The Black King

by Juan José Arreola. Translated by Elise Dorn.

J’ay aux eschés joué devant Amours.
Charles d’Orléans

I am the dark, widower, inconsolable who sacrificed his last rook to bring a female pawn to the seventh rank, in front of the white bishop and knight.

I speak from my black base. I was tempted by the Devil in the torrid time when I had at least secured the draw. I dreamed of the crowning of a queen and fell into a beginner’s mistake, in an elementary double check …

From the beginning I played this game poorly: weaknesses in the opening, quick piece exchange with a distinct disadvantage … Then I gave up the exchange to get a passed pawn: the queen’s pawn. Then…

I am now alone and move aimlessly around the board of white nights and black days, trying to occupy central squares, dodging the mate of bishop and knight. If my opponent doesn’t do it in a certain number of moves, the game is a draw. That’s why I’m still playing, ultimately adhering to the rules of the International Chess Federation, which reads:

Article 12. The game is drawn:

Paragraph 4) When a player demonstrates that at least fifty moves have been made by both sides without capture having taken place of any piece or pawn move.

The white horse jumps from one side to another without rhyme or reason, from here to there and from there to here. Am I saved? But I suddenly overcome the anxiety and start inexplicably retreating to one of the fatal corners.

I remember a joke from master Simagin: The checkmate of the bishop and knight is easier when you don’t know how to do it and get it by instinct, by a relentless will to kill.

The situation has changed. The Deletang’s triangle appears on the board and I lose count of the moves. Triangles follow one after another, until I see myself cornered at last. But I have only three squares to occupy, g1, h1 and h2.

I realize then that my life has been nothing but a triangulation. I always choose wrong my love objects and lose one after another, like the passed queen’s pawn. Now three figures rush towards me: king, bishop and knight. I’m not any vertex. I am a deadlock in the final triangle. Why keep playing? Why didn’t I fall for the Scholar’s Mate? Or quickly for the Fool’s Mate? Why I did not fall in a Legal’s Mate? Better, why did not God kill me in my mother’s womb, leaving me locked up there like in the tomb of Philidor?

Before they make the last move, I decide to knock my king down. But my hands are shaking and it falls off of the board. Gently, my young opponent picks it up from the ground, puts it in place and kills me with the bishop.

And never again will I play chess. Word of love. I will spend the remaining days of wit to the analysis of the someone else’s games, to study king and pawns endgames, to solve checkmate in three puzzles, and only when necessary, the queen’s sacrifice.

(To Enrique Palos Báez)


About the author

Self-taught, Juan José Arreola Zúñiga was a Mexican writer, scholar, translator and editor. He was also a passionate chess player, and besides practicing it, founded institutions for the game, chaired the national federation and actively supported its inclusion in schools. He once said, “…[he] has devoted to literature not even a thousandth of the time that he has devoted to chess.”

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