Short Story – The Chess Elf
The Chess Elf
by Jason Ingolfsland
All Rights Reserved.
The fire roared inside the stone fireplace, dimly lighting the beautifully adorned den with two red chairs, a coffee table, and a thick and soft rug in the middle. An old brown piece of parchment paper stretched and coiled like a snake past the coffee table and underneath the red chair while a medium sized elf, dressed in a brown tunic and evergreen pants, read through a massive list of boys and girls begging Saint Nicholas for toys.
The elf had a handsome face with chiseled cheekbones, a long nose, and bushy eyebrows. His ears were his most prominent feature, cutting in between his long strands of blonde hair, long, pointy, and sharp. His short index finger glided across the parchment, eager to find the child he so desperately searched for the whole year.
Saint Nicholas entered the room without attracting attention. He went behind the elf and peered over his shoulder. “Are you still looking for the child, Cress?” Old Saint Nick asked.
Cress jumped with a start, dropping the paper, and turning around. “Nicholas, you dog, you startled me again!” he exclaimed.
“With such big ears, you’d think you would hear me eventually,” Nick said.
“No, I’m afraid all these years of listening to your boisterous laugh has made me hard of hearing.”
“Pity.” Nick played with his long white beard, eyeballing the list. “What about that one? She seems like a good candidate.”
“Which one?” Cress asked, picking up the parchment and holding it up to his eyes, looking all over.
“Margery Browning. Creative. Intelligent. Courageous. Seems to fit all your qualifications.”
“No, no, no. She’s all-wrong. She wants pencils and chocolates for Christmas, and her favorite thing in school is diction.”
Father Christmas chortled, played with his beard a little more, and waltzed over to the fire. Grabbing a golden fire poker, he stabbed the Yule logs, igniting a wild display of sparks and embers. The fire instantly roared, becoming even bigger and more ferocious than before. “I needn’t remind you that you’re running out of time, old friend,” he said.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Cress replied, waving his hand as if to wipe away Old Nick’s concern. “I’ll find the child.”
“The reindeer are eager for this year’s Christmas,” Nick continued.
“And why is that?” Cress asked with his eyes glued to the list.
“A richness is in the air, a vibrancy I haven’t felt since the elder days when we first started this grand adventure. Do you remember those days, Cress?”
“Do I remember those days…” Cress mumbled, upset that Old Nick had to ask in the first place. “How could I forget? The children were much happier then and more joyful. If we gave them a pinecone, they’d jump for joy. Not like today’s children. They’re getting all too acquainted with your presence. Perhaps it’s time to retire?”
“The children are too concerned with toys and gifts than the real reason Christmas exists! Yes, when we first set out it was a celebration of that glorious day, but now things have warped.”
“Not this year,” Nick said. “Something’s changed.”
“Always the optimist. Well, you would know better than I. Truthfully that is no business of mine. I simply must find the right opponent.”
“What about little Owen Mills? Seems like a jolly chap and quite cunning the way he gets those cookies from the kitchen.”
“I wonder. Do you bother Krampus as much as I?” Cress snapped.
“Krampus!” Nick scoffed. “That old goat? Krampus does enough bothering of his own without my help. Besides, I consider you a friend, Cress. If I am an antler under your backside, I’ll take my leave.” Old Saint Nick frowned and went for the door.
Cress rolled his eyes and groaned. “No, I’m sorry. Nick, you can stay. Come. Sit. You can keep me company by the fire while I figure all of this out.”
Old Nick considered his apology and invitation, and welcomed it with a charming, rosy-cheeked smile. He nodded his head and sat in front of him. He wore a long, red robe made of the finest silk that draped down to his ankles and kept a spindly wreath on the top of his head. Sitting silently for some time, Old Nick grew impatient and leaned over to touch the list, but Cress pulled it away with a defensive jerk.
“What in Chanukah’s name are you doing?” Cress asked. He furrowed his bushy brow.
“I merely want to help. Two is always better than one. I will make a copy of the list and read out the ones that I think you may like,” Nick replied with a warm demeanor.
“You’ve never offered to do this before.”
“Well, you’ve never skinned your teeth on your deadline before.”
“Too true. Okay then. Do what you will. But I doubt I will like your choices.”
Father Christmas touched the parchment with the tip of a single finger. Instantly another copy swooshed into being with a splash of sparkles and chimes. He pulled out his bifocals from the sleeve of his robe and gently placed them on the bridge of his nose, looking at each name carefully. Once and again he might groan or grumble, mumble something, or hum pleasingly, but always under his breath and never in an overly audible manner. Even though Cress was hard of hearing, he could hear the old man and it rubbed him the wrong way. Silence was preferable, but he bit his tongue and kept searching for a candidate.
“So many choices. So many choices,” Nick said to himself and then looked up at Cress. “Have you ever considered picking at random?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What a waste that would be! Honestly, Nicholas, with brains like that it’s a wonder you survived the cold this long.”
Nick chuckled. “I may not have your brains, good friend, but I at least have the heart. It keeps me toasty warm.”
Cress mumbled something under his breath, but Nick couldn’t hear it. “What was that?” Nick asked.
“Nothing. Nothing,” Cress replied.
“I think I could go for some piping hot chocolate with a candy cane,” Nick said joyfully. In an instant, two golden goblets of hot chocolate appeared on the old oak coffee table. A candy cane was dipped inside each goblet, with the hook hanging over the edge. Nick took a sip, giving himself a little chocolate mustache and set the goblet back down. Cress wholly ignored him, his eyes scanning the parchment with exacting precision, when he suddenly jumped to his feet and said, “A-ha!”
Startled, Nick almost spilt all of his hot chocolate all over the room, but was able to keep it stable. “What is it? Did you find someone?” he asked.
“Yes! This is the one! I can feel it in my bones,” Cress said with an excited zealousness, completely turning around his grumpy demeanor.
Nick stood up. “I’ll get the reindeer ready. We shall leave at once.”
They made all the necessary preparations that are normal before the night before Christmas. Nick’s bags were loaded with toys. The reindeer were tied to the sleigh out back in the stable covered in snow. Maps and itineraries were made for Nick’s long journey. When it was time to head off and Nick sat on his sleigh, the reins firmly in his white-gloved hands, Cress scampered down from Nick’s frosty mansion toward the stable.
“Quickly, now! The children are waiting!” Father Christmas exclaimed with his long white beard blowing in the wind.
In one final leap, Cress flew through the air and landed on the back of Nick’s sleigh, on the tower of toys all snug in the bag. “Let’s go,” Cress said breathless.
With that final word, Nick slapped the reins and they bolted down the snowy landscape and took off into the starry sky. With three slaps of the reins, the reindeer warped Nick from place to place in a heartbeat, allowing him to travel all over the world in a single day. Cress did not particularly like that part of the traveling. The orb of the world grew so small that it looked like he could reach out and touch every corner. When they came out of the warp, the walls of the world snapped back into place, disorienting Cress to no end. At least once on the trip, he would heave over the side and vomit up sugar cookies from the night before.
“I still don’t understand how you can get used to this madness,” Cress said.
Nick bellowed. “What fun it is!”
“Yes, for a demented lunatic.”
“Oh, don’t be like that! It’s Christmas!”
“So, where is this gifted child that you seek?” Nick asked, flying over the great plains of Africa.
“New Orleans, Louisiana.”
“Interesting. I did not expect that.”
Nick slapped the reins thrice and within a millisecond they soared over the marshlands of Louisiana. Flying by the Mississippi River, Nick slapped the reins once and the reindeer slowed down to a crawl, floating over the small, but brightly lit city of New Orleans.
“Who are we visiting?” Nick asked.
Cress pulled out the list and pointed to the name.
“Ah!” Nick exclaimed. “I remember him well. I’ve visited him before. He would not have been my pick, but I think you may be on to something.”
“Of course I am! Now, bring us down to his house.”
Nick gently landed the sleigh on a large three-storied house, and Cress immediately leapt off it, but his feet made no noise on the roof whatsoever. The climate felt nice against Cress’s skin. He quite enjoyed warmer weather, especially after being cooped up in Nick’s mansion year round. Perhaps I’ll stay, Cress thought.
“I’ll be back to get you when Christmas is finished,” Nick said. “I must be off!” He slapped the reins three times and disappeared.
Cress’s hair and ears blew back for a moment from the force of Nick’s departure. He tried to regain his composure by shifting his tunic and combing his hair. With a final breath, he nodded his head, climbed down the wall, and opened a window into the third floor of the house. He slipped inside without a sound and shut the window behind him; the cold breeze whistled and then was silenced. The room was quiet and serene, filled with anticipation for Christmas morning to arrive. Toys and games were scattered on the floor, creating an obstacle course for Cress to navigate. Off in the corner, tucked in his bed, was the boy that Cress was seeking. He tiptoed around the toys, taking extra care to not trip on any that might make a louder noise than usual.
As he sat on the end of the bed, he crossed his legs and smiled before whispering, “Time to wake up, young lad. It’s your lucky day.”
To Cress’s annoyance, the boy did not wake. “Wake up!” he said a little louder, but the boy was fast asleep. Realizing he might be dealing with a heavy sleeper akin to a coma patient, Cress hopped on the boy’s head and yelled in his ear, “Wake up!”
Luckily for Cress, this did the trick, and the boy leapt up so fast that he rocketed Cress clear across the room, hitting the far wall, and landing on his head. The boy started to scream, but Cress quickly put an end to that with his hand, silencing the boy with magic.
“None of that now. None of that,” Cress said, dusting himself off and walking back over to the bed.
The boy pulled off his covers and leapt out of bed, heading straight for the door, but Cress locked it.
Grasping the doorknob with all his might, the boy pulled and struggled to open it, but it was no good. The door was shut tight.
Cress lifted the boy up into the air from a far distance and set him back into his bed with the covers draped over him like they were before. Cress patted the covers and warmly smiled.
“There. Much better,” Cress said. “Don’t be afraid. Believe it or not, today is your lucky day and if you’d listen for a moment, you might actually be grateful I’ve come.”
When the boy calmed down, Cress began. “Do you know what I am?” he asked.
The boy nodded.
“Do you know where I come from?”
The boy nodded three times. The realization generated a wild excitement in his big blue eyes.
“There are not many who know about me. In fact, I’m the best-kept secret in the entire world. I don’t have songs written about me or silly tales, not like Father Christmas, but that is for a reason. If people knew about me, well, I think things would be much different. Regardless, I do exist and I am here now. My name is Cress,” he said finally, holding out his small hand to shake.
The boy hesitated to shake his hand at first, but finally succumbed to the charm of the elf.
“Now, I understand that you like to play chess. Is that right?” Cress asked.
“Yes, sir, it’s my absolute favorite game,” the boy said with a drawl.
“I thought so,” Cress said. He took a golden King piece that hung around his neck and put it before the boy’s eyes. “I like to play chess, too. In fact, I’ve been playing for quite a long time. One day, I played Father Christmas and we made a little wager. If I won, Old Saint Nick would let me be free to do whatever I wanted rather than making those toys of his, but if he won, I would have to be a dark elf, enslaved to Krampus. I think you can guess who ended up winning that match. Since then I’ve been playing others on the night before Christmas, seeing if anyone could beat me in a game of Chess.”
“Have they ever?” the boy asked.
“A few, but not too many. That is why I am here, Paul. To play you in a game of chess if you so wish.”
“You know my name?” he asked.
“Of course I know you’re name! It’s on Old Nick’s list!”
“Oh right. Well, I’d rather not be Krampus’s slave,” Paul said, shaking his head and trembling a bit.
“Well, no, you certainly don’t. But that was my wager to Nick. Not your wager to me. You can make whatever wager you want. If you win, you’ll get it.”
“And what if you win?” he asked.
“We’ll get to that. What does your heart desire?”
“I want to be the best chess player in all the world. I want to know everything and be able to beat anyone that I play.”
“You can have anything in the world and that’s what you want?” Cress asked with a raised eyebrow.
Paul nodded. “I hate losing.”
“You understand that won’t apply to the game we are about to play, yes?” Cress asked.
Paul nodded. “I think I can beat you, but I always want to win, no matter what.”
“Don’t we all. Well, that sounds doable. Now on to what I want,” Cress said, tapping his fingers together. “If you lose, you’ll never receive Christmas presents ever again for the rest of your life.”
“What!” Paul exclaimed. “That’s horrid.”
“I think it’s a fair wager. You win at chess whenever you want or you don’t get presents.”
“Why would you want that? Aren’t you a Christmas elf?” Paul asked.
“Have you not been listening? I am my own elf. Do we have a deal or not?”
Paul puckered his lips to the side and wrinkled his nose, thinking about the risks of the deal. He tried to imagine every Christmas without presents under the tree. It sounded awful, but he, on the other hand, loved the thought of being unstoppable at chess. With one final puff from his nose, he grinned and firmly shook Cress’s tiny hand.
“Deal,” Paul said.
Cress magically pulled out a chessboard from thin air and set it down on the bed with all the pieces perfectly set up. Taking the golden King and placing it on his side of the board, Cress explained that the only way he would play is if he were the white pieces. The stipulation made Paul uneasy, thinking he was being tricked, but decided it didn’t matter; he enjoyed playing the black pieces, anyway.
“How do I know you won’t use some sort of magic trick to make me lose?” Paul asked.
Cress stared him dead in the eye, looking peeved that he had to defend his integrity to the likes of a child. “I don’t cheat,” he said firmly.
Paul took a deep breath and said, “Okay. I’ll trust you. I guess I don’t have a choice anyway.”
“You did shake on it,” Cress reaffirmed.
Paul nodded. “I’m ready.”
Cress made the first move without hesitation, gliding the Queen’s pawn two spaces forward. Paul moved his Knight’s pawn one space forward. As the beginning moves reached their end, the middle slipped into being and Paul increasingly hesitated, trying to think of the best move, while Cress effortlessly made his moves as if he didn’t have a care in the world. This confidence threw Paul off of his game, realizing that he was greatly outmatched against the ancient elf. It terrified him to no end that he may never see Christmas presents ever again. No games, no toys, nothing but the emptiness of waking on Christmas morning like any other day. He resolved to do better, to outsmart the elf, but he didn’t know how. He defended his King by castling, but Cress’s Queen and Knights were on the attack, swiftly zipping and hopping over Paul’s defense. The stress sat on Paul’s shoulders like a great weight. What does the elf know that I don’t? He wondered. Cress kept the strongest poker face, focusing entirely on the pieces and nothing else.
Not for two thousand year had Cress changed his chess strategy. Namely, perceive to be confident, draw the opponent in during the middle game, and then pounce when they least expect it. This took many forms with the formation of his pieces, but rarely did it fail. He also had generations to practice and perfect his gameplay; a benefit he readily agreed wasn’t fair for his younger rivals. But if he was to find someone worthy, it was the only way. One who could beat him deserved whatever wishes their heart desired. Paul’s wish perplexed Cress. A boy, who could defeat him, surely could defeat anyone else, but maybe it took the risk out of the equation, creating assurance that no matter what he would be a chess grandmaster. Regardless, Cress pulled Paul in, wrapping him in a web. No way he would escape. This fact depressed Cress. As much as he wanted to be the victor, finding the perfect opponent would prove grander.
The end stage of the game fell into Paul’s lap and he wasn’t ready for it. Cress made a fatal blow to both his Knights, leaving him only two rooks, a bishop, and handful of pawns. Cress, on the other hand, was well equipped and closing in. Anger welled up inside Paul’s gut and he wanted to slap his hand across the board, but he kept his temper at bay and fixed his eyes on a potential opening. Paul kept his eye on it for the past four moves, thinking it was too easy, but now he was confident it was the chink in Cress’s armor.
Wiggling his fingers over the rook, Paul hesitated to make the move. He wrinkled his nose, thinking it through, hoping it wasn’t a mistake, but finally grabbed hold of the piece and moved it down the row until it reached the end of the board.
“Check,” Paul said.
It was the first time Cress hesitated, a small victory on Paul’s part, but it proved enough to help lift his spirits. Analyzing the board over and over, Paul realized he had Cress against the wall. All of his pieces were blocked by pawns, so he couldn’t move back to protect his King. All Cress could do is move his King out of check, but his options were limited. He had two moves available to him, and both led him into a quagmire. Paul relished the moment, tasting the sweetness of victory on his tongue like a drop of honey from a honeycomb.
Cress reached for the King, but the sound of heavy footsteps interrupted his concentration. Tap. Tap. Tap. The footsteps grew louder with each step. Eyes wide, Cress looked at Paul and then toward the bedroom door. Paul looked equally terrified. With a start, Cress knocked the board off the bed. The pieces flew in all directions, landing on the floor like raindrops. Paul tried in vain to snatch them before they fell but down they went, taking his hopes of victory with them. As the steps grew louder, Cress flew off to the floor, swept all the pieces under the bed, and followed them, hiding in the shadows. He squeaked by just in time. The door opened without a knock and two leather shoes appeared. A bright yellow glow followed.
“Paul? What are you doing still awake?” a male voice asked, irritated.
“Excited for tomorrow I presume?”
“Yes, I can’t wait.”
“Well, the sooner you lay down your head, the sooner Saint Nick will bring you your gifts. You believe he will, yes?”
Cress found this insulting. Parents, he thought, always imposing their lack of faith on their children. He believes, old man.
“Of course, Father,” Paul said with a contemptuous tone.
His father’s silence was chilling. Cress sensed the anger brewing all the way under the bed. It mimicked the candle he held, white hot and blazing. “Well, I could hear your dumb butt all the way downstairs. Keep it down, or I might have to take off this belt and beat that ugly grin off your face. Ya hear?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir,” Paul said softly.
Paul’s father left without another word. The door slammed shut and the golden light extinguished from sight. Cress breathed a sigh of relief, pulled himself from underneath the bed, and quietly hopped back up on top.
“Well, that was a close one,” Cress whispered, dusting off his shoulders and legs. “That father of yours is a real piece of…” When he met Paul’s gaze, he found a grin waiting for him.
“I win,” Paul interjected, still smiling.
“Excuse me? I don’t think so. The game is not over.”
“You knocked the board over. It’s over.”
“There is no victory in chess without checkmate. Accidents notwithstanding.”
Paul’s grin turned into a scowl as he gritted his teeth together. “Do you remember where the pieces were on the board?”
“No. Do you?”
“Poor fortune,” Cress said, shrugging. “No matter. We will start over and try again.”
“You did this.”
“I beg your pardon. I did no such thing.”
“You were losing, so you brought my father up here, knocked over the board, and got a second chance.”
Cress scoffed. “I did what? Ridiculous! First of all, I wasn’t losing. I had you right where I wanted you.”
The temperature rose in Paul’s face, reddening his cheeks. “Did not!” he exclaimed, but clasped his hand over his mouth right as the words exited his mouth. Cress put his hand over Paul’s and kept perfectly still. They waited for a few minutes to see if the beast downstairs stirred. Luckily, he did not. Cress lowered his hand when it felt safe and Paul lowered his. Paul shot him an apologetic grin.
“Secondly,” Cress said between his teeth, seething. “I don’t have the ability to make your father, of all people, come up here. Why would I want him to come up here? To find me? No. No. No.”
“Fine. I don’t care,” Paul said, crossing his arms.
“Yes, well, good. Let’s get started again, shall we?” Cress said.
A part of Paul wanted to throw up his hands and quit, tell the little elf to exit the way he came, and go back to sleep, but the temptation to win couldn’t be overcome. He knew he could win. He knew it now more than ever. He’d regret it if he didn’t try. So, he acquiesced. They began. And they reached the middle game before Paul could blink an eye. This time, however, he had the great advantage of knowing how Cress played, and used it against him. Cress used the same strategies; the same thought process, the same moves. After some time, things became too predictable, and Paul came closer to winning. One more win to win them all, and it was in sight. The end game came into view. Cress’s King castled early in the game, but the pawns and rook protecting him were gone. Paul slid his Queen down the board.
“Check,” Paul said.
Cress moved his King toward the corner of the board, evading the Queen, but it was no use. Paul had him. His heart beat overtime in his chest as he glided his Rook down the board and said, “Checkmate.”
There was a slight pause. Paul’s chest joyfully filled up like a balloon.
“Not quite,” Cress said.
Paul’s hope deflated.
Cress carefully reached out far off in the corner of the board and slid his bishop diagonally at Paul’s rook. He knocked the rook over and took it off the board, making sure not to show any sign of pleasure in the slight victory. Cress hated bad sportsmanship.
Paul stared at the bishop in horror. He couldn’t believe it. How could I not have seen that? He thought. But, the fact remained the same. The glorious and powerful gusts of wind in his sails were stolen. His strategy was obliterated and now he had to think on his feet and come up with something else. Fortunately, Cress was no better positioned.
Paul captured the bishop with his queen, but it didn’t result in a check. While Cress was cornered, he didn’t have the pieces to put him in checkmate. The endgame went on for some time until all the pawns were removed from the board and the inevitable happened: Stalemate.
“Fascinating,” Cress said.
“What?” Paul replied.
“I’ve never been put in stalemate before.”
Paul bit his lip and whined. “We have to play again…how long is this going to take?”
“As long as it takes,” Cress replied, sighing. “Let’s take a little break.”
“And do what?”
“Talk. Why do you like chess?”
Paul thought about it for a second. “My father and uncle play it all the time. I watch them play sometimes. I have this urge to beat both of them and make them look at me in awe. You know, to really show them.”
“You’re a good player. Surely you could beat them.”
Paul shook his head. “They won’t let me play them. And I doubt I could beat them if I tried. I’m too scared I’ll lose anyway.”
“You’re close to beating me and I’m not an easy opponent.”
“Huh. Do you always play children?”
“I don’t get it. Why do you do it?”
“Why does Nick give presents to children every year? Why does Krampus give them coal? They do what they like to do and I do what I like to do.”
“Do you like Christmas, Paul?” Cress asked with a smile.
“What’s your favorite part?”
“Sitting by the fire and singing carols with my mother.”
“My favorite part is playing chess.”
“Do you not get to play any other time of the year?”
Cress smirked. “Let’s just say after my wager with Nicholas, no one wanted to play me up at his workshop. I get to leave once every year, play the game I love, and maybe grant a wish.”
Cress wiped his hand over the chessboard and all the pieces reappeared on the board instantly. “Let’s up the wager, shall we?” Cress asked.
Paul sharpened his gaze and smiled. “What do you have in mind?”
“If you lose, not only will you not ever get presents, but you’ll never be able to win at a game of chess again.”
“And if I win?”
“You’ll get whatever presents you want every year.”
“Deal,” Paul said, reaching out to shake.
They firmly shook. Without hesitation, Cress moved his King’s pawn two spaces forward and got the game started. No witnesses were present for their third and final game, but Paul would account that it was the single best chess game on the face of the earth. They were both on their A-game, moving each piece with precision, playing with their strategies, and moving in a way that looked almost like a dance of hands. The middle game lasted the longest until Paul sacrificed one too many pieces and was pushed into a corner. Cress’s defense looked almost impenetrable, but then, like the first game, Paul saw it, a clear opening to victory; he just had to make it work.
Realizing he was stressed and overthinking things, Paul took a breath and focused. O Holy Night played in his mind. It helped him calm his nerves. Instead of putting Cress into check right away, he decided to make it a surprise, to catch him off guard. He shifted his knight forward and tried to get everything into play. Cress captured a pawn with another pawn, clearing a path for his rook. Paul knew he didn’t have much time left. He went in for the strike, pitting his queen against Cress’s knight. He captured it.
“Check,” Paul said.
Cress moved his king back one.
Paul moved his pawn forward one. “Checkmate,” Paul said.
“So it seems,” Cress said unsurprised, looking over the board, trying to find an error. “Well done.” He picked up his golden King and handed it to Paul. “This is yours.”
“So…I’ll never lose again?” Paul asked eagerly.
Cress nodded once. “You’ll see things on this board you’ve never seen before, equations you couldn’t possibly imagine. They’ll call you a prodigy. A genius. A grandmaster. You’ll enjoy it for awhile, but the victory won’t satisfy, nor the titles.”
The corner of Cress’s mouth frowned. He thought on how to break it to the young child. “Because,” Cress began, “supremacy is dry without suffering.”
Paul considered this and was about to ask a question, but Cress leapt off the bed and made for the window.
“Wait! Why did you choose me?” Paul asked.
“Destiny demanded it. Farewell, young Paul,” Cress said, standing in the window. “And Merry Christmas.”
Cress slipped through the window and into the starry night. A cold breeze rushed into the room and chilled Paul to the bone. Wrapping his arms around himself, he ran over to shut the window. As he did, he looked outside and saw off in the sky a sleigh, reindeer, and a tiny elf sitting on the back, flying toward the luminous full moon.