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The Midnight Challenge
or, Christmas in Russia (from the Russian)

My maternal grandfather was a passionate admirer of the game of chess, and so superior a player that at one time he was regarded as the strongest in St. Petersburg. At the period of which I write, the only competitor that could make even games with him was a German player, by name Herr Laufer, a full habited man, who although strong as an "elephant", was cut off in 1785, by an attack of apoplexy, after twelve hours' meditation , over the following problem, sent him as a challenge by my much honored ancestor, who had recently received it from the inventor, Philip Stamma, one of the chess-magnates of that day. The stipulation was, "White to play and force the game in ten moves."

This grandfather of mine played regularly every day, from four in the afternoon until ten at night. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, his opponent was a very distinguished player, known as the "Old Siberian". His invariable guest on Tuesdays, was Brigadier Koletnikoff, an amateur as enthusiastic, perhaps, as himself, but somewhat unfortunate, never having been able to see into the game beyond three moves. On Saturdays, after bathing in accordance with the national custom, my turn came. If, contrary to established usage, one of the players failed coming on the appointed day, his place was filled by Oska, a young serf, who received the odds of a Knight, and who played standing. When at this odds he succeeded in winning, he received from his master one coin for each mate; whenever he lost, his master invariably ordered the overseer to apply a few blows, repeating gravely, during the operation, and by the way of wholesome admonition, certain chess-maxims, much after the following fashion:

"Another time, reflect a little longer before thou playest. Get out thy Knights; establish thy Pawns in the centre; avoid check by discovery, and most especially getting thy Queen hampered. Keep thy Bishops on the long diagonals, and be careful to seize the open files with thy Rooks."

Notwithstanding all this paternal solicitude, Oska made but little progress, and the coins being decidedly in inverse proportion to the blows, with their Philidorian accompaniment, he was fast losing all taste for the game. At length he hit upon a means of evasion. About four o'clock, the hour for play, his reason was found to be obscured by the fumes of certain deep potations, that he could scarcely distinguish a Knight from a Bishop. On these occasions Oska was ignominiously kicked out of the chess-room, and thus if he lost an occasional coin, he was sure to get rid of the blows.

When this had been the case, my grandfather played alone; he analyzed Greco the Calabrian, Stamma, and Philidor, the only authors he ever read, or indeed regarded as entitled to any merit. So great was his antiquated prejudice in this respect, that had Mr. George Walker's chess-library, Dr. Bledow's of Berlin, or M. Alliey's of Tournon (France) fallen into his power, I really believe he would have consigned them to the flames, in imitation of the great Omar, by whom the only book spared was the Koran.

It was my grandfather's firm conviction, that Philidor was the "ne plus ultra" of chess-science, that it was impossible to excel the Calabrian in brilliant combination, and that no future problems could ever compete with the famous positions of Stamma the Arabian.

My honored relative was so great a lover of the game, that had you awakened him at any hour of the night, the words "Artamone Alexeitch, will you play a game of chess?" would find him disposed, and any objection concerning the lateness of the hour, was sure to be overruled by an order to Oska to prepare the chess-table, and set up the men.

I was yet a child when my grandfather taught me the moves; from the first I became fascinated by the game, and my master was more than satisfied with my progress. I continued gaining strength, and not unfrequently, after a sitting with my grandfather, I would lie awake half the night working out the solution of some difficult mate, or endeavoring to discover the error that had cost me a game.

The time came at length, when I was able to cope with my grandsire at the odds of the Rook, then the Knight, and subsequently at the Pawn and move. Finally, in 1816, the 27th of June, the anniversary of the great battle of Pultawa, I gained a complete victory over him, in presence of the "Old Siberian", Brigadier Kotelnikoff, and the serf Oska.

After this I never lost my vantage ground, although my honored grandsire persisted in the belief that he was still my superior. His defeats he attributed to incidental circumstances entirely foreign to the game, asserting that I had recourse to what he termed "moral influences"; that I diverted his attention by too much talking over the game, and that often when I had made a move, I would appear intent upon that quarter of the board where I least meditated an attack. On these occasions he would add, that if Philidor were alive he would easily win of me blindfolded at the odds of a Knight.

The latter opinion, I had the vanity to think somewhat erroneous, although while opposing my grandfather's doctrine of "moral influences", I never contested the merit of Philidor, and always subscribed to the exalted estimation in which he held that celebrated player.

My grandfather although now beginning to lose habitually against me, still preferred me as an opponent; nothing gave him more satisfaction than occasionally winning a game from me, and unmindful of my many triumphs, the next day, with some flourish of trumpets, he would proclaim these isolated victories. The number of these decreasing yearly, he was fain to seek consolation in wreaking his vengeance on poor Brigadier Kotelnikoff. Of the latter, I cannot resist relating, that on a certain occasion, intensely absorbed in a combination he was endeavoring to carry out to the fourth move, mistaking a Rook for a biscuit, he unconsciously soaked it in a cup of tea, and paid the forfeit for his abstraction by well nigh choking to death.

One evening my grandfather lost against me six games in succession. During the whole sitting I had not uttered a syllable, keeping my eyes straight before me on the chess-board, without once turning my head to the right or left, in order to prevent my respected relative's availing himself of his usual plea of "moral influences". Our sixth game, a gambit, had run this wise:-

Grandfather - Grandson 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 Be7 4.Bc4 Bh4+ 5.Nxh4 Qxh4+ 6.Kf1 Nf6 7.Qf3 Nc6 8.d3 Nd4 9.Qd1 Ng4 10.Qd2

At this stage of the game, and to the great discomfiture of my venerable antagonist, I announced that I would force Queen or give mate in six moves. -- "My dear boy", said he, while examining this termination, "you really begin to improve and play a tolerable game." -- Then after a pause, during which he had replaced the pieces to go through a variation, he resumed ... "Yes, you play well -- not as well as the African "Chor" [NB - a demon], though!" And here my grandfather crossed himself. "Heaven protect us!" he ejaculated, "this day thirty years the event occurred."

These exclamations in connection with the strange personage alluded to by my grandfather, were to me so many enigmas.

"A chor", said I, inquiringly, "can you ever have played with a "chor?"

My grandsire smiled, without immediately answering my question; evidently there was much hesitation in his manner. At length he spoke:

"You know, my dear boy, that I was never over credulous. I have never believed in ghosts or apparitions, and most assuredly, had any person related to me what I am about to tell, I should have treated the recital as an idle tale. The circumstance is nevertheless a fact, witnessed by all the people of my household: therefore make what inquiries you think fit, and account for the event as best you may.

"Many years have flown by, for I was but forty at the time of the occurrence; nevertheless, its slightest details are still as present to my memory, as if it had taken place but yesterday. Listen!"

The grave and mysterious tone in which these words were pronounced, roused my curiosity, and I was all attention. After pacing the room for some time, as if absorbed in retrospection, my grandfather seated himself upon the divan opposite the chess-table, and re-examining the "coup" that had decided the recent battle -- "Thus mate", said he, "is much in the African style, and my dear boy," he added, "were you thirty years older, I should be inclined to believe the whole a trick of your own devising."

Here my much honored grandfather sipped a little punch from the glass standing on the chess-table, and commenced the following recital.

"The eve of the festival of the Epiphany, the 5th of January, 1789, returning home somewhat elated, perhaps, having spent the evening with a party of friends, I retired to bed at 11 o'clock, my usual hour. The night was a most boisterous one, the light of the moon being nearly obscured by the drifting snow, whirled around in eddies by the sharp north wind. The clock of the church of St. Simon, struck twelve. I was agitated, and could not sleep. Suddenly, I heard a noise like the stopping of an equipage -- then I fancied I heard the coach door open, and presently after footsteps on the staircase. All was again silent. I rose and threw up the casement; equipage there was none, and the outer door was closed.

"Can any person have called at this late hour, and in such weather? thought I ...then attributing the whole to a heated imagination, I lit a taper, and set down to the chess-board to solve a new problem sent me by Philip Stamma to test, and published since as one of his famous 'Centurie di partiti'."

While speaking, my grandfather had set up the position.

White to move and mate in six moves.

"Over this problem," he continued, "I had been poring nearly an hour, and after exhausting, as I thought, every possible continuation -- There must be something wrong about the position, I muttered; as it stands here, my friend Stamma, no chor could solve it."

"'Will you allow me to assist you?' answered a strange voice, seemingly proceeding from behind the glass-door at the opposite side of the room. I am no coward (my grandfather had never feared any mortal being with the exception of his late wife), I am no coward, but nevertheless hearing an unknown voice in the dead of night, I confess I was a little startled -- Philka! Oska! I cried in a loud tone, at the same time rushing toward the glass-door with the intention of locking it ...but ere as I reached the door, it opened, and there stood before me a being with every lineament as portrayed by Stephanoff in his picture of the Christmas week in Moscow -- a chor, -- yes, a real chor, a herculean frame, thick wooly hair and a face as black as ebony. He was wrapped in a mantle of the same hue as his countenance, bordered with red fringe.

"'Who are you, and what is your business here?' I demanded, still continuing to call at the top of my voice upon Oska and Philka.

"'Cease calling, Artamone Alexeitch,' said the mysterious stranger, -- 'I am neither a thief, nor a bandit; but like yourself a passionate lover of chess, and like yourself, I often spend whole nights at the game. Be calm, and listen:

"'My ebon hue tells I come from a distant clime. Your fame has reached the remote regions of Ethiopia, whence I have come to ascertain whether you really play as well as it is asserted. Your Oska I will awake. He shall witness the contest.'

"He had no sooner uttered the last words than Oska appeared.

"The unknown seated himself. -- 'Are you man or chor?' I again demanded, 'and moreover, I insist upon knowing how you have effected an entrance here.'

"'I am simply an Ethiopian chess-player, and a travelled one, rest assured. I found your door open, and have entered with the sole intention of playing a rubber at chess with you.'

"Oska here bent over to whisper that the door had remained closed, but that a chor might get in at the key-hole.

"Meanwhile the idea that the being before me was a species of Chess Knight-Errant, who had come expressly to break a lance with me, greatly allayed my rising apprehension, and half reconciled me to his repulsive exterior.

"'Attend,' resumed the Ethiopian; 'I am the strongest chess-player in the universe. -- We will play three games. If you succeed in winning a single one of the three, I will acknowledge you as my conqueror, and on this globe you will then have no rival. If you lose the three games, the forfeit shall be that you play no chess for the space of three whole years, and moreover, that you mention this circumstance to no person until full thirty years shall have elapsed.'

"These conditions on the part of my sable visitor, struck me as sufficiently liberal, and I felt strangely urged on to take him at his word.

"The first clause, however, to say the least of it, seemed to me rather a strange one, and consequently, before accepting his challenge I inquired what was to be my guarantee in the event of my winning one of the three games.

"'This talisman,' said he, displaying something that had the brilliancy of a diamond. 'It was bequeathed to me by a Brahmin, a direct descendent of the inventor of the game of chess.'

"'While speaking the African had cast his eye over the chess-board. 'In the first place,' he continued, 'let me solve this stratagem of Philip Stamma, which seems to have given you so much trouble. I will show you there is nothing wrong with it.' He was as good as his word, and to my no little astonishment, he solved it in a twinkling.

"'This is a mere trifle,' he added; 'in our clubs we seldom look at a mate under fifteen moves. Here is the style of problem in vogue with us just now,' and he set up a position.

"'I shall never forget it," remarked my grandfather, arranging the men as on the next diagram, "although I have not looked at it for the last ten years.

"'Recollect the situation,' continued my strange visitor. 'It is one of our easiest. The stipulations are White to play and mate with the Pawn at King's Knight 5th square, in twelve moves without making any piece.'

"'Here are a few more,' he added, depositing on the table a roll of parchment. 'They may give some trouble in your club.'

"'And now let us begin our match, for I must be far away before daylight.' So saying, he drew near the chess-table and began setting up the men.

Urged on, as it were, by some strange influence, my grandfather followed his example. They drew for the color and the move. The Black pieces fell to the African, and the move to my grandsire. [NB - The custom of the time was that a player kept the same color pieces during a match. The first move alternated between the colors.] Two tapers lit up the field of battle. Oska took his station behind his master's chair. The silence was profound, and only interrupted at intervals by the moaning of the wind, as it continued to drift the snow past the casement.

My grandfather commenced boldly by offering the Gambit. The Ethiopian, chor, or whatever you please to call him, played the approved defences as taught by the best masters. His play was both rapid and bold, and my grandfather soon perceived that he had to deal with no tyro in the art; he therefore applied to the game with increased attention, framing, as he thought, strong attacks, and backing them with every stratagem in his power. Notwithstanding every effort, after the 15th move, his attack was broken up, and the African had kept the Gambit Pawn.

Exerting himself anew, my grandfather did his utmost to combine a new plan of attack; but he was again foiled by his wary opponent's creating a diversion on the left flank, the deplorable consequence of which was a somewhat unforeseen catastrophe. The position was the following:

White to move

In this situation, my grandfather having to move, played Nh2, with a view to force an exchange, and bring his Rook into play. Whereupon -- "Artamone Alexeitch," said he, of the sable vestments, "you have lost; you must give up Queen, or suffer mate in five moves."

This first game somewhat disconcerted my good grandfather, for seldom before had he been dealt with in this style.

"The second game," said the stranger, "and defend yourself right manfully! The move is mine."

The Ethiopian offered the Gambit, as his opponent had previously done. His mode of playing it, differed entirely from any thing my grandfather had seen in his books or met with in practice. At the thirtieth move his Queen was again forced, and completely taken unawares by combinations so bold and novel, he was rapidly losing that most essential element of chess-play, self-possession. Meanwhile the game had verged into the following position:

Black to move

The stranger having to move, now played ...Qc6.

Here my grandfather rallied a moment. Notwithstanding, the threatened mate, he imagined he saw a method of retrieving his game, and answered with Bd5, pinning the adverse Queen.

Vain endeavor! No sooner had his hand abandoned the piece than, as before, he was greeted with the formula. -- "Artamone Alexeitch; you have lost; you are mated in four moves!"

"And now for the last game!" -- cried the chor, "and pray make it the best of the three."

My grandfather paused some time on the choice of the opening; at length he decided for a steady Giuoco Piano, and he soon imagined he remarked some slight wincing on the part of his queer adversary. He would probably have preferred a more open game, thought my grandfather, and while exerting the utmost vigilance, and refraining from premature attack, he strove hard to keep his pawns in the center, to the evident depression of his adversary's game. The latter was then seen to move about as a man writhing under the effects of some violent nervous contraction, attacking now on the left, and now on the right, and seeking some vulnerable point to make an opening. Meanwhile, my grandfather held good in the center, advancing his right wing gradually, and with great precaution, his King majestically leading the van, not unlike a second Charles XII.

The African now changed tactics, and furiously pushing on his Pawns, he sacrificed them in every direction, with the apparent intention of queening one of them at any cost. My grandfather, who had in a measure regained his wonted assurance, was not easily to be caught napping again; at length he determined upon a sacrifice, and gave up a Knight for his adversary's two remaining Pawns. Forty moves had been played on each side, and my grandfather was firmly persuaded he had the best of the game.

At the 41st move he lost a Rook (through some strange artifice he always averred), and his position became slightly critical.

The respective position of the belligerent parties, was as represented in the next diagram.

Black had not lost a single piece, while my grandfather was minus two Rooks and a Knight. He now founded all his hopes on his Pawns, and the constrained position of the adverse King. Moreover, one of the African's Rooks was "en prise", and the action of his Queen not immediate.

It was my grandfather's turn to move. He determined upon a course of play which in the event of not securing the game, would still enable him to give a series of checks, and thus gain time until cock-crow.

"But explain to me, my dear grandfather, how your King got so far advanced into the enemy's lines?"

"I will tell you, my boy: -- After getting my pawns well supported in the center, I castled to the right according to the most approved practice, and then played Kh2; but my adversary pushing his pawns on me, I was compelled to capture them successively, with King, which brought him as you see on h7. I grant my King seems hemmed in; but his sable majesty does not appear much better off. I apprehended no immediate danger on this square, and my position seemed to me certainly the best for choice.

"Meanwhile it was my turn to move. What course was I to pursue? First, I thought of taking Rook with Bishop; but then I calculated that after exchanges, his Queen would come into play (my Bishop and Knight being off), leaving me the worst of the game.

"Nevertheless, I determined upon a move that I thought calculated to astound my friend the chor, as great player as he considered himself.

"Show me the move," said I, with anxious curiosity, "for I see nothing that ..."

"Here it is," interrupted my grandfather, with some solemnity of tone :-- "I played g5.

"If he take my Bishop with Knight, thought I, I will take Knight with Pawn, opening Queen upon him, and leaving him no respite until the advance of my Knight's Pawn, which I judged would prove fatal. In case of his not capturing my Bishop with Knight, I did not exactly see how he was to escape the deadly effect of this same Pawn, or of the Queen's replacing it, in the event of its capture by the Bishop."

"True," said I, "the Knight's Pawn pushed on at this juncture seems to me a capital move."

"I little dreamed of the consequences, though," replied my grandfather. -- "No sooner had I committed the move, than my dark opponent began counting on his fingers; then after a short pause, and with the utmost coolness :-- 'My excellent friend, Artamone Alexeitch,' said he, 'I shall checkmate you in exactly twenty-two moves!' ... As he spoke,he lifted off the Knight at his KR3 square, touched my King's Bishop, but hesitated a moment before completing the capture.'

"'Nonsense! Nonsense! My dear sir,' I took occasion to exclaim; 'Who ever heard of a mate being announced in twenty-two moves! Why that is a whole game. Meanwhile, before you execute your twenty-two move mate, you will have the goodness to take my Bishop with your Knight. In our Russian clubs we never violate the golden rule, 'Touch, and move.' No taking back, sir, and if I mistake not you will soon find yourself under some pressure.'

"Scarcely had I spoken, when the African uttered a laugh so loud that the very panes rattled again. Then completing his meditated capture of Bishop, by a most unexpected series of moves, he confined me to the corner, and to my utter amazement, finally checkmated as he had predicted in exactly twenty-two moves.

"Schakh Koroliou y Schakh Matt! ["Check to the King and Checkmate!"] cried my terrible adversary, in very good Russian, at the same time rising and taking from his finger a ring with which he crowned the mating piece. -- 'You have played this game well, Artamone Alexeitch,' he continued, 'and although unfortunate, you deserve the pledge I leave you.'

"While he spoke my eyes had remained riveted on this astonishing mate. When I raised them he had vanished from the room. I looked around for Oska. He had yielded to drowsiness, and was snoring in a corner of the apartment.

"Struck with amazement and stupor, I remained long in contemplation of this extraordinary position, and the gray dawn still found me pondering over the mated King."

My grandfather was scrupulous in the observance of the conditions of this mysterious challenge. During three years he abstained entirely from chess, and spoke to none of the adventure until the thirty years had completely elapsed.

Many among his chess-playing friends, to whom he recounted the strange occurrence after this time of probation, seemed inclined to consider the whole affair as the effect of a heated imagination or a troubled dream. This, however, my grandfather would never admit.

The ring has fallen to me, a bequest from my much honored grandsire. I sometimes fancy it is a talisman against my chess-adversaries. It is a signet, and bears graven in miniature on its broad bezel the following position.

[From The Book of Chess by H.R.Agnel (New York, 1882).]