The Royal Game
By John Watson, M.D.
as edited by Rick Kennedy
My good friend and companion, Sherlock Holmes, has often shied away from games, considering them a waste of time. It was with no small surprise, then, that I watched him take up a chess game at Simpson’s, defeat Sebastian Moran – and do so with an announced checkmate in seven moves.
“Was that the first game of chess you ever played?” I asked Holmes later that afternoon, hoping to uncover more of the mystery that shrouded his encounter with the evil Moran.* (*As related in The Case of the Baker Street Irregular, by John Watson, M.D., as edited by Andrew Hinkle and Rick Kennedy, 1981).
“Certainly, Watson,” came the studied reply. “It was one of the first games I have ever played, although I must confess to having contested several before that.”
I could hardly follow his line of reasoning. “Are not the two the same?” I queried. “Can you not for once explain yourself clearly, Holmes?” The annoyance in my voice was perhaps misplaced, but I had gone a considerable bit of time without an explanation, and the prospect of spending yet another afternoon with a living, breathing enigma was not attractive.
Holmes’ voice was slow and placating, his smile thin. “From your noble exploits on behalf of Her Majesty, you no doubt are aware of the variation of chess called t’abiyat, are you not?”
I assured him that, indeed, I was. In some portions of the Empire, the royal game is played as it is here in Britain, with one adjustment to the rules. Prior to joining in combat, each player may use as many moves as he deems necessary to assemble his pieces in a battle formation, providing the pieces are arranged upon his own side of the board. When each contestant is satisfied, the play then continues, with moves alternating as usual.
“Very good,” said Holmes. “When my brother Mycroft noticed my apparent interest in the chessic goings on at the Diogenes Club – and here I do pint out that I have said ‘apparent,’ for I had merely ascertained the moves of the different pieces from a quick observation, and had accorded them scant further attention – he set before me the challenge of a game.
“Mycroft,” he continued, “is considered to be quite an accomplished chessplayer, often capable of play far too subtle for most commentators to follow. In this regard, his two-game match with Howard Staunton is as yet only slightly understood, and hardly appreciated. In any event, to make our game more level, he offered me the odds of t’abiyat.”
With that, Holmes wandered out of the room, and appeared to immerse himself in studying the chemicals and rhetorts in his corner laboratory. It was quite a while before I realized that the conversation, at least as far as Holmes’ portion of it was concerned, had been concluded. Within me, intrigue melded with umbrage, as I propelled myself in his footsteps, seeking to conclude my own portion of the story.
“Holmes!” I sputtered. ‘The game, man. What was the outcome of the game?”
Looking up with a confused expression, Holmes took a minute to disengage himself from his calculations and re-establish the nature of our previous conversation. One could have mistakenly presumed that I was calling upon my friend to remember an instance ten years past, rather than a scant ten minutes ago.
“Oh, that,” he mused. “Isn’t it obvious, Watson? I immediately named my first 16 moves and then announced a mate in two. My brother conceded defeat without a piece having been moved.
“Mycroft, at times,” he mumbled, delving again into his reagents, “appears to have a very wry sense of humor…”
“And the game before that,” I persisted. “What of it?”
Holmes set down a rehtort and smiled. “Very good, Watson. There had been an earlier game. An appropriate deduction!”
“You would scarcely have entered such a challenge, mismatch as it was, without at least essaying an effort on even terms, and assessing its results,” I replied. While I could not match my friend in his application of as system of logic and deduction, there are many things a simple army doctor knows about human behavior.
Holmes continued his recollections. “I believe Mycroft first challenged me on level terms, and without thinking I announced my strategy. ‘I shall merely copy your own moves.’ I said, ‘and shall use your own brilliance against you.’ “ Holmes’ face showed chagrin.
“The result was a draw,” I hazarded.
“Checkmate in four moves, Watson, which Mycroft announced without a moment’s wait.”
This hardly seemed logical to me, but by moving around the test tubes and beakers on the table, Holmes turned all my objections moot. The play had been unusual, but mirrored, until the mate.
“A pity,” Holmes mused, again drifting off into his research, “ that I had not faced two equally skilled opponents, both of Moran’s mettle. Then, an even match would have been a guarantee – even for you, Watson.”
I have never known how to adequately respond to Holmes’ bittersweet remarks, being on one hand an admonition and, on the other, a friendly acclamation. Here, again, I was torn by feelings of pique and accomplishment. By pushing the issue, I was able to keep Holmes from disappearing.
“But Holmes, do you mean to say that I could carry off a drawn match against two masters of chess, regardless of ability? I fear you overestimate me!”
“That was hardly the problem Mr. Staunton, chess master that he was, had when he played his match with Mycroft.” Returned Holmes, apparently on a tangent. “Rather, he was supreme in his underestimation of my brother. A foolish attitude, one born of insufferable pride.
“No sooner than the stipulations of their match had been agreed upon, than Mycroft declared a drawn match and collected his share of the purse.
“While the champion protested mightily, Mycroft left the explanations up to the arbiter, and was safely ensconced in the environs of the Diogenes Club by the time the master relented and stormed out of the divan.”
I stormed out of the room – this time Holmes had gone too far! To declare a forced checkmate, as I had seen him do against Moran, was spectacle enough. To declare a forced win, from the start, without even moving a piece, was astounding. But to declare a forced drawn match without a move having been played!
Certainly there was an anthrax epidemic somewhere I needed to attend to…
Editor’s Note: We can assume that, in recording this tale, Dr. Watson has maintained his usual enthusiasm for the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, as well as his commitment to represent events more or less as they actually happened. Being only a casual player, however, Watson gives the reader little clue as to how some of the prodigious feats Holmes refers to were actually accomplished.
The reader may wish to try to duplicate the efforts of the brothers Holmes, specifically:
With 16 moves by the White pieces (restricted to the White side of the board – the first four ranks), construct a position whereby, after any move by Black, White can force a mate-in-two, as Holmes announced against Mycroft. Several different orders of moves are possible; the important thing is the position of the White pieces when it is Black’s turn to make his move.
Construct a game in which each move by Black is the same as the preceding move by White, and in which White administers checkmate in four moves, as Mycroft demonstrated to his brother.
What match rules would allow one to play two games against an opponent and be assured of an even score?