THE JERSEY RIFLE
Stop by the club, ask the boys to name the greatest chess player of all time, and they'll quarrel endlessly over the relative merits of Alekhine, Capablanca, and Fischer. No others need apply. If, however, the question could be put to those three, the answer might be very different.
We might never have known the truth had it not been for Arnold Schweifurt, an obscure mathematician who, in the last century, applied vector analysis to chess. Curiously, he was interested less in the game than in calculus, but happily for us all, he hit on this inspired method of illustrating his speculations. His work went largely unnoticed, and his name rang no bell when I came across it some years ago in a used bookstore just outside Minneapolis.
I added computer science to Schweifurt's notions, and developed the breakthrough analytical system that revolutionized the manner in which we measure chess genius. The system that today bears my name.
There were skeptics, of course.
The most obnoxious was Everett Vasemann, a fierce competitor known for slashing attacks, violent play, and consistent success. He specialized in psychological warfare, using unshakable confidence to unsettle the coolest opponents. He loved complex positions that other analysts would declare fundamentally unsound, but which could be converted serenely into logical snarls. What is perhaps not so well known about Vasemann is that his play reflected his essential malice toward his opponents. I've never known what bitter incident, buried deep perhaps in childhood, ignited his lifelong enmity against competitors; but I have no doubt that, were it not for chess, he would have devoted his considerable energies to the munitions industry.
It will not surprise you that so slippery a style would score poorly in any evaluation system based strictly on mathematics. He was, of course, aware of my assessment of his abilities, which were overblown on a purely theoretical level. Less a master than a mugger, he won by intimidation. Caught in the glare of those hard dark eyes, opponents froze.
He didn't like me, and he never missed an opportunity to embarrass me publicly. "Cutworth," he was fond of observing, for whatever group of spectators whose attention he could enlist, "you should be analyzing bingo." It is the sort of remark that reveals the essential shallowness of the man.
A year or so after coming across Schweifurt's thin volume, I embarked on a project that was to become the highlight of my otherwise modest career: to establish with mathematical certainty the identity of the strongest chess player the world had seen. To accomplish this, I created a list of candidates, and fed into the data bank every available tournament and match game in which any of them had participated. Many were from unpublished private papers. My sole criterion was that tournament conditions prevailed. The games were evaluated move by move, enabling me to base results not on simple wins and losses, but on the strength of each individual response, vectrally speaking.
When he heard about the project, Vasemann could not resist making snide observations in the media, capping it all with a series of personal attacks in his column in the Spectator. "Mike Cutworth," he said, in a thousand variations, "is a mathematical windbag."
Nevertheless there was considerable interest in the Capa Project, which was named for the player everyone expected to finish at the head of the field. I arranged to tabulate the analyses and announce a winner at the annual Masters Invitational at Lone Pine. Vasemann was there, of course. As I patched in my notebook at the conclusion of the sixth round, he was within a half point of the leaders and feeling exuberant. When our eyes met, he rose slowly, and waited until he had everyone's attention.
"Mr. Cutworth." His voice sliced through the dying conversation of the assembled masters, journalists, and dignitaries. It was pacifically devoid of malice. "I wonder if you will tell us who devised this system that is to be used to judge Bobby Fischer?" Someone in back snorted and a wave of laughter rolled forward.
I tried to explain about Schweifurt, gave up, and settled for a few generalities. Then I tied in to the overhead display and turned it on. "Ladies and gentlemen," I said, "let's dispense with the quibbling and go directly to the bottom line. The supreme grandmaster of all time-- " I keyed the result. Onscreen, stylized knights flanked a chessboard logo. Above the logo, in black block letters, the champion's name appeared. My audience dissolved in hysteria.
The name was Will Ballard.
"Who is he?" Vasemann asked innocently.
Who indeed? He wasn't included in the list of candidates. Confused and frustrated, I heard myself explaining that although we had clearly suffered a computer error, Ballard was undoubtedly a better player than Vasemann. "Of course," I added, "it would be difficult to find anyone in this room who is not."
Vasemann's smile faded. "You are not!"
"I've never pretended to be a chessplayer," I answered weakly.
His eyes narrowed. "Ballard then...your champion. Does he even exist, Cutworth?"
I glared back.
"You say he is better than I? Produce him. I will play him for a $10,000 stake." He looked around, relishing the moment. There was no longer any laughter.
Ballard was unknown to the U.S. Chess Federation. He had never played a rated game. The World Chess Federation had no record of him. But the computer gave us something: earliest appearance in 1916, most recent in 1951. Eighteen games were on record, apparently all exhibitions. He had drawn one, won the rest. All had been played in Deep River, New Jersey, and no two had occurred in the same year. If those facts seemed mundane, his opponents did not: Frank Marshall twice, Richard Reti, Al Horowitz, Reuben Fine, Samuel Reshevsky, Isaac Kashdan, Aron Nimzovich, José Capablanca twice. The draw had come against Capa.
They were all from the candidates' list. The program had analyzed both sides of the table. Which explained why it had produced his name.
I didn't even have the games readily accessible, because I hadn't cross-referenced, and all had come from sources other than Ballard. I put Judy Taylor, my secretary, on the job of recovering them, and headed for Jersey.
There was no Ballard in the Deep River phone book. I went to the Trenton Library, and consulted the defunct Deep River Journal. The record started in February 1922. By then, Ballard had already defeated Marshall and Capablanca. And I knew that, sometime in 1922, he had beaten Marshall a second time.
I found what I was looking for in the edition for Sunday, April 2:
U.S. CHESS CHAMP TO BE AT FAMILY DAY
U.S. Chess Champion Frank Marshall will be guest of honor at the annual Family Day celebration this afternoon in Deep River. The day's events will get underway with a pancake breakfast at the Trinity Lutheran Hall at 9:00 a.m., immediately following services.
After that we will have potato-sack races, balloon relays, and many other exciting events. Mr. Marshall will have a few words to say to us at a special luncheon at the Town Hall. Then he will play a game against our own Will Ballard.
A dance will be held this evening at Brandon Park. All are invited!
I read it several times, and then hurried forward to the next day's edition. Miners were striking in Indiana, and President Harding was facing a scandal at the Bureau of Engraving. There were several stories on the Family Day festivities and a blurred photo of the sack race. Ballard vs. Marshall got the lower left corner of the front page:
WILL BEATS CHAMP
Will Ballard, the chess-playing druggist from Bamberry point, defeated U.S. Chess Champion Frank Marshall yesterday in Deep River. Marshall resigned on the twenty-third move of a game that was very well played by both men. The victory was Will's seventh without a loss, and his second against Mr. Marshall.
I wandered through the years. Family Day was celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter, and it always featured a game between Ballard and a chess notable, sometimes a giant, sometimes a less well-known figure. And Ballard never lost.
In 1924 he beat Reti, who had just ended Capablanca's long streak in the celebrated New York tournament of that year. In 1925, Capa returned to Deep River. This time he got away with a draw (as the Journal put it) and the town was aghast.
The tenth anniversary of Family Day fell in 1926. The newspaper carried a brief history of the event. Deep River had dedicated a chess museum in 1916. Marshall, the supreme gentleman, had accepted an invitation, had played the local champion, and a tradition was born.
I was seated in a bare room, at one of those old-fashioned microfilm viewers with a squeaky crank, thinking that the world would never be the same. I had discovered Atlantis.
In 1927, Nimzovich, playing white, resigned on the eleventh move.
The chess museum went broke in 1930, along with the rest of the country, closing its doors forever. But Family Day rolled on. Ballard scored consecutive victories against Isaac Kashdan, Horowitz, Alekhine, and Fine. The Alekhine game, curiously, was played on a Saturday, preceding Family Day. Alekhine was world champion at the time. In the late 1930's and during the war years, he added Sammy Reshevsky, Arnold Denker, Arthur Bisguier, and Miguel Najdorf to the list. In 1951, with only the Capablanca blemish on his record, he retired. His final game was a brilliant Sicilian against George Koltanowski.
Giving no reason, he announced that he would not play again. Since he had made similar statements in the past, no one took him very seriously. But there was no game in 1952, although the Journal ran a story on Ballard, reported as being in failing health at Bamberry Point.
After that, he dropped altogether out of the news.
The Deep River Pike runs through the middle of Bamberry Point, about twenty-five miles southeast of Trenton. In a cluster of brick retail outlets in the center of town, I found a drugstore with the legend BALLARD'S arced across plate glass windows in bright gold letters. It was run by a young linebacker of a man with eyes that looked permanently puzzled.
"I didn't know he plays chess," he said. "A little bridge, maybe. But he's not big on games."
"Plays? Is he still alive?" My heart pounded.
"Uncle Will? You just missed him."
I checked in with Judy. She was in a rage. "Vasemann keeps calling. He thinks you're trying to get out of the country with his money.
"And George Koltanowski phoned. He wants four tickets for the Ballard match. Said I should tell you it's about time."
I shook my head. "Have you recovered the games?"
"Yes, Mike. I've sent them by FedEx."
"Good. Judy, I've got news. Apparently, the guy is still walking around. One more thing you can do: dictate the first Capablanca game to me, the one that Ballard won."
The game was played in 1918. I could visualize the scene: the future world champion and a local kid seated at a wooden table on the stage of Town Hall. (The chess museum, according to the Journal, lacked adequate facilities; and the high school had not yet been built.) Capa, at the peak of his career, had not lost a game for two years, would not lose another for six more. Yet, on this April day, while vast armies lay exhausted in muddy ditches across France, young Will Ballard, playing White in a Queen's Gambit, held his own for fifteen moves and then inserted a pawn into Capa's center that the Cuban dared not take. It quietly smothered his game.
I wondered what the weather had been like on that long ago Sunday. And I wondered how many among the spectators had grasped the enormity of the boy's achievement.
Will Ballard looks quite ordinary. He's about average height, a trifle thin, with white hair. He moves grcefully, almost like a twenty-year-old. His lips curl naturally into a smile, though it is half-hidden by a vigorous silver mustache. The eyes are a startling lucid blue. They hide nothing: laughter and anger rise easily in them. It's clear he's no poker player.
His wife Ann brought in cheese and beer, and the three of us relaxed beneath an original Wyeth. "Bought it back before he was known," Ballard said. "I couldn't afford it now."
I took a deep breath. "Sir, are you the Will Ballard who used to play chess exhibitions in Deep River?"
His jaw tightened, and the congeniality went out of his eyes. "What exactly do you want, Mr. Cutworth?"
An old Marbury clock, sleek and curved in its black case, ticked placidly on the mantel. "Mr. Ballard, you play a remarkable game of chess. I'd like to understand why someone who does what you can do isn't known."
"I see." He tried hard to frown, but gave it up. Finally he shrugged and smiled. "I'm known where it matters."
"How did it feel to beat Capablanca?"
"I enjoyed it. He was quite good, you know."
"And you beat Alekhine when he was world champion."
"That game almost didn't get played," said Ann. "They always scheduled them, the games, for Family Day. But Alekhine was doing a tour and he added some cities at the last minute. He insisted on coming early, playing the day before, and he only gave us two days notice. We were in Chicago, visiting my sister, when the telegram came. Will grumbled a lot, but we caught a late train and got back here thirty minutes before game time."
"If I'd had any sense," said Will, "we'd have stayed in Chicago."
"You loved every minute of it." Ann laughed, her eyes shining. "Will's cavalry instinct took over. He was magnificent. We arrived in a taxi with a police escort, sirens going and people cheering. It was wonderful. Things like that," she added wistfully, "don't happen anymore."
"Your first game was against Marshall. What was his reaction when you won?"
"He was surprised. They were always surprised. And I thought he was a little embarrassed. But he shook my hand and he actually seemed pleased. He told me he expected to hear from me again."
"But he never did."
"No, I suppose not. He came back about six years later. And he asked me about it."
"What did you tell him, Mr. Ballard?"
"My name's Will." He pushed a strip of cheese into the mustard. "By then, I'd given up playing except for the annual game. And I just explained I had other things to do."
"You played no other chess?" I was of course incredulous.
"By 1922? No."
"When did you go back to playing regularly?"
"I never did."
"But you played extraordinary chess for thirty more years!"
He looked amused. "I was pretty good, wasn't I?"
None of this made sense. "Why did you give it up?"
"You want the truth? Chess is a bore."
I don't shock easily. I've been through two wars and, for a short time, I drove a cab in Philadelphia. But this was lobbing a dead cat up the church aisle.
"Chess players don't get involved with one another," he continued. "It's just you and the woodwork. The geometry is intriguing, the puzzles are a kick, but who really cares?"
"It must have left a terrible void. Were you able to find a way to replace it?"
"Horseshoes. Wonderful game. Man-to-man struggle there. You know who you're playing. All those years fooling around with chess: it addicts weak minds, you understand. I used to come home after an evening at the club, and I never knew anything about the person I'd been playing. Oh, I might know he had an affinity for the French, or he was given to premature attacks, or some fool thing like that. Ann and I got married in 1920. And down in the club one night, when I told them, they shook my hand and asked me about the Caro-Kann."
"But you kept playing the annual game?"
"It became a tradition and people more or less expected it. They wouldn't let me quit until finally I just refused to play anymore."
"Failing health, the newspaper said."
"Yeah." He chuckled. "Ann told them I was sick of it."
When an opportunity presented itself, I described the results of the Capa Project. "Data analysis indicates you're the best that ever walked the planet."
"It's nice to hear." His eyes focused somewhere over my shoulder. "Maybe you're right about the vectors. What's a rook anyhow but a bullet? The trick is to know how to load and point the rifle."
"Will, would you play one more game? An exhibition?"
His eyes glazed. "I don't want to start that again, Michael. No, most folks have long since forgotten all that. I'd just as soon let things be."
"You might have been a world champion."
"I've been living my own life. But I'll admit to one regret: I'd have liked to play Bobby Fischer."
I called Vasemann in the morning. "Where's your schlemiel, Cutworth?" he asked without preliminary.
"Ballard isn't well."
"Sorry to hear that. You can send the check to my office."
"You're not serious. He isn't a young man, Vasemann."
"Look, Cutworth, you embarrassed me. You and your tank town tornado are going to pay up, one way or another. But I'm not unreasonable. I tell you what: I'll drive down there myself. Convince me he's really sick, and I'll let you off the hook. If not, you do the right thing on the spot. See you Saturday." He laughed and hung up.
So I went contritely back to Ballard to confess and throw myself on his mercy. He was paneling his dining room.
"It's been too many years, Mike," he said. "And if I got lucky and pulled it off, who'd be next? Gary Kasparov?"
"That wouldn't happen, Will. It really wouldn't." But I knew better. "Do you think you could see your way clear to developing a disabling disease?"
He was careful not to laugh. "Mike," he said, "I have my vices. You can hardly enjoy life without a little selective sinning. But I'm just not a very convincing liar." He looked tired. "Let's get some fresh air. It always helps."
Ten minutes of it revived him. But it did nothing for me.
The State Department is interested," Judy said. "We've had other calls, too, some from outside the country. People want to know when he's going to play, and they want tickets."
"What people? Who's been calling?"
"Bent Larsen, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Larry Evans, Lajos Portisch. And Kasparov. In fact, it looks as if you might get a Russian delegation. When's the game?"
I rolled my eyes and explained. "I'm sorry," she said. "But, boss, I don't understand what's happening."
"You'd have to know him. Ballard. But I think all those people he played all those years recognized a genius on an order they hadn't seen before. It might have escaped the weaker players. But Reti and Reshevsky, people like that, would have known. And the scene after those games must always have been the same. They would have begun by trying to persuade him to capitalize on his talent, to play seriously, and they would have ended by respecting his privacy.
"Now they think he's going public at last. They're happy for him, they're spreading the word, and there's going to be a general celebration. Except that he won't be there."
My packet of games arrived, and I played over his pair of victories against Marshall, and the Reti game. He was flawless. He boxed in Reti's king and assaulted it relentlessly, sacrificing a queen and rook to get local advantage. A bishop and knight were loping in for the kill when the great Czech resigned. In the second Marshall game he used a twelve-move sacrificial combination. The U.S. Champion was three pieces up when he turned down his king.
I got Will onto the six o'clock news and into the papers, hoping to put some pressure on him.
In Los Angeles, Bobby Fischer was reported interested in attending the event. I talked to local politicians, pointing out financial advantages from the match. They promised to help. I gave Vasemann's tank town remark to the Deep River Crystal, the Journal's successor, which they gleefully printed. Reporters gathered outside Ballard's house, and Will enjoyed himself giving opinions on Zaire and the Middle East. On the matter of the game, however, he remained adamant: he would not play.
"Don't think, Michael," he told me, "that I don't know what you're doing. It won't make any difference."
But he agreed to have dinner with me Saturday evening.
We arrived at the Old Stone House on schedule. Will was suspicious, and after he settled himself among the cut glass and guttering candles, he took a long look around, like some Byzantine elder statesman expecting an assassination attempt. "If you were going to challenge me," he said abruptly, "why couldn't you produce Fischer? Why are you messing around with somebody no one ever heard of?"
We ordered drinks, and I suggested he was out of touch. He was thinking that over when the man himself arrived. Vasemann's clothes were in the intellectual tradition: baggy tweed with elbow patches, gray slacks, no tie. Will smiled at his name, suspicions confirmed.
Vasemann took in the situation at a glance. A beatific smile, a suggestion of his love for all mankind, illuminated his features. He shook hands with Will, paid Ann a compliment, and ordered a brandy.
We discussed current movies, a sensational trial that was then in all the papers, and the President's economic policies. Vasemann generally agreed with Will throughout the conversation. He might have differed on the degree of a palliative, on the amount, say, of a tax incentive, but jointly he seemed to share the older man's principles.
This was a Vasemann I had never seen. He exuded charm. Ann had, I could see, taken an instinctive dislike to her unexpected companion. But will seemed absorbed in the conversation.
We finished our steaks, and Vasemann bought another round of drinks. He asked permission to smoke and held a match to his meerschaum. It was his celebrated victory pipe, the one that he traditionally lights with the decisive move. He had, I realized, taken Ballard's measure, and found him wanting. "Will." He sucked on the stem. "I am sorry that you can't see your way clear. But I understand. I applaud your principles." He added a sidelong glance at me, a triumphant weave of good humor and contempt. It was disconcerting in its contrast with the mood of the evening, as though someone had thrown a switch.
Ann caught it and bristled. She watched her husband, who, apparently unaware, was staring distractedly into his vodka. Then his shoulders straightened. "On the other hand," he said slowly, "there's an argument to be made for flexibility. I wonder whether I don't have an obligation to give Michael a fair chance to win his bet."
Vasemann hesitated. His eyelids closed; he nonchalantly drained his glass and shrugged. No one spoke. A waiter came and went. At last Vasemann looked compassionately at the old man. "As you please," he said.
For one dazzling weekend, Deep River became the chess capital of the world. Pal Benko and Walter Browne joined John Chancellor and the Secretary of State. Motels filled up all the way to Trenton. The high-school band marched, politicians spoke, and the oddsmakers gave Will Ballard no chance.
Ann explained his change of heart. "He doesn't like Vasemann. Vasemann didn't take him seriously. His tone, his attitude: he didn't think Will mattered, one way or the other. He was just using him to get at you." She shrugged. "So Will decided you needed rescuing. It's the cavalry instinct again.
"And Mike, don't worry about your bet." She winked. "It's money in the bank."
The match was scheduled for Deep River. On the night before, the Old Stone House overflowed with celebrities. Will disappeared early. Rumors flew that Fischer was in town.
The celebration ran until 2:00 a.m. Next morning, we all managed to be in the high school auditorium at ten. And in fact, despite the weather, which was bleak and gray and cold, the crowd filled the school and spilled out into the street.
When Everett Vasemann was introduced, they booed enthusiastically. He looked startled, glared back, composed himself, and sat down. The VIP section remianed mute.
"From Bamberry Point-- " That was as far as the P.A. got. Cheers and whistles rolled through the building. Ballard, wearing an old gray sweater, came uncertainly out onto the stage. I saw immediately that something was wrong. He looked tired; the energy was gone. Deep lines were drawn through his features. It occurred to me that he might be frightened of all this. I wondered if he'd partied through the night?
Vasemmann, as Black, started the clock, and Will made his move. The teen-age girl tending the display pushed the Queen's Pawn forward two squares.
Vasemann defended with the Benko Gambit, on the theory, I suppose, it was sufficiently recent that his opponent had probably never heard of it. Will took the gambit pawn, switched smoothly to defense, and walked his king under cover, away from the withering diagonal of Black's queen bishop.
Vasemann exploited his initiative, seizing the center. Will watched his opportunity and returned the pawn. Pal Benko, sitting beside me in the press area, stiffened slightly. The concept is sound, of course, but the timing must be precise. Will hadn't looked deeply enough. Black took the pawn and simultaneously threatened a combination that would sweep away White's exposed queenside.
Will stared at the position. His shoulders slumped, and I began to regret my part in this. He got up, glanced at the running clock, and walked offstage down the center of the auditorium. He seemed desperately weary. The crowd made way, and he disappeared into the lobby. I heard the outer door open and close.
He was gone ten minutes. When he came back, he looked better. They brought out a pot of coffee. Will offered to pour for his opponent, but Vasemann turned his cup over without raising his eyes.
Ballard braced his queenside, at the cost of allowing Black to reinforce his grip on the center. A black knight invaded his defenses, threatening strangulation. Vasemann sat back, relaxed, smiled, and lit his meerschaum. Viktor Korchnoi, directly in front of me, shook his head sadly.
But Will hung on. He gave up a pawn to force a pair of exchanges, getting rid of the knight and the queen bishop. "Too late," someone whispered. Enjoying himself thoroughly, Vasemann launched one of the complex combinations characteristic of his play, subtle, indirect, but lethal. And it contained the usual imprecision, buried deep.
But he'd chosen the wrong victim. Will found the weakness, and exploited it to introduce another wave of complexity. Vasemann leaned forward, frowning. He took off his jacket. And he lost his way.
Ballard traded off the remaining knights, opening a file on the castled king. He posted a rook on it; Vasemann hurried to defend. White clicked a second rook into the chamber, and unexpectedly switched targets.
Pawns, bishop, and queen assaulted and occupied the center in a style that recalled the young Ballard's pyrotechnics against Reti and Marshall. Will traded his queen for the remaining bishop, leaving the enemy pawn structure a shambles.
Vasemann looked at his hopelessly exposed king, stared down the barrel at the doubled rooks, and sighed. He stopped the clock and, without a word, walked offstage.
They lined up to shake his hand and wish him well, the chess-playing titans of the globe. Near the end, Will Ballard greeted a tall, thin man in dark glasses. They stood a moment, regarding each other. Then the man was gone.
"Been a long day," he said. "Michael, I enjoyed it. Thank you."
"You look exhausted. You played a helluva game, Will. For a while there though, you had me worried."
He grinned. His teeth were white and strong, the teeth of a predator. "Sorry. I'm not as young as I used to be. I shouldn't have stayed up all night."
"Stayed up all night?" I looked at him accusingly. "You were partying."
"I was playing chess." There was a trace of mischief in his eyes. "With Bobby."
"Now there's someone who understands this game."
Muscles in my back twitched. "How'd you do?"
He shrugged. "I lost one."
Originally published in Chess Life, January 1983. Copyright, Cryptic, Inc., 1983.