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E5 to F7: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess

Shannon Frost Greenstein

Michael’s pupils tracked back and forth across the board, his brain churning right along behind them.


Grasping the Knight, he rose from his chair and slammed the piece down, relishing the clack of wood on wood as the white Bishop fell. Michael hit the clock with a flourish, knowing everything that would follow was in just for show. It was his game now. He was just the only one who could see it.

His opponent advanced a rook, paused, scanned Michael’s pawns – and frowned, then retreated, bringing out the Queen instead.

Nice try, sucker, but not today.

Michael brought out his own Queen, freezing the white piece in place, and felt a bolt of satisfaction — like a hunter spotting prey.


There was a thrumming deep within his ribcage and his molars and the length of his spine. Michael felt invincible. He felt euphoric. He felt as though everything in the world was precisely as it should be, and the sensation was intoxicating.

This is how Morphy felt.

It was over in three more moves, and then Michael’s opponent was shaking his hand, eyes brittle while Michael beamed at the speckled applause of spectators.

Michael scanned the crowd for David, locating him at the back of the conference room; his life partner was leaning against a wall and paging through the tournament itinerary. Michael rushed over, heady with victory.

“I crushed him,” he announced, striking his fists mimetically. “It was amazing!”

David, appearing apprehensive, began a sentence, broke off, and started over. He was reluctant to broach the subject they never dared discuss but felt impotently unable to talk about anything else.

“Michael, your mood is swinging. I really think you need to go back on your meds.”

Michael gaped. “You’re doing this now?” his voice rose. “Now? Right before the match? The Grandmaster match?”

“You’ve been grinding your teeth for days. You’ve been staying up all night to study chess games. You get angry at the drop of a hat. You –”

“I do not get angry at the drop of a hat,” Michael interrupted angrily.

“This happens every time you stop taking medicine.” David spoke quietly. “And it’s going to keep going until you crash and get so depressed you can’t get out of bed.”

“You know why I stopped the medicine,” Michael snapped. He shifted from foot to foot. “I can’t think straight when I take it.”

“You mean you don’t feel manic when you take it. And you think you need to be manic to win at chess.”

David watched him, and the words shimmered nakedly in the air, as though this was a priori knowledge – and yet the two of them rarely spoke of it; he himself had never before voiced this truth in front of Michael.

Michael blinked, at a loss – momentarily – for words. He ached to change the subject. He ached to storm away. Deep down, he ached because David was right, because he knew he was only capable of being a Grandmaster if his brain was in overdrive.

Still, he opted for offense as the best defense.

“Do you know anything about chess?” Michael snorted. “Do you have any idea how fast your brain needs to work to be good at it? Or everything it takes to be great at it?”

“You know I know.” David’s response was calm. I’ve been with you for a decade. And I see this every time you go on a chess bender.”

“Morphy was exactly the same way,” argued Michael. “He played eight blindfolded games at the same time. He beat a Grandmaster in Cuba with Knight odds. He won with one Knight.”

“Paul Morphy died manic and paranoid. And before that, he renounced chess and never played again. That’s the ‘sorrow’ part of the ‘Pride and Sorrow of Chess.’”

After loving Michael for a decade, David was well-versed in the language of chess and its cast of characters. Morphy had been the best, and at the end of the day, wasn’t that at the root of Michael’s obsession? To beat the best, to be the best, to do whatever was necessary to stay the best?

Glancing at the clock on the wall, Michael turned away, exhaling sharply.

“Look, I have to go play the most important match of my life. I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for wishing me luck.”

At the chess board, he seated himself and sucked in a breath. He was playing white. He would open with the Sicilian Defense. He would remember to bring out the Queen early, but not at the expense of burying the rook.

E5 to F7, he thought to himself, already plotting a dozen moves in the future. Then the King’s bishop. Unless he takes the rook because then I’ll sacrifice that pawn…

It was amidst this rush of an inner dialogue that his opponent arrived, slumping at the table and fiddling with his pawns. In the periphery of his vision, he spotted David punching out a text, pulling on a coat, and exiting the room without once looking back.

Michael watched David leave; he examined the board. He twisted his head once more, observing the door, waiting to see if anyone would race through. Then he turned back to his opponent as the whistle blew and clicked his clock into play.

Queen’s knight, he schemed, and commenced the match that would decide it all.

Shannon Frost Greenstein (She/They) is the author of “The Wendigo of Wall Street,” a novella forthcoming with Emerge Literary Journal. A former Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy, her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Follow her at or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre. Insta: @zarathustra_speaks

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