At first, the experience of teaching his wife how to play chess had seemed rather trivial to Kenneth, not unlike their entire marriage. He had never been an avid chess player and, frankly, neither ever been terribly interested in the game himself. However, helping his wife learn a new skill previously unavailable to her was a ritual he had performed many times before and which he greatly enjoyed, and chess had given the impression of being a perfect candidate considering their respective backgrounds; a fun little re-enactment of their positions in life on this black and white checkered game board.
He had not expected that after the initial tutoring session, he would not once win against her.
Janice was not a complicated woman by any stretch of the imagination, and really that was what Kenneth liked about her. His parents had, to this day, trouble warming up to her, and had made it known that they had expected their son to marry someone of status; not of similar or comparable status necessarily, but of status, period. A woman for whom ‘status’ was an apt use of the word. An heiress, ideally, a businesswoman if need be, maybe a scientist if he enjoyed that social circle. Some of his college friends had married artsy types for a while or, on occasion, permanently, when they had wanted to express some willingness to experiment, and Kenneth himself had briefly been engaged to a lawyer; however, her social mobility – daughter of car insurance salesman in a former boom town – had already upset his parents quite a bit as well. Still, a kindergarden teacher had been a step further into the wrong direction. But now she was his wife and had stopped being a kindergarden teacher and Kenneth's parents put up with her uneducated table etiquette and unwillingness to not show up to social events that did not require her presence.
Kenneth loved her. He loved that she had been a kindergarden teacher and voiced no ambitions to ever rise above that. He had given her the financial security to earn a degree in whichever field she pleased, and knew she’d never even mention that option, not even in passing, as a quick aside, an idea at best stored in short-term memory. He loved that she only read books he recommended to her – quite unenthusiastically and quickly, but always retaining vital information to have adequate discussions about them afterwards, sometimes in such detail that her fastidious quotations betrayed how little she had processed the information given to her – and that her interest in music was equally undistinguished. That her palate was unsophisticated, her fashion sense cheap and her physical features not exactly homely, but practical. She was of practical, presentable beauty, but not a beauty out of anyone’s control. And most of all Kenneth loved that Janice left all decisions, big or small, to him. What would they eat? How would they spend their day? Their weekend? Their honeymoon? Their life? She, undeterred and passionless, drove the car in whichever direction Kenneth suggested, metaphorically and otherwise, and cooked a fun and average meal afterwards. She let him be the writer of their very own curious romance novel that, in all of its mathematical precison, was perceived by most of their peers as strangely perfect.
Janice did not seem naive. Rather, she appeared very willing to not have to call the shots, to not be bothered with life itself. Her being languid was entirely her own doing, a consummate expression of her personality, and so, while this peculiar union had struck everybody as odd, even horrific to some cynics, it had also manifested itself in the minds of all friends and family as incredibly aspirational. Kenneth and Janice had found each other by him actively choosing her and by her letting that happen.
The chess debacle, however, was entirely uncalled for and up to this moment in time, Kenneth had been unable to decipher its deeper meaning, if there even was one. No, he was painfully aware now that there was some perverse meaning behind his inability to defeat his wife in chess, and it painted a different image of his wife and himself from what he was comfortable with. It had started as a harmless activity. Janice was quick to pick up rules. Rules were how she functioned. Like a machine entirely apathetic about ever approaching the singularity, in many areas Janice would memorize rules quickly and never think outside of that ruleset. They both were seated in front of each other, an illegal yet also tasteless hand-carved ivory chess board separating them, each pawn heavy enough to pose a threat to the delicate wooden floor of their living room. An uncle, a long time ago, had brought it over from a trip to a country in which, at the time of the board’s creation, even a human life weighed less than one of the pawns. Then, Kenneth wasn’t good at estimating the worth of life and labour, being too far removed from those concepts, and there was a good chance these chess pieces still outweighed the lives of people living a few dozen meters below the high-rise apartment he, self-consciously self-conscious, called “their tiny piece of the pie”. In any case, one uneventful evening spent indoors, some riots outside, the board, usually used as a coffee table so the couple had a place to display a selection of their coffee-table books, had given him the idea of teaching Janice the intricacies of chess, and he had carefully explained every rule for every piece in their first mock game, and not once had Janice asked a question. He felt his love for her growing day by day.
However, he had quickly picked up on the fact that playing with her was a completely joyless experience. He felt that she disliked the game. Janice was passionless about most things. Chess though, chess she seemed to object to in particular. He could see that it was a chore to her. And yet, at the end of the mock game, he had felt something strange. Something like a sparkle, like a small glimpse into something he couldn’t yet identify. Somehow, the last three moves before he beat Janice and just after he had stopped explaining the game and had made all rules available to her, he saw something, a twitch in her finger, betraying the fact that his play had not been perfect and the check mate could have been countered, and that Janice had realized that before him, and not acted on it. And so even though he understood that she did not want to continue, a challenge to a re-match had seemed appropriate, and her being Janice she had agreed without protest.
She beat him in five turns. Then four. Five again. Six. Nine, she had been distracted, a traffic accident outside, burning cars, sirens, human tragedy, she sometimes reacted to such things. Never before had Kenneth felt such treason; he believed that Janice hadn’t known the rules to chess prior to this evening, yet this absurd string of wins revealed that she had never disclosed some undiscovered genius in her she must have been aware of, boiling a nanometer underneath the surface and being brought to light by something as simple and clichéd as a game of chess. They had played other board games together before, games that Janice had enjoyed, and her performance had been normal, expectable, human. Yet here, he felt as if he was playing against a chess robot on maximum difficulty that at the same time conversed with him as if it wasn’t even paying attention to the task it had been programmed for. Janice was unfazed, careless, taking no longer than a second or two to decide on a move, if even. She seemed to be ready to move a piece as soon as he had barely touched his. So after this first evening filled with defeat and a blossoming grief for a marriage falling apart, Kenneth had mustered up the courage to ask:
“What do you mean?”, she had replied in a friendly tone devoid of naiveté.
“I thought you hate this.”
“I admit, I don’t get the appeal.”
“You play like a grandmaster.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” The lack of a hint of chuckling in her voice had her answer transformed into a threat, almost certainly performatively not on purpose.
Kenneth insisted, but Janice seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge her mastery. And therefore, the following night, he challenged her again, knowing she would accept, and this time he was accompanied by a chess computer. He had taken the whole day off to research which models were known to be particularly hard to beat and had decided on and installed a program known to be virtually unbeatable by a human player. It was an application second to none, connected to an AI running on some super computer in Shenzhen and probably better used for more nefarious purposes, only implemented to check whether the difficulty ratings of other chess machines were accurate by having it beat these machines and then checking if the amount of moves needed to complete that task matched with the advertized difficulty. Out of fear that by disclosing his scientific method he might change the results, Kenneth did not inform Janice of his decision, telling her he was getting help from a regular chess program on his laptop because, he admitted, he felt she was the stronger player. She agreed to this, no bewilderment, no vanity, and allowed her husband to copy over all of her moves for the machine to react to.
After 21 turns that felt like even less, a window popped up, implemented by the developers long ago, never meant to be seen and therefore not particularly well designed, asking for Kenneth’s name, research facility, and the github code to the AI model he had been using. He felt tempted to type in his wife’s name, reasonably convinced that her being taken away by scientists to be studied for the next few decades was a fair outcome for this situation, but he behaved himself and instead asked his wife how a game she despised could be something she excelled at. “Well, that’s how it always is”, Janice answered guilelessly, almost appearing dimwitted or gormless, as if she had expected Kenneth to know that this was bound to happen. Replying to his further inquiries, she finally elaborated: “When I don’t like a thing I just want it to be over. So I just do my best for that to happen.”
This being the first time that Janice had ever shared a piece of her philosophy with her husband, Kenneth was deeply horrified. Like a missing piece to a puzzle he had never known he was in the process of solving, he suddenly understood his wife, understood that what she had just expressed so generally she had only expressed so generally because it applied to her entire life.
Suddenly it dawned on him that Janice excelled in everything she hated. She hated driving a car. She was the best driver Kenneth had ever known: Fast, safe, impeccable at navigating through unknown locations, feeling, hundreds of miles before even a mechanic would notice it, upcoming issues with the engine. She hated child rearing. She was an astonishing aunt and cousin and kindergarden teacher, full of perfectly rehearsed love and phrases to lull children into being pint-sized model citizens. There was not one child she encountered that wasn’t taken in by her and not one child she had ever liked. She hated his stupid high-brow books and remembered them without any effort, quoting them as if she had copied the information directly off the page.
She was a perfect wife because she hated him.
And moreover, she hated being alive. She lived life in a perfect, straight line, because that way it would be over soon enough. The board games she enjoyed, she saw no need in excelling at. The friends she liked she saw no need in being a perfect friend for, because she enjoyed their presence, and perfect friends tend to be the ones an imperfect one only calls in times of need. She enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and therefore there was no point in ever becoming a flawless cook. But everything else she either excelled at or had given him the lead in, so she didn’t have to deal with it at all. Ambitions meant effort, and she wasn’t willing to invest any.
Janice looked at her husband and seemed to get a grasp about the gravity of the situation, of his mental state, of divorce hanging in the air.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Kenneth nodded and noticed he had gone silent for a good two minutes, and it surprised him that the only words he could muster up were: “Another round?”
“Sure”, she said, unnervingly uneager, while leaving no pause between his question and her reply.
While Kenneth reset the program, trying to get rid of the pop-up still asking for more information on his amazing chess technology by inputting “spite”, hoping the researchers would appreciate his desperation masked as a Seinfeld reference, Janice carelessly and perfectly set up the game board again.
She started, moving one of the heavy pawns one confident step towards her husband, leaving him wondering whether this pawn had been briefed about a suicide mission, or if he was fated to be the singular assassin to take out the opposing king swiftly and carelessly. He entered the move into the computer and responded with a knight to protect his king, sanity, and the holy institution of matrimony.
A car alarm went off. In a worse universe Kenneth felt himself imagining, there'd be a talking head on the TV on the other side of the room belaboring how the disenfranchised asked for their piece of the pie, to validate and complete his feeling of being critically endangered.
Maybe this was all in his head. There was still a chance for that. He allowed himself to briefly hope for a world in which his wife loved him, in which he loved her, in which she was just an unprecedented and undiscovered chess player, and not a deity burdened with a mortal body and human responsibilities. After all, what he had liked about their relationship was that it had never required growth from either one of them. There was no reason for him to improve in anything she could take care of, and likewise no incentive for her to do so either. But if all of this was by design, that meant that she had laser-targeted him as her ticket out of the misery of a life she had to lead herself. That he was a tool for a long and painless suicide and for that, she had to stunt his development into, possibly, a man wishing for a partner or an equal instead of a lackluster, manageable ornament that provoked neither challenge nor consideration.
If she would beat him at chess anyway, there was no need for him to work on his skills, right? They could just continue their relationship like that, pretend the matches never revealed anything sinister but were just par for the course, they could bury this brutal occurrence somewhere in their weekend home’s yard, where security was armed and dangerous enough to keep out both rioters and intrusive thoughts, and the chess board next to it!
Maybe he could endure this, and forget that he now felt an understanding for how God must feel looking at him, at all of humanity, playing their silly games with them because it was easy to make them happy, fully expecting to be deeply disappointed. Because, in a way, that was part of what Janice must have been feeling ever since she discovered her gift, if she had ever discovered it – it seemed entirely possible that she had just applied her skewed logic from day one, never giving it a second thought. If she excelled, there was no upwards movement for her, no need to invest any more time in this. It was time wasted on a game she knew everything there was to know about purely by looking at it, with a husband she knew everything there was to know about, and whom she still had to beat in this game to make it shorter – losing on purpose didn’t make much sense because there was no guarantee he would see all the opportunities for victory she gave him, needlessly prolonging the game as a result. Her only remedy being a few things she liked exploring enough to never become above average in.
By turn number three, Kenneth knew he wasn’t imagining this and couldn’t fight off the disgusting burgeoning idealism that he could not accept this for one more day; that he had to throw a pawn to the ground and damage the wooden floor, that he had to break a rule or two or all of them to show that he was not her pawn, her puzzle piece to complete the distorted, perverse image of what she had made life for the both of them. But then, how would she react? Was she maybe perfectly able to incorporate him misbehaving? She couldn’t be completely perfect at this game she was playing, because he had noticed her strategy now, it had taken him years, but he had finally caught up to her, and that had never been her plan, because, apparently, in her mind the two of them had always been in a silent agreement about this.
Finally, the calming sound of water guns.
By turn number four, Kenneth caught himself glimpsing at the board and perceived the sparkle again. As if the seal to a forbidden chamber had broken inside him, he felt himself anticipate Janice’s next move. In shock, he immediately averted his eyes and, by accident, met the incredulous gaze of his wife.
It was the end of their marriage.
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