The Three Sailors` Gambit

Sitting some years ago in the ancient tavern at Over, oneafternoon in Spring, I was waiting, as was my custom, forsomething strange to happen. In this I was not alwaysdisappointed for the very curious leaded panes of thattavern, facing the sea, let a light into the low-ceilingedroom so mysterious, particularly at evening, that it somehowseemed to affect the events within. Be that as it may, Ihave seen strange things in that tavern and heard strangerthings told.

And as I sat there three sailors entered the tavern, justback, as they said, from sea, and come with sunburned skinsfrom a very long voyage to the South; and one of them had aboard and chessmen under his arm, and they were complainingthat they could find no one who knew how to play chess. This was the year that the Tournament was in England. And alittle dark man at a table in a corner of the room, drinkingsugar and water, asked them why they wished to play chess;and they said they would play any man for a pound. Theyopened their box of chessmen then, a cheap and nasty set,and the man refused to play with such uncouth pieces, andthe sailors suggested that perhaps he could find betterones; and in the end he went round to his lodgings near byand brought his own, and then they sat down to play for apound a side. It was a consultation game on the part of thesailors, they said that all three must play.

Well, the little dark man turned out to be Stavlokratz.

Of course he was fabulously poor, and the sovereign meantmore to him than it did to the sailors, but he didn't seemkeen to play, it was the sailors that insisted; he had madethe badness of the sailors' chessmen an excuse for notplaying at all, but the sailors had over-ruled that, andthen he told them straight out who he was, and the sailorshad never heard of Stavlokratz.

Well, no more was said after that. Stavlokratz said nomore, either because he did not wish to boast or because hewas huffed that they did not know who he was. And I saw noreason to enlighten the sailors about him; if he took theirpound they had brought it upon themselves, and my boundlessadmiration for his genius made me feel that he deservedwhatever might come his way. He had not asked to play, theyhad named the stakes, he had warned them, and gave them thefirst move; there was nothing unfair about Stavlokratz.

I had never seen Stavlokratz before, but I had playedover nearly every one of his games in the World Championshipfor the last three or four years; he was always of coursethe model chosen by students. Only young chess-players canappreciate my delight at seeing him play first hand.

Well, the sailors used to lower their heads almost as lowas the table and mutter together before every move, but theymuttered so low that you could not hear what they planned.

They lost three pawns almost straight off, then a knight,and shortly after a bishop; they were playing in fact thefamous Three Sailors' Gambit.

Stavlokratz was playing with the easy confidence thatthey say was usual with him, when suddenly at about thethirteenth move I saw him look surprised; he leaned forwardand looked at the board and then at the sailors, but helearned nothing from their vacant faces; he looked back atthe board again.

He moved more deliberately after that; the sailors losttwo more pawns, Stavlokratz had lost nothing as yet. Helooked at me I thought almost irritably, as though somethingwould happen that he wished I was not there to see. Ibelieved at first that he had qualms about taking thesailors' pound, until it dawned on me that he might lose thegame; I saw that possibility in his face, not on the board,for the game had become almost incomprehensible to me. Icannot describe my astonishment. And a few moves laterStavlokratz resigned.

The sailors showed no more elation than if they had wonsome game with greasy cards, playing amongst themselves.

Stavlokratz asked them where they got their opening. "Wekind of thought of it," said one. "It just come into ourheads like," said another. He asked them questions aboutthe ports they had touched at. He evidently thought as Idid myself that they had learned their extraordinary gambit,perhaps in some old dependancy of Spain, from some youngmaster of chess whose fame had not reached Europe. He wasvery eager to find out who this man could be, for neither ofus imagined that those sailors had invented it, nor wouldanyone who had seen them. But he got no information fromthe sailors.

Stavlokratz could very ill afford the loss of a pound. He offered to play them again for the same stakes. Thesailors began to set up the white pieces. Stavlokratzpointed out that it was his turn for the first move. Thesailors agreed but continued to set up the white pieces andsat with the white before them waiting for him to move. Itwas a trivial incident, but it revealed to Stavlokratz andmyself that none of these sailors was aware that whitealways moves first.

Stavlokratz played them on his own opening, reasoning ofcourse that as they had never heard of Stavlokratz theywould not know of his opening; and with probably a very goodhope of getting back his pound he played the fifth variationwith its tricky seventh move, at least so he intended, butit turned to a variation unknown to the students ofStavlokratz.

Throughout this game I watched the sailors closely, and Ibecame sure, as only an attentive watcher can be, that theone on their left, Jim Bunion, did not even know the moves.

When I had made up my mind about this I watched only theother two, Adam Bailey and Bill Sloggs, trying to make outwhich was the master mind; and for a long while I couldnot. And then I heard Adam Bailey mutter six words, theonly words I heard throughout the game, of all theirconsultations, "No, him with the horse's head." And Idecided that Adam Bailey did not know what a knight was,though of course he might have been explaining things toBill Sloggs, but it did not sound like that; so that leftBill Sloggs. I watched Bill Sloggs after that with acertain wonder; he was no more intellectual than the othersto look at, though rather more forceful perhaps. Poor oldStavlokratz was beaten again.

Well, in the end I paid for Stavlokratz, and tried to geta game with Bill Sloggs alone, but this he would not agreeto, it must be all three or none: and then I went back withStavlokratz to his lodgings. He very kindly gave me a game:of course it did not last long but I am prouder of havingbeen beaten by Stavlokratz than of any game that I have everwon. And then we talked for an hour about the sailors, andneither of us could make head or tail of them. I told himwhat I had noticed about Jim Bunion and Adam Bailey, and heagreed with me that Bill Sloggs was the man, though as tohow he had come by that gambit or that variation ofStavlokratz's own opening he had no theory.

I had the sailors' address which was that tavern as muchas anywhere, and they were to be there all evening. Asevening drew in I went back to the tavern, and found therestill the three sailors. And I offered Bill Sloggs twopounds for a game with him alone and he refused, but in theend he played me for a drink. And then I found that he hadnot heard of the "en passant" rule, and believed that thefact of checking the king prevented him from castling, anddid not know that a player can have two or more queens onthe board at the same time if he queens his pawns, or that apawn could ever become a knight; and he made as many of thestock mistakes as he had time for in a short game, which Iwon. I thought that I should have got at the secret then,but his mates who had sat scowling all the while in thecorner came up and interfered. It was a breach of theircompact apparently for one to play by himself, at any ratethey seemed angry. So I left the tavern then and came backagain next day, and the next day and the day after, andoften saw the sailors, but none were in a communicativemood. I had got Stavlokratz to keep away, and they couldget no one to play chess with at a pound a side, and I wouldnot play with them unless they told me the secret.

And then one evening I found Jim Bunion drunk, yet not sodrunk as he wished, for the two pounds were spent; and Igave him very nearly a tumbler of whiskey, or what passedfor whiskey in that tavern at Over, and he told me thesecret at once. I had given the others some whiskey to keepthem quiet, and later on in the evening they must have goneout, but Jim Bunion stayed with me by a little table leaningacross it and talking low, right into my face, his breathsmelling all the while of what passed for whiskey.

The wind was blowing outside as it does on bad nights inNovember, coming up with moans from the South, towards whichthe tavern faced with all its leaded panes, so that none butI was able to hear his voice as Jim Bunion gave up hissecret.

They had sailed for years, he told me, with Bill Snyth;and on their last voyage home Bill Snyth had died. And hewas buried at sea. Just the other side of the line theyburied him, and his pals divided his kit, and these threegot his crystal that only they knew he had, which Bill gotone night in Cuba. They played chess with the crystal.

And he was going on to tell me about that night in Cubawhen Bill had bought the crystal from the stranger, how somefolks might think they had seen thunderstorms, but let themgo and listen to that one that thundered in Cuba when Billwas buying his crystal and they'd find that they didn't knowwhat thunder was. But then I interrupted him, unfortunatelyperhaps, for it broke the thread of his tale and set himrambling a while, and cursing other people and talking ofother lands, China, Port Said and Spain: but I brought himback to Cuba again in the end. I asked him how they couldplay chess with a crystal; and he said that you looked atthe board and looked at the crystal, and there was the gamein the crystal the same as it was on the board, with all theodd little pieces looking just the same though smaller,horses' heads and whatnots; and as soon as the other manmoved the move came out in the crystal, and then your moveappeared after it, and all you had to do was to make it onthe board. If you didn't make the move that you saw in thecrystal things got very bad in it, everything horribly mixedand moving about rapidly, and scowling and making the samemove over and over again, and the crystal getting cloudierand cloudier; it was best to take one's eyes away from itthen, or one dreamt about it afterwards, and the foul littlepieces came and cursed you in your sleep and moved about allnight with their crooked moves.

I thought then that, drunk though he was, he was nottelling the truth, and I promised to show him to people whoplayed chess all their lives so that he and his mates couldget a pound whenever they liked, and I promised not toreveal his secret even to Stavlokratz, if only he would tellme all the truth; and this promise I have kept till longafter the three sailors have lost their secret. I told himstraight out that I did not believe in the crystal. Well,Jim Bunion leaned forward then, even further across thetable, and swore he had seen the man from whom Bill hadbought the crystal and that he was one to whom anything waspossible. To begin with his hair was villainously dark, andhis features were unmistakable even down there in the South,and he could play chess with his eyes shut, and even then hecould beat anyone in Cuba. But there was more than this,there was the bargain he made with Bill that told one who hewas. He sold that crystal for Bill Snyth's soul.

Jim Bunion leaning over the table with his breath in myface nodded his head several times and was silent.

I began to question him then. Did they play chess as faraway as Cuba? He said they all did. Was it conceivablethat any man would make such a bargain as Snyth made? Wasn't the trick well known? Wasn't it in hundreds ofbooks? And if he couldn't read books mustn't he have heardfrom sailors that it is the Devil's commonest dodge to getsouls from silly people?

Jim Bunion had leant back in his own chair quietlysmiling at my questions but when I mentioned silly people heleaned forward again, and thrust his face close to mine andasked me several times if I called Bill Snyth silly. Itseemed that these three sailors thought a great deal of BillSnyth and it made Jim Bunion angry to hear anything saidagainst him. I hastened to say that the bargain seemedsilly though not of course the man who made it; for thesailor was almost threatening, and no wonder for the whiskeyin that dim tavern would madden a nun.

When I said that the bargain seemed silly he smiledagain, and then he thundered his fist down on the table andsaid that no one had ever yet got the best of Bill Snyth andthat that was the worst bargain for himself that the Devilever made, and that from all he had read or heard of theDevil he had never been so badly had before as the nightwhen he met Bill Snyth at the inn in the thunderstorm inCuba, for Bill Snyth already had the damndest soul at sea;Bill was a good fellow, but his soul was damned rightenough, so he got the crystal for nothing.

Yes, he was there and saw it all himself, Bill Snyth inthe Spanish inn and the candles flaring, and the Devilwalking in and out of the rain, and then the bargain betweenthose two old hands, and the Devil going out into thelightning, and the thunderstorm raging on, and Bill Snythsitting chuckling to himself between the bursts of thethunder.

But I had more questions to ask and interrupted thisreminiscence. Why did they all three always play together? And a look of something like fear came over Jim Bunion'sface; and at first he would not speak. And then he said tome that it was like this; they had not paid for thatcrystal, but got it as their share of Bill Snyth's kit. Ifthey had paid for it or given something in exchange to BillSnyth that would have been all right, but they couldn't dothat now because Bill was dead, and they were not sure ifthe old bargain might not hold good. And Hell must be alarge and lonely place, and to go there alone must be bad,and so the three agreed that they would all stick together,and use the crystal all three or not at all, unless onedied, and then the two would use it and the one that wasgone would wait for them. And the last of the three to gowould take the crystal with him, or maybe the crystal wouldbring him. They didn't think, they said, they were the kindof men for Heaven, and he hoped they knew their place betterthan that, but they didn't fancy the notion of Hell alone,if Hell it had to be. It was all right for Bill Snyth, hewas afraid of nothing. He had known perhaps five men thatwere not afraid of death, but Bill Snyth was not afraid ofHell. He died with a smile on his face like a child in itssleep; it was drink killed poor Bill Snyth.

This was why I had beaten Bill Sloggs; Sloggs had thecrystal on him while we played, but would not use it; thesesailors seemed to fear loneliness as some people fear beinghurt; he was the only one of the three who could play chessat all, he had learnt it in order to be able to answerquestions and keep up their pretence, but he had learnt itbadly, as I found. I never saw the crystal, they nevershowed it to anyone; but Jim Bunion told me that night thatit was about the size that the thick end of a hen's eggwould be if it were round. And then he fell asleep.

There were many more questions that I would have askedhim but I could not wake him up. I even pulled the tableaway so that he fell to the floor, but he slept on, and allthe tavern was dark but for one candle burning; and it wasthen that I noticed for the first time that the other twosailors had gone, no one remained at all but Jim Bunion andI and the sinister barman of that curious inn, and he toowas asleep.

When I saw that it was impossible to wake the sailor Iwent out into the night. Next day Jim Bunion would talk ofit no more; and when I went back to Stavlokratz I found himalready putting on paper his theory about the sailors, whichbecame accepted by chess-players, that one of them had beentaught their curious gambit and that the other two betweenthem had learnt all the defensive openings as well asgeneral play. Though who taught them no one could say, inspite of enquiries made afterwards all along the SouthernPacific.

I never learnt any more details from any of the threesailors, they were always too drunk to speak or else notdrunk enough to be communicative. I seem just to have takenJim Bunion at the flood. But I kept my promise, it was Ithat introduced them to the Tournament, and a pretty messthey made of established reputations. And so they kept onfor months, never losing a game and always playing for theirpound a side. I used to follow them wherever they wentmerely to watch their play. They were more marvellous thanStavlokratz even in his youth.

But then they took to liberties such as giving theirqueen when playing first-class players. And in the end oneday when all three were drunk they played the best player inEngland with only a row of pawns. They won the game allright. But the ball broke to pieces. I never smelt such astench in all my life.

The three sailors took it stoically enough, they signedon to different ships and went back again to the sea, andthe world of chess lost sight, for ever I trust, of the mostremarkable players it ever knew, who would have altogetherspoiled the game.