By: Bryan Tan
I was in a huge stadium on a cruise ship with more than forty million eyes staring at me as a bead of cold sweat rolled down my chin.
To my right were a dozen security guards and some yellow deterrent line. To my left was an audience of two million, mouths open in a suspenseful silence, leaning as far as they could in their chair to get a better look. In front of me was a young boy around the same age as me, and right before me was a twelve-by-twelve master board, one similar to sudoku.
The boy and I held our breaths, searching our board for the solution to the never-ending perplexity of black, white, and gray squares.
“This could be a first in history!” An announcer spoke into a microphone, hovering on a floating platform overlooking us two. “Never have we had a female finalist in this mastermind competition!” Then he added, “Both contestants are children, that is, twelve years old!”
That extracted a few claps and whoops from the crowd, but most remained silent in bewilderment. Only ten percent of the people in the rows upon rows of people could understand the tactics of the puzzle in front of us. The others were here to witness a potentially historic moment.
My eyes scanned and swept the master board, a dazzling sight with each row lined with white, gray, and black in that order. Each tile had one of the four symbols on it. It had either a cat, a dog, a cow, or a fish. The goal was to have one and only one of each kind in a row or column. We both had a limit of fewer than one hundred moves, which was why this challenge was difficult.
Suddenly, a sharp clicking sound came from the board of my opponent. A big screen above me suddenly shifted with a bright, dazzling light, with the numbers one and zero placed on the left and right sides of the screen, respectively.
A second sound followed the first. Then a third, fourth, and many more. I didn’t dare look up from my board as I focused on devising a quick and easy method of solving, my mind still unable to believe this was possible within one hundred moves.
The scramble of the board was randomized, and I had a hard time visualizing the moves I had to make. Although I had an IQ of 191, my weakness was thinking ahead. I could tell my opponent loved this particular puzzle because he was good at it.
I could hear him furiously clicking away at his board, breezing through the first seventy moves.
A flash of manifest understanding suddenly occurred to me. Something in my mind just connected two halves of a bridge, and I suddenly knew the answer to the problem. I did not need to rush, as from my calculations, my opponent was already at a dead end.
“There is no solution to this problem. It takes at least one hundred moves, and the limit is less than one hundred. Therefore, this puzzle is impossible.”
A hushed silence fell over the crowd, a blanket of shock and surprise. Some murmured amongst themselves, and others leaned into their seats with wide-open eyes.
The commentator seemed to have lost his balance, swerving around in his hovering platform. He was at a loss for words.
After a count of ten, the commentator grabbed a sheet of paper and skimmed what seemed to be an instruction manual. Finally, he announced, “I’m very sorry, but you are wrong, Alexia Sperilix.”
I was sure of my thinking, although my flash of sudden thoughts was gone, and I had quickly forgotten my train of thought. It was just something about that ding in my mind that connected scattered dots and linked forgotten information.
But I guess I was wrong for the first time in my life. Now I just had to wish my opponent would screw up so we could have a sudden death round. Glancing around in embarrassment, I realized a small din was growing in intensity.
My opponent had used up eighty-seven of his moves and was nearly finished, except for one thing: there was a small square in an undesirable spot, so he had to find a way to move it in just twelve moves and rearrange the other piece so it would swap its position.
With only a few moments of thinking, I could see it was impossible. My opponent knew this too, as he was now fidgeting, breathing heavily, and shaking his head in frustration.
Ha! At least now I know I’m not the only one who failed this one…
There were numerous challenges that I had not been able to solve before I got to this point. I would consider myself lucky from the moment I entered this competition. Still, I had survived simple and hard puzzles, some competing speed, skill, or both. I had also watched my opponent rise through the ranks, and I had just discovered right before the final round that he was the defending champion for the past three years—also a runner-up since he was six!
I suddenly felt dumb in front of the presence of the boy in front of me. When I woke up only a few hours ago, hopping around in my makeshift home made out of a cardboard box, pumped with alacrity for the final round, was I so confident in myself. Now I wasn’t so full of myself. Instead, I was doubting myself, looking down at my broken shoes, my toenails sticking out. It was the best pair of shoes I owned and the rag of a T-shirt I was wearing was the most formal one I could find.
But then I thought of my father beaming at me, full of pride, and I knew I just had to win this competition. My family depended on me since we spent all our money just to enter this tournament. If I won this entire event, we would never have to face poverty ever again, but if otherwise…
I was so focused on my thoughts that I had just realized the commentator was speaking. “The defending champion has used up all ninety nine of his moves, so now we will proceed to the next challenge.”
The boy blew out a breath, leaning back into his chair, now in a sullen mood.
The commentator clicked a button in front of his control panel and the board shifted in front of my eyes. Pieces disassembled and reassembled. Some fell into a small hole in the table, and new pieces came in. Soon, a smaller eight-by-eight board filled with alternating black and white squares appeared. I wondered what was in store for me now.
“Ha! This is just a regular chess board,” the boy exclaimed with a confident smile painted on his face. “Do you play chess?”
It took me a moment to figure out he was talking to me. Chess? What was that?
“Um, I guess.” I lied. I didn’t want to appear stupid in front of a bunch of people, so I would just have to make it up as I went.
It can’t be as hard as some of the puzzles I’ve done before, right?
“The rules of this game are simple. I see that the two players know of it already, so I will just proceed with the game format. This round will consist of five games of chess, each with a time control of fifteen minutes and an increment of ten. The first player to reach four victories wins, and of course, there are only five games so you’ll both have to come up with a unique strategy. If no one wins in five, we will redo the competition again, but the number of games will increase consecutively. For example, the first set of games will have five games and one will try to win four or five of the games. If one fails to do so, they will repeat the set except now you first have to get four wins out of six games, instead of five. If one fails to achieve the goal once again, the next set will consist of seven games, and so on. For the audience, I will be displaying the rules of chess and the live game on the big screen so you can pitch in the fun!”
“That’s it?” Phew!
“Well, there’s only one twist. And it’s that you will get destroyed by me!” The boy declared.
Before I could come up with a retort, the announcer said, “Let the games begin!”
My opponent had the white pieces, and I had the black pieces, as I later found out. At that time, I didn’t have a single clue that I had to hit the clock after I made a move. I lost my first game on time, not to mention making quite a few illegal moves when my king was in check, and I didn’t do anything about it. I also learned later that I had to either move the king, block the check or capture the piece that was responsible for the check in the case of a check.
After the first game, the boy said patronizingly, “You have to hit the clock after a move.”
I knew that, but believe it or not, I just kept on forgetting.
The commentator announced, “The score is one to zero!”
We reset the board and this time, I had the white pieces. The boy, sneering, said, “Your turn” and the clock started.
This time, I focused on blitzing out my moves, and I felt accomplished when I didn’t get demolished like last round because of running out of time. What I now thought was a bigger problem was that I didn’t know a strategy to checkmate, and my opponent did. I lost the second game in a little bit more than four moves.
“Scholar’s mate!” the boy announced after checkmating me. At this point, I had begun hating him. He was too arrogant and proud of himself, announcing obvious things that I didn’t need a reminder for.
A change of lights above me caught my attention. The technicians probably displayed some more advanced knowledge of this puzzle, chess. I glanced skywards out of curiosity.
“Scholar's mate: a four-move checkmate forming from the bishop and queen teaming against the opposing king, the mate occurring after the queen captures the f-pawn supported by the bishop. This particular mate often occurs in the beginner levels of chess, and often shows disrespect to the opponent as a quick end to a game.” I read to myself, heat rising to my face as I looked back at my opponent.
The third round began shortly after. I was determined to show that I was worthy of being in the finals. Later, I was told that I played with a ninety-eight percent accuracy, but in the game, I used my pawns as a snowplow, giving way to my minor pieces and later a smothered mate. I truly smothered my opponent with my raid of pawns, advancing into his territory with grace, each piece supported by one another. I crushed my opponent in just nine minutes, whereas usually, my opponent would take at least twenty-five minutes to beat me. My skills as a quick learner pushed me through one round. Now I just had to hope it held for the next few rounds or at least give me one draw.
“Wow, what a sight that was!” the commentator said. “The score is now two to one.”
The boy was now red-faced and fuming, although a moment later, he restored his serenity and aura of arrogance.
“I played easy in that round. I let you win this time, but now I’ll just win the rest of the rounds.”
The boy kept half of his promise. In the fourth game, with both sides teetering with around thirty seconds on the clock, I made a brilliant move, attacking his king and queen with my knight simultaneously. The pressure was high, and I used my only remaining piece, my queen, to continuously check the opposing king with only one defending piece, a rook. I automatically started rushing my moves, and I blundered my queen! The game resulted in a draw.
The score was two and a half to one and a half. I knew nobody could win this, so millions of tons of pressure were lifted off my shoulders.
The last of the five rounds resulted in another draw, ending the five rounds in a tie, at three to two. I felt like I just crossed over the biggest mountain in the universe. The big screen shifted again, and this time it said that after a round of chess, it’s a good idea to shake your opponent’s hand.
“Now that will conclude the first half of today’s show for the NMC!”
I happily offered a handshake to the boy, but he just slapped it away. Tears in his eyes, eyebrows furrowed, the boy got out of his seat and ran into the public restroom.
My hand stung, and the words “good game” died on my tongue.
“Well, there you have it! The two finalists, at their best! The next round will be tomorrow afternoon, same place See you there!” The announcer hollered into the microphone, trying not to stare at the figure of the boy slamming the door behind him. The announcer’s hovering platform swiveled in the air as if it had a jolly spirit of its own.