God loves average people, and that’s why he made so many of them. That was what I always told myself in the moments, not-infrequent, when my own mediocrity was painfully evident. But of course it never really comforted me. I always secretly wanted to break free from averageness, to achieve some remarkable and awe-inspiring thing, to impress my friends and family and graze on the greener grass at the right end of the bell curve.
It was this vague desire to break free from mediocrity that motivated me to join the Waco Chess Club. The decision to join was a result of a process of elimination more than anything else. My job was fine but represented a dead end in terms of great achievement. I was single and though women often called me mean, I felt that they had overestimated my percentile and that I was actually below average at dating and relationships. I was physically uncoordinated and out of shape and unlikely to receive a recruiting call from the NFL or the Joffrey Ballet, though I did keep my ringer on.
But I had been a decent chess player since I was a kid. After I thought about it and eliminated my other options, chess seemed like the best, or maybe even the only, way that I could ever become more than average at anything. With some hard work and luck, maybe I could even touch greatness, and then poke it in the eye for spurning me for so long. So I joined the chess club, paid my dues, and began to study and play chess with regularity and diligence.
That’s how I met Adhiban. Adhiban was another regular at the club. He was quiet and nerdy like most serious chess players, but also gracious in victory and modest in defeat, unlike most of them. Everyone liked him although most people didn’t notice him much. Then again, he didn’t notice them much either.
Getting to know chess enthusiasts like Adhiban helped me to understand that chess is more than a matter of better and worse, of average and extreme or of talent and incompetence. Chess is also a matter of personality. The progress of the pieces on the board is a shadowy manifestation of the quirks, nobilities, neuroses, strengths, and even the character of the player. The risk-averse and the cautious keep all their pieces together, huddled nervously by the king, watching for the inevitable and inexorable advance of the enemy. Players with combative and pugnacious personalities set up opposition everywhere, bold attacks as far as the eye can see, and fierce sharpness all over the sixty-four squares of the board. Greedy materialists abandon strategic concerns and just try to capture more of your pieces than you capture of theirs. All of the variety of human personality can be inferred from a few dozen moves on an 8x8 board, and it is less interesting to know the best moves than it is to see the imperfect moves that reveal something unexpected about the person who made them.
This is just as true today as it ever was. There is a simple system of chess notation that makes it easy to record an entire game in a compact format. People have been recording their games for centuries, and it is easy to go online and find thousands of games by long-dead figures with diverse and exotic names like Philidor and Mir Sultan Khan and Mikhail Tal and Jose Raul Capablanca. Leafing through their games, we can come to feel as if we know them. Among them we can find all of the characters of the eternal human comedy, including the swashbucklers, the romantics, the shrewd calculators, the intuitive, the brilliant, and the fools. If one examines at thousands of games over hundreds of years, one can even see the long-term trends of world history reflected on the microcosmic chess board: the ceremonial politeness of the Persian court in early games, centuries of empire-building reflected in expansive and domineering styles in later years, cold Soviet precision in the twentieth century, and an international miscellany today.
But among all those different kinds of players past and present, Adhiban was my favorite. He played calmly and conservatively most of the time, striving for equal positions and not averse to agreeing to a draw when the moment called for it. But that was not what I liked about Adhiban’s style. My favorite was that in about a third of his games, after thirty or forty unremarkable moves, he would play exactly one “sacrifice” move that was inexcusably outrageous: he would give away his queen, or expose his king, or destroy his carefully developed pawn structure, or endanger several minor pieces. There are some sacrifices in chess that are justified and reasonable, but Adhiban’s sacrifices always flew in the face of well-established principles of good chess and were soundly condemned by the chess software that we sometimes used to evaluate Adhiban’s inexplicable flagrancies.
But these sacrifices always, or nearly always, worked. Ten or fifteen or twenty moves later, Adhiban had found some way back to being the cool cucumber he always was, playing solidly and turning his strange sacrifices to his advantage, winning more often than not.
I loved Adhiban for making these sacrifice moves, for several reasons. Mostly I loved the idea of a secret daring iconoclasm hidden beneath a mild-mannered exterior. It made the universe seem more exciting when I imagined that each mundane object might contain some shocking and wondrous unimagined essence within it in the same way that gentle Adhiban contained his capacity for daring sacrifices. I also loved the entertainment value – seeing the look on the face of a baffled opponent, or mentally working through the consequences and advantages of his bizarre moves was its own reward.
On one of the club’s rare non-chess-related social outings, we were all together at a seedy Chinese restaurant, and someone tried to press Adhiban about his peculiar style.
“What,” said Murphy, always one to put things plainly, “is the deal.”
Adhiban looked at him quizzically. “The deal with your sacrifices out of nowhere,” Murphy continued while trying mostly in vain to pick up a dumpling with chopsticks. “We can’t understand them.” The soy sauce had made his chopsticks slippery. “The computer can’t understand them.” He tried to get a purchase on the other end of the dumpling. “They are demonstrably unsound.” Now he was pushing the chopsticks under the dumpling, forklift-style. “And yet you win. How do you come up with those strange ideas that defeat us?”
“Maybe I’m just good at calculating, looking ahead at everything that could happen,” was Adhiban’s halfhearted reply.
“Unlikely.” Murphy was unconvinced. “Looking just three moves ahead requires thinking through something like…” Murphy seemed to be crunching numbers in his head. He was also using his non-chopstick hand to massage his other wrist, as if he had pulled a muscle unsuccessfully working with the recalcitrant dumpling. It was a strenuous evening for him. “sixty-four million different positions. You couldn’t really think through all of those. And plus, you’re not that good at calculating in other situations.” It was harshly put, but it was true. Adhiban sometimes won second or third in regional chess competitions, but he was not anywhere near the level of the best in the world, or even the state. Besides his remarkable piece sacrifices, he was not a particularly special talent.
Someone else entered the discussion. “My theory has always been that Adhiban is a practitioner of psychological warfare. He does some strange sacrifice to unnerve you, to intimidate you, and to make you think that he has something up his sleeve. But in fact his plan and his sleeve contain nothing.”
Murphy was still unimpressed. “Maybe. I don’t see it. We have seen Adhiban’s sacrifices succeed against the most formidable and steel-nerved foes. His bluff, like my ex-girlfriend, cannot be successfully called. There must be some explanation, and I think Adhiban should provide it to us.” Murphy was getting worked up now, and in the course of his expansive gesticulation had knocked over his half-consumed soda. He put down his chopsticks to wipe himself off as the rest of us pretended not to notice.
“Adhiban,” he said, looking at his still-besotted shirt rather than his interlocutor. “You are a reasonable man. Amicable and altruistic if ever those words had true meaning.” Murphy had noticed another stain on his shirt, probably a pre-existing condition, and began to work on that as he continued his speech. “Simpatico, and a real mensch.” His wet napkin only succeeded in spreading the stain around until it took up a considerable portion of his shirt’s surface area. He was unperturbed. “Enlighten us! Tell us where you get your shocking piece sacrifices.” The drama of his demand was undermined slightly by the considerable distraction to all of us of his inability to convey foodstuffs to the right locations. Nevertheless, all heads turned to Adhiban, expecting that he would provide a satisfactory response.
Adhiban seemed a little uncomfortable to receive all this high-pressure attention all of a sudden. “Well,” he began. “Really, I. It’s hard to express it.” He was struggling to get the words out. “To tell the truth, I guess I should just be straightforward, and, I get the ideas from Lakshmi.” He had blurted out the truth.
“Aha!” said Murphy, who had composed himself and seemed ready to try to eat again. “Lakshmi! Who is this Lakshmi?” He was now using only one chopstick, holding it like a cleaver, and trying to skewer his white dumpling with the mad energy of Captain Ahab on a vengeful and hungry day. Tell us of this temptress from the Orient!”
Adhiban ignored Murphy’s outlandish phraseology and explained. “The goddess Lakshmi. She comes to me in dreams. She tells me one move in a dream, and I play it the next day no matter what I think of it, and it works.” He said it all very simply and directly.
Of course this dominated the conversation for the remainder of the evening. We went back and forth about the meaning and implications of Adhiban’s unique approach to the game. The atheists among us were too polite to bluntly deny that Adhiban could have ever received communication from the divine. On the contrary, one club member said that Adhiban’s dreams were proof positive of the existence of God, and much more specifically the existence of that particular Hindu goddess. The contrast between Adhiban’s typical style and his occasional brilliancies was too great, he said, for them both to come from the same mind – so someone must be giving him hints, and if she identifies herself as Lakshmi then we have no reason not to believe her. Though potentially heartening to religious apologists, we decided that this proof of theism would not “stand up in court” or convince unbelievers, who would argue that Adhiban’s typical style and daring sacrifices were not as different as we imagined and both indeed came from (different parts of) his subconscious.
Stipulating this, we moved on to other, more fruitful inquiries. Why, for example, would Lakshmi reveal only one move at a time, instead of an entire winning game? Adhiban said that maybe she knew that his memory wasn’t good enough to remember a whole game, so she told him one key, unexpected move and left the rest to him to work out for himself. Well, if your memory is bad, why did she come to you in dreams anyway? Why not whisper invisibly in your ear during the actual game, in real time as it were? Perhaps because I lack focus or the proper suspension of disbelief when I’m awake, was Adhiban’s explanation. In dreams she found him in just the right state of consciousness for her esoteric revelations. But why would she only come to you once or twice a week, instead of nightly, since you’re playing at least one game a day anyway?
These questions begin to get at, but do not fully address, the most perplexing aspects of the situation. No matter what the specifics of timing and format of Lakshmi’s instructions for chess sacrifices, the larger question remained of why. Why would Lakshmi spill her revelations on Adhiban, a fine fellow but not a world class talent or someone who was obviously at the fulcrum of world events. And after choosing Adhiban to guide, why were her instructions solely related to chess sacrifices, rather than to something more obviously important or grand like curing cancer or colonizing Mars.
There are some reasonable potential answers to these questions as well. Though Adhiban was not among the world’s best chess players, he was (so one club member proposed) among the world’s most pious believers. Lakhsmi was willing to reveal truths to anyone, according to this theory, but she was limited by each person’s level of purity, their receptiveness to divine messages, their physiological capacity for dreaming, and the meditative hours during which she had access to their minds. Adhiban was a hitherto unrecognized top-one-percent talent in each of these areas, and if there were competitions for constant contact with the divine in the same way there were chess competitions, he would come home with the trophies every time, and be a contender for the world championship.
As for why Adhiban would receive revelations about chess moves to play in casual games and unimportant regional meets rather than cures for diseases or solutions to unsolved murder cases or even just stock tips. The simplest answer was that chess was constantly at the forefront of Adhiban’s mind, and it was more or less the only thing he meditated on regularly, and the only thing in which he had expertise. If Lakshmi had wanted to tell him a chemical formula for a cancer cure, he wouldn’t understand it since he hadn’t taken enough chemistry classes. If she had wanted to tell him about the solution to a murder case, it would have been hard for her to find a time when his mind wasn’t distracted by chess to get the news to him.
These answers are tolerable, but they underestimate the incomprehensibility of the universe. I prefer another, more absurd, explanation: that the sacrifices that Lakshmi suggested to Adhiban for his unheralded and unacclaimed chess games were just as important as cures for diseases or solutions to civil wars. This is not to say that the deaths and misery in plagues and wars are unimportant. Rather, Adhiban’s games will become part of the warp and weft of the complex and unfathomable universe, and will set some millennia-long chain of events in motion that will, after innumerable snowball effects and butterfly effects and domino effects, save a nation or avert a holocaust or cause some child to be born who would save mankind. Our grasp of what is important and unimportant must be paltry compared to the knowledge of a god, who could understand justifications that are far beyond us for war and disease, and could find the key to mankind’s infinite destiny in the hobby of an unassuming amateur in Texas.
This explanation was comforting to me in at least one way: it helped me imagine that the triviality of my life was only an illusion, and that each of the unimportant tasks that I dedicated myself to, like playing chess games or writing nitpicky letters to newspaper editors, could be much more important than I had imagined. But of course there was a dark flip side to this theory. If any trivial act could have unlimited positive consequences, then any trivial act, or even an act that seemed noble and pure, could have unlimited negative consequences. Helping an old lady cross the street or taking aspirin for a headache could create its own domino effect that would lead to nuclear war or some other devastation. But presumably, Lakshmi or some other god would tell us if we were about to do something awful and warn us against it, right?
I hoped so. But neither Lakshmi nor any other deity had ever spoken to me or anyone else at the dinner besides Adhiban. Or at least, no one else was willing to admit having received direct revelations from the divine. If Adhiban could receive these heavenly messages, who else could receive them, and why not one of us? And if Adhiban was receiving instructions about how to play unimportant chess games that (I believed) were somehow crucial to world history, then what other trivial tasks were being commanded by gods in the dreams of countless other average Joes?
I began to imagine a janitor in some corporate office building, apparently insignificant but receiving nightly visitations from some pagan divinity who gave him specific commands about which corners to clean the next day and how, for the sake of putting into motion some far distant events that the gods were interested in precipitating. And what other people, rich and famous or poor and unrecognized, were getting marching orders like Adhiban, for the sake of bringing to pass the whims and desires of the distant gods? We hear about God’s revelation to Moses to take the commandments down from the mountain, and to deliver the children of Israel, but in the tapestry of the cosmos, there could be many threads; the gods could have use for people whose role was less obviously significant but whose revelations were just as real and in their own way just as important.
All of that presupposes the benevolent intentions of the gods. But how would Adhiban or anyone else know that taking orders from Lakshmi was not going to be the cause of great wickedness and misery? Or what if Lakshmi was only indulging her levity? That is to say, what if she was only toying with Adhiban for her own amusement, filling his head with trifles and laughing at his pious devotion to them? Maybe she was engaged in her own chess game against a rival deity, who appeared in the dreams of Adhiban’s chess opponents and tried to give them ways to defeat Adhiban. Maybe Adhiban’s life was merely the stage of a proxy war between spiteful beings above.
If Adhiban’s life was a minor proxy war, what did that mean for the rest of our lives, who were only tangentially involved in the war and were not in wars of our own? We would then be something like extras in a play that wasn’t even about us. Another friend suggested that we were all being toyed with by the gods. Adhiban received his years of revelations as a way for the gods to bring about this very evening, and this discussion. They just wanted to see what we thought of the whole thing, and they are snickering to themselves even now as they watch us unsuccessfully try to piece it all together.
We abandoned this pessimistic view and started to discuss what Adhiban should do about his peculiar situation. Perhaps with great effort and training, he could expand his relationship with Lakshmi, and have a fuller communication with her. Perhaps he could come to receive instructions from her during his waking hours rather than just during sleep. It goes without saying that we encouraged him to ask her for more chess moves per dream, and to ask for especially good moves just before important games that had prize money attached. Perhaps he could also ask her to relay messages to departed loved ones, and to get messages back from them. If he could perfect that, he could make decent money on this side of the veil, holding séances.
Adhiban’s alleged link with the divine was not too different from the link that had propelled several of history’s greatest prophets to their places in history. Prophets like Muhammad and Joseph Smith founded robust religious movements based on peculiar divine communications. Adhiban could become a leader of a worldwide sect. And just like the whirling dervishes dance as part of their mystical religious devotion and the medieval monks chanted, Adhiban’s sect could incorporate chess as an anointed bridge to the divine.
Adhiban laughed good-naturedly about all of this. That wasn’t how he saw it, he told us. He explained that he viewed the divine visitations and messages as nothing more or less than a token. Though he was unimportant in world affairs, Lakshmi approved of him and cared for him. She told him chess moves that were beyond human comprehension because they were sufficient proof for Adhiban that she was real and that he was living uprightly enough to be in contact with the divine. His revelatory dreams were like a handshake, communicating trust and camaraderie more than anything else.
Not long after that, the evening ended. I don’t think anyone brought up Adhiban’s sacrifice moves in public again. During games I sometimes looked in his eyes and tried to see if there was a hint of divine fire in them, of the presence or remnant of the gods. I never could be sure that I saw anything.
Over the years, all of us in the club gradually drifted apart and went our separate ways. For some of us, chess faded from our lives. Others faded from life itself. Murphy moved away and kept some faraway dry cleaner in business with a steady supply of stained shirts. Adhiban faded away from the club too. This was surprising to many of us, given that he treasured his nighttime visitations from Lakshmi and they seemed to be related only to chess sacrifices. He never told us why he stopped playing chess, but most of us concluded that it was because of his new girlfriend, who later become his wife. She was one of those beautiful flaxen-haired Central Texas girls, strong, sensible, loyal, and feminine. She seemed to push him to go for a promotion at work that took much of his time, and eventually he was obliged to help out at home with their new kids as well. Some of us thought that he had given up the token or handshake from Lakshmi for lust over this girl, or laziness after she made tough demands on his time. Adhiban never confirmed or denied any of this.
I imagined a more cheerful reason for Adhiban giving up chess. I imagined that Lakshmi wouldn’t do anything but smile on his pairing with a wonderful woman who made him happy. Though I can’t claim to know Lakshmi’s mind or decision processes, I imagined that she may have even influenced Adhiban to pursue and marry this woman. The relationship seemed to mean the end of the divine messages and the end of a pleasant hobby. But this would fit perfectly with the pattern that Lakshmi had established with Adhiban. She had been instructing him for years to give up good things, pieces and positions, for long-term benefits, wins in games. I imagined that Lakshmi had spent patient years slowly training Adhiban to give chess pieces up, all as preparation for a final, most important message that she would deliver: to marry this woman, to give up chess and friends and messages from the gods for the travails of home and love for the entire remainder of a long life; Lakshmi had painstakingly taught Adhiban trust and exact obedience for the sake of a final command, conceived and ratified in the heavens, for Adhiban to make his ultimate and most brilliant sacrifice.