Nora Says "Check."

By Martin Gardner

First published in Esquire, January 1948,
reprinted in The No-Sided Professor

“CHESS players? Bah!" snorted Sierpenski. "Not a heavyweight in the lot. Like nincompoops they played. I didn't get even a headache."

Sierpenski was the champion chess player of the world. For ten years he had been undefeated in a single game. We had just left the Manhattan Chess Club where he had played a blindfold exhibition match against fifty of the city's best players. He won every game. Half of his opponents, including me, were defeated in the first twenty moves.

The aging grandmaster dropped a cube of sugar in his coffee. "It is so boring," he lamented, "playing with stupid amateurs. More fun it would be for me to play tiddlywinks."

I waved to Nora and held up my empty cup. Nora was a fluffy blonde waitress with blue eyes and a blank face.

"Did you want something?" she asked when she came over to our booth.

"Yeah," I said. "Coffee." Nora wasn't very bright.

"Even the Russians," Sierpenski was saying, "are playing no good. If only would come along somebody worth playing. More fun it is now for me to play chess with myself."

I was watching Nora swivel away when suddenly a devilish idea hit me. For a while I puffed on my cigar, thinking about it, then I bent over the table and spoke to Sierpenski in low tones. A slow grin spread over his thin face. He slapped the table.

"We will do it!" he exclaimed. "Tonight we will work it out."

And work it out we did. Three months later the chess world was staggered by the news. Out of the blue a new grandmaster had suddenly appeared. She was young, blonde, and blue-eyed. She was Nora.

Here's how we managed it. The tip of my right shoe contained a tiny electronic device that could both send and receive a pulsed code. The reception was silent, but I could feel the beeps with my toes. And I could send the beeps by pressing my toes down on a spring switch. A similar device was in Sierpenski's shoe.

Whenever Nora played a game I sat in the audience while Sierpenski kept himself hidden in some other part of the building. I would send him each move made by Nora's opponent, then he would signal back how she should respond. I would pass the information to Nora, using a visual code based on gestures. If I scratched my chin it meant move the black bishop. If I pursed my lips it meant move the white knight, and so on.

Of course we paid Nora handsomely for her role in this flimflam. The hardest part was teaching her the signals and how to move the pieces. That was what took us three months.

Because Sierpenski did all the actual playing, Nora naturally won all her games. She would sit there pretending to study the pattern on the board, watching me out of the corners of her eyes until I signaled how to move.

The champion enjoyed the hoax immensely. He began to experiment with fantastic openings. For example, he sometimes gave his queen away just to even the odds. He totally confused a grandmaster from Argentina by advancing his king six squares in the opening. On another occasion he began a game by moving all his pawns forward.

Nora's weird, unorthodox way of playing was a sensation, and not only among serious chess players. I became her press agent, but there really wasn't much for me to do except be polite to the reporters who dogged her heels. Flash bulbs were constantly popping during intermissions when she played. Her smiling face made the cover of Time and the front page of Pravda. Before the end of the year she had won every tournament she entered, and was in line to challenge Sierpenski himself.

Arrangements were made to have the big match in Madison Square Garden, with Sierpenski getting half the take and Nora and me splitting the other half. I was to sit in the front row to make it easy for Nora to see my gestures after Sierpenski toed me her moves. Our plan was to keep the score even until the final game. Sierpenski would then retain his title by a sensational combination play that would go down in chess history.

"What will become of me afterwards?" Nora wanted to know on the night before the first game.

Sierpenski shrugged his narrow shoulders. "You were once a waitress. A waitress you can be again."

"But. . ."

"Please, don't bother me," he interrupted. "Can't you see I'm busy?" He was moving pieces around on a chessboard, working out the details of the climactic game.

Nora glanced at me, then back at Sierpenski without saying anything. There was a funny squint in her left eye.

The tournament lasted five days, one game per day, and never an empty seat in the Garden. An enormous chess board, with illuminated pieces, was suspended vertically above the platform where the players sat. Chess masters were hired by the radio and television networks to give blow by blow accounts of the games, and to discuss the positions between moves.

Nora won the first two games, then the champion rallied and won the next two. He opened the final game with a conventional Ruy Lopez. Nora's response, played of course by Sierpenski, was to jump out her knights on her second and third moves, then on her fourth and fifth moves she hopped them back to their original squares. The crowd went wild.

It was not until the sixty-fifth move that I began to get an inkling of the champion's strategy. All he had told me was that on the seventieth move he would announce a checkmate in twenty moves. Now I could see dimly how the brilliant combination was taking shape. After Sierpenski's winning seventieth move, Nora was supposed to study the board for several minutes then turn over her king and resign.

After Sierpenski's sixty-ninth move Nora looked toward me for the signal. I blew my nose and scratched behind my right ear. That meant she should retreat her queen's rook three squares.

She studied the board for five minutes, the way we had planned, then her index finger slowly pushed a pawn.

"Check," she said loudly.

Sierpenski looked startled. He glared at the board, then at Nora, then at me, then back at the board. Gasps and mumblings began to sweep the crowd. The better players in the audience started to laugh. Three grandmasters from Russia stood up and cheered.

When I saw what had happened I almost fell out of my seat. There on the big illuminated chessboard, plain as daylight, was a subtle, totally unexpected mate in five.

The champion's face had turned the color of his king. With shaking hand and an uncouth Polish oath he knocked the white king flat.

When the three of us got together after the match, Sierpenski was fit to be tied. Nora's checkmate had, of course, been accidental. She had made the wrong move, or rather the right one, only because she was furious over the coming end of her career.

Sierpenski raged and fumed. "My reputation – she is ruined! We must have a return match at once – if not sooner."

Nora shook her head. "I'm retiring."

"What!" Sierpenski bellowed. "Why you. . . ."

"Take it easy, old chap," I said, stepping between them.

Nora retired all right. She retired and made a fortune. First she endorsed a cigarette. It steadied her nerves, she said, during the terrible tension of tournament play. She made a television documentary on "Etiquette at the Chess Table." Doubleday published her ghost-written mystery novel The White Rook Murder Case, and for weeks it was on the New York Times best-seller list. Movie rights were sold.

Sierpenski fell apart. He tried to convince the world it was all a joke, but nobody believed him. In the next tournament he entered he was trounced in the first round by an eight-year-old boy from the Bronx. He still drops into the Manhattan Chess Club now and then, but almost everybody beats him. A few months ago I beat him myself.

Nora telephoned one day to say she had become interested in chess and would like to learn more than just the names of the pieces and how they moved. For a month I tried to teach her the standard openings and something about elementary strategy, but it was no use. She just didn't have the mind for it.