My chess-playing buddy must look odd to a stranger – he seems to like wearing a hooded cape, be it summer or winter, and I rarely see much of his face. I've somehow grown accustomed to his sartorial taste. I think he might be Spanish. He has a Spanish name, Angel Mortis, and his favourite opening is the Ruy Lopez, although he plays others as well. He only ever wants to play straight after work – he says he's a farmhand who cuts hayfields the old-fashioned way, with a scythe. He says hand-cutting's more eco-friendly. I make him put his scythe down in the corner.
We have this routine, he and I. We play every day, alternately black then white, and so far I've won every single game. I get the impression that he sometimes lets me win, though I can't think why. Some of our games are short, but most last long into the night. At the end of each game he simply nods, offers his hand for me to shake, congratulates me, and arranges to meet the next day, "same as before". Then he picks up his scythe and it's the last I see of him before the pieces are set up again the following day.
To begin with our games were simple affairs. Angel barely seemed to understand the moves and if the truth be told I probably wasn't a whole lot better, but the more we played the more our mutual understanding of the game, and of each other, developed. Chess demands that you respect your opponent, although not so much that you miss your chance to defeat him. Openings can be learned, but over the years Angel has led me into ever more complex middle games, and sometimes only my superior knowledge of the endgame has rescued me. That can't go on for ever, though.
One day that middle game will lead to an irresolvable endgame. One day for sure, Angel will trap me and suddenly I'll feel my unbeaten record sliding away. Angel likes to say that he only needs to win once against me and he'll feel that all of our games will have been worthwhile, and it can only be a matter of time before it happens. It's not that I'm getting much worse, although I've probably improved as much as I can, it's just that his standard keeps rising. But we have an arrangement – he's promised to give me a demonstration of his scythe technique when he's finally won.
Today he had the black pieces, played a Catalan Defence and lost again; he gave me that familiar quiet smile as he resigned. Tomorrow, though, he'll be back with white and – almost certainly – his favoured Lopez again, so I'll have to be on my guard once again. All the more so when he said as left, "See you tomorrow, same as before," then added, "Somehow, I feel tomorrow will be my lucky day."
Perhaps it will.