This story takes place in a hospital in Germany, in the middle of the 19th century and late closing of the 2nd World War. The 43rd World Junior Chess Championship had just ended in a brutal clash of spirits — and in the aftermath of all the excitement, came out the defending champion Rei, with the most unfathomable score anyone could imagine: 11 points out of a perfect 11.
This shocked the entire chess community. Never before in history has there been such a one-sided landslide. Maybe in an amateur or club tournament one could pull off a perfect score, but to do that in an actual world championship was, no other words for it... beyond human. Even when Rei won the championship last year, the best he could manage was 9.5/12; the year before that, 7/10. Rei’s skill level was rising at an alarming rate, faster than anyone could predict, and at just 16 barely turning 17, he was a textbook example of what you’d call “a child prodigy”.
This provided the perfect scoop for an uneventful time in the media industry’s life. Rei, much to his dismay, became a worldwide sensation overnight — in the span of just one week, he was invited to TV programs in all seven continents, got plastered on the cover of several international magazines, and was even on the verge of advertising some weird products he’d never heard of before, had he not the outright courage to refuse. He felt like he was on a blender, being dragged across the globe all while FIDE cared about nothing but grabbing as many future sponsors as it could find.
He was not particularly fond of the attention he was getting. To his mind, much like how a lumberjack earns money by swinging his axe, or how dancers get through by practicing their craft, he, too, was just doing the job he’s good at. He was not special among his peers. He was just a normal, young boy, born with retinal cancer... growing up in the suburbs of North Rhine Germany, and learning to play blindfold chess as the vision in his eyes was slowly taken from him…
While no one truly knows what Rei sees when he closes his eyes, Grandmasters agree that the “chess” Rei sees is vastly different from what normal players see. He was already ahead for his age before, but this past year alone he had accelerated faster than even the world's leading top 10 (back in their age) combined. Winners of the Junior World Championship are usually awarded International Master title (IM), but experts believe Rei has already breached GM level. They were eager to test this out.
On the evening of the 23rd, two nights after the news of Rei had blown out, an exhibition match was held with him playing a lineup of Grandmasters from Yugoslavia. Though they were retired and a bit old school, they can still pack a 2300 ELO rating even in today’s competitive environment.
The games were to be broadcast live on national TV, blindfold for the Grandmasters, and with five minute time controls. A special voice input computer would pick up their moves and display the corresponding position to the audience. Rei played a total of eight games, and at the end of the program, scored six wins and two draws. The Grandmasters were impressed by his talent, and declared his skill as genuine as can be.
Rei’s perfect game was no longer coincidence after that. His game had evolved far beyond the level of Grandmaster. Some surmise he could even give the current World Champion a run for his money, which was ridiculous in Rei’s mind... They probably just want to see him lose for once. Half true, but they say it’s the genius himself who does not realize how great he truly is. Even if Rei could not at the moment, at the rate he is going, he will surely grab the world title in due time...
If only he had that resource, but alas, as the days went by, the cancer that took his eyes had finally caught up to him. Much to the dismay of the soviet doctors, by the end of the year he had no more than a few months left to live, and with the end of that last Junior World Tournament, he earned himself a place in the hall of fame, as the only champion ever to have achieved a perfect score.
He was granted the honorary title, “Candidate Grand Master” (CGM), the first and only ever known usage of this special title.
And then he retired…
Many thought it was a shame his life must end so quickly. Many of his opponents were relieved he was finally out of the playing field. And many more were concerned of the gaping hole left behind, were convinced no one would be talented enough to carry the legacy. While most were divided, there is one topic in which everyone appears united on – that on the last round of Rei’s broadcast match, he pulled off the finest brilliancy he has ever played in his life – his immortal game, per se.
They say the ultimate goal for any chessplayer is to find his own "immortal game", the one game that is so timelessly beautiful it is comparable to a work of art. Only a handful of the strongest masters ever get to achieve this lifelong goal; and quite fittingly so, because the immortal game cannot be manufactured. It has to come from the heart, from every drop of sweat poured tirelessly into studying the game. An immortal game moves the people who watch it. It inspires people to journey in search of their own immortal game. Only someone who has spent a lifetime of dedication to chess, would have even the tiniest chance at this honor.
Rei recounts in an interview how, in that particular moment of the game, he felt the board act almost as if it was moving on its own, as if he himself were the piece being moved. He just saw all the pieces coming together, like parts of a puzzle, and watched those developments from afar.
Rei’s immortal game was unique, even among other immortals. It somehow breaks an unspoken rule of chess, one that even the most wet behind the ears amateur instinctively knows: that as the game progresses, you will lose more and more men.
It is common knowledge that pieces taken in Western Chess are effectively “killed off” and cannot return to play. Continuous killing of pieces will render both sides with too few men to command, so clearing off the board is a universal concept everyone should understand. The attacking player steers clear of piece trades, while the lagging, defending side forces an exchange asap.
Exchanging one piece, any piece, is not that hard... Even a rank amateur playing against a GM should be able to trade off some two or three pieces first, before eventually getting overpowered.
But Rei, for God knows how, pulled off an attack so fluid, so unrelenting, that not one piece was caught in an exchange. Rei’s pieces were literally untouchable; they could not be taken without exposing the enemy to even more danger, and it is for this reason that this game came to be renowned as a cult classic every beginner needs to know.
They say the most inspiring sacrifice is one where almost all pieces are annihilated, and the last remaining one still manages to land a one-in-a-million checkmate. There are countless immortal games which feature this motif, but Rei is the only one who has flipped this concept over its head: surely, the strongest sacrifice is the one which the opponent does not dare accept. A sacrifice accepted means the opponent is still retaliating. But a sacrifice declined speaks volumes on how lethal it truly is...
...Maintaining all seven pieces in an attack, this was not something that had been done before.
[Vaganian vs Kupreichik, 1974]
Rei had done something truly phenomenal. A perfect ending to an otherwise short-lived brilliance. And with that, windows shut and curtains down, Rei spent the rest of his remaining time, confined to a hospital bed, silently awaiting the time of his end.
He had quite the bit of free time to himself. Until then, to stave off boredom, his master, Amane, suggested he write a book about his 100 most memorable games, and when the time comes, she could try and get it published for him in the future. Short–lived as his career was, he has made a huge name for himself in the chess world. “I’m sure many would buy it without hesitation,” she said happily.
And so, not thinking bad of the idea, Rei considered finishing the book as a last rite before his death. "My 100 Most Memorable Games," by Rei Halltewider. Sounds like a good working title.
Still, he did not know how to write a book, and it did not help that he was being distracted every five minutes. He was in a private ward so most people were not allowed, but now that he was an international sensation, it also meant he carried the baggage that goes with it, a.k.a., hardcore fans thinking it would be a good idea to check on their idol in person. They mostly just made weird noises while in his room, and would leave once the intercom blared off and echoing footsteps of the security guards started its approach.
Some, he’d heard, would come up to the receptionist with the most ridiculous of medical emergencies, only to slip out of sight on the way to the operating room and wander accidentally into Rei’s ward. Those who were more daring, took it upon themselves to infiltrate via the air vents ‘espionage movie’ style. It amused him to see the lengths people would go to. It atleast helped take his mind off his impending death, and would you know it, some select few (after many failed attempts) managed to get permission from the hospital director – Keith for one, a budding sports journalist in training, self-proclaimed as Rei’s personal chauffeur, and whom, conversely, Rei thought, stretched the truth far more than the truth deserved.
“Shame,” he would say false condescendingly by the side of Rei’s deathbed, when five minutes ago, Rei was sure he was begging the nurses on bended knee just to be let in. “Shame on you for dying so young.”
“Uhm, I asked you here so you could help me with the book,” said Rei. “Plus, (and I know I’ve already told you this a thousand times) it’s not for me to decide how and when I die.”
“Rei… Rei my boy… Rei–Rei–Rei–Rei–” Keith chanted, akin to one who had deluded himself into thinking he’s profound genius, when all he did was put onion and garlic together. “Are you perchance aware of the tale of Hercules?”
“Legend says that he was the strongest man. The Twelve Labors of Hercules, iconic of the Greek and Roman mythologies, mark each one step by having Hercules perform the most exacting tasks imaginable to man. That was his duty – his destiny even.”
Rei sighed. “… And?”
“You, Rei. You could’ve been the Hercules of this world. You could’ve been the hero we needed. But instead–”
He shot a glowering look, (atleast that’s what Rei imagined) “You have neglected your own duty! Unlike Hercules, you chose the feeble warmth of death, over the well of knowledge and wisdom that you could’ve brought mankind. You’ve let us down. For that, you are no hero…”
Rei wasn’t really listening at this point and was back on the subject of his book. Keith had been trying to guilt trip Rei into living forever ever since last year, he’s not going to shut up no matter what he does.
“Why do you have to die now!!” Keith went on, drowning out the occasional Uh-huh’s and I-didn’t-think-that’s Rei absent-mindedly replied with. “Oooo~ how I’d long to break open your head right now and squeeze all that juicy info onto my records. Most of the FIDE executives were already expecting you to take the world title someday, you know. You were supposed to usher in a new era of chess! A new school!! How could you throw that away? You have any idea how much you’ve revolutionized chess as a sport??”
“No, (now shut up).”
“If it weren’t for you right now, chess would still be lumped in as a kids’ game along with Craps and Snake & Ladders. It’s only when you started winning tournaments with acumen that we got actual recognition, for, you know, playing an actual intellectual game. That was the first time in years that we had something to post on the sports column. For once, people were actually interested in chess, not just going to use it as next week’s toilet paper.”
Outside they could hear the rummaging of footsteps and screeching of medical equipment. Craps is a kids’ game? thought Rei silently.
“–Back in the days, the only way we could hope to get publicity was if the FIDE chairman danced naked during an NBA game and made a full-court shot using his feet. That’s even hoping they censor his genitals instead of his fat face.”
“Well, don’t get me wrong,” said Rei, unable to concentrate. “I just play chess because I want to, for myself and not for anyone else’s sake. If anyone’s making chess interesting here, it’s the writer who's doing it.”
“Oh please…” dismissed Keith, chucking his notepad and helping himself to an apple Rei had been given. “It’s the content that makes the writer, not the other way around. I wouldn’t make half the readership I have right now if it weren’t for any of your, *ahem... novel wins.
“Take Seed no. 4 for example. From the last junior championship... I could write tons and tons about his games, and a walrus would no sooner club himself to death than read that drivel. I hate that guy,” he said miserably. “...Plays way too safe.”
“I thought a journalist was supposed to be objective.”
“You know it’s true!” said Keith taking a huge bite. “He only got 3rd place, mphh, because of that static play of his. And to think the Caro-Kann used to be my favorite opening…
"But Seed No. 6. Oh boy… Oooohbbbbb —Boy!!” Keith’s breathing was starting to get ragged now. "Oooo~ I’m having goose bumps just thinking about it. He was feisty, he was going for the kill! You’d think he’d stop playing risky openings after it lost him half his games but no, he wanted to take you down!!”
“Calm down. Easy breaths…”
“And it was the last game, too. With you having won every game, the pressure was on him now to prevent you walking off with that perfect score. It definitely would’ve had a nice ring to it. I can see it now. ‘Chess Prodigy Wins 10 in a Row, Trips Over at Final Game. Subheading: The one who scored against him was not even within the top three’. That would’ve made headlines for weeks. Fame and glory, all in one swoop. Too bad it didn’t work out for him, but it almost did, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, he’s an interesting fellow indeed. He’s like a wild animal on the board.”
“Hard to believe he's turned professional that way.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Rei nonchalantly. “He does have talent. He’s only rough around the edges now, but in a few years’ time, he’ll have his flaws sorted out. Hey, maybe he could even beat Seed 4’s Caro-Kann you hate so much.”
At that moment, the door swung open. A girl about the same age as the two was standing right outside the sliding doors. She had bright, lavender hair flowing vividly down to her waist, a choker fit snugly on her neck, and a green plaid beret perched on top of her head. It would’ve been a fashionable look, but just somehow went uncanny with the out-of-place nurse uniform she was wearing. She had slightly pale lips, and equally light skin, like a princess’s and a doll’s. Her eyes shone deeply with the air of fort resolve, and her black feathered earring, which hung gently from one ear, made a striking contrast on the whiteness of her cheeks.
“Speaking of things to be hated,” prompted Keith. “What's this supposed to be? Some sort of new cosplay?”
“Beat it, Keith. I’m here on official business.”
“Oh my heavens~,” he said in a fake terrified voice, “Official bee-zee-ness. Pfft, as if this isn’t already fishy enough… You’re just here to poison his food, aren’t you!”
“I wouldn’t poison someone who’s already dying, dumbass,” she said, starting to unbutton the nurse uniform donned over her shirt.
“What’s with the outfit then?”
“The guards wouldn’t let me in so I had to improvise,” she said as though this happened every Tuesday. “Though, I guess I could’ve just asked for a permit... but why make life hard, right?”
“You snuck here,” he said in the most unsurprised voice. “Trespassing and attempted murder.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault people are easy to dupe. And before we point fingers here! Rei would die first from comatosing under all your boring ass stories.”
“Heheh~ sound familiar, Rei? It’s not my fault I’m gonna die. Psshh... (It really isn’t, though) honestly, you two are both peas in a pod…”
They sat waiting for the girl to take off her disguise, but it was clear she was having difficulty. The third button had lodged incorrectly into the fabric, and any more effort on her part might tear the costume apart.
“Argh. Damn thing’s stuck!!” she said as she struggled.
“Maybe you don’t have to take it off,” suggested Keith.
“Hah???” she said, her face darkening with the utmost disgust. “I’d rather eat a rotting sea slug than cosplay for the likes of you.” She stared at him like he was overturned garbage, but as that was something he was a bit too used to at this point, it didn’t really matter.
“You’ll need to change back into that uniform anyway when you leave, why bother removing it?”
“I’ll jump out the window,” she said. “Wut, you think I can’t manage three floors?”
Typical champions, thought Keith. Hard to checkmate in an argument as they are in a handicap game.
“But just look at Rei!” he said, suddenly grabbing Rei in a headlock. “He’s sooo happy to see such a beautiful girl in a nurse outfit. It’s like a dream come true for him~”
“I’m blind,” Rei reminded him as he struggled, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“But you can imagine it right? (no.) Picture it! That perfect, ever pure tapestry of unadulterated white: (what’s white?) – nurse uniforms! Why, it's the heart of every young boy’s dream! Standing right now in front of you, a fine young lady dressed in the finest little outfit you ever did see — that plump cotton that laces just ample around the chest, delicate fibers that easily take the curves of the body, and what’s this? Not just any plebian lady, why, this is the great Anastasia we’re talking about here!! Come to nurse us back to health after a day’s hard work.
“I see you’ve awoken, sir," he immitated in a falsetto voice, "I hope it doesn’t bother you that I’ve already taken your temperature while you were asleep. Would you like a sensual massage as compensation? Or perhaps you’d prefer a hot, wet, sponge bath instead? Or, if you’re low on nutrients… I could always nurse you back to health with my sweet, supple, lu–”
“Are you stupid??” she interrupted, “I would never think of saying anything like that!”
“Yeah, but Rei probably would. Ain’ that right, Rei?”
“No,” he said fixedly.
“…You are a man, right?”
“I think the way you define ‘man’ is dangerously different from everyone else’s,” said Rei uneasily.
“So, you don’t think Anasthese looks good in a nurse outfit?” said Keith innocently.
“Of course not.”
“Oh no! You made her cry~”
Shhhhh, he gestured to her holding up a finger. I’ll give you five bucks if you keep quiet, he mouthed silently, Canadian bucks, “Yeah! She’s crying because you hurt her feelings!!!”
Anasthese looked at Keith’s sniggering face as though he was scum that got mixed into the human race by accident. Twenty.
“Don’t cry,” Rei stiffled, “Ummm, uhh, I uhh…”
Just went up to thirty.
Ten bucks, American.
“…I totally want to wake up beside you, and, and to be nursed by you, and uh, and all those other things Keith said. So stop crying, okay??”
Much to her disbelief, her chest somewhat tightened at the mention of these words, and even though it’s the middle of winter she found her face getting hotter by the minute.
“Is– Is that true?”
She considered for a minute.
“…F– fine! If you want it that badly, I’ll keep wearing this uniform then. But just for today, got it? This is a one-time service!”
“Pf… pfffft….. Hmph!”
Anasthese shoved an apple up Keith’s mouth before he could say anything. He didn’t have the chance to retaliate on account of the imminent death glare and the I’ll–kill–you–if–you–say–tsundere vibe eminating from it.
“Ah, Keith just told me he had some other business to attend to,” she beamed, with eyes intent to kill, “Don’t you, Keith? Don’t you have those errands you need to run?”
“Ah, yea,” he said, stomach turning inside out. “I just remembered I have that thing… with the… uhm, uhhh… the president. And, uhh…”
And Rei heard his voice trail off, followed by a violent closing of the door behind them. Footsteps coming back and a loud thump, Anasthese then settled herself on the foot of his bed, the two of them alone at last.
“So,” Rei asked, “what brings you here?”
“What do you think,” she said.
“I don’t have a board.”
“No need. We’ll play blindfold just like before.”
“Are you sure?” Rei asked. “I don’t want to give you a disadvantage or anything, but–”
“We’re. Playing,” she insisted.
Feeling as though he had little choice in the matter, he finally consented. They played through the whole afternoon.
“e4, e5, b3…”
As the games progressed, the reigning junior champion racked wins like pancakes on a Sunday breakfast. In the course of three hours, the score had reached 9 wins for him — no losses and 5 draws.
Rei felt bad. He could only imagine what face she’s making right now. Does she hate his guts? Or perhaps she’s too absorbed in the game to think of anything else. Rei hoped it was the latter.
They went on…
“No!” Anasthese would suddenly break off every now and then. “I didn’t tell you to go easy on me, we’re doing this again!”
“From the start!!”
And no matter how he argued the result would always be the same. The sun waned; they played long into the hours of twilight. It was only after about five gruelling hours that they finally stopped. Anasthese scored zero, no wins out of 25 games. If Rei had felt bad before, now he felt worse. He was left with the burning guilt of not letting her win even once, but he knew she’d never let him go easy on purpose. She would never count that win as her own. That’s just how she was.
They sat in silence, Rei not really knowing what to do or say. It was a very quiet night in times of December, and even quieter that year now that he had the thought of death to think about. He did not want to die, even though in a weird way, he was not afraid. It’s just that he wanted to keep playing chess more; he wanted to play with people more. Playing with Anasthese reminded him just how much of world he’s going to miss out on.
The silence kept on.
Rei could pretty much guess why Anasthese was there. She wanted to tell him something, the game was just a roundabout excuse for creating the opportunity to do so. That, one could say, is also just how she was.
Rei could not make out what expression she was wearing. The only things he could hear were heartbeats out of sync, and some soft breathing that hardly told him anything. He did not regret being blind, but sometimes he wished he could see her. Maybe that would make things easier for the both of them.
“Something bothering you?” he finally asked.
She didn’t speak, and silence fell again. That was always how Rei remembered her. She would never speak when it mattered the most. She was the type to never let her feelings out, and right now, she probably couldn’t speak to save her life, because it’s killing her…
The evening grew – the doves that were scavenging streets below have all but migrated south, and the snow fell on city rooftops with the loudness of a passing wind. There are a lot of things Rei doesn’t know. There are certainly a lot of things Rei doesn’t know about Anasthese. But still, he had known her for as long as he can remember, so it didn’t take long for him to figure out.
“You’re sad, aren’t you?” he said after a pause.
“Of course I’m sad...” she said absent-mindedly. “When someone dies, it’s only natural to feel sad for the–”
“No... I don’t mean for me. You’re sad for yourself…”
She didn’t say anything, and he knew. She didn’t want to be the one to say it. She didn’t want to acknowledge it.
If anyone were to play the world’s reigning champion right now, and lose, that wouldn’t be the biggest of a deal. It’s "the" world champion after all, no shame in losing to the best of an entire generation, and no hard feelings regardless of how horrible it turned out. But the same thing cannot be said for Anasthese. After all, Anastasia Vanloic Elezine (sorry I just mashed my keyboard)…
…was only the reigning junior champion for the female division.
He had known her for quite some time now. Ever since their first encounter at the 1946 Olympiad, he immediately saw her as possessing unnatural talent. He was representing Germany, and she was representing Croatia. They rarely faced off because boys’ and girls’ teams were separated, but they had a good idea of each other’s strengths. As both champion title holders, they watched each other’s games, and seldom met in passing on their way to their matches.
She was beautiful…
Rei clearly remembered that the board she’s playing at would always be home to endless murmurings. She was a mixture of several foreign blood: part Croatian, part Romanian, part Swiss and part French. Even though there were people from all over the world there, she was a foreigner to every foreigner present, and so people could not help but pay attention to her. You’d know exactly when she was playing, because you’d hear it even if your table was all the way across the other side, and you’d immediately know the match was over once the noise settled down.
That’s how famous she was. She was the very idealization of a world’s woman – smart, independent, tact, fluent in more languages than Rei could count. She does not take pride in her victories, and even when she doesn’t like the attention she’s getting, she puts on the facade on what proper etiquette should look like. She’s like a princess built straight out of royalty.
But as beautiful she was in how she looks, (Rei doesn’t know so he can only imagine), even moreso is how she plays.
Anasthese was perhaps one of the most interesting players Rei has met during his career. It already goes without saying that she is especially talented, (best in female division after all), but her talent goes way further than most people think. He’s studied her games intensively, and from what he has seen, the way she plays is a very carefree and uninhibited style.
It was quite different from what he normally saw in standard play. It was unorthodox, but not weak; unplanned, yet not baseless; impossible to copy, impossible to learn from... She can change her play depending on the flow of the game, in styles completely and utterly customizeable as her own. He would say she’s a rule breaker, but even that's an understatement. If he had to put a finger on it, she makes the rules her own.
She pulls out ideas from thin air, ideas that would seem suboptimal at first sight, but would later prove stronger than it looks. They should not work, but by some unknown mechanism, they do. She can spin her own twists on already existing ideas, something he, who was so heavily grounded on methods, had never seen before in his life.
He has no doubt he'd lose games if he started playing like her, but Anasthese, who always shows the most unyielding confidence and faith in her moves, never fails to prove the correctness of her choice.
And that piqued his interest. The more he studied her, the more he saw chess as a legitimate form of art. Every game against her was a fresh look into chess, and her greatest strength, as was proven countless times to those who’ve faced her, was how she never doubts for a second her own style of play. Her faith in herself transcends a monstrous level, and that intensity bends the game almost to her bidding. She was one of the few people, whose skills Rei truly acknowledged...
But that was it. He only acknowledged her... as someone who was interesting, nothing more... And that was the one thing Anasthese hated the most.
If there is one thing Anasthese firmly believes in, it’s that men and women are equal on the board. There should be no intellectual disparity between the genders, nor should the game lean favorably towards one specific group. This is not a physical sport. It's undeniable fact that men outrank women by an average ELO of 200, but at the end of the day, these are all just statistical averages. The answer was simple: she just had to be the best player in the world. Ever since she was a kid, Anasthese had one goal and one goal in mind – to prove that no man can beat her. Because no one can dare say men are better, if there exists one woman whom no man can beat.
She took this to heart wherever she went. Long before she was a champion, long before she even made a name for herself — when she was just one face among the countless faces of the amateur world, she would always sneak up on men’s tournaments and disguise herself as one of the contestants. It was the perfect playing field. She would pretend to be one of the boys, sign up, lay low, and then give everyone the beating of their lives – only to reveal at the last second that he was a "she" all along, and that everyone had been decimated a mere little girl.
This went on for a long time, and the disguises varied with each tournament. Blitz or long games, she would go on to win all of them under an anonymous name. She felt it was her mission to tame these male beasts on behalf of all female chess players, and no one ever suspected her of being a girl thanks to her on point disguises. She chose them very carefully. Even in times where she could have entered easily into the female category, at great risk she would register under the pretense of being a boy. That was one thing she could never resist.
Her trademark delinquency became so well-known in fact, that routine checks for gender became standard for tournament entries, (although this too became obsolete later on because the players felt uncomfortable). Eventually FIDE representatives had no choice but to recognize her skills; as much of a troublemaker she was, she still possessed great talent that comes only once a generation. She was given a grant, (plus whatever private demands she had with the federation), travelled the world with the committee’s financial aid, and was given formal tutelage under wing of the most renowned Grandmasters.
That’s when she truly became the best in the field. The moment she set foot in the professional world, none of the girls (she went easy) and none of the boys (them she destroyed) could best her. She was already a genius in her own right, but add the priviledge of formal tutoring, and she was invincible. She learned formal systems and anti-systems, proper techniques, theory, development and practical applications. Combined with her own personal insight she was unstoppable. It was the birth of a new Anasthese, completely removed from the one who went crashing tournaments years ago. In terms of skill, anyway...
For even after all that training, she never lost her desire to duke it out with the guys. True to her nature, she believed this to be the simplest, fastest and only way of disproving the myth. If the strongest player could be a girl then it doesn’t matter what the statistics say, the "strongest player" is a girl. And by that point she was rightfully miles ahead of everyone else. If there is no one who can beat her, then no one would dare say men are superior, right? Right? All she had to do was make the headlines as the official number one. That’s what she thought. Until she met Rei…
She could beat anyone among her peers, blindfolded, listening to the news, and sipping tea, regardless of who they are or whom they studied under — but for the first time in her life, she found someone who was even farther ahead of her, by just as much as how far she is ahead of everyone else. During a live exhibition match between the two champions, for the first time in her life, she tasted defeat... He was different from all the others. He was special.
She had never known anyone could be this strong. And similarly, Rei had not seen a player as flexible as her. One an unstoppable force, the other an immovable object. To her, Rei was the final obstacle standing between her and her dream, the final enemy that she needed to defeat.
It’s not that Rei is undefeated. Even he has some recorded losses, but that only happens when he goes easy on purpose, or when he tries to experiment. As far as everyone knows, once Rei takes the game seriously, a draw comes rarer than a royal flush. He becomes "invincible". That’s what she wanted, that’s why she considered him her rival. These two were undoubtedly the king and queen of junior chess. Their skill lies a whole world apart from the next highest prince or jack.
But even then, Rei was still on an unattainable level for Anastasia. His skill lay far beyond everything she could ever imagine. Even though she tried everything she can to beat Rei, there was barely any dent made in the legs of his throne. To him, even she who was a champion was just some small insect buzzing along – a flick of the hand, and that’s all it takes to end the nuisance.
So it sucks for her, than even though she was a fellow champion, she couldn’t hold a candle up to him. He probably could have let her win, but Anastasia did not want that. It’s meaningless to beat Rei if he's not fighting at full power. She has to prove female superiority by being the very absolute champion, no if’s and no buts.
So, reluctantly, Rei does play her at full strength. He plays her like he plays no other, as if his life was on the line. She has never once won a game against Rei. She can barely even secure a draw. Even when she gave it her all, even when it was the only thing in the world that mattered to her, it didn’t make the slightest difference... The king’s rule is absolute.
She hated him. Not for always beating her, but for dying. She always thought the day would come, when she could surpass his godly play and prove that she is the rightful number one. But it didn’t come. How many nights has she spent sleepless trying to come up with a strategy to counter Rei? How long has she come home to a cold meal, frustrated at being unable to show any progress from the day before? She’d lost every single game, and now that Rei has reached the end of his life, she’s lost all chances of surpassing him.
She will never be able to prove herself worthy anymore. She will always just be second best to Rei; and Rei will have died not having anyone worthy to take his crown from him. The world will never know of the true limits his play could be, if he had the chance to grow up.
“...The world will never be the same without you,” she finally said after a long silence, though it sounded more as if she was talking to herself than to Rei. “It’s going to be a lot more boring with no one else around. When you die, there will be no one left to beat me, and you will die not having anyone to beat you your entire life.”
He did not know what to say. He always knew Anasthese wanted nothing more than to surpass him, but he never really understood the depth to which she ached for this. If he could stop death just by wishing so, that would be great.
“You don’t regret ever challenging me, do you?” he finally said when he couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“Of course not…” he smiled. “I’ve known you for a long time. You don’t ever stop to regret the choices you make. That is clear both over the board and out.”
“Yeah... I just wish I had more time... Wish you had more time, rather… Not like there’s anything we can do about it now, right?” she laughed painfully. “So, what’re you up to this evening?”
Rei just noticed they hadn’t eaten anything the whole time, but even so, he could not feel the slightest pang of hunger.
“Hmmm… Amane’s coming over later I think.”
“I better go then. Wouldn’t want to intrude…”
“Oh? That’s too bad. I could really use some help on this book,” said Rei, holding out the My 100 Most Memorable Games that had been left unattended since noon.
“Let me see that.”
Feeling that there was nothing else to do, Rei handed her the Braille raised dots.
“Most Memorable Games. 3rd Place: Rei vs. Siedel. Linares 1947.” Anasthese looked closer. “What the… 3rd???”
“People keep calling that my immortal game but it’s really not. It’s just a good game that happened to get a lot of publicity, that’s all.”
“Are you kidding me???” she said incredulously. “If that still didn’t fit your standards for an immortal, I don’t know what will…
“2nd Place: Rei vs Anastasia. To be filled. Circa 1943.
“...Really?” she said with a voice full of disappointment.
“You’d pick a game against me over that brilliancy???”
“Well, it was a memorable attacking combination, but you have to admit, it was only possible because he made a lot of mistakes defending. Just a fluke on his part. He was retired so his defenses were a bit rusty; to be fair, if you were the one playing in his place you would have defended more accurately.”
She tried to sound as unconvinced as she can. As happy as that made her for a second, it bothered her that Rei would choose solidness over a good attack.
“Who’s number one then?” she said flipping through the pages.
She had expected Amane. It’s every child’s dream to beat their dad, and every student’s dream to beat their master. Anasthese had never known if Rei actually won against her, but if that’s so, then that would certainly fit every definition of a memorable game.
You can imagine her surprise then, when the name that cropped up was something she absolutely couldn’t recognize.
“Rei vs Net. Somewhere in Russia. Cropped 1939.”
“Eh?” She took a minute to process the game transcript. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, he was another student Amane picked up. Very interesting fellow,” he said jovially.
“…is my immortal,” he finished.
Anasthese took a good, long hard look at the game, with trembling hands, scrutinized it closely, after a few seconds, turned to Rei. “Are you pulling my leg? This is terrible.”
Anasthese expected a "sike" from him coming any moment now, but instead, he was smiling with the biggest smile she had ever seen him make. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, for starters,” she said, fully irritated now, “This pawn sac on move 10 here.”
“I… I don’t even know what to say. He was bargaining on the idea that you’d take with the Knight. Sure, that might’ve worked for under FM level, but all you had to do was ignore it, and this trick completely falls flat.”
“I see,” said Rei, still clearly enjoying himself.
“And here…” she said pointing to move 30, “He tried opening the f-file for counterplay, but all that did was backfire even more. And don't get me started on this mess of an endgame. So many inaccuracies... So many unsound moves!
“How can you call this your immortal?," she said, throwing the manuscript at him. "This has to be the weirdest style anyone’s ever played in. It’s like he’s not trying to win!"
Rei looked like he's trying not to burst now.
“What’s so funny?”
“No, pfft… It’s just that, ff… a lot of what you said was exactly the same impression I had of him as well. Glad to know I’m not the only one.”
She raised a brow. “Huh?”
“Net is an enigma…” he said once he calmed down. “His chess is far different from yours or mine. It’s not something that can be put to words or measured in ratings. I guess you’re right in that he doesn’t want to win, if we’re going to be technical about things."
Rei caressed the manuscript longingly as if it were a pet he had once lost. "His play is beyond normal logic. It’s not something you can apply to a tournament, that’s why it’s hard to understand at a glance.”
“It’s hard to explain…” he said, smiling to himself. “His style is not something that can be compared with anyone’s, so frankly, I don’t have the words to describe it. You have to play him yourself to find out.”
“Still, why this game?” she said exasperated. “It’s so bland and lifeless... Look, I get that he’s your friend and all, he can take first place if he wants. But come, on! Surely you’ve had more interesting games than this, right? Maybe you have two or three better games with this Net guy than this pile of crap? This is bad publi—”
“There is none.”
And in a tone that showed no doubt or uncertainty, Rei answered with the last words Anasthese expected to hear.
“—Because that’s the first and only time I’ve ever won against him.”
The atmosphere sounded like it had been cut by a butterknife.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added hastily. “I did win during all our practice games, but those were the games that didn’t count... Whenever we kept score, I could never, ever, outplay him. My records are officially; 109 losses, 247 draws, 3 wins.”
Anasthese sat there frozen, unable to process what she was hearing. Someone beat Rei? A hundred times???
“Two of those wins don’t even count…" said Rei abashed. "Amane just counted it because she felt sorry for me and told Net to stop bullying me halfway through the game.”
“Wait. Is this— No... Is this all true??? Someone actually beat you? Without you going easy???”
“More times than I’m proud of, yea…”
Her face lit with anger. She knew he was probably just being tact, but she took it as an insult that Rei would insinuate someone else had beaten him — had beaten her to the punch, when all her life that’s what she’s been struggling to do.
It would take an immensely savant person to be able to pull that off, but that’s not even the point of it. All her life she wanted to beat Rei, because she believed Rei to be the best. He was supposed to be the last obstacle standing between her and her dream. If there was anyone better than him, then all that work would’ve meant nothing, and the real punch was that, if someone really could beat Rei like such, that means whoever it was could also use Anasthese as a mopping tool however they want.
And that was one thing she would never acknowledge.
Anasthese was about to express great retort, when the doors of the hospital swung open once more. Entered an airhead–looking lady, with short messy blonde hair that looked like she just got out of bed, light blue eyes that resembled the ocean and a brand of bright red spectacles draped over them. She was wearing an overgrown scarf over her pink winter coat, and on her arms she carried a bouquet of freshly cut roses.
“Domo~” she greeted merrily, still with bits of snow falling off her head and shoulders. “Oh hello Ana, didn’t know you were coming.”
“Ah, no,” she said hastily as the Grandmaster strode past. “I was, I was just about to leave…”
“No need to be shy, we’re all family here,” said Amane, radiating the air of motherly love she had been most famous for. “So how’re we doing, Rei?”
“Fine,” he sighed, “Nothing new to report.”
“I see. That’s good to hear,” she said, settling the flowers into a clean vase.
Amane, then currently ranked 3rd strongest Woman Grandmaster, and 16th strongest Grandmaster overall — was considered to be the best chess coach in the world, and so happens to be Rei’s personal trainor. She has travelled all over the world, giving lectures and seminars to would be chess prodigies. She takes a lot of students under her wing too, though most of that is now outshined by her brightest jewel, Rei.
It’s true that Rei would not be where he is now if it wasn’t for her teachings. Her coaching skills are top notch, and she herself has been a regular participant in the Candidates Tournament during her prime. She has all the knowhow of surviving professional chess. If one is aspiring to reach the title of Grandmaster, her personal lessons are the quickest way to go.
“By the way,” Rei mentioned before he forgot, “I’m thinking of bailing on that whole book project.”
“Well, Keith proved to be of no help,” he said disappointed. “And seeing as how I know about writing just about as much as I know about making hotpot, I have low expectations on the quality of this product.”
“Is 100 games too much for you? We can reduce it to 70 if you like?”
“Fine,” she sighed dejectedly. “My 60 Most Memorable Games then. But have you atleast thought of what your top 20 games will be?”
“I have top ten.”
“Let me see…”
She glossed over the list he handed. “Teh, these are all against Net! Mou~ >.<”
Anasthese felt curious at mention of the name again.
“It’s my most memorable,” said Rei as–a–matter–of–factly.”
“Nooooo~ Readers won’t be able to relate to this at all~ (Imagine her trying to be stern here, but all that’s coming out is cute anime waifu voices)
“Plus! You’ve lost every single one of your games with him. How do you think the publishers would feel if they see this?”
“I didn’t lose all of them, I won!” he said, indigantly.
“Once is more than enough…” he said smugly.
She sighed. “Need I remind you? That you only won because I gave you a hint? You didn’t win again afterwards, right?”
“That’s because he was a sore loser and wouldn’t play with me anymore,” he complained.
“Trust me, you would’ve lost if he had.”
Rei couldn’t find the comeback for that.
“Wait! You’re telling me this Net guy actually exists???”
The two stopped. Anasthese had just blurted that out without thinking, and only too late realized what she did. Amane was caught by surprise at first, but was quick enough to recover.
“Of course he exists~ Rei’s not the type to have imaginary friends you know~”
“(hey!) —And Rei’s never beaten him before???”
“Etoo… Pretty much?” she admitted uneasily. It seems that, even to Amane, having the junior world champion (her student), who’s normally invincible among famous players, be offhandedly beaten by some random guy no one’s heard of (also her student), is the strangest thing to say.
Anasthese felt like a hole had been punched through her gut.
“Wait! If that’s so, then where is this Net guy?? Why am I only hearing of this now!? How come I’ve never seen him???”
She couldn’t accept it. Her brain was refusing to dissect the fact.
“Uhmm, if I’m not mistaken, I think he’s somewhere in Japan right now," recalled Amane. "He doesn’t really care for chess as a career tho…”
There shouldn’t be anyone better than Rei. There can’t.
“If–... if he could beat Rei, then all he had to do was show that in a public match. He’d... He'd be famous right now! Why isn’t he doing that then?”
Both Rei and Amane felt awkward answering the question. “Hmmm, how to say it...” sweated Amane, “His play style really isn’t fit for those kinds of things.”
“Somehow, I feel like that would cause more problems than it solves,” added Rei.
“Da you nee~”
And as they both laughed at the absurdity of the thought, seemingly, as though it were the smallest thing in the world, as though the fact that Rei had been beaten was something that didn’t matter to anyone, something no one would know, and something no one would care about, Anasthese felt like she was living an entirely different planet from the two.
She did not understand. She did not understand at all…
He defeated Rei…
The 1st ranking Junior Champion, and the ranked 16th Grandmaster, both very strong players, were of the opinion that Net was not fit for proper, professional chess. This, all despite the fact that Rei lost to him, not once, but over a hundred times, when she could not even fathom such a thing happening…
She could not listen to any more of the conversations later that night. Her mind was filled with a dull, buzzing sound that seemed to drown out everyone around her. Even when Amane tried to get them together for one last group photo shoot, she just gazed at the camera, the bare mimimum she needs to look alive. The only thing that occupied her mind right now was the new piece of information brought to light regarding Net.
She had asked for his whereabouts that evening. She needed to meet him. She had to. There’s no way Rei would lose without a proper explanation, and she refused to accept that Net was simply better than Rei. That’s not how the world works. Rei became number one by proving that he was capable of beating everyone. From his immortal match, down to all the times Anasthese had tasted defeat by his hands, Rei was at the top of his career. She had seen it with her very own eyes. To say anyone can outplay him is the biggest sacrilege of all.
And so, Anasthese had decided.
She would track down this Net guy, and beat him in Rei’s stead. Rei losing against someone is the biggest insult to his memory. If he truly lost a hundred times, then she’ll win a hundred times in return. All those times she knew she could not beat Rei, she’ll take all the agony and deliver them tenfold. She knows she will never beat Rei anymore, but even though this may not be good enough, she’ll settle for beating the person who defeated Rei as the next best thing.
Anasthese doubted she would get anything meaningful out of this, it all sounded dubious at best. Rei, she could doubt, but Amane is a whole different story. If, in the unlikely chance, this Net guy is hiding some insane profound skill, she’ll have to see it with her own eyes. If there is ever someone in the world whom Rei has failed to defeat, that person would be Anasthese’s final chance of truly measuring her skill.
On the eve of January, Rei passed. On his grave were carved the words: “To the greatest genius the world had seen, and had seen away far too early”. Anasthese attended his funeral as one last farewell. The book was never published.
After that, Anasthese had disappeared from the professional world. Even her closest friends would not hear from her for a very long time. She took a plane, alone, and travelled overseas, into the great island country of Japan. Feelings resolved, heart set, she set foot onto the front gates of Futenma Shintenkan Memorial High School, the place where Rei’s only defeator can be found.