Home Page Chess Life Online 2011 January The Staunton Code: Part II
|The Staunton Code: Part II|
|By Bob Basalla|
|January 5, 2011|
CLO's first serialized foray into fiction is a chess-themed suspense story by Bob Basalla, also a satire of the Da Vinci Code. See the first installment of the Staunton Code here and look for the final segment next week.
Arriving home early from his Netherlands jaunt provided Robert Lackey some time to sort out the meaning of these Staunton papers before resuming his regular classroom duties at Central Ohio University. Familiar surroundings are always comforting, like steering a chess game into one of one’s favorite openings. Robert sat hunched at the desk in his office on the second floor of Faculty Tower with a chess set arrayed in front of him. The set was the one Robert had used in tournaments in college when he was still an active player. Naturally, it was of the Staunton design. The secret paper rolls, varying in size like the funny cigarettes that made up another avocation from Lackey’s college days, were placed beside the corresponding piece they had been extracted from in Staunton’s old set. Even in a desperate rush the professor’s training as a meticulous scholar compelled him to record precisely which sheet was exhumed from which chessman. One never knew what facts might prove important in research. The only thing certain was that information lost could be gone forever.
Soon after returning Robert had decided to enlist some discrete help investigating these mini-scrolls. One of them was here now in the alluring form of Jennifer Haniver, a history department colleague and one of his best friends on the staff. Professor Haniver had shown a startlingly original and open mind in her professional work. And more to the point, Robert was sure Jenny could keep a secret.
Jennifer stood in front of his desk in her standard woman executive garb, arms crossed, hand on chin, eyes squinted in skepticism. “So Rob, you think there is something hidden in these papers worth killing for?”
Robert looked up from the board, brushing hair hanks from his eyes. “I didn’t exactly say that,” he corrected. “I’m not even sure whoever broke into Hans’ place knew of their existence. But the set itself, as historically important and costly as it may be, just doesn’t cut it as a motive for homicide. It makes no sense. I have to assume the answer lies in here. And there definitely is something strange about these Staunton writings.”
“In what way? They’re just some of these Staunton fellow’s game scores, aren’t they?” she questioned. Jennifer’s knowledge of chess history derived almost exclusively from her interactions with Robert. This fact, Robert hoped, would give her a more objective overview of the evidence.
Like a prosecutor expounding his thesis to a grand jury, Robert laid out his best case. “Well, for starters, these sixteen games were played in early 1874, the year the ailing Staunton died. No other games are extant from anywhere near the end of his life. Howard Staunton’s playing heyday was the 1840’s and 50’s.”
“So?” Jennifer prodded.
“I’m getting to that. So-called ‘casual’ games from this very late period would be incredible enough. But these games seem to have been played as part of a set match, two matches in fact. See here.” Robert flattened out the sheet in front of white’s queen, pinning its corners with a paperweight and some pens. “Staunton labels this one as ‘Match 1, Game 3.’”
Jenny broke in again. “Were they brilliant games? Maybe Staunton wanted to prove that he still had it.”
“Hardly. All sixteen games were one-sided crushes. Staunton’s opponent for both matches was a J. Hoogstratten, an obviously very weak player. And besides, Staunton took pains to keep these games secret. Rather than shouting victory from the rooftops he seems to be whispering instead.”
“You know of this Hoogstratten?” Jenny asked.
“Never heard of him. Of course, I haven’t made a thorough study of obscure 19th century nonentities in the chess literature, but I doubt if a guy like this will appear anywhere else. He’s a rook odds novice for heaven’s sake.”
Jenny’s head tilted. “Rook odds?”
“Yes,” said Lackey, shifting effortlessly into explanatory mode. “Back in those days players of widely differing skills seldom met over the chessboard on even terms. The stronger player would spot the weaker one some time or usually some material. Sort of like tying one’s hand behind one’s back to make the contest fairer. The mildest form was of course just giving the opponent the white pieces and thus the first move. Then there was ‘pawn and move,’ where the stronger player’s black king’s bishop’s pawn would be removed. Besides being down material, this left a hole at the weakest point in the starting line-up. ‘Pawn and two’ meant that black removed his king’s bishop’s pawn and white got to play the first two moves of the game. Staunton, by the way, was particularly adept at recovering and winning from this deficit. Still weaker players received odds of a knight, typically the queen’s knight, but here the superior player got to take white. A rook odds player is so bad white can remove his queenside castle, a huge chunk of material, and still win most of the time. And here against Staunton this Hoogstratten patzer looks to be fully deserving his rook odds status, as indicated by the sixteen-zip result.”
“Maybe Staunton did it for money,” speculated Jenny astutely.
“That could be part of the answer, certainly,” nodded Robert. “Staunton was known to be in financial straits at the end of his life, so it’s just conceivable that he accepted a challenge from a patron willing to pay for the privilege of saying that he once battled it out with one of the chess greats. And I would be inclined to see that as the most likely answer were it not for one anomalous game, Match 2, Game 2.”
Jenny started looking lost again. “Match 2, Game 2, what about it? Did Hoogstratten almost win that one?”
“No, he was creamed worse than ever, in less than fifteen moves,” shrugged Robert, “even though Staunton didn’t even bother to play a normal book opening. Jen, I told you that the games in both matches were played at rook odds, and that is true, with but one exception. For some reason Staunton and Hoogstratten played the second game of their second match even up, with no material odds whatsoever! What’s more, Howard Staunton manned the white pieces, giving him the advantage of the first move!”
“Hoogstratten was spotting Staunton the odds of the move!” exclaimed Jenny.
“In effect, yes,” said Robert. “One would have thought that even if Hoogstratten had prevailed upon Staunton to play him one equal game, at least he would have taken white, since by the conventions of rook odds, Staunton had white in all the other games.”
Jenny Haniver scrunched up her pert nose in concentration. “I see your point. It is kind of a puzzle. And why would they have this lone departure from their set match conditions on the second game of the second match? Why not the first game? Or the last? Either would make more sense to me.”
Robert cracked a grin. “Now you’re catching on to the problem, my dear. I’m convinced that whatever secret old Howard was trying to impart, somehow centers about this game.”
“What other evidence have you got?” Jenny asked.
Robert sat up straighter and took a deep breath. “Not much, I’m afraid. I can see no significance in where each game score was secreted. The games of the first match were within the white chessmen, apparently randomly, Game 1 in the queen’s knight, Game 2 the king’s bishop, Game 3 the queen as I showed you before, and so on. The second match was arranged in a somewhat more orderly fashion. The first game was hidden in the queen, our infamous Game 2 inside the black king, with games three to five in the kingside pieces from bishop over to rook, and the remaining games running in order from queenside bishop to rook.”
Jenny leaned her hands on the desk. “So Game 2 of Match 2 was inserted up the black king’s, er, posterior. The black king was Hoogstratten’s king throughout the match, after all.”
“An insult or possible sign of contempt–that’s interesting,” mused Robert, not quite sure what to make of her idea.
“Anything else?” pressed Jenny.
Robert’s eyes brightened as his train of thought switched to a new track. “Oh yes, I almost forgot about it since I was focusing so much on the games themselves. While all the other contests begin with a dry recitation of game and match number, date of play, Staunton and Hoogstratten’s names, and the opening employed, only before Match 2, Game 2 does Staunton append a little biographical information about his opponent.” Quickly he grabbed and unrolled the proper scroll.
“And what does it say?” Jenny was leaning far across the desk now, trying to read it for herself.
Like a child not wishing to share a favorite toy, Robert playfully swiveled his chair off to the side. “It says below the name J. Hoogstratten in a parenthetical: ‘(from a hamlet row at the end of Langeland)’. Where’s Langeland?”
“It’s a Danish island, I think.” Even though Robert Lackey was the greater world traveler, Jennifer Haniver ran rings around him in geography. “The name obviously means ‘Long Island’,” she added.
Robert leaned back in his chair. “Long Island. Long Island. I’m not getting anything out of it,” he said, rather quickly for his partner’s taste.
“You give up too easily,” chided Jenny.
A concentrated silence enveloped the room as the investigative amateurs flipped the warmed-over facts on their mental griddles.
Jenny’s soft eyes came alive first. “Rob, didn’t you once tell me that this Howard Staunton guy was a Shakespearean scholar?”
“I could have. He was quite an authority in his day. Put out lots of learned commentary, I gather. Why?”
“It’s just a thought. I’ll be right back.”
Robert popped up from his chair and raced around the desk not so much to escort Jenny out of the office–there was only one door–but to re-lock the door after she left. It was a bit paranoid, he knew, but he wanted to restrict possible access to these potentially explosive documents to a precious, select few.
While waiting for Jenny’s return, Robert pulled an oversized world atlas from the bottom of his bookshelf and confirmed that Langeland was indeed a long island of Denmark. Denmark. Like the tiniest mote seen under a microscope, Robert Lackey began to get the barest inkling of what his cohort might have come up with. Jenny’s mere presence had made it hard for Robert to think outside the box, he had to admit.
The phone rang. It was Jenny calling from her sixth floor office in Faculty Tower. She was practically shouting “Eureka!” and saying she’d be right down.
Unfortunately, this statement would prove tragically prophetic a moment later when Professor Jennifer Haniver would take a fatal header down an empty elevator shaft. When a frantic Robert arrived in the basement and pushed his way through a growing, wailing crowd he found his Jennifer pretzel twisted and gone, with a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare still near her bloodied hand.
Bob Basalla is a dentist from Ohio, rated over 2000 at his peak. He is also the author of Chess in the Movies (2005), which you can read more about on Jeremy Silman's website.