My potential client was middle-aged, of medium height and build, and wore a tee-shirt that read “Chess Players Make Good Mates” over a picture of a handsome man and a beautiful woman whose lower bodies were the bases of chess pieces and below “Blandsville Chess Club”.
“I'm Brook Castle and I'm organizing this year's tournament for the BCC. Do you play chess, Mr. Tuff?”
“Not since university.” Modesty prevented me from boasting about my feats - or feat. Modesty and reality. A friend of mine had been setting up a university competition, and he had thirty-one entrants. He needed one more so that each round would end with an even number of players and he persuaded me to enter. My opponent was a physics major who eliminated me in fourteen moves by some play called, I think, a “fool's mate”, but when he ended up as a runner-up, I felt some pride.
“Why do you need a private detective at a chess tournament, Mr. Castle?” Tennis fans are traditionally polite and well-behaved, but I suspected that compared to chess fans they where hooligans.
“We let fans circulate among the tables. Sometimes there is kibbutzing and tense nerves snap.” I tried to picture angry chess addicts throwing chess pieces at each other, the intellectual equivalent of a food fight, or hitting each other over the head with chess boards. I couldn't imagine it. “We want you to circulate and prevent problems.”
“I'm a non-violent detective,” I reminded Mr. Castle. “If there is any physical trouble, please be prepared to call the police immediately.”
“Another thing: chess is a slow game,” (even compared to snail-racing, I thought) “so how do you intend to complete the tournament in one day?”
“Each table has a stopwatch. A player has one minute to make a move or he or she is disqualified.” I had heard of fire-wagon hockey and racehorse basketball but it was the first time I had learned of Olympic sprint chess.
Mr. Castle went on: “The two favourites are Bobby Kasparov and Gary Fisher and with the system of seeding we are hoping for a Kasparov-Fisher final, but ...” he lowered his voice, “there are rumours of fixing”. I was shocked. A fixed chess tournament in Blandsville? Shades of the 1919 Chicago White Sox! It seemed impossible and if it were, it would be the easiest fee I had ever earned.
“We have sixty three entries and we need one more, so to cover your presence, perhaps you could be an entrant.”
I agreed. It would be a chance to atone for my university defeat. I did not ask where I would be seeded.
At home, I resurrected a dusty chess board and a set of chess pieces and a manual to remind myself how to set up the men, which colour moved first, how each piece moved, and the meaning of terms such as castling and capturing en passant. I hoped that playing chess was like riding a bicycle: once you knew how, you never forgot.