Chapter Two: Opening Moves
In a few days, the Gryffindor tournament began under McGonagall's supervision. All games were played in the part of the main hall that was set aside for the different houses to determine their own champion.
Just as Ron thought, Oliver Wood was playing, too. But he looked at the schedule, and they weren't going to meet for a while even if both of them were undefeated. He was pleased that Potter actually did win a couple of games at first, though in the third round a couple of days later they were matched together.
"Well, this won't take long," Harry said ruefully. "I should have volunteered the way Granger did. She doesn't have to do a thing till next week."
Ron just nodded. Friends were important, but this was chess. Besides, if he became house champion, the games next week would be scored as well as tallied as wins, losses, or draws. As much as he wanted to go easy on Potter, it wouldn't be right.
It didn't take long. Harry barely avoided the fool's mate that Ron set up just as a joke, but didn't have an organized strategy to manage Ron's concerted attack.
"Can I just resign now?" Harry asked, as they both listened to the whines of his fallen pieces at the side of the board.
"I don't think we're supposed to," Ron said. "Let's just play it out."
Then Potter's king pulled out his sword and dramatically stabbed himself. "I've never seen it do that before," Harry said.
"Neither have I. I guess he wants it to be over, too."
Only one game remained in this round for him, but that was scheduled for tomorrow, and it was still only early afternoon. Potter fled the scene of the massacre, no doubt heading directly for his broom. Ron briefly considered homework, shuddered in horror, and wandered around looking for someone to play. Ok, so he was following Snape's advice. Big deal.
Malfoy sat by himself staring at a board already set up, and obviously trying to figure his way through the problem in front of him. Apparently Crabbe and Goyle hadn't even entered, since Ron couldn't see them anywhere.
"Quick match?" Ron asked, bracing himself for the usual Malfoy malice.
"Sure," Draco said with a smirk. "This mess is no good."
Ron thought Malfoy was giving up too easily. Just by glancing at the game he saw several possible lines of attack. But that wasn't his problem, so he helped Draco set up the board for a fresh game.
The pieces were quiet. No doubt they were from the school borrow chest, and had been handled by so many people they'd given up having any opinions of their own. Malfoy drew white, but Ron didn't mind. He wanted to learn his opponent's style more than anything else, and wasn't that worried about actually winning.
Draco's opening was conventional, and so was his. As the game proceeded, Ron realized that Malfoy was actually pretty good. A few moves later, he saw that Draco was re-creating a classic game from the All-Wizard's Tournament in Paris ten years ago. Fortunately, Arthur Weasley followed the sport. A good thing Dad and I replay some of those games, Ron thought. Now what if I try for a queen's gambit instead of leading with the bishop like Duvalier did back then? It certainly can't hurt!
Malfoy squinted, apparently stymied once Ron started changing his play. He became more hesitant about his moves.
He must have a good memory to get this far, but there's more to playing than that. But the game was no cakewalk, and Ron knew he'd better not follow that classic game too closely himself. "Play the pieces, not the player," Dad always said.
It was like Quidditch, in a way. You had to make the other side react to your moves, not the other way around. He bent down over the table and created a pattern he liked better.
At last Malfoy had to admit defeat, though it took checkmate to do it. "Good game," Draco said with obvious reluctance.
"Well played," Ron said, feeling the same way at having to be polite. Once Malfoy got up and left, Ron put the pieces back the way they'd been when he'd gotten here. I wish I had as good a memory for schoolwork as I did for chess, he thought. Then he looked at the problem, and began figuring out what to do. Once he started, the opposing pieces moved by themselves. Apparently getting back into their proper position reset the spell of whoever had set up the problem.
"Amusing yourself, Mr. Weasley?" Professor Snape said in a silky voice.
Ron was startled. "Yes sir. Malfoy went off after we played each other, and this looked interesting."
"A pity you don't find your other studies so enthralling."
"Umm?" At least he'd gotten the Potions homework turned in.
"Never mind," Snape said. "I am, of course, overwhelmed with gratitude that you took my advice about playing others. Any thoughts about what you've learned?"
He was about to blurt out what he'd seen about Draco so far, then realized that Gryffindor would probably lose points if he said what he really thought. "Yes, sir. But I think I'll keep them to myself for now."
Snape's eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch. "Discretion from a Weasley. The world must be coming to an end. Carry on."
Ron was distracted for a moment, but got back to business after almost losing his queen. As it was, he ended up having to force a draw to avoid getting smashed.
Then the pieces arranged themselves into a new pattern. As tempting as this problem looked, he needed to play more with real people. I might come back to this if I have time, though, Ron thought.
Getting mowed down by a relentless Ravenclaw girl certainly was educational, Ron realized a couple of hours later. He would rather have missed the lesson if given the chance, but in a way he was still glad he'd played her. He made some quick notes on a scrap of paper while he still remembered the specifics. He set up his own pieces on a spare board and replayed it, though he had to ignore catcalls and insults as he tried to figure out what he could have done differently.
"I see you have met young Miss Brentwood," Professor McGonagall said dryly as she leaned over the board.
"I just wish how I knew she got a Bludger to whack me on the head," Ron said. The girl had set up one of the sneakiest pawn-swaps he'd ever been the victim of, and it had all gone downhill from there.
"I have a book in my quarters that may prove useful," the Professor said. "You might want to have a look at it tonight and have another go at it after that."
"Thank you!" he said. Wizard chess books didn't have pages of diagrams like Granger said Muggle ones did. One photo per game was all that was needed. Of course, that was what made them expensive, too. It took a long time for each game to slowly play itself out, along with the commentary. Of course McGonagall would have better books than the library. Why hadn't he asked her in the first place?
At last the long day was over. Ron ate with good appetite and chattered about the tournament, blithely ignoring the glazed eyes of his companions. "The board that played by itself must have been a teaching board," he added. "I hope it's still there tomorrow. I only have one more game on the schedule, but I still have a lot of work to do."
As soon as dinner was over, he went to McGonagall's office. She handed him the book. "I suggest you look at games 15 through 23," she said. "But don't stay up late tonight doing it. You need enough sleep to play Mr. Wood tomorrow."
That sounded like she thought he could manage well enough without the book for that particular game. But once back in the bedroom he shared with Potter and the others, he looked at it for a little while anyway.
"Turn off the lights and go to sleep!" Potter finally begged.
How could he sleep? Moves and countermoves danced in his head. But it wasn't fair to everyone else to make them stay up, and he didn't feel like getting out of bed and reading in the common room. Finally he drifted off, only to dream of being a knight again like he'd been in the chess trap.
The next day he played Wood in the final game that would settle the House championship. Ron got white, but didn't know if that was really an advantage. Some of his best play came in reaction to what others did. He decided to follow McGonagall's strategy in the chess trap and see if Oliver could match it. You're doing the same thing Draco did, part of his mind argued. Yeah, but if Wood changes on me I can change right back. That's what chess is really all about.
Unfortunately, Wood had studied the game, too. The Quidditch captain used a lot of the same moves that Ron had used to win it. Now I have to learn how to defeat myself! Ron thought grimly.
Then he remembered last night's dream. Last night-no, last knight! he thought. He moved his king side knight further out into the middle. Knights were a lot more powerful than some people thought they were. They could leap over obstacles that blocked other pieces, even a queen. And it had been a knight's sacrifice that had beaten McGonagall the first time. Did Oliver really understand what a knight could do?
A few turns later he moved one of his pawns ahead. If nothing else, that appeared to distract Wood from trying to trap him. Wood must have been thinking of a possible line that he hadn't, since the next chance he could, the Quidditch captain castled.
There were two schools of thought as far as protecting the king went. Some felt it was necessary to keep that piece surrounded at all times. Ron thought it was better to leave the king a few spaces to maneuver. Better a stalemate than checkmate any day!
Oliver belonged to the siege-mentality type. But threatening the back row with a possible fork or two might force his opponent to move some of those pieces. Ron just hoped they would be the right ones.
Then it happened, as it sometimes did. He could see the whole game four or five moves ahead of where it was now. He knew what Wood would do. Most of the time things weren't as clear as today, and sometimes he was totally wrong-but when everything came true, it was wonderful in a way that even Quidditch wasn't.
Wood struggled, but soon the outcome was obvious. The pieces on Ron's side of the board started gloating early, but he silenced them with a glare. Oliver sighed, looked at the board, and tipped his king over. "You got me this time, Weasley. Well-played. And congratulations on becoming the Gryffindor champion. Make us all proud next week."
"Thanks. I'll do my best." Then he told the Quidditch captain his theory about Draco Malfoy. "Some good players start out that way, if they have the memory for it. But if I remember the game, too, then I can mess him up."
"Nothing wrong with that!" Wood said enthusiastically.
"But I'm going to have trouble with that Ravenclaw girl," Ron added. "Say, have you played any of the Hufflepuffs?" It would be just his luck to have one of them put a spike in his plans while he was worrying about the others.
"No. But I've heard someone named Abercrombie is probably going to be it. If he hangs around, play him today," Oliver advised.
"I think I will, if I can find him," Ron said. "And I want to play the Ravenclaw again. Sometimes you learn more from when you lose than when you win."
"Then I learned a lot today!" Wood said.
Ron shrugged. No matter how good anybody was, there was always someone better. Once they both told McGonagall the results of their game, the Transfiguration professor took Ron aside and congratulated him. "I was quite pleased to see you play others when you didn't have any other matches," she said.
He looked down, unwilling to admit that it had been Snape's idea. "I'll be playing a couple of them next week, I think," he finally said.
"If you mean Miss Brentwood and Mr. Malfoy, I regret to say you're right. Have you gotten the Transfiguration homework done?"
"Umm--if I get it done tonight, may I turn it into tomorrow and get some coaching then?" he asked. Some of the staff members were drifting in to get some play in, or so he thought. And he hadn't really figured out what Brentwood was doing yet, even with the book McGonagall had loaned him.
The professor sighed. "Certainly. The more types of play you're experienced in, the better. I'd like to see you go to Bulgaria. And don't worry about expenses. If you become the Hogwarts student champion, your fees, room and board will be covered. I also have a slush fund for anything else that might come up."
Ron felt his face go hot. He hated being reminded how poor his family was. "Thank you, Professor," he said. He hadn't thought what being a champion might cost.
"Well, then. Go play some chess," she said crisply.
That he could manage. He played Draco again, who was smirking about becoming the Slytherin champion later that day. "I only have to play Zabini," Malfoy said, "and I can beat him half-asleep."
Ron concentrated on following Draco's playing style. He tried to guess which classic game Malfoy was replaying, but didn't recognize the game at all. His opponent's moves were pretty fast, as if following a preplanned route, while Ron had to stop and think about his. That would become important next week, when the clocks would be up and actual score kept.
He was still able to figure out where things were going, though. A little voice inside his head offered temptation. Let him win this one. Let him get overconfident, and crush him next week, when the game will count. Ron shook his head. He wasn't that kind of player and hoped he never would be. The game was more important than the players.
Draco's face clouded and he stopped bragging as the game proceeded. Some of the pieces on his side began shouting advice, sure sign of a player in trouble. His moves came more slowly, as if he was off the map again.
Malfoy said nothing at all when he finally tipped his king over. Ron didn't think that was a good thing. Maybe I'd better be careful where I go by myself for the next days, in case I run into Crabbe and Goyle.
Ron thanked Draco for the game, only to be met by more stony silence. Malfoy went off to his next game against Zabini. I'd better not hang around and watch, he thought.
When the standings were posted that night, Ron was champion for Gryffindor, Malfoy for Slytherin, Brentwood for Ravenclaw, and whoever Abercrombie was for Hufflepuff. Ron kicked himself for not trying to play him earlier. Just because Hufflepuff didn't have the reputation for it didn't mean they couldn't produce a good chess champion.
That weekend he hurriedly put together homework for McGonagall, turned it in, and enjoyed the coaching sessions. His head hurt sometimes with all he was learning, but he didn't mind-chess was interesting!
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