Home Page Chess Life Online 2011 June The Staunton Code: Part III
|The Staunton Code: Part III
|By Bob Basalla
|January 11, 2011
first foray into serialized fiction is a chess-themed suspense story by Bob
Basalla, also a satire of the Da Vinci Code. Welcome to the final installment. Be sure to read Part II and Part I.
As Robert Lackey crossed Superior Avenue and walked briskly toward the imposing gray building ahead he had no idea what to expect. The other person he had invited to be part of his investigative team had still agreed to meet him even after hearing about Professor Haniver’s obviously suspicious death. In fact, he had insisted on it, suggesting a public place well known to both as the safest location. And so Professor Lackey left the obscure, cash only motel he had hid out in for the past two days and made the two hour trip north to Cleveland and its public library.
As unsettling as Jenny’s death was, Robert was even more shaken that his brilliant friend’s final insight might have given him the key to cracking Staunton’s coded message. Only the equally brilliant colleague waiting on the second floor might be able to confirm his startling theory. After that, Robert figured he would have to seriously entertain taking his homicidal conspiracy suspicions to the police, provided he could frame them in some way as to not make himself appear a barking lunatic.
Quickly passing muster at library security, Robert ascended the worn steps to the second floor and the Special Collections Department. A hallway gallery of display cases showed the way to another realm, the world famous White Collection of Chess, Folklore and Orientalia.
John Griswold White, one of the co-founders of the Cleveland Public Library back in the 1880’s, was a wealthy local lawyer and philanthropist who developed a keen interest in chess, and especially chess books. In his long lifetime he accumulated the world’s largest private collection of chess literature, donating it all after his death in 1928 to the library he helped establish, along with funds to maintain the collection and keep it current and growing. If the rival collections in Moscow and The Hague were the Riyadh and Medina of the chess world, Cleveland would be its Mecca, a place where all serious chess players and researchers should make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lives.
Robert Lackey paused for a moment before opening the door at the other end of the display hall, reflecting on how special his chosen area of research was. It was said that more had been written about chess than all other board games combined. Whatever the truth of that assertion, one could hardly envision an entire wing of a major general library devoted to, say, backgammon.
Lackey stepped through the door into the White Collection’s inner sanctum. Some changes had occurred with the times. Wood library tables and old-fashioned card catalogs now shared space with computer stations. But the mystical aura of the place remained intact, he noted with pride. No librarian manned the centralized check-in station, Robert noticed, so he started walking around on his own, casually inspecting display cases of expensive and unusual chess sets while scanning the room for his colleague, who ought to have been there already.
“Robert! So glad of you to come.” The voice came from the direction Lackey was looking, but he failed to see from where until he lowered his gaze a bit. His colleague came around one of the card catalogs and rolled toward Robert in a manual wheelchair. Robert had forgotten. Although the two had corresponded frequently over the years, it had been a long time since they occupied the same room.
“Doctor Snowdon. It’s good of you to meet me, considering the circumstances.” Lackey proffered his hand.
Winslow Snowdon, second son in an upper crust English family, had his heart set on an historic chess career. As a young teen he became a strong chess master, vowing to be the first “home grown” English grandmaster since the title had come into official international parlance. Nobody doubted the prodigy’s chances or potential. But things seemed to fall apart for the phenom after a serious polo accident laid him up for half a year; Winslow never again regained that promising world-class touch. Still wishing not to give up on his only love, Snowdon diverted his massive intellect and energies toward becoming a prominent chess historian. Most importantly to Robert Lackey, British to the core Winslow Snowdon was the world’s leading authority on the life of his fellow countryman, Howard Staunton.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, and condolences for Jenny, Snowdon, looking remarkably like the actor Sir Ian McKellen from the X-Men movies, brusquely steered the conversation to the matter at hand. “Now, Robert, if you would please, lay out for me the information you have that my Mr. Staunton is involved in these nefarious proceedings.”
As they passed the still unattended curator’s desk and slowly toured the display cases on the window-lit side of the hall, Robert recounted how he had discovered, as had van Root before him, the hidden slips containing Staunton’s games with J. Hoogstratten (a name unknown even to Snowdon’s prodigious memory for obscure 19th century players) and the oddity of the one even up game they had contested. And how he thought Jenny, even in death, had provided him with the key to Staunton’s code.
“Now, whether Staunton arranged this opportunity with Hoogstratten or took advantage of one, I cannot say,” Robert continued, “but it is clear to me that he wanted to play one game, this one particular game, with this opponent. For a while I thought Staunton employed the unusual and extremely eccentric opening he used as a subtle way of mocking the weak Hoogstratten, but really, what would be the point of that? Or then again, maybe he wanted to try out an oddball debut on a lark. But then, why would someone over a century later be killing off people who might have come across this contest? Something about the second game of the second Staunton-Hoogstratten match was important. It was Jenny who proved that to me by reminding me of Howard Staunton’s connection with the writings of Shakespeare.”
Robert removed the little scroll from his sun glasses case and flattened it out on the library table in front of Snowdon. “Here,” he pointed, “the answer was staring at me all along. We learn here that Hoogstratten was from Denmark, what’s more, from a hamlet row in Denmark. Hamlet, Denmark, what could be more obvious after it is spelled out for you? As for ‘Match 2, Game 2,’ that translates into Act II, Scene II in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,’ a ‘row at the end’ would mean the last eight lines of that scene is where we are to look.”
“Ah, eight. A sacred number in chess, the count of squares in a rank or a file,” remarked the older man. Then Winslow Snowdon turned closed eyes toward the ceiling and summoned the appropriate lines from his impressive memory:
“I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil; and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yes, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this; the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Robert Lackey stood in awe. “Yes. You’re incredible.”
“To really understand Howard Staunton,” Snowdon explained, “I felt I had to share his love for the Bard, not the most onerous of tasks in any event. So what do you divine from Staunton’s selected Shakespearean passage? What new meaning does Staunton make these immortal lines speak?”
Robert soberly began. “Well, ‘the play’s the thing.’ Staunton was introducing a new, potent opening system that he felt sure would ‘catch’ the ‘king.’ But although this line was aesthetically pleasing when played out on the board, there was something devilish and unworldly about it, too. Staunton was showing some ambivalence about revealing this opening system, and I can only think of one reason why, even though I can hardly believe it.”
Winslow Snowdon’s piercing eyes trained on his colleague. “And why is this unusual opening so devilishly dangerous?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy. I thought it was only a legend.”
“Come on, Robert. You must say it to me first.”
“All right. I think this all has to do with the,” Robert took a deep breath, “the Holy Trail.”
Snowdon’s eyes shone and he broke out in a wide smile. “Excellent, my dear boy, excellent. I could tell early on that this was where the clues were heading. I just had to be sure you did as well.”
Lackey was nonplussed. “You believed in the Holy Trail?”
“It is not a matter of belief, Robert, it is a matter of fact. There is good historical evidence for the Holy Trail if one knows where to look.” Winslow Snowdon turned his gaze toward the window, and some far away point out over Lake Erie. “The Holy Trail,” he continued dreamily, “a legendary unstoppable line of play rumored to exist for hundreds of years. A system really, it would allow the first player in a chess game to force a decision in his favor whatever the defender might try to do. Knowledge of the Holy Trail would allow the possessor to be invincible with the white pieces.”
Robert broke into Snowdon’s reverie. “So you think Staunton used this game with Hoogstratten to demonstrate the Holy Trail?”
“I’m certain of it,” was Snowdon’s clipped reply as he wheeled over to a nearby display case. Then to Robert’s shock Snowdon lifted the apparently unlocked Plexiglas top of the case and reached in to take up the chess set inside. Reflexively, Robert glanced over his shoulder, expecting he’d see an objecting librarian running their way, but incredibly, they were still alone in the large room.
Snowdon rolled back to the table with the vintage Staunton chess set. He then began playing over the miniature game written on the sheet.
Lackey took the seat across from Snowdon. “Even if this game is supposed to feature the Holy Trail, it doesn’t prove anything. Hoogstratten was a fifth rate player at best, so he can’t have put the opening to a serious test. Like here,” said Robert, pointing to a particularly egregious move, “that just loses a piece. What if he defended better with his knight?” Robert substituted his move for Hoogstratten’s.
Snowdon paused almost imperceptibly before countering Robert’s try with a devastating invasion by the white queen.
“Oh, OK,” mumbled Robert. “Well, what about earlier in the game.” He rapidly retracted the last several plays. “I came up with this when I first went over the game.” It was a nifty idea involving a bishop. But again, a brief cogitation by Snowdon resulted in a clearly winning three move combination. Robert made several more attempts, many at even sooner points in the game, but Snowdon refuted them all with ease. Staunton’s quirky opening was more resilient and deadly than it seemed, thought Robert. It was at this moment, staring at the moves of Game 2, Match 2 on a real board, that Professor Lackey had his next startling realization. Staunton hadn’t placed the game scores from the first match with Hoogstratten randomly inside the white pieces of his chess set! The scores were placed in the order in which the white pieces were developed in this key game; the white queen’s knight first, the king’s bishop second, the queen third, and so on. Maybe this is the Holy Trail, after all.
Robert, in true chess player fashion, offered an excuse for his failures. “Even out of practice you’re still a far better player than I.”
“How true, of course,” said Snowdon matter of factly, with just the faintest wisp of arrogance. “Nevertheless, we have here an over the board example of the Holy Trail, a line of play whose secret, if revealed, would devastate the very foundations of chess. Imagine the Holy Trail being known to every master. Why, chess would soon be of no more interest than tic-tac-toe or any other fully solved game.” Robert noticed that Snowdon’s face had morphed into a rather pained expression.
It now occurred to Lackey that Jenny Haniver had it almost right when she speculated that this special game score was inserted in the black king as a way of dissing the opponent Hoogstratten. Actually, Staunton was in effect saying “up yours” to any and all players of the black pieces forevermore should the Holy Trail become known.
“So old Howard directed those of us who had proven ourselves worthy by solving his gantlet of clues to an example of the Holy Trail,” summarized Robert. “Why? If he didn’t want the Holy Trail to surface, why did he expose it even in this very hidden form?”
“Ego,” chortled Snowdon sarcastically, “why, ego, dear boy! I know it is highly unusual to think of great chess players as having large egos, but one has to allow for the exception in this case. An aging and infirm Staunton probably took the opportunity presented by this Hoogstratten fellow to actually play a game with the Holy Trail. Perhaps the fact that Hoogstratten was a Dane, and too weak a player to catch on to his better’s scheme, also helped stimulate Staunton to act. But then after having essayed the Holy Trail in a real game, the great man, in an unfortunate moment of weakness, felt compelled to brag about it. And so, in this very conflicted and indirect manner, Howard Staunton showed off his knowledge. Thinking about it, Robert, I can hardly blame him. If you were sitting on this greatest of all chess secrets, you would be itching to spill the beans, too, I daresay. As a matter of fact, this was not even the first time that Mister Staunton had publicly imbedded clues as to the existence of the Holy Trail.”
Robert Lackey sat bolt upright. “What?!”
“It’s true, Robert. He put the evidence there for all to see, right here in the shapes of his Staunton chessmen.”
His mind swirling, Robert fought to maintain a scholar’s skeptical stance. “Wait a minute, I thought that Staunton only lent his name to those newly made chessmen. He no more designed the chess set bearing his moniker than George Foreman did his grill.”
“That is the conventional wisdom, surely,” remarked Snowdon evenly. “However, I have uncovered certain evidence that indicates Staunton had a very great say so in the ultimate shapes of ‘his’ pieces.”
“OK. Show me.”
With the Staunton chess set between them as a convenient visual aid, Snowdon laid out his case. “As my fictional English compatriot, Sherlock Holmes might have said, ‘You see, Robert, but you do not observe.’ Notice first that in the standard Staunton design the pieces have various heights, making up a sort of skyline so to speak.”
Robert lowered his face to tabletop level to better appreciate what he was being told. “Go on,” he said.
“The shortest pieces on the first rank are the corner rooks, with the knights slightly taller, the bishops higher still, culminating in the queen and king, His Majesty being the apex. Two arcs, therefore, climb from the outskirts upward to the lofty domain of the royals.”
“And?” Robert’s side view of the black pieces was of course equivalent to Snowdon’s vantage from the whites.
“This represents the Holy Trail in action. All the other pieces converging on the hapless, helpless king from both sides, mimicking the pincer-like maneuver you saw first hand in the Hoogstratten debacle.” Winslow Snowdon shifted further forward in his wheelchair to better make his next points. “The Holy Trail is the road to victory, the road to the king. Now, where does one typically begin a journey? From home, of course. And home here is depicted by the rooks, which are shown in the Staunton design as castles with turrets. From there one needs a mode of travel for this ascending road, so next we have the knights. Note in Staunton’s design that the actual Medieval knight the piece was named for does not appear at all. Instead we only have his horse, or rather just a horse head bust, to serve as a vehicle toward victory. Next on the journey are the bishops, the gatekeepers to the royal realm. And what are their shapes in Staunton’s set?” A gnarled yet steady finger pointed at each cleric in turn. “It is true that their tops may be interpreted as a prelate’s miter, but they also resemble daggers, raised at the ready for their chance to strike down the monarch. And see here, at this notch, the supposed slit in the miter.” Snowdon rotated one of the bishops on its square so the slit was in profile for Lackey. “If one follows the line formed by the angle of this slit, where does one wind up?”
Robert’s eyes continued the imaginary line from the bishop’s slit up to where it intersected with one of the other chessmen. “It touches the cross located on top of the king,” he stated.
“Not a cross, no, Robert,” Snowdon rushed to correct him. “Look more carefully at how the line intersects that structure on the Staunton king’s crown.”
Squinting now, Robert saw what his colleague was getting at. “Well, from that angle it wouldn’t be a cross but an ‘X’.”
“Correct!” Snowdon smiled. “An ‘X’, a target, ‘X’ marks the spot and all that. What wonderful symbolism!”
“What about the queen, then?”
Snowdon’s demeanor immediately took a downward turn. “The Staunton queen may be the most subtly designed of all. You see, if her husband is deposed, who stands to gain? Who is it who will ascend to the throne and assume the power of all chessdom? The answer is obvious. So here the queen sits, adorned with an ancient scalloped form of a crown, both waiting and participating in the swift and sure assassination to come. You saw yourself, Robert, how devastating the white queen was in the Holy Trail. The Lady might not always deliver the final coup, but as you can readily appreciate, without Her Majesty’s power the Holy Trail would not be a viable attack.”
Robert Lackey threw up his hands. “All right, I’m convinced. Howard Staunton knew about the Holy Trail. But it’s still unclear to me why he would not want the sensational truth to come out, whatever the consequences might be to chess. But more important to me at this moment is: why are there people out there trying to kill me?”
Winslow Snowdon slowly shook his head. “Robert, my dear Robert, do you really think that Howard Staunton was the only, or even the first, to have learned about the Holy Trail? As a matter of fact he was merely one acolyte in a long line of members of a hidden chess society pledged to maintaining the secret of the Holy Trail’s existence. Surely, you have heard of Caissas Dei, haven’t you?”
Like the Holy Trail itself, there were long standing rumors in chess historian circles of an occult chess fellowship going by the name of Caissas Dei. But little more was known than that. And now here was one of the preeminent historians of the game flatly asserting that not only did such a group exist, but that it was likely seeking to do Robert Lackey in!
“What do you know about this Caissus Dei group, and aren’t you in just as much danger since you’re aware of the Holy Trail, too?”
“Yes, knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing,” said Snowdon carefully. “That is why I insisted that you be the first to bring up the subject of the Holy Trail. As I have learned, members in Caissas Dei, numeraries they call themselves, are forbidden to speak of the Holy Trail to outsiders or even allude to its existence. It is a very insular club. After you did I felt more comfortable speaking with you and sharing my research on these people. It would feel ever so good to relate my privately held results to another scholar. And really, Robert, what do we have to lose?”
“All right, let’s hear it all,” sighed Robert. Heck, he figured they could only kill him once.
So Doctor Snowdon began with the enthusiasm of a good teacher extemporizing on his favorite subject. “Behold, the greatest cover-up in board game history! When I first discovered that my Howard Staunton was involved with Caissas Dei and the Holy Trail, I resolved to learn all I could about both, in spite of any danger. It took many decades of meticulous research to piece it all together, but here it is.
“Caissas Dei was—is—a clandestine chess society formed in the late Middle Ages. Its name obviously invokes Caissa, the goddess of chess, a bold assertion that this pastime was uniquely special among the games. After all, how many other board games can boast of a personal goddess? Checkers? Risk? Candyland?”
Snowdon’s voice rose with each question until he practically bellowed the last, causing a jumpy Robert to once more glance around for the AWOL librarian.
Regaining some composure, Snowdon continued. “Caissas Dei came about as a direct result of the Holy Trail.
“Chess had been popular in Europe for centuries among the clergy and the nobility, especially at court; it was the Royal Game, don’t you know? However, despite its widespread approval as is, there were those who could not help but try to ‘improve’ on the game, make it faster, more exciting. And they did at first. The move of the chess queen was expanded from her original plodding role that relegated her mostly to hanging around deflecting attacks on her king husband. She now assumed wide-ranging powers in all directions, a combination of the motions of the bishop and the rook. And while His Majesty was still the most indispensable piece on the board, M’Lady was now by far the strongest. An even grander era had opened up for chess, which became more wildly popular than ever. Unfortunately, the apple thus bestowed to Eve also contained the seeds of destruction.
“One of those clergy I mentioned that loved chess was a brilliant Bavarian monk by the name of Marner, who had chosen a cloistered existence as a way of hiding the socially inconvenient fact that he was born an albino. This Marner was reputed to be one of the strongest chess players of his day.”
“I never heard of him,” Robert interjected.
“Not surprising since we do not have an extant score of even a single game played by him.” Snowdon replied. “Besides, since Marner spent his entire life in the abbey, those few he played against would have had to come to him. Be that as it may, Marner quickly became adept at this still relatively new style of chess, the ‘Chess of the Mad Queen’ as it was then known. And sometime, during those endless hours of solitary analysis likely available to him, this lone albino monk stumbled across the Holy Trail. It must have been devastating for him. He had just forever destroyed his only source of pleasure. European chess could not go back to the old ways; it had been too many generations to backtrack. Chess seemed doomed. But Marner resolved not to allow the Holy Trail to destroy his only love. Realizing that if he could discover the Holy Trail, then so could others, Marner founded a new order, a chess order, Caissas Dei, whose purpose would be to prevent the Holy Trail’s revelation.
“One obvious problem immediately presented itself. In order for someone to squelch a local cropping up of the Holy Trail, one would have to recognize the Holy Trail when one saw it. That meant that at least some of the initiates in the order of Caissas Dei would have to be deliberately instructed in the details of this dangerous debut! At first, this presented less of a problem than one might expect because most of the early numeraries naturally came from the ranks of the clergy, men used to taking blood vows—and keeping them. But slowly, out of necessity, the order branched out to lay persons so as to reach all across Europe. Such 16th century luminaries as Damiano and Paolo Boi were probably conscripts. One of Caissas Dei’s first victims likely came from this era in the person of Leonardo.”
“Da Vinci?” asked a startled Robert.
The older man gazed in pity at his fellow academic with that “He must really be losing it” expression.
“No, I am of course referring to Giovanni Leonardo of Calabria one of the Italian chess masters of the day. I’m sure you’ve heard of him, Robert.”
Lackey dumbly nodded at his silly error.
“He was poisoned, you know, apparently because he had reneged on joining Caissas Dei after having been shown the Holy Trail. A significant number of Caissas Dei’s victims that I could determine through the years were ironically created in this manner.”
“Staunton himself would have qualified for liquidation had he been caught,” Robert observed.
Snowdon’s expression hovered somewhere between a smile and a grimace. “Yes, I’m afraid my Howard was a bad, bad boy. But let me get back to my tale. Although Caissas Dei did not have to take action for decades, generations even, this ever watchful secret order had a demonstrable effect on the chess world and society overall. Consider the strain of misogyny that began to infiltrate chess circles around this time. Before then, noble women had played in nearly equal numbers to the men. But from here on women’s influence on chess became less and less. Was this a coincidence or did underground knowledge of the queen-led Holy Trail threatening to wreck the world’s favorite board game sour numeraries and their related chess groups on ‘wily’ females in general?
“Consider also other secret societies that were coming to the fore that seemed to cross-pollinate with Caissas Dei. Robert, do you actually believe that it is mere coincidence that so many of these conspiratorial associations followed Marner’s lead in referring to their heads as Grand Masters, a title later to be made official in the 20th century for its top chess players? And why is it that there are thirty-two degrees of freemasonry, just as there are thirty-two chessmen?
“As a final example of Caissas Dei influence, let me point out that it is not by chance that white moves first in chess. When the rules were codified transnationally in the 19th century Caissus Dei numeraries insisted upon the priority of white as a secret homage to their albino founder Marner. Such is the reach of this shadowy organization.”
Snowdon paused a moment for effect, and to make sure a boggled Robert was still keeping up.
“The modern era in chess brought exponential difficulties for those keeping the secret of the Holy Trail. A veritable Cambrian explosion of strong masters, those most likely to discover the Trail, came on the scene, and their numbers have been growing ever since. This necessitated a growing number of Caissus Dei Grand Masters in turn, with all the inherent security risks that entailed. To aid in keeping track of these new, far flung numeraries Grand Master Staunton instituted greater communications between Caissas Dei cells, including an English language coding system to obscure the correspondents from casual exposure of their identities. Let me show you.”
Winslow Snowdon removed a thin brown notebook from a rack attached to the side of his wheelchair and opened it to a particular page containing a list of phrases. It said:
ON SHADOW TRUANT
MAFIA WAR GUN
HE JOINS WILD GROWTH
INANE THRILL DEAL
KILL INHUMAN RAT MASK
DARK HUE RAT
GUY REVOKES SNOOZE KNOB
DIM MAN RIVAL
A VASTLY WEAKER RIOT
BRUTISH AIR URGE
DARN SOVIET BIND
I ROMP VIA FILLS
CHALKED UP MAN
O EXTERNAL VODKA
I SATAN REPORTING
CRAZIEST LOG VIGOR
NOW NOW, WILD SONS
RARE ATLAS BLOB
PECULIAR NOB FIND
A SPARK OR GRAVY
“These are Caissus Dei Grand Masters I have identified from the time of Staunton to the present,” stated Snowdon. “I make no claims that this is an exhaustive list.”
Robert Lackey came around the table to view the remarkable document. These people or their descendents want me dead!
“Of course,” Snowdon continued, “these are all English language anagrams for Caissas Dei member names. The first name on the list, ON SHADOW TRUANT, is obviously Howard Staunton himself.”
Robert slowly shook his head. “It wasn’t obvious to me.” Jennifer Haniver would have been an inestimable help in solving these, he silently lamented.
“I’ve solved certain ones, but many others remain uncracked,” said Snowdon. For example, SO MADLY unscrambled is Sam Loyd, and ARSON BUM is Amos Burn. But MAFIA WAR GUN remains a complete cipher.”
“Sam Loyd? The Puzzle King? A Grand Master in Caissas Dei? That’s really shocking.”
“It is neither just the best players that can potentially discover the Holy Trail, nor the top players alone that fill up the ranks of this secret society.” Snowdon, appearing a bit nervous now, began rolling back and forth alongside the library table as he spoke. “I’m convinced, these numeraries and their associated minions are responsible for the inordinate number of strange and suspicious deaths suffered by the great chess masters throughout the years. Did Paul Morphy, Staunton’s late era rival, really just drift off into insanity or did he have his brains slowly poisoned out of him? The same might be asked in the case of one Bobby Fischer. Did World Champion Alekhine just choke on some meat in that Lisbon hotel in 1946? I think not. Did Schlechter starve to death? Did Rubinstein, Rotlevi, Carlos Torre and others all just happen to wind up in asylums? The numbers of bizarre deaths and suspicious suicides among master level chess players are far too many to creditably mark down as coincidence. And on and on it goes.”
“Of equal interest are the top players who were spared by Caissas Dei. Apparently players such as Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker and even the ‘Chess Machine’ Jose Capablanca must never have approached the Trail too closely. Perhaps Capa really meant it when he repeatedly stated that he did not study much. Otherwise such a genius surely would have been a prime candidate to encounter the Holy Trail. And before you even look, Robert. No, none of these players appear to have had anything to do with Caissus Dei. None of them have anagrams on my list at any rate.”
Snowdon wheeled over to where a barely listening Robert Lackey was intently studying the anagrams as if his very life depended on it. “Here is another interesting story. See here,” he pointed to a name on the list. “MAVERICK HEN. I’ve decoded this anagram to be that interesting woman player of the 1930’s, Vera Menchik. What a marvelous and appropriate code name she chose! Unfortunately, Miss Menchik was accused of preparing to reveal the Holy Trail for money and so was killed conveniently during the London Blitz.”
His bony finger swerved to another name on the list. “And this one, I SATAN REPORTING, I have determined to be none other than the 1960’s era World Champion, Tigran Petrosian. He made a unique attempt to shield the secret by creating a successful style of play as far away from the Holy Trail as possible, hoping others would follow his diversionary lead. Alas, they did not.”
Robert Lackey’s hanks of hair were becoming matted down with sweat. “That is all well and good, Dr. Snowdon--Winslow,” he said. “You are a great scholar. But what I really need to know now is: are any of the names on this list alive today? Are they active in Caissas Dei today? Could I somehow contact them, negotiate with them?”
Snowdon reprised his grimace smile. “I completely understand, my boy.”
“I mean, do you think they would let me live if I took the vow and joined Caissas Dei?”
Snowdon’s lips were still drawn. “Doubtful. How could they trust you with two of your friends dead at their hand?”
“Yeah, I know,” said Robert resignedly. “It was just a wild attempt to avoid checkmate.”
“I sympathize completely,” said Snowdon. “Please take my list with you when you leave, which should be soon, I fear. The two of us should probably not risk being seen together for too long.”
Given what they both knew now, Robert could readily appreciate Snowdon’s sentiment. Their luck of being alone in the White Collection without even a librarian as a witness would not hold up forever. Gathering up the brown notebook, Robert thanked Snowdon for his gutsy assistance. “Why don’t you hold on to the Holy Trail game?” he offered his colleague in trade. “I can think of no safer place to hide it than with Howard Staunton’s biggest supporter.”
“Thank you, Robert. You are a true gentleman,” said the old man, already clutching the priceless paper roll to his chest.
As Robert stepped to leave he paused, stopping in mid-turn. “Computers,” he said to no one in particular.
“What was that, Robert?” called Snowdon in a strangled voice.
“What about computers? Why won’t they some day find the Holy Trail, by brute force if nothing else?”
“Too many ply, my boy. The Holy Trail is a system all of one piece. Even the calculating power of Deep Blue is far short of what would be required to devolve the opening from scratch. The Holy Trail stands as one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Too bad no one can ever know.”
Robert couldn’t decide whether he smiled at this last bit of paranoia because it was proffered by a serious academic, or because this other academic was now inclined to believe such ravings. In a surprisingly upbeat mood Robert Lackey strode off toward the exit.
But he hadn’t progressed more than a half dozen steps before a felt-handled, jewel encrusted, bishop-bladed ritual dagger plunged deeply and fatally into his back. Without speaking another word, Robert Lackey fell instantly lifeless to the White Collection floor.
Winslow Snowdon stood breathlessly over his victim, a full thirty feet from the wheelchair he had inhabited just seconds before. “The ruse always works,” thought the flushed and panting historian. “Nobody, outside of jaded fans of mystery movies or novels, ever suspects the cripple.”
Knowing it had to be done did not make it any easier for the old man; it was only his second ‘culling’ for Caissas Dei. The other had been a brilliant but still minor Lithuanian master. Snowdon could see much of himself in that young man. Had he not been recruited by Caissas Dei after his playing career had gone south he might have found the Holy Trail himself and been the victim rather than the enforcer. Instead, Winslow Snowdon had in a way fulfilled his childhood dream by indeed becoming the first English ‘Grand Master’ in the modern era.
Still, he felt a certain pity for his colleague, truly a victim of circumstances and forces far beyond his ken. How could Robert Lackey have recalled, if he had ever known, that Snowdon and Hans van Root were scholarly acquaintances as well, so that naturally the chess set restorer would have informed the leading historian on Howard Staunton of his spectacular find inside Staunton’s chessmen? Or that figuring out who had the crucial game score was childishly simple, considering van Root’s last text message? Or that when Robert contacted Snowdon, the old man knew that all he had to do was wait for the document to be delivered directly to him. The only loose end to be tied up was one Jennifer Haniver, which his minions effectively, if somewhat clumsily he thought, dealt with.
Kneeling over Robert Lackey’s still warm corpse, going through his pockets for the other Staunton papers, Winslow Snowdon was surprised at how thrilling it had all been. Not the grubby murder, of course, but what a rush it was to ‘sinfully’ speak about the Holy Trail to an outsider. And the chance that maybe, just maybe he might be found out. After all, hadn’t he recklessly shown Lackey the Caissas Dei anagram list? Had Robert been a whiz at solving them he might have noticed that NOW NOW, WILD SONS was an anagram for Winslow Snowdon himself! And that HE JOINS WILD GROWTH corresponded to John Griswold White, the reason this place ensconced in plain sight in the Cleveland Public Library was a hotbed of Caissas Dei activity, with initiates literally infesting the staff.
Maybe Winslow Snowdon wasn’t that much different from his compatriot hero Howard Staunton who also longed to shout to the world that he knew of a secret deadly to chess. Both men had in fact made two indiscretions in this regard. Staunton did it with his Staunton design chess set and the later clue-laden game scores. Decades before this current, somewhat defensible, vow-breaking revelation to Lackey, Snowdon had pseudonymously published a short story wherein a discoverer of an unstoppable opening, upon showing his find to a top master, was promptly dispatched with a sharpened bishop.
Of course, that was just fiction. Robert Lackey’s corpse was real.
Waiting upon his fellow numeraries to help him clean up, Winslow Snowdon, his emotions winding down now, would have to content himself with a job well done. The secret of the Holy Trail had been protected. The unknowing chess world could continue to entrance its devotees blissfully on into the future. At least until the next crisis…
Deeply imbedded in careful scholar Robert Lackey’s Faculty Tower computer, a series of cryptic clues awaited, ready to lead some worthy solver to a cleverly hidden cache of exact copies of Howard Staunton’s last known chess games, and the secrets that lay beyond.
Bob Basalla is a dentist from Ohio. He is also the author of Chess in the Movies (2005), which you can read more about on Jeremy Silman's website.