From “Evenings at Café Alekhine”
Zudirk (he never gave us his surname) was approximately 60 years old, though he could have been a dissolute 45 or a well-maintained 75. He wore dark corduroy trousers, a sailor’s jacket, and an old fedora, summer and winter. His moustache was neatly trimmed on the first of each month and grew longer as the days passed, though controlled into handlebar form by M. Pinaud’s moustache wax, brown, in a silver tube.
Zudirk professed no religion. Once when the subject arose, he merely grunted and pointed at the chessboard in front of him. “This is my religion. It brings me peace and joy, yet doesn’t take away my self-reliance.” He paused, then added, “And it hasn’t burnt anybody at the stake, yet, as far as I know. So I’ll stick with Chessianity until Jesus walks in that door. If he ever does. I’ll offer him odds of a pawn.” He nodded and smiled faintly.
That was all he ever said on the subject.
Politics was another matter. On that subject, he was an island of non-partisan cynicism in an ocean of rabid opinion. The politics of our habitués tended to range from left of Lenin to right of Raskolnikov. That’s about a centimeter’s breadth. Still, they managed to argue at great length about politics when they weren’t playing chess.
Zudirk rejected this narrow little spectrum and everything on both sides of it. “Liars, every one of them. All politicians lie, even the honest ones, who lie so people won’t believe the lies of the dishonest ones.”
Once, he told us a joke. “Three politicians have just died,” he said, “a Russian, a German, and a Frenchman. They find themselves waiting in line in front of St. Peter. St. Peter says, ‘We don’t let politicians in here; you are terrible liars. In fact, you are such habitual liars, I’ll bet none of you can say even a single sentence without lying. If any of you can do that, I’ll let him in.’
“The Russian politician says, “Everything I am ever telling the Russian pipples is completely true.” St. Peter sends him away to Hell.
“The German politician says, ‘I have always tried very hard to be completely accurate, but life is full grey areas, and it is entirely possible that out of dire necessity I may, to the German people, on several occasions, have misspoken.’ St. Peter sends him away, too.
“The French politician says, ‘Alors! I have not told even a single lie to ze French people…” Then he looks at St. Peter and adds, “…in ze last five minutes.'”
Zudirk would often put an end to political debate by shouting “Let’s play chess!” He’d then grab someone and almost drag them to his table. Silence would fall over Café Alekhine once more, broken only by the sound of coffee cups and spoons, chessmen being plunked down on wooden tables, or an occasional sotto voce comment, grunt, or oath.
Zudirk preferred “battle royal,” the kind of open game that resulted from king’s pawn openings. He thought those openings made for a friendlier game. If playing white against strangers, he’d use P-Q4 [d4]. His forte was in the middle game, where the standard opening routine had been left behind, but where the number of remaining pieces left ample scope for pitfalls.
During a break one evening, conversation turned to the topic of dopplegangers, those putative beings who are the exact image of a person. Legend had it that they inhabit the antipodes (thus explaining why they are rarely seen), but this would often result in their drowning, since most antipodal localities lie in the ocean (an even better explanation for their scarcity.)
One of us then claimed that he’d seen a ghost, once. His aunt had been dying, and late one night he’d brought her a glass of Pernod to help her sleep. As he returned to the kitchen, he saw someone walking down the stairs ahead of him. The light was too dim to see who it was, so he turned on a lamp just as he reached the kitchen. The outside door was barred, but the figure had disappeared. His aunt died the next night. He never determined who the figure might have been, nor why it had come. Nor did he ever see it again.
Zudirk lit a pipe and said, “Sometimes the fabric of space grows thin between the worlds. All manner of things can be seen, then.” I thought this was a strange comment, coming from him. I found out later it was a quote from Bidermann.
“Perhaps it was because my aunt was soon to die,” said the man.
“Perhaps,” Zudirk agreed.
Another of us then drew a comparison of doppelgangers to banshees, spirits that presage death. Just as he said the word “death,” a man entered the café. He was hatless, of medium height, with white shirt and pants, but darkish hair and eyes, and a waxed moustache. Even in the poor light of the entrance, his similarity to Zudirk was immediately obvious to all.
“You play chess here?” the white-clad stranger asked. The room grew silent.
“We try,” said Zudirk, approaching him with both fists extended.
The man tapped Zudirk’s right hand, whereupon Zudirk opened it, revealing a white pawn.
“Good, I much prefer white.” the man said and followed Zudirk back to his table.
“I usually offer odds…” began Zudirk, replacing the pawn in front of the white king.
“Not to me, you won’t.” The man, whom I shall call “White,” sat down, immediately nudged the pawn forward two squares, and punched the double clock to keep time for his opponent.
Zudirk (or “Black”) responded with his own queen’s bishop pawn [c6] and toggled the clock back to White.
Others gathered around their table, watching the action. White ordered coffee and sipped at it slowly during the game. Zudirk filled and lit another pipe.
He followed a Sicilian Defense that rapidly evolved along the lines of Lasker. The first twenty moves took only a few minutes. As play progressed beyond the well-established opening, moves took a little longer, though neither player was in any danger of losing by taking too much time.
By now, still more players had pulled up chairs, two deep. Latecomers formed an amphitheater of tables and sat on them.
I had been fortunate to position my chair right next to Zudirk. I watched him closely. He gave no sign of recognizing his opponent as his double. He would calmly contemplate his move, shove the piece into position, punch the clock, then sit and stare at the other. I wondered how he could sit there so calmly in the face of this visitation.
The game went to 30 moves, then 40. Their material was equal, though I thought White had a very slight positional advantage.
About the 50th move, there was a flurry of exchanges. White cleverly converted his positional edge into a pawn, but without an open file to promote it (or threaten to). I expected him to force a second series of exchanges to clear that file.
But, to my surprise, the next exchange revealed a nascent discovered attack concealed in Zudirk’s position. The pawn fell. Material was now even and Black had the positional edge. White had no choice but to force more exchanges until both sides were equalized. A draw was agreed upon in lieu of move 62. I was very impressed.
The spectators congratulated both men on their game, which had been quite solid, almost brilliant, with several fascinating twists. The onlookers silently straightened the room and returned to muted conversation without looking directly at the two Zudirks now facing each other across an empty board.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Zudirk said at last, ignoring my presence at his elbow.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” White said, also paying me no attention.
“You came back to tell me?”
“I couldn’t let you be alone, you understand?”
“Yes, there is no one else, is there? Just these men…this room…and the bed-sitter. Since Gilda died….”
White nodded. “It’s been ten years.”
“Only ten? Yes. Well, I suppose I have to go, now. No point in waiting here.”
“There’s no rush, as it turns out. He hasn’t left the bar, yet.”
“A drunk?” Zudirk snorted. “That seems so…pointless.”
White shrugged. “Death always seems pointless. But ‘meaningless’ is closer to the truth.”
Zudirk laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkled up.
“You can stay a little longer if you wish,” White said.
Zudirk shook his head. “I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just start home” He shifted in his chair, leaned back. “Thank you for the game. It was exceptional.”
White smiled and stood up. “It would be, wouldn’t it?”
“How much time do I have?”
Wordlessly, White reached over and toggled the clock. There were now ten minutes ticking away on Zudirk’s timer.
“Very well.” Zudirk rose. Suddenly, he turned to me and thrust out his hand. “Walter, thank you for your friendship and for the chess. You were my favorite opponent; did you know that?” He smiled and looked in my eyes.
I hadn’t known. I shook his hand and bade him goodbye in kind, then touched his arm briefly. I’d heard the finality in his goodbye.
White had already gone outside while we’d said our farewells. Zudirk scooped his pieces into the box he carried them in. He then put on his hat and coat and said goodnight to the others before leaving the cafe with the box under his arm.
I felt a sudden need to stop him, make him stay just another minute, give me another smile, let me say I’d miss him. I rushed to the door, but he was already at the far end of the red-and-black-tiled corridor, stepping out into the night. I consoled myself a little with that extra glimpse of him, and that is how I remember him now.
In the very early morning, I found his chessmen strewn across the sidewalk where the car had struck him.