There’s a moose in the Alaskan wilderness that plays chess.

He doesn’t just play it in fact. He wins at it. Easily. For decades, the chess champions of the world played the moose as a right of passage. They never won, but losing that game taught them more than winning a hundred tournaments ever could. The moose knew things about chess that humans could never hope to.

I played him two years ago, and I lost. I want to tell you what I learned from that experience. So you understand why he can’t be beaten, and why it matters.

The moose owns a cabin in the woods with heating, electricity, and satellite internet. I knocked on the door at 12 o’clock. A nurse named Bethany answered. She was fifty years old and had been working there for 10. When he played chess the moose grunted, squeaked, and moved his antlers. Bethany knew what every sound and movement meant, and shifted his pieces accordingly, while her employer stood there staring forward. It’s strange at first, but I hoped I’d get used to it quickly.

Bethany led me into a cozy room at the back of the cabin where my opponent was waiting across an already arranged chess set from me.

I said hello. The moose stared back at me. We began to play.

I had never been in a game like it. It was like my mind was being read. Every offence I tried was countered, every defence anticipated. The moose had the upper hand from the start.

It’s not over, I thought to myself, you’ve been in tougher spots than this.

And I had.

I learned to play chess at a military base in Saigon during the war. The nearest moose was thousands of miles away then, but I still managed to find some stiff competition.

The comedian of our unit was a piece of work named Jefferson MacNair. MacNair was a real cut-up but he never lost a game. Not a game of cards, not a game of dice, nothing. I was the rookie so he took me under his wing. He taught me to defend my pieces, quizzed me on openings while we cleaned the barracks, and told me his number one rule of chess: Never give up.

It wasn’t long before I was playing the other infantrymen around the camp. We’d put some money on it and I’d walk away with 5 or 10 bucks. MacNair always got one or two as a thank you.

After a while I started getting cocky. It wasn’t long before I was bragging to MacNair that I’d beat him no problem.

He’d look at me and said “kid, if I lost to you I’d die of shame.”

We played each other on a Tuesday about halfway through my time overseas and I won. MacNair looked at me and said “I’m a man of my word kid. I guess I gotta die now”

And he did. Eventually.

The moose didn’t know any of that though, he was just a moose. And remembering my victory over MacNair had gotten me back into the game, like it was always did when I was behind. I had his horse and a couple pawns. He had my castle and a bishop. It wasn’t ideal but I’d come back from worse.

When I was living in Hollywood, working as a housesitter for superhero sidekicks when they were out fighting crime or drinking with professional wrestlers, I got into some trouble with the mob.

It was bad. Gambling debts that I could never hope to repay on a house-sitter’s salary. The local don was a wiseguy named Fernando Bertolucci. He loved three things: making money, hurting people, and his daughter Penelope.

I was looking after Robin’s house when he found me. I remember getting dangled out of a third story window by my ankles like it was yesterday. Bertolucci’s goons were yelling at me about the money. I kept telling them I didn’t have it and they were saying they were gonna drop me on my head. That’s when I remembered Penelope.

“Fernando” I yelled into the house, “How’d you like for Penelope to get lessons in chess from a Grandmaster like me? Free of charge?”

Waiting for his answer was the longest moment of my life but eventually, they pulled me back in through the window and I was given two weeks to turn Penelope into a superstar chess player. Bertolucci thought it’d look great on her college applications.

So I started meeting with the girl every day after school. She was terrible. Hated the game. Had a bad memory. I was desperate. Then one day, I snapped. I screamed at her. Told her everything. Told her I was gonna be killed if she didn’t practice her chess. Her eyes went wide and I knew she believed me.

We worked well together after that and she went on to win the state championship that year. Not only did her father repay my debts, he bought me a house in Beverley Hills.

My experience with her taught me the value of desperation and I used that lesson to take a bishop and another horse off the Moose.

Now I was feeling comfortable, I figured it was a matter of time before I was in the lead and the moose was grunting at Bethany to knock over his king. But I cautioned myself. I knew the perils of getting too confident. The only game I ever lost taught me that.

It was the 1980s, and I was in love for the first time in my life. Her name was Grace. She was a surfing instructor and I was a wealthy soap opera memorabilia collector. She taught me how to surf, and I made her watch all 23 seasons of Days Of Our Lives. It was paradise.

But just when I was going to retire and live out the rest of my life as a winner Grace was kidnapped. Her ransom note told me if I wanted to see her again I had to face the scion of a hermit kingdom in the Himalayas in a game of chess. I was retired since the incident with Penelope but I still felt confident I could beat the king and win her back.

So I flew to Asia. Private Charter of course (The soap opera memorabilia collection industry had been good to me). When I arrived a limousine brought me to the palace of the ruthless dictator.Grace was sitting in the queen’s throne but she wasn’t allowed to talk.

I readied myself for a difficult game against the King, who wore an elegant robe and insisted on playing with a chess set made of gold and silver pieces. He was gold obviously, and I was silver.

The game was hard fought, and it almost ended in a draw. At the last moment though, I managed to check mate him.

But when I rushed to free Grace she told me she hadn’t been kidnapped at all. Her and the king were in love and she had come up with the chess match as a ruse to avoid breaking my heart. I’d won at chess, but I’d lost the game.

The king had been certain he would beat me. He was so ashamed that he had lost he gave me his kingdom to rule. But he took Grace, and I was left the miserable ruler of a beautiful nation.

The moose was taking his time to move now and I thought for a moment that I had him stumped. The move he eventually made though proved me wrong.

He’d made a mistake. Not a subtle mistake but a glaring, and devastating one. I couldn’t believe the greatest chess player in the world could make a move as foolish as the one the moose had just made.

Frantically, I looked up at my opponent and realised in a moment of unparalleled clarity that this was no mistake.

The moose wasn’t just looking at me, he was seeing me.

I knew in an instant that he had noticed the pain in my eyes as I remembered Grace and he had moved to gift wrap me the win he knew I needed.

This creature of otherworldly wisdom had given me compassion instead of defeat. It was almost too much to bear.

“Mooose!” I yelled loudly in a fit of delusion.

Without thinking for a moment, I slammed my king down on the board, forfeiting the match, and ran out into the cold.

It was winter in Alaska but I didn’t need a coat. I screamed into the wilderness and laughed while I cried. I didn’t understand what had just happened. But I knew, with more certainty than I’d ever had, that I would never be the same again.

I don’t know how long I stayed out there but eventually my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door opening. It was Bethany. She was holding a hot cup of tea.

“The moose would like to play again,” She said.

I hope you enjoyed the first story. I’ll be posting a new one every week. If you have any feedback I’d love to see it in the comments, I’m trying to use this to improve as much as possible. See you next week!

Short Stories.

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