Brendan owned a comic book shop in Hattiesburg back during the early heyday of the comic book explosion. I practically lived there and because the place was more refuge than mere store, we played games.
The one I was keen on was Shogi, the Japanese version of chess. Slower to develop into a mid-game, shogi offers a greater variety of tactics than its Western counterpart. It also offers a higher level of complexity, leading to tension. You’ll see why.
I taught Brendan how to play and he took to it immediately. However, he had a store to attend to so he could never fully focus on the game. We played about 5 games and I won them all. Brendan may have seemed an amiable goof to many people, but he had a great knack for tactics and it was serving him well, as each victory was notably more difficult than the one before.
One afternoon, just past lunch, I brought the shogi board to the shop and set it up to play against myself. Brendan walked over and said “Let’s play. I’m ready!” And the most intense game we’d ever played started.
The opening was typically slower than Western chess, as pawns only move one space at a time and the board is 9 squares to the side. By nature and lack of guidance, I played the so-called “modern hyper-aggressive” mode, which means I go on the attack and don’t try to build a “castle” of pieces around my King. Brendan, knowing my style, chose to play a more traditional style.
As soon as I could, I captured a couple of pieces and leaned back. The genius of shogi, it’s true leap above chess in terms of excitement, is the fact that captured pieces can be returned to the game as part of your army…at any time. This “parachuting” effect gives shogi an extra dimension that makes the game very much a race to keep your nerve.
Brendan’s castle was strong, as he had figured out that my aggression would lead to pieces being exchanged, so a well-defended King would slow me down. I captured another couple of pieces, but Brendan pushed his forces forward and began limiting my options. Rather than seek a strategy, I dropped pieces aggressively and forced several exchanges. All of a sudden, both Brendan and I had pieces in hand, scattered forces and vulnerable Kings.
Brendan could not sit still. He paced, sat down, got up to pace, sat down and popped up again. He wasn’t hurrying me, but it was obvious he was eager to get something going. I stared at the board for what was for me an incredibly long time. In my mind, I could see two paths to a checkmate, but my hesitation hinged on how precarious each path was. I weighed my chances against Brendan’s skills.
I picked up a Lance and dropped it against his Knight. The game was on.
For almost four hours, Brendan and I agonized over each play. No time limits: the only limits we had were our imaginations and whether we’d be cool enough to take chances. With every drop and move, I reduced Brendan to simply defending his King. Time and again, just when it seemed that he’d get the breather he needed to fight back, I’d come up with another twist and another battle sequence began.
Customers came and went and other friends of ours took care of them. Conversation, usually bright and edgy, was muted. Brendan paced, pumped his fists, mumbled to himself, talked to the walls and even opened a comic book to tell The Incredible Hulk I was going down. Out of the blue, he reached into the cash register and drew out a tattered pack of cigarettes and lit up. I gaped at him.
“I quit two years ago,” he said to me, a bit sheepishly. “But I need this right now to play this damn game.”
I almost felt guilty about driving him to smoke again. But I pressed on, only to realize that my fears were accurate: Brendan had played brilliantly and I was one, at most two pieces short to force checkmate. I had run out of forcing options, Brendan had several pieces in hand and now I had to play what I despised most: defense.
Brendan lit another cigarette and without hesitation, launched his attack. With keen deliberation, piece after piece clicked on the board, then slid forward. In a wise move, Brendan made sure my captures were few and even costly, extending my forces so that I had to drop pieces for defensive purposes only. As the pressure grew, I did the unthinkable: I focused solely on defense. Slowly, but with the growing inevitability of a tidal change, I gained a little space, a piece here, then another piece later in the battle. I knew Brendan’s offense was weaker than mine, but I knew I was still very vulnerable. Forced to move my King, Brendan made a series of brilliant plays and the game hung truly in the balance.
I had several powerful pieces and Brendan was facing my dilemma of a few hours earlier: could he finish me off? Time and again he glanced at the pieces I had, and we both knew there was too much for me to lose. All I needed was the chance. The moment I got it, the game was over.
Brendan’s shirt was soaked. The cigarettes were long gone and he had taken to chewing gum, adding pieces until he had a wad worthy of a baseball player in his left cheek. My heart hammered and I forced myself to breathe normally, my eyes taking in everything around me, but always coming back to the board. The sunlight was now almost horizontal through the picture window and in a flash, I saw it.
Brendan could win. In three plays. No matter what I did, he could win in three plays.
Brendan fingered his last piece to drop, a Silver. That wasn’t it. I saw where he could drop it and the countermove that would end his chances. For a moment, he looked at his King and I thought he would drop the Silver to defend it, a sort of pre-emptive shield.
Then, as if from a silent movie, I watched Brendan put the Silver back down and slide his lead Gold forward. Check.
I had to capture.
No attacking place to drop the Silver and now I had another major piece. But the next play was the key. He had to think “space” and he would see it. I glanced away, looked at the walls and wondered if The Incredible Hulk really knew anything about shogi. I had one chance: no piece could drop and give checkmate, so maybe Brendan would miss the more subtle route.
With a sudden lunge, as if the board would vanish in an instant, Brendan made the key play, cutting off my King’s only escape route. The next play was my inevitable checkmate.
I stared at the board as my heart thrummed down. Brendan held his breath, looked intently at the board, then leaped to his feet with a loud “Yes!,” his fists in the air. I flicked my King off the board and stood up, my first steps since lunch. Brendan came back to me and grabbed me in a bear hug.
“That was the most intense game of my life! That was great!”
I grinned. “You played great. Wanna play another one?”
He shook his head. No, he shook his whole body. “No! I’m never playing shogi again! Are you kidding? I could die of lung cancer if I play a few more games like that one!”