Chapter Five: Kings Play Chess on Fine Grained Sand
The next day Ron played Flitwick first. The tiny professor was rumored to have some pixie blood to account for his size, but that didn't make his chess game any easier to deal with. Ron drew white, but that wasn't much help. Play the pieces, not the player, he thought to himself. That's what Dad always says.
He stopped for a moment about an hour into the game and studied the board as if he'd come to it fresh, like the teaching board Snape had left out for Malfoy. Once he saw what was going on, he knew he could make up any time he was using on the clock.
Aha! Ron thought. So that's what he's up to! Flitwick was using a flanking maneuver down the black queen's side, or at least that was what it looked like from the way he was developing his pawns. Ron decided to gamble and began rolling pieces down the middle, though he made sure his own pawns backed them up. It wasn't quite Snape's game, but it seemed to rattle the Charms Professor a bit. Then Ron sent Vinnie and Greg out hunting, while his knights lay in wait. Flitwick moved more hesitantly, obviously not sure what his opponent was up to. Well, that was reasonable. Ron wasn't sure, either, but he'd certainly distracted Flitwick from his own strategy.
Then Ron led another charge with his knights, usually his favorite gambit. Soon many of Flitwick's major pieces were boxed in or complaining at the side of the board. Not long after that the small professor tipped over his king. "Congratulations, Mr. Weasley. A well-fought game."
One down, two to go, Ron thought as he and Flitwick shook hands. He suspected the Charms Professor's game with Snape last night had been interesting indeed, and wished he'd been able to watch it, but McGonagall had been extremely insistent on making sure he went to bed early for a change.
He took a break, and then came back to watch McGonagall play Brentwood. He should probably take a look at how Snape was dealing with Abercrombie, but he wanted to see how the Ravenclaw was playing in case a tie had to be worked off.
He looked at the chess board. As far as he could tell, Brentwood was giving the Transfiguration Professor as good as she got. But it looked like she was using the same strategy she'd used on him. It was an excellent one; but could she change if McGonagall got around it?
As he watched, McGonagall slowly nibbled away at Brentwood's pieces and put the girl on the defensive. Brentwood tried to set up a pawn exchange like the one she'd nobbled Ron with, but McGonagall didn't fall for it and took the opportunity to firm up her position on the board. The ultimate outcome was clear to Ron, and probably to the Transfiguration Professor, before Brentwood started trying for a stalemate. But the Ravenclaw was cornered anyway. Her king complained out loud and struggled against being tipped over, but it was inevitable.
The pieces that Brentwood used were all badly shaken. Ron took a moment to reassure them when he sat down across from McGonagall. Just as he made his first move, he saw what to do. His own style had won against the Head of Gryffindor before, and she would be expecting it. What was new was realizing how to integrate what he'd seen of Quirrell by way of Malfoy with he'd learned in the tourney so far. He wasn't sure he could pull it off, but since Brentwood had lost her first game, and he had won his, even a draw would keep him ahead.
Once more he left his knights back, as he had with Flitwick. He'd make more use of them later. His pawns soon spread out like advance scouts, though with enough support behind them so they weren't vulnerable. Except for one, of course. He wanted that one to be on its own. Would McGonagall take the bait, thinking he'd overextended himself?
At first she played cautiously, obviously suspecting a trap. She set up her own position and made it stronger as she went. Ron continued, making what he hoped looked like a few mistakes. And she still didn't go after that pawn! Well, if she wasn't going to bring the battle to him, he was going to bring it to her. Now he went after her own pawns, though with an occasional loss of his own. He was going to miss that bishop later on!
Then McGonagall sprang her trap, and Ron stared at the mess he was in. But for once his knights were actually where they could do the most go instead of haring off after anything that came within their reach. He couldn't believe she'd actually forgotten where one of his pawns was for a bit. Then he took another look and almost gulped when he figured out what would happen if he did take that knight with the pawn. Not many used rooks well before the end of the game, but Ron suspected he was sitting across from someone who did. So he left the poor little fellow exactly where he, despite the piece's pitiful cry of abandonment, and brought up a pawn from his queen's side instead.
"Hmmph," McGonagall said, and moved her queen into the middle of the board.
And took the pawn that Ron was hoping she'd so something with since the beginning of the game. His moves came quickly then, and McGonagall was forced to retreat.
She counterattacked a few moves later, and Ron worried about losing the whole game right then. Fortunately his knights came through for him as they always did and maneuvered well enough to blunt the force of the opposing pieces. Then he started clearing her pieces off to open up her back rows.
The game ended up a draw after McGonagall played a little like Filch right back, but Ron felt triumphant. They shook hands. "Well-played, Mr. Weasley. You made me work for this."
"Thank you," he said.
It was lunch time now, and he was hungry. Granger and Potter sat by him and hardly interrupted at all as he told them all about the two games. "But the last one's against Snape," he said, miming his throat being cut. "I'll put up a good fight, but I saw what he did to McGonagall."
Hermione nodded. She had a book with her at table, probably to make up the time she'd spent helping Binns. Ron panicked briefly when he thought of all the schoolwork waiting for him. Then he decided not to worry about it till tomorrow. After all, he'd beaten Flitwick and drawn McGonagall. Brentwood had beaten Flitwick, too, but had lost against McGonagall and Snape, while Abercrombie had died gloriously against all three. Granted, the Hufflepuff had won against both Sprout and Filch.
No matter how this last game came out, he was probably going to be the winner of the tournament. Then again, he had no idea where he stood on either time or points, but Brentwood might have done better than he had on both. So he'd better not crow ahead of time! He remembered a certain Slytherin who had a tendency to do that, and decided he was better off doing just the opposite.
Lunch was over. He sat down against the Potions Master. "Play the pieces and not the player," he mumbled to himself.
"Oh. Just reminding myself of what Dad tells me--play the pieces and not the player."
"Ah. Unfortunately, many times you must play both." Snape drew white.
Ron knew just why the professor had gotten the nickname "the Hogwarts Express", because he soon felt like he was tied down in front of one of the school trains. Or facing a big Muggle truck, or something like that.
But McGonagall had beaten the Potions Master, if only once. Maybe if he encouraged Snape to get ahead of himself, or commit too many pieces, he could flank around. Normally he didn't castle, but he wanted his king safe before he threw down his own challenge.
Then Ron let Vinnie and Greg loose to hunt and destroy. Abercrombie had probably used this tactic, too, but Snape still seemed annoyed by it. Between these forays, Ron quietly brought his pawns forward, supported by pieces behind. He was going to take back the territory he lost.
Ron noticed that Snape's back row didn't look as well-defended as it had been when the Potions Master had been playing McGonagall. He let Vinnie make a run near the area, only to find out it was nastier than he'd thought. Fortunately he'd left the poor bishop a line of retreat, so he was able to get the shrieking piece back out again.
Snape grimaced and began a hunt of his own. Ron defended as best he could, but soon found himself down to one knight and one bishop. He moved the pawns ahead of his king to give it room to maneuver. Snape's pieces were oddly silent, except for Vinnie, whose wail when he'd been taken had been really pitiful. Well, besides Snape's queen, who uttered a joyous war-whoop whenever she smacked anything with her morning-star.
Ron's queen just looked miserable, till she got out and began to threaten the Potion Master's back row, along with his remaining bishop. Then he was distracted as Snape's pieces went after the guard around his own king.
Then Ron grinned. People forgot a king could take other pieces, too, and one of Snape's bishops had gotten a little too close. Instead of moving behind it, where it would probably be threatened by a knight in the next move, Ron took the bishop.
He was astounded to see his king bring out a tiny wand, which emitted a spark of green light as the bishop fell over. Death-Eater chess pieces, he thought morbidly. He stared down at the pieces, wondering if any of them had the Dark Mark on them underneath their carven robes.
But the game was still on, and that was more important. And he was getting massacred, despite his own attempts to clear the field a bit. He took some of the pressure off his king, and quietly moved it where he could keep it maneuverable. Maybe my endgame isn't as vicious as Filch's, he thought, but I can try to keep it memorable.
In a gentler, kinder chess game, he never would have taken so many chances with his king, but right now he had nothing to lose. He attacked, attacked, attacked, and then cut forward once more. His few remaining pawns were sent forward in a desperate attempt to get them to the last square to replace his perished queen, now moaning softly at the side of the board.
Unfortunately, Snape saw rather too clearly what he was up to. Ron's king ran for its life, one space at a time. Once again his king took a piece, this time a pawn too close to becoming a second queen. Once again the tiny green spark flared.
And then it became obvious that his king was going to have to move back and forth between two squares in perpetuity while Snape attempted check after check.
"We seem to have a stalemate," the Potions Master said in disgust.
Ron breathed a sigh of relief, then looked at the board again. Snape was only a few moves from getting his last remaining pawn down to the end. After that, it would take three moves at most to finish it.
"I wish," he said unhappily, and tipped his king, despite the way the piece tried to turn and wave its wand at him.
"I hope you do not surrender so easily in real life," Snape said acidly.
"Chess isn't real life. And you would have gotten me in five, maybe six moves."
"Yes, I see it now," Snape said. "Well-played. But remember not to give an advantage like that in future."
Ron nodded, but knew that chess had rules for a reason, and what kept it going was willingness to abide by them. And he knew he had to make the right judgment for himself. Maybe there was a little bit of Percy in him, after all.
But he wasn't going to argue with Snape over it right here!
The Potions Master put away his pieces while Ron looked at the standings. They had automatically updated themselves, and showed him at the top, mainly because of his draw with McGonagall. Brentwood was ahead on time, but he had beaten her in body count. He wondered if he ought to go thank Crabbe and Goyle for inspiring him to name his bishops Vinnie and Greg, then decided they wouldn't get it. Draco probably would, Ron thought, and then I'd be spending the evening in the infirmary. I'll tell Harry and 'Mione, though. They'll have fun with it!
"Mr. Weasley." Snape's voice broke through his reverie. "I am about to play the Headmaster. Do you wish to observe?"
Ron had forgotten, and gulped. "Of course!" Dumbledore was down at one of the tourney tables and opening a case. He dashed about and gathered up both the Ravenclaw girl and Abercrombie to come with him. Being together seemed to cheer everyone up.
The Headmaster and Snape sat down together. "I'm glad you're returning to some of your old interests, Severus," Dumbledore said.
"I never quite gave it up."
"I see. I suspect you learned some of the disadvantages of using live pieces then."
"Speak for yourself, Albus," Snape said with a smirk.
"Point taken." Dumbledore finished setting out the pieces, then moved the king's pawn in a classic opening.
The Headmaster's set was a Quidditch team! Ron adored it instantly. The King was a Keeper, the Queen a Seeker, and every single piece was holding a broom, except for the pawns. They were all tiny golden Snitches-one side edged in white, the other in black.
The game the two played was so far above Ron's head that all he could do was take notes. He'd replay it later with his dad and try to make sense of it then. Dumbledore's strategy reminded him a little bit of the way Binns played. Snape began rolling his pieces down the middle the way he had before, only to discover that getting there was only half the fun, as Dumbledore quickly swallowed up any attempt to break through his own defenses. Snape then began working his way around the edges, as Ron saw him do with McGonagall, only to meet Dumbledore coming back at him there, too.
Then the game settled down into one of maneuver and position. Ron thought he detected bit of Quirrell's strategy on both sides. The oddest thing was that Snape was actually looking pleased with himself, despite the fact he obviously was not doing as well as he had against the other members of the staff. Neither player said much, but Ron had the strangest feeling they were talking to each other through the way they moved their pieces.
At no time did it seem like the Headmaster was in serious trouble. Yet Ron didn't think that it was as easy for Dumbledore to defend against Snape's relentless attack as the elderly wizard made it look. A wintry smile occasionally appeared on the Potions Master's face, as if he were enjoying the game for its own sake.
It didn't seem like a long time until Snape finally tipped over his king, but Ron checked the clock and it had been two and a half hours. It would probably take him at least that long to replay it properly, but knew it would be worth the effort.
That night the Gryffindor table cheered for Ron and Slytherin cheered for Snape, while the other two tables cheered for everybody. McGonagall seemed almost as happy as if Gryffindor had swept both places. But since she had her own rating, she'd be going to the tournament anyway. Ron was glad about that.
Being singled out this way was wonderful!
Arthur Weasley riffled through books and old magazines out in the family garage and ignored the cold. He already had a stack on McGonagall; she had placed at a very high level in several All-Wizards' tournaments, though she had yet to take the cup. But wizards and witches lived a long time, and she still had many more chances. It wasn't unknown for some of the players to keep on past a hundred and change, like old al-Hadoud or Headmaster Dumbledore.
He ended up going back over five tournaments before he found Snape. Child prodigy, Weasley discovered in a "Where Are They Now?" article. Entered Hogwarts a year early-well, he was tall for his age, judging by the picture-swept both house and Hogwarts championships. Bet Lucius Malfoy was in a snit. The bastard was several years older, and still got wiped out. Pity someone else hasn't done it since. Then Snape went to the All-Wizards, where he took the juvenile cup. Arthur noticed the awkward gangly child looked defensive at first in the picture, then relaxed and actually showed a shy smile. But so often prodigies don't prove out as adults. Then he looked at the dates, and realized what else had been going on five years later when the next tourney was held. Snape was supposed to have gotten involved with the Death-Eaters before he left Hogwarts, he remembered. No doubt chess tournaments were too trivial compared to taking over the world.
Since then, the Potions Master had stayed out of organized chess, though Malfoy occasionally boasted of beating Snape in private games. Arthur had paid no attention then; but now he wondered if the sod had been telling the truth. He was glad that he and Molly had been out of school and married before Malfoy had become so notorious there at Hogwarts. The Marauders went after the wrong Slytherin, if you ask me!
Now Severus Snape was coming back. Ron had owled him with accounts of the games he had seen, and Arthur had owled him for more details, especially the McGonagall-Snape matchup. The Head of Gryffindor normally went as Hogwarts champion, and Arthur very much wanted to see the kind of play that had defeated her.
He was so proud of Ron he could hardly speak-not only for the games, but for the sportsmanship the boy had showed against Snape. He might have grasped at that stalemate himself. His son was still learning from others, and that was the way a real champion operated. Arthur read an old interview where al-Hadoud claimed that even at a hundred and twenty that he was still picking up new things about the game. Weasley had never met the old Arab, though his father had a long time ago. The fellow hadn't gone to the All-Wizards for a couple of decades, but everyone in the chess world certainly knew of him. He would love to see Dumbledore and the Arab meet once more, as they had in a fabled series of games in 1955.
Arthur grimaced when he came across a more recent magazine extolling Lucius Malfoy as a player. Weasley couldn't finger it exactly, but he thought there was a weakness to the man's play than seemed apparent to anyone else. Hope someone knocks him down a peg or two someday, he thought. Pity it won't be me who does it, unfortunately, at least not this time. His Ministry duties would keep him away, especially since there were rumors that Karkaroff had finally surfaced.
He reluctantly stacked the magazines. Oh, how I wish I could go this time! But Ron will have to uphold the family honor by himself. Maybe the next one, he thought, knowing deep within his heart if they were all still alive five years from now that he'd consider himself well off. That idiot Fudge still wouldn't admit that Voldemort was back!
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