rites.

The game was over.