Six years. No word in that time, why now?
This was the single thought burning through Tony Sterland’s mind as he drove to the meeting.
As he responded to the SAT Nav’s directions, his thoughts went back over thirty years to the day he met his best friend, Peter Preston.
The first day at school is traumatic for any child. Tony Sterland was an only child and he stood in the corner of the playground staring at his new shoes.
“What’s your name?” a high voice asked.
Tony looked up into the bright blue eyes of a blond haired boy. “T-Tony.”
“Hello. I’m Peter.” The boy held out his hand. Tony shook it as his Granddad had taught him. Peter smiled. “We’ll be best friends.”
Just then a teacher shouted all the new children over to her. “First Years this way!”
That was that. Tony and Peter became friends and when they found out that lunchtime that they both played Chess, their friendship was cemented.
Throughout their time at Infants’ school they were inseparable, indeed in later years, if asked, their teachers said, ‘You never saw one without the other.’
The SAT Nav told him to leave the motorway, and Sterland responded automatically as his memory took him back to his childhood.
Junior School saw Tony and Peter playing for the school chess team. When they left for the Comprehensive they were already the strongest players for their age in the country.
Comprehensive school was a triumph for the two friends. They played for the school team as first years and regularly beat their much older opponents. They developed their personalities in line with their playing styles. Peter was cool, analytical and very precise. He could dissect any opening, and his photographic memory and perfect recall allowed him to digest chess books and school text books with equal ease. He breezed his exams each year and was soon writing articles and analysing grandmaster games with a confidence that belied his age. Tony on the other hand, was very moody, and struggled with both opening play and his text books. He became known as ‘The Storm Cloud’. Once he had grasped something he could get to the heart of it and take it in another direction with a speed that surprised people. Once a game had left opening theory behind, he had few peers in the chess world and his play was compared to America’s two great players, Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer.
The SAT Nav broke into Tony’s train of thought by directing him to take the next left. He glanced at the screen. The village was seven miles away.
University called and the two friends were parted. Peter followed his parents to Cambridge and Tony went to the dreaming spires of Oxford. Peter again found both his academic and increasingly complex chess games easy and he was soon being pushed as Cambridge Captain for the varsity match against Oxford. Tony initially struggled with his work and his chess suffered. It was so bad that he had not even made the Oxford team, and had to watch as Peter led Cambridge in crushing the Dark Blues. Tony could see Peter’s signature on the Light Blue team. He vowed to play the following year and help his University win. A summer away from Oxford and a month in America without even looking at a chess board re-ignited Tony’s passion for the game. He was different young man when he returned to Oxford the following autumn.
“Yes, I owed you for that, Peter,” Tony mused as he turned off the main road.
The remaining years at university were a great success for the friends. Both achieved first class honours degrees, Peter in History and Tony in English. Few chess players are mathematicians, and they were no exception. Peter gained his Grandmaster status after winning the British Championship in his final year at Cambridge, beating Tony to the title. Tony would have to wait a few months for his Grandmaster award, but he gained it after winning the famous Hastings tournament. He did this with Peter’s help. Peter had given him the opening preparation for his game against the Dutch Grandmaster, Jan van der Wyman, the strongest non-Russian player in the world.
Tony slowed down as he wound his way through the village. The SAT Nav indicated that his destination was a couple of miles outside the village. His thought back to where he met his wife. In retrospect, that was when he and Peter began to drift apart.
The small island of Malta had hosted the Chess Olympiad, and both Tony and Peter were representing England. As the highest rated players in the team, they were playing on the top two boards, Peter at Number One and Tony at Number Two. Peter had helped prepare files on opening play for all their opponents and his thoroughness helped England win a team silver medal, behind, of course, the Russians. Peter won an individual silver medal, losing out to the Israeli-born American naturalised Grandmaster Gabriel Levy. Tony won Gold on Board Two, but more importantly, he left Malta having met his future wife. Maria was part of the organising committee, and after rejecting two dinner invitations, finally agreed to see Tony for lunch on the first rest day of the tournament.
Tony drove past the gap in the hedge, as he had planned all along. He pulled into the next layby and looked at his watch. He was thirty minutes early. He sat back and thought over the events that occurred in Paris, the last time he had seen Peter.
The two friends had reached the semi-finals of the match-play tournament held to determine the challenger to the World Chess Champion. Tony was due to play against Jan van der Wyman in Paris, following which Peter was scheduled to play his old rival, Gabriel Levy, in New York.
Seven days before the Paris tournament, Tony was sitting at his desk putting the finishing touches to an article when the phone rang.
“Tony, it’s me.” Peter sounded unusually excited.
“You sound happy, mate. What’s up?”
“I’ve been staring at a trap in the Benoni and need a second opinion. Have you got time?”
“I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”
Tony said to his wife: “I’m going over to see Peter, he sounds wired about something.”
Maria Sterland stood up awkwardly. Her pregnancy had been worrisome initially, but now she was as healthy as any first time mother-to-be. The baby was due in three weeks. They hoped the child would hang on until Tony’s match with van der Wyman was over. “He’s probably found something that everyone else in chess history has missed.” She grinned to take the edge off her statement. She and Peter had never seen eye to eye.
Tony kissed her. “Do we need anything?”
“I won’t be long. I’ll be back before dinner.”
The drive to Peter’s flat was short. His friend was waiting with the door open.
“Drink?” Peter asked.
“Coffee, if you’ve got decaff!” It was a standing joke between them. Peter had never touched alcohol as far as Tony was aware.
The coffee made, Peter led Tony over to his chess board. A position was set up that looked vaguely familiar to Tony.
“This set’s new.”
“Waterford Crystal, got it in Dublin last week. You know I love collecting.” Peter indicated the position. “Recognise it?”
“Sure, Karpov verses Tal, 1973 if I remember. Benoni, Tal’s method, Czeriak Defence.”
Tony stared at the board. “Was this the game when it was rumoured that Karpov had found a trick to crush white via the centre but was afraid to use it against Tal? The word was the Soviet Chess Federation stopped it. Karpov wasn’t World Champion yet and the Soviets wanted Tal to have a go at Fisher.”
“That’s the rumour.” Peter sat down behind black’s pieces. “I spoke to Karpov at the Linares tournament last year, and he let me in on the analyses. He said one of us would be able to use it against Gabriel.”
“No love lost there!”
“Let me show you.” He indicated the opposite seat. Tony sat and Peter ran through the sequence. On the 15th move for black, he put his Queen out in the open with no defending piece.
“Study and play, Tony. See if you come up with the same thing I have.”
Tony attacked the Queen. Peter left it exposed but moved a knight into the centre of the board. It threatened Tony’s position and he had to remove the knight. He went to play the obvious instinctive move, but stopped.
“I can’t do that! Mate in 4 against any white play.” He looked up at Peter.
“If white errors, then Mate in 3. Not bad. Think Gabriel will expect that?”
“No chance he sees that, mate. Brilliant. Your secrets safe. Jan has never played a Benoni to my knowledge.”
Peter stood up. “I’ll see you out, Tony. I’ve a few things to do.”
They shook hands at the door. “See you in Paris,” Peter said and then appeared to start to say something else. Instead, he said, “Good luck. Say hello to Maria for me.”
Tony left and spent the evening with his heavily expectant wife. The next time he saw Peter was in Paris.
“Paris. Why can’t it leave me in peace?” Tony groaned. He turned the car around and pulled into the campsite. The only other vehicle was a new long mobile home. He turned off the Mercedes engine and waited, his memory of Paris suddenly sharpened.
The match referee stood at the front of the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen. This is Game One of the Candidate’s Semi-final match. Grandmaster van der Wyman has won the draw and has the white pieces, Grandmaster Sterland has black. Our match arbiter FIDE Arbiter Leon Muller will start Mr. van der Wyman’s clock.”
The arbiter stepped forward and started the clock. Before he had sat down both Jan and Tony had played their first moves.
Peter sat in the second row alongside Jan’s wife Erika, a Woman’s Grandmaster. He looked on concerned and then in horror as the two players followed the move sequence that took them to the position he had shown Tony the previous week.
On stage, Tony’s face drained of colour. He stood and walked to the edge of the stage. There was a puzzled murmur in the audience. Tony finally looked across the audience and saw Peter. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed then turned, went back to the board and played the first move of the trap Peter had revealed to him. The buzz from the crowd was louder.
“That’s a mistake!” Erika van der Wyman exclaimed.
“No. It’s not. It’s brilliant.” Peter’s tone was bitter. “Why is Jan playing a Benoni anyway?”
“He thought he would surprise Tony,” she grinned. “It’s worked. That’s another mistake.”
Peter glanced at the board display and then stood and walked away before the sequence could be finished. By the time he had left the building, Tony had executed the trap and Jan van der Wyman led the applause for the brilliance of Tony’s play.
That night, Tony tried to reach Peter but to no avail. His emails went unanswered. Two days later, after Tony had taken a two game lead in the match, Peter announced that he was withdrawing from his match for health reasons and asked for privacy. That was six years ago. The chess world had not heard from him since. Tony wondered what had prompted the invitation.
Tony got out of the car. As he set the central locking, the door opened and Peter came out. There was grey at his temples and he was a little thinner, but otherwise he had hardly changed since Paris. He walked across to Tony and held out his hand.
“Hello. Come in, get out of the wind.” He turned and led a puzzled Tony into the mobile home. Inside, it was neat, and an ugly metallic chess board was set up on the fold down table. “Coffee?”
“Please. Peter, about Paris, I…”
“Nothing to say, Tony. Ancient history. I’ve got something to show you.” He nodded to the board. “Should help in your match with Marcus Kindermann. Vienna isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. What’s with the metallic board?” It was a far cry from the beautiful sets that Peter had loved collecting.
“Handy if you live in a mobile home.”
“I suppose so.”
Peter handed Tony a mug of coffee and sat at the board. “Ruy Lopez, Morphy Defence. You know it well, Kindermann doesn’t.”
“The Archangel variation. Not new, Peter it’s been pretty well analysed.”
“Oh, but this is new.” Peter picked up the white Queen pawn and moved it forward two squares.
Tony, by instinct, took it with his King’s pawn.
“Now the twist.” Peter picked up the Queen and took Tony’s pawn. A soft, but clearly audible clicking noise came from beneath the mobile home.
Tony ignored it and looked sharply at Peter. “I don’t see the point of that!”
His friend was smiling.
“Oh you will, Tony. You will.”
The images broadcast by the BBC that night were not new. Rather, they would not have been new if they had come from Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel. The charred earth, the large crater and the twisted metal were nothing new. The shock was that the pictures were from the English Cotswolds.
The inhabitants of the local village described the explosion as ‘frightening,’ and described the fireball that rose over two hundred feet into the air as ‘like a volcano exploding’.
The owner of the charred field said it was used as a campsite, but only one person was booked in. “A nice guy he was. Looked as if he’d been ill, but told me this morning he was meeting an old friend.”
The lady who ran the village post office said she had seen “a silver Mercedes going past the window about half an hour before the explosion.”
The early evening news carried a statement from the Police; two charred bodies had been found at the scene, but no identification was possible.
It wasn’t until the Nine O’clock News that the country was given the shocking news that one of the bodies was that of Tony Sterland, the World Chess Champion.
It would be forty-eight hours before Peter Preston was identified. By then, the chess world was in mourning for its lost champion. FIDE, the world chess authority announced that Tony Sterland would continue to be recognized as World Champion for a period of one year after his death. Then an eight-player tournament would be held in London to decide his successor.
One of the many quotes made following the friends’ death was from Dutch Grandmaster Jan van der Wyman. “Tony and Peter were inseparable. You never saw one without the other.”
Lee Wykes asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work