The Onegin Gambit; or,
The Game No Longer Played
on the Rue St. Jacques

Mark Axelrod

For those of us who have been kindred spirits to the game of chess, we have been privy to some of the epic confrontations in its long and distinguished history.  Who could forget the superb matches between Saunton and St. Amant or Steinlitz and Zukertort or Lasker and Tarrasch.  All were brilliant men, with enormous egos, each ego striving to take the better of the other through the challenge of intellectual savvy and strategic cunning.  But perhaps the greatest match in all of chess history was the one between Ivan Turgenev and Samuel Beckett, and no match greater than the regal one they played at the famous Parisian Café de la Régence in celebration of the 200th birthday of the first true world-class chessmaster, François André Danican-Philodor.

          Turgenev, the gentle Russian giant, had been the reigning world champion for almost fifteen years and was a devout chess traditionalist whose methods were steeped in those of Staunton and Morphy and Pushkin.  At forty-five years old, Turgenev was at the peak of his game, a mastery that was visually reinforced by his dapper appearance, clothed as if he were a character out of a sportsman’s sketches.  His thick, grey hair, neatly parted, glistened with a dark lustre, like polished silver; his face, though a bit jaundiced from a liver ailment, was comparatively wrinkle free.  Exceptionally regular and pure in line, as if carved by a light and delicate chisel, his face reflected traces of remarkable beauty, especially his shining, black, almond-shaped eyes.

          As usual, Turgenev entered the foyer exactly on time.  Dressed in his navy-blue, English suit, a fashionable navy cravat and black, patent-leather shoes, Turgenev arrived with one hand in a trouser pocket, the other tucked neatly inside his waistcoat.  After he removed the elegantly manicured hand from his trousers, which seemed even more beautiful cast as it was against the snowy whiteness of a French cuff, clasped with a single, oval opal, he would gently smooth the edges of his perfumed beard.

          Turgenev was always conscious of his audience and would always greet them with a slight inclination of his supple, yet imposing, figure, and a thin smile, which flashed his splendid white teeth, would steal across his face.  Then he would take his seat, clear his throat, and place his folded hands gently on the table, cautiously rearranging the lace kerchief tucked neatly inside the cuff of his jacket sleeve.  His entrance was always greeted most respectfully from the audience who, like a nest of gentlefolk, seemed to mimic his elegant demeanor.

          In contrast, Beckett was never on time.  In time, out of time, time and time again, time after time.  And when he entered, which was done in no considerable haste, owing as it did to the method of his entry, an entry not conducive, as entries may be, to haste, an entry which presumed one step to precede the next, in the most deliberate of fashion, as if he were measuring each step, step by step, one step at a time, in measured distance, since the method of entry was time consuming.

          Beckett wore a greatcoat, still green here and there.  The coat, when last weighed by Beckett, weighed between two and  three stone.  Of this Beckett was certain, having weighed it himself, on a scale, first with the coat on, and then with it off, lying on the ground, at his feet.  This coat was of such length, that Beckett’s trousers, which he wore very baggy, in order to conceal the shapes of his legs, were hidden by it from view.  This coat continued to button, up the front, with nine buttons, various now in shape, and colour, but without exception of such exceptional size as to remain, once buttoned, buttoned.

          Beckett wore on his head, a black hat, of pepper colour.  Beckett wore on his feet, a boot, brown in colour, and a shoe, happily of brownish colour also.  Of Beckett’s coat and waistcoat, of his shirt, his vest and his drawers, much might be written, of great interest and significance.  The drawers in particular, were remarkable, from more than one point of view.  But they were hidden, coat and waistcoat, shirt and underclothes, all hidden, from the eye.  Beckett wore no tie, nor any collar. Had he had a collar he would have found a tie, to go with it.

          Beckett’s face struck an odd pose.  As poses go.  Odd enough as poses go.  If poses go at all, which Beckett had never been able to establish, going poses not at all able, to be discerned.  Beckett’ s mouth was open, and his jaw sunk, and his eyes glassy, and his head sunk, and his hair shocked, and his knees bent, and his ears flapped, and his back bent, and his mind busy, busy wondering which was best, to nod to the audience and remove his greatcoat, and sit down, or nod to the audience, and sit down, without removing his greatcoat, or to remove his greatcoat, and sit down, without nodding to the  audience, or to nod to the audience, which he felt was somewhat proper, proper enough  for an audience, without removing his greatcoat, or sitting down, or to remove his greatcoat without nodding to the audience, or sit down, or to nod to the audience, or to leave things as they were which was exactly what Beckett did sitting at the table on the side opposite the side on which Turgenev was sitting.

          The moderator, a rather effeminate little man named Yakov Pasynkov, uttered some rather bland opening comments about the participants, the prestige of the match, about the rules of play, but no one really paid attention, keen as they were on the impending action.  In the formal draw, Turgenev had selected the white pawn which allowed him to commence play.  It was a selection that apparently satisfied him greatly since his face was glazed in a kind of subdued jubilation.  Beckett remained emotionless.  The audience was restrained, yet anxious, as Turgenev rubbed an index finger with his thumb and gently tapped the clock with the index finger of his opposite hand.

          With very little hesitation, Turgenev moved P to Q4.  The crowd gasped with apprehension, at the excitement left in store.  Turgenev’s move was the Onegin Gambit, a move nothing short of sin, for such a master player who planned each move without adieu.  His decision to enter the fray, the Onegin Gambit, left one asking if Beckett would be outdone.  But the answer came without delay.  All movement in the café ceased, waiting for Beckett’s pawn to ease.

          Beckett looked at the board.  At the squares on the board.  At the colour of the squares on the board.  He admired the permanent way the board, stretched at  four corners, clasped the outside of the inside squares in such a configuration that rendered them, in their squareness, square.

          He slowly lifted his hand.  Lifting to Beckett was much preferred to raising.  Raising, whether in or out, was not like lifting, or moving, which was like lifting, or raising, which held no charm for the act of moving.  Beckett debated whether the pawn should, with his fingertips, be precisely moved P-Q4, then with the fingertips, turn the timer off, or move Kt-KB3, turn, with fingertips, the timer off or move P-K4 and not move Kt-KB3, turn, with fingertips, the timer off, or go with his original thought to move P-Q4 and turn, with fingertips, the timer off.   Or as off as a timer could be.

          Beckett placed his fingers, or more precisely, his fingertips on the pawn.  On the pawn at his disposal, not all pawns being equally disposed at any one time.  He had thought about placing his fingers, or more precisely his fingertips, on the bishop, but fearing the bishop to be reluctant to be moved, that is lifted, not raised, but moved, bishops not wanting to be moved, by the fingertips, Beckett moved, that is lifted, the pawn after engaging it with his fingertips, precisely.  And moved it Q4.

          The audience buzzed again since Beckett’s move meant that he had declined the gambit, a move which took Turgenev by such surprise that his hand-ground, Viennese monocle fell from his left eye.  Turgenev was totally convinced that Beckett would take the gambit since Turgenev had studied all of Beckett’s previous games and was convinced beyond all reasonable measure that the Irishman, without a doubt, would take the piece.  But Beckett had often used unpredictable openings himself (most notably his famous Krapp Opening) and what Turgenev had failed to consider, in his detailed plan, was the Irishman’s often eccentric nature.  Beads of sweat, like spring freshets, suddenly appeared on Turgenev’s forehead as he removed the lace kerchief from his suitcoat cuff and dabbed his forehead dry.  Beckett, unmoved, unflappable, maintained his bent position, bent over the board, creased greatcoat, to the top of the top button, still buttoned, knowing the game a game of more pricks than kicks.

          Through the rest of the match Turgenev tried to recompose himself, to settle down and play his normal game in an attempt to salvage what would prove to be the move that cost him his championship.


             WHITE BLACK

             Turgenev Beckett


2           N-KB3 P-QB4

3           P-B4     P-K3

4           P-K3    N-KB3

5           B-Q3    N-B3

6           Castles B-Q3

7           P-QN3 Castles

8           B-N2    P-QN3

9           QN-Q2 B-N2

10         R-B1  Q-K2


             But it soon became apparent that Turgenev’s opening gambit had backfired, leaving him somewhat gamesmanly debilitated, and as the match continued he lacked any spark, any kind of dynamic challenge that would deter Beckett from taking to the attack.


11         BPxP?  KPxP

12         N-R4    P-N3

13         KN-B3 QR-Q!

14         PxP      PxP

15         B-N5    N-N5!

16         BxN?   BxB

17         Q-B2    NxN!

18         NxN     P-Q5!


             Turgenev’s mental errors were coming more and more often.  The major break in the game came at move 19 when Turgenev moved PxP?  In a brilliant parry, Beckett countered with BxPch!

             Staggered, Turgenev moved KxB, but Beckett almost immediately came back with Q-R5ch.  Turgenev then moved N-N1 and completing a brilliant two bishop sacrifice Beckett moved BxP!!

             The audience sensed an upset.  A change in the style of things.  In approaches to the game.  Turgenev turned pale.  Sweat began to bead once again.  He dabbed his brow, licked his lips, took a sip of water.  Dostoevsky sensed the loss, but gambled on him anyway; Joyce new it was imminent.  And all the time, Beckett, unmoved, unflappable, sat, sat and watched, bent over the board, greatcoat dangling at the sleeves, greatcoat dangling like some unnamable creature, waiting for Turgenev to do something.


22         P-B3     KR-K!!

23         N-K4    Q-R8ch

24         K-B2    BxR

25         P-Q5    P-B4!

26         Q-B3    Q-N7ch

27         K-K3    RxNch!


             But defeat seemed imminent.  As Turgenev retreated, as his confidence waned, Beckett, ever-present, like the creases in his face, Beckett pressed the attack.


28         PxP      P-B5ch

29         KxP      R-B1ch


             Piece by losing piece Turgenev watched his chess prominence slowly slip away from him, slip away to this beleaguered-looking man who never lifted eye from board, never moved or swayed or swayed or moved or moved or gazed or swayed or gazed or moved or gazed or swayed or moved from the lines upon the table.


30         K-K5    Q-R7ch


             A move away, maybe two and the long opulent lines, the detailed maneuvers, the gambits to Pushkin would all be over, done, finished, resolved, like the end of a Chekhov play.


31         K-K6  R-K!ch


             When the smoke cleared, when all that was left was to resign or be vanquished, what remained for Turgenev was faith.  Faith that the people would remember his originality, that what he had done had not been done before him, or after, in the same extraordinary way.  Nor could it.  That he would be remembered not as the Turgenev who challenged Beckett with the Onegin Gambit and failed, but as the Turgenev who felt no need for redemption.


32         K-Q7    B-N4mate


             And like the elegant and gracious man he was, Turgenev reached for Beckett’s hand and shook it in both of his.  Two hands of different sizes, methods of playing the game.  The always remitting Beckett accepted the gesture as graciously as it was offered, but with eyes turned aside almost in homage to the master and his style.  Then Turgenev stood, bowed gently to the audience and left the room to spend, as he acknowledged, a month in the country, among the virgin soil, with his father and his sons.

             All eyes then turned to Beckett who rose slowly to his feet, feet still weighing heavily from the buttoned greatcoat, greatcoat weighing heavily from the triumph over Turgenev, Turgenev weighing heavily on his mind.   He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  Stories and texts for nothing came out.  As if a mime without words came out.  He raised a finger in the air as if a prelude to his saying something, breathless, but then, frizzling, decided against it, against saying anything at all, against saying anything worth saying.  Since saying something presumed there was something more to be said.  Something more than he left at the table.  And instead of saying anything, anything worth saying, at all, Beckett nodded to the company and like the endgame of a last tape, like a calmative, expelled and faded away.  Said nothing more and merely faded away.  And that’s how it is.