August, 1972. American ground troops pull out of Vietnam, with thousands more soldiers to follow. A communications hotline reopens between Seoul and Pyongyang for the first time since the Korean War. The Washington Post publishes the first article on what will become known as the Watergate scandal. And Florence Vassy and Freddie Trumper meet at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City.
As long as he lives, it will never occur to Freddie to feel silly for thinking their meeting as epic and historic as the world-changing forces at work that month. Because they changed the world too, didn’t they?
Florence might not think of it the same, but when she remembers that muggy summer it’s Freddie she sees, not headlines or news breaking across grainy television screens. Freddie Trumper hunched over a chess board in the corner of a quiet, carpeted room lined with bookshelves and mostly empty of people. Young and awfully skinny. Looking out of place in jeans and a black t-shirt, dark hair shaggy and falling over his eyes; looking like he doesn’t even notice everyone else but Florence is in a suit, and like he wouldn’t give a damn if he did.
Florence has been a member for years, but the boy must be new because she doesn’t recognize him or know his name. No one has to tell her what he is, though. It’s not hard to recognize genius from across a little room like this one.
He doesn’t glance up when she sits down across from him. All he says is “go away,” and he says it under his breath, quiet so he doesn’t break the focused silence around him.
She doesn’t move. She examines the board instead, watches the way he plays himself with slow, ruthless precision. Watches him sink down into such deep concentration she thinks maybe he’s forgotten she’s there at all, forgotten that anyone or anything exists except the game in front of him.
He moves his white bishop to C4. “If you’re not going to play me,” the boy says, looking up at last, “then go away .” His eyes are a dark brown-green, from what Florence can see through his flopped-down hair.
She turns her gaze down to the array on the board again, and after a moment moves a black knight from E4 to C3. The corner of his mouth twitches towards a tiny smile, and she knows she’s surprised him.
He pushes his second bishop to C5, next to the first, gunning for her queen.
Florence moves a rook to F8. “Check,” she says softly.
He doesn’t even blink, just moves his king to safety in F1. Her queen is still under attack, and for a few minutes she focuses on that, trying to work it out, until she decides to look elsewhere.
After a few minutes more, she moves her bishop from G4 to E6.
The boy looks up, and the most wonderful grin spreads across his face. He moves one of his bishops to take her sacrificed queen, but she can tell from his face that he knows she has him beat.
The fact that it makes him happy makes her like him very much.
An hour later, she moves her surviving rook to C2, and looks at him expectantly.
“Checkmate,” the boy says, and gently knocks his own king to its side. When he meets her eyes it’s with a look close to awe. Florence feels her breath catch in her throat, and she doesn’t even mind. “Can I take you to dinner?” he asks.
As soon as he says it she notices she’s famished. “Yes.”
They both stand and stretch muscles sore from sitting in tense focus for so long. “Oh,” she says as he leans to one side, then the other, with his hands on his hips. “I’m Florence Vassy.”
He gives her another grin as he shakes her extended hand. “Freddie Trumper.”
U.S. Chess Champion at age 13 Freddie Trumper. Disappeared mysteriously the next year and came back at 19 sharper than ever Freddie Trumper. Hasn’t lost any major match since 1968 Freddie Trumper. Controversial, temperamental, bound-for-glory Grandmaster Frederick Trumper.
And Florence just beat him.
He’s watching her reaction and looks awfully smug about it.
“Well,” she says, shaking herself out of a haze she simply will not think of as starstruck. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Freddie.”
Turns out being treated to dinner by Freddie Trumper means walking through Washington Square Park with hot dogs from a street stand.
“You’re not from New York,” he comments as they pass the arch.
“I’m from Amherst.” Florence isn’t one for hot dogs, but this one is awfully good. She must have been even hungrier than she thought.
“What’s your accent, then?” Freddie demands. She can tell from his tone that he’s not trying to be rude.
“Hungarian and English,” she answers after a moment. “I was born in Hungary and lived there until I was seven. My — my parents are from Greenwich, but they brought me to Amherst.”
“Greenwich to Greenwich,” he says, gesturing to the Village around them. He looks tickled by the coincidence, and doesn’t seem to have noticed her stumbling over calling her foster parents just her parents. “I’m from Brooklyn,” he tells her proudly. “Born and raised.” He takes a bite of his hot dog. “What’s Hungary like?” he asks through a mouthful.
“I don’t really remember,” she says honestly.
“That’s probably a good thing,” Freddie says with confidence. “It’s all commies over there, no place to raise a child.”
Florence refuses to think about that. “You don’t look like you know a thing about raising children,” she laughs instead, and he looks at her in surprise again but smiles. “Anyway, where did you learn to play chess like that?”
He smirks. “Taught myself. You?”
She can tell he’s watching her closely despite the offhand way he’d asked. After all, she just beat him. She’s surprised he’s waited this long to try to figure out exactly how.
“Well, my father taught me when I was younger,” she says. “But I didn’t play for a while after coming to the States.” Because he didn’t come with me. Because he got carted away by the Communists you so famously hate. “I got back into it in college,” she continues. “There was a chess club there with some awfully good players, and I learned a lot from them.”
“Anyone I’ve played?” he asks. It should irk her that he assumes she’s paid close enough attention to his career that she’d know the answer, except he’s right.
“Yes, actually. Alfred Harvey, you beat him a few years ago.”
“Harvey.” Freddie wrinkles his nose. “He was no good.”
“We thought he was pretty good at Harvard,” she says dryly. “But I beat him too, nine times out of ten. He wasn’t very nice about it. I learned from playing him, though.”
“And what do they think of women chess players at Harvard?” Freddie asks.
“Not much.” She hopes he feels otherwise — thinks he probably does, given that smile when she beat him, but she’s not certain.
“Most of them are no good,” he says with a shrug. “They don’t have the mind for it, doesn’t come natural to them. You’re different,” he adds, as if bestowing a great honor upon her. “I can tell.”
“Hmm.” She finishes her hot dog. “Anyway, I moved here after graduating, and I became a member at the club in ‘68. Kept playing, got better. I’ve never seen you there before.” And she’s looked.
“I don’t like to go during the day,” Freddie says, waving his hot dog in a dismissive gesture. “They let me stay past closing, that’s what I like. It’s quiet.”
He does need his games to be very quiet, she remembers reading that somewhere.
“Don’t you ever go to practice against anyone but yourself?” she asks.
“If I hear anyone’s any good I’ll invite them to play me,” Freddie says. He eyes her. “I’ve never heard of you.”
Florence raises an eyebrow. “Like I said, people don’t think much of women chess players. I’m not surprised no one talks about how well I play. I’m sure they say other things.” She’s not going to tell him about the insults and propositions she’s gotten from male players over the years, even fellow members at the club, but she’s sure he gets the idea.
“They’re idiots,” he says, and tosses his half-eaten hot dog at a trash can as they pass it by. It falls short and a little terrier tugs at its leash trying to get at the food, yowling a protest when its scolding owner yanks it away.
“I’m glad you think so,” Florence tells him.
“I want to play you again,” he says, wiping his fingers on his dark-wash jeans. “You free tomorrow?”
She bites her lip. “I have work.”
Freddie stares at her like she’s grown a second head. “Skip.”
Florence laughs. “I can’t skip work as if it’s a class I don’t like,” she tells him. “I like my job, I don’t want to lose it. But how about the next day?”
“What day is that?” he asks with a frown.
“Saturday.” Does he not keep track of the days of the week?
“Okay,” he says. “Come by the club at eight.”
She does. He’s sharper when it’s quiet and he’s not been caught by surprise, of course, and although she puts up a good defense he beats her decisively. Florence is worried he might try to make a different kind of move on her after the game — it’s late, they’re alone — but he doesn’t. Just looks pleased with himself and asks her to play him again next Saturday.
They go on like this for a few weeks, then start playing on Wednesdays too, earlier in the evening so Florence won’t be exhausted at work the next day. They’re evenly matched at first, but as he learns from her he starts winning more and more. She still catches him in mistakes, though, and one night he makes one so shockingly obvious she can’t help but point it out to him.
Freddie stares at the board with his mouth slightly open, then looks up at her. “I want you to be my trainer,” he says.
Florence sits back in her chair. They’re alone in the main room and it’s quiet except for the muffled clinks and murmurs of a few men eating in the dining area.
“And what would that entail?” she asks, wanting to say yes already but cautious all the same.
“I don’t know, just train me,” he says impatiently. “Point out my mistakes like that instead of trying to beat me. Help me learn about other Grandmasters and their strategies. Research all the old great matches and go through them with me play by play. Come with me to matches. That kind of thing.”
Florence likes the idea. The challenge, the thrill of a new project, of digging deep into something and learning everything about it. “It” being chess, but maybe Freddie a little bit too. She wasn’t lying when she told Freddie she likes her job, but translating scholarly articles for Columbia doesn’t allow for much creativity. She’s been longing for variation for a while now, and here it is.
“I’d need you to pay me a stipend,” she tells him.
“Done,” he says happily, slapping the table. He names a rate and it’s reasonable — even generous. Florence is surprised that he’s not making her negotiate until she realizes he simply doesn’t want to waste his time bothering with all that. Better to be fast and fair. Well, she won’t argue with that. Especially not when he looks absolutely thrilled when she agrees.
They stand to shake on it, and impulsively he pulls her into a hug instead. “This is gonna be really good, Florence,” he tells her excitedly after stepping back. His eyes are as bright as she’s ever seen them. “We’re gonna crush ‘em all.”
She’s smiling too until she turns to get her bag and sees that one of the men having dinner is standing in the doorway. He raises an eyebrow at her and she knows he’d seen them hug, knows exactly what he thinks it meant. Florence gives him a frown, a tiny shake of her head; he spreads his hands in an “I don’t know” sort of gesture and heads back into the dining room.
Florence resolves not to care about the rumors he’s about to start. They’re ridiculous, anyway. She’s known Freddie for a while now and not once has he looked at her like that. In fact, she doesn’t think she’s ever seen him look at any woman like that, let alone express interest; she’s pretty sure he doesn’t think about sex at all. She certainly doesn’t think about sex with him.
Maybe that’s why it takes her so long to realize she loves him.
She didn’t know, really, that women could love men they didn’t want to sleep with. She hardly even believed that women and men could even just be good friends until she met Freddie. But that’s what they are: they spend hours and hours together every week, playing chess but doing other things too. Saturdays become Freddie days for her, Florence days for him. They’ll get a late breakfast together and he’ll demand every time that she order for him, won’t even look at the menu, and it’s sort of annoying but mostly just silly and sweet.
Which is Freddie in a nutshell, actually. He can be a pain, especially when he’s tired or hungry, but he’s easy to please, almost like he’s never had a real friend before and looks at each little kindness from her with wonder.
And he’s eager to please her, too. Between rent, travel, and the way he orders or eats out but never cooks, Freddie hasn’t much spare income despite winning the pot at every match he plays, but he pays for her meals more often than not — and on her 27th birthday he utterly shocks her with a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Freddie,” she gasps, lifting the book reverently from its brown paper wrapping. This must have cost a fortune. “Where did you get this?”
“Book dealer,” he says with a smirk and a shrug, as if it’s no big deal except he totally knows it is and he’s very proud of himself. “You said it was one of your favorites when you dragged me to that bookstore you like, what’s-it-called, Argo?”
“Argosy.” She turns the book over in her hands, brushing her fingers down its binding. Joyce’s publisher only printed a thousand copies of the first edition. She puts it down gently, scared to touch it any more than she already has. Argosy, she thinks. That must have been five months ago. He’s been saving up all the time, hunting it down. Must have had to hound the dealer and the seller relentlessly to get them to give it up. All for her.
“Freddie…” She wipes quickly at her eyes. “ Thank you, darling.”
He glows at her words, so damn happy to see her happy, and that’s when she realizes she loves him.
Even if they’d been in public instead of her little living room she wouldn’t have hesitated: she sets the book carefully aside and embraces him.
So he overspends, yes, but he does it so kindly (except for the way he never tips waiters or cabbies, and she has to do it behind his back). So he snaps at her sometimes, he can be a brat, but he’s far from spoiled and although he doesn’t seem to be able to form the words “I’m sorry” he always makes it up to her. So he’s brash, a jerk to his competitors; so he courts the cameras a little too much; but he’s brilliant and funny and sweet. So when he’s in a bad mood he brings her down with his brooding, but when he’s happy it’s impossible to not be happy around him too.
All that talk of mean, angry Freddie Trumper is just talk, she decides.
One Wednesday they decide to play against each other like they used to, as competitors, without her making suggestions or pointing out traps or mistakes. “No mercy,” she warns him, wagging her finger, and Freddie gives her a good-natured scoff.
He wins the first round, but she wins the second so thoroughly he applauds her. “You know, I think I love you,” Freddie grins as he claps, and Florence is so happy about it she laughs out loud.
Years later it’ll happen again: I love you, the lonely man will say, and to his surprise and hers he will turn out to be right, and for a long time it’ll be oh so good, and then it will end, sudden and terrible and inevitable. Florence doesn’t know, of course, on this muggy August day, that not once but twice will she be ruined in this particular way. That the boy in front of her now will lead her to the man she’ll leave him for. That that man will lead her to her still-living, quickly dying father before abandoning her forever.
There’s a lot Florence doesn’t know yet. That’s why she’s so happy.