“Do you play suicide chess?”
The job interview had gone well up to then, but this question caught me off guard.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Suicide chess. Do you know how to play it?” insisted the interviewer.
“Oh, you do! Good! Allow me to explain, many people have applied for this job. Most of them have similar qualifications and work experience. At some point, I had to come up with a discriminating skill, so I decided that the first person who answers all my questions correctly and who beats me in suicide chess gets the job.”
As he said this, he produced a chessboard. I pointed out that the last square on the right needed to be white and that the queens were not positioned on a square of their own colour.
“I’m glad you spotted both of those. I got rid of about a dozen candidates for not noticing.”
I didn’t know what to reply, so I said nothing. While he set up the pieces correctly, my mind cast back to my last year at school, when all my friends and I ever seemed to do was play suicide chess. Could this be my lucky day? I tried to focus. I needed to keep my wits about me. Everything was a test with this man.
He tossed a coin and asked me to call it. He won the draw and made the first move. I knew he’d talk to me while playing, but I could never have guessed what he began to tell me, as I made my first move.
“Do you know why I chose suicide chess?”
“Because it’s not a common game.” I answered tentatively.
“You’re right it’s not a common game, but that’s not the reason. It has to do with something that happened to me. Do you want to hear it or would you prefer to play in silence?”
“No, please, go ahead; I’m curious.” I said.
“I thought you might be,” he said smiling and peering over his rimless glasses.
And as we continued playing, he told me his story.
“I was a young pharmacist from Cagliari, my hometown in Sardinia. I was not a millionaire, but I was sufficiently well off to be kidnapped by a local criminal organisation. I was blindfolded and taken to some primitive hut on top of a deserted mountain range. They kept me there for almost a year. During the day, my kidnappers would leave Piero, a shepherd boy to guard me. He was armed and hardly spoke. The second day I was there I found a chessboard in a draw. To pass the time, I played chequers and chess with Piero. His uncle had taught him as a young boy so that they could play during the long days away from home, when they took the sheep to graze at higher altitudes in the summer.
Piero was not a bad player but I could beat him. I had played chess at an amateur level and I had even won a few prizes. Anyway, one day, Piero tells me that his favourite game is suicide chess, and would I play with him. I agreed and we ended up playing throughout the day. Him beating me with ease and me trying to win back at least one game in order to save some dignity. We must have played thirty matches if not more. And I won none.
For all the time I was in captivity, I was never once able to beat Piero in suicide chess. He had the most annoying habit of saying, “Take me!” in a loud voice immediately after every move that would oblige me to take him. The final “Take me!” was always followed by, “I win!” , which he would shout to the top of his voice, making my defeat twice as painful. However, I had my revenge, I played on his enjoyment of suicide chess to teach him those subjects he would have learned at school had he ever gone. we had an agreement: one game of suicide chess for each lesson he allowed me to teach him.
I concentrated on teaching him the three Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic. And I was a sadistically strict teacher. The lessons kept us busy. And they gave me hope of a better future for both of us. Neither Nino, the old man who relieved the boy of his guard duty and took over until the morning, nor any of the other men who’d kidnapped me ever knew anything about the lessons. Piero was careful to take all textbooks and notepads away with him when he left. If they'd known, they would have killed us. We both knew that.
I never saw Nino's face but I could tell he was an old man. He wore a balaclava and rarely spoke. Some nights he’d bark an order and I had to ask him to repeat it twice because I had difficulty understanding him. He hit me when I did that, so I tried to read his mind as far as I could. It wasn’t just his thick accent that made it difficult to understand him, it was also his voice, which sounded as if it hadn’t been used for months or even years.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, after almost a year, in which I had been living in the hut, I started getting ill. And I almost died. One night, I began sweating and trembling, and the next day I had a huge fever. When Piero arrived, I wrote on a piece of paper the medicines that I needed and slipped it into his pocket. He handcuffed me to an enormous stove and ran to the pharmacy to get my medicines.
They made him wait at the pharmacy, but in the end he was able to get all I needed. When he ran back to me, he saw a helicopter flying above him. He became suspicious but after a few minutes he saw it veer off into another valley. He started to breathe again and thought there must have been a fire down there.
When he got back to the hut, I explained what he had to do, and he gave me all the injections and pills I needed. Piero told me to hide the medicines and not to mention anything to Nino otherwise the others would kill us.
That evening, after Piero had left, I watched as Nino dozed off in the corner, his hand slipping off a glass of wine that smelled of vinegar. I heard some noises in the darkness outside, and thought it was the wild boars digging up roots again.
That night, the police came in through the window. They handcuffed Nino even before he was fully awake. The pharmacist, who had served Piero, had recognised my handwriting and had alerted the police. They had one man following Piero and a helicopter to make sure he didn’t hide in the woods. They had picked up Piero soon after he’d finished his guard duty. He was a minor and had no criminal record. I hoped they would go easy on him.
When I finally made it back home, my parents informed me that the authorities had frozen their bank accounts, so they couldn’t meet the kidnappers’ ransom requests. I told them I understood. The next day, I went back to work in my pharmacy, where Ida, my long-suffering assistant, had kept the business going while I was away.
Many years later, a young man came into the shop. It was Piero. He had just graduated in Pharmacy and stood proudly as he showed me his degree certificate. Within a few months, I hired him to work for me. Ida was about to retire and she felt better about doing so, knowing that there was someone to give me a hand once she’d left.
The customers loved Piero. He had a way with women and children. They couldn’t get enough of him. His smile and good humour were highly contagious, and within a few weeks, Ida was so delighted with his work, that she even began speaking to me about early retirement.
And then one day, a young woman came into the pharmacy. The police later said she was a heroin addict. She pointed a gun at me and asked that I empty the till and give her certain medicines. I did as she asked but somebody came into the pharmacy and she just panicked. She turned to look at the entrance and then back at me. I was getting a medicine from under the counter and she thought I must have been trying to reach a weapon. She fired the gun at me, but Piero somehow managed to get between us. She dropped the gun and ran.
I laid Piero on the ground. I saw customers peering over the counter talking in hushed voices. I asked one of them to call an ambulance, but it was too late. The last words Piero said to me, as he bled to death, were: ‘Take me! I win!’. ”
“Excuse me’,” I said to the interviewer, “is this story true?”
“No, but it’s one hell of a distraction; it works every time.” , said the man making his final move, “Take me! I win!”