“Is it true,” I asked Death, “that I can challenge you to a game of chess for my life?”
“It is,” Death said. “But few enough people think to ask, and even fewer exercise that right. Fewer still see the game through to completion. Most give up within a matter of turns.”
“Are you so good?”
“I am as skilled as you might expect of one who has had as much practice as I have, though my skill is not solely the reason for concession.”
“Certainly you’ve had more years to practice than most people,” I said. “But how much of that time did you devote to a serious study of the game?”
“A little here, a little there,” Death said. “It adds up. In particular, I have spent more time than most masters of the game learning to play under the peculiar conditions that govern the game in this between-place.”
“What peculiar conditions?” I asked.
“There must be judges, for an impartial contest,” Death said. “No move may be made if the judges deem it illegal.”
“What is the penalty for attempting an illegal move?” I asked, with more than a touch of trepidation.
“Nothing,” Death said. “It is withdrawn, as if it had never happened, and play continues.”
“Must all the judges agree?” I asked, looking for the trap or hitch.
“No, there are three of them and majority rules,” Death said.
“Who are they?” I asked, expecting it to be either angels or demons… and not knowing which one I’d rather have.
“A council of theologians,” Death said. “We have had other judges, but none remained sufficiently interested long enough.”
“I will probably lose,” I said. “But… I think I’m going to challenge you anyway, and I’m going to have to see the game through until I’m checkmated. That’s what life is, right? Struggling against death until the last moment?”
“Sometimes. There is such a thing as acceptance,” Death said. With the wave of a hand, a chessboard appeared on a pedestal. A trio of figures appeared in the mist that swirled around us, though they kept their distance. “Our judges… they will remain some distance away, unless their judgment is needed. You may have your choice of sides.”
“I’ve heard that white has an advantage in going first,” I said. “That if you’re playing white and you play a perfect game, you can’t be beaten. Do you suppose that’s true?”
“Do you suppose you’ll play a perfect game?” Death asked.
“I concede the point,” I said, but I chose white anyway. There seemed to be a better chance that Death would play perfectly than I would.
The opening moves of the game seemed nothing particularly remarkable to me. It was only when I reached for my knight and moved it out of the back row that the judges came forward.
“False move! False move!” two of them cried.
“That was a perfectly valid move,” the third one said. “But I’m outvoted. As usual.”
“What’s wrong with the move?” I asked.
“You moved your knight one square over and then two squares up,” one of the objectors said.
“Yes?” I said.
“Knights move two squares in one direction and then one square perpendicularly.”
“No they don’t,” the third one said. “They move just as the white player described.”
“It’s the same results either way,” I said. “Fine, though. I’ll move the knight two squares forward and then…”
“Stop!” the other objector said. “That isn’t how the knight moves at all. The knight moves one square diagonally in any direction, and then one square orthogonally in a direction outward from its square of origin.”
“Oh, it does not!” the theologian who hadn’t objected to my original move said.
“‘Orthogonally’, indeed,” the first theologian said.
“But… listen,” I said, having taken a moment to decode the new claim and what it meant in terms of squares on the board. “All three methods you’re describing end up with the same set of squares as valid destinations. You’re all stating the same rule a different way.”
“We most certainly are not!”
“The very idea!”
“It is frankly insulting that you would take the true rule and lump it together with the unfounded suppositions and fallacies peddled by these charlatans!”
“Okay,” I said. “Let me try a different tack. You’re just describing different ways for calculating the valid moves the knight can make, but the knight does not actually cross through any squares. All the actual rules of chess care about is the destination square. So if you can all agree that the destination is valid, can I make the move?”
“You’re suggesting that the path doesn’t matter?”
“The very idea!”
“Your sophistry has no place in a serious game.”
I sighed and looked at Death.
“It is possible to win a game without the use of knights,” Death said. “But I’ve had more practice at it than most. Do you wish to continue?”
I knocked my king on its side.
“Look on the bright side,” Death said. “Before this occupation was arranged for them, they spent all their time arguing about more important destinations than that of a chess piece.”