George is resigned to his unhappy marriage with Louise. She controls his life, never letting him out to make new friends or try new things. “If she comes to know the people you work with too well, she might have to befriend them, entertain them, set her blatant ignorance before them for judgement. No, far better under the circumstances that she dwells in her vacuum, away from unhappy judgements.”
When George one day receives a chess set as a retirement gift, he has no one to play with, and Louise thinks it’s a waste of time. Nevertheless, he grows fascinated and reads all the chess books he can find. He tries to play both sides of the board but, favouring black, his bias means black always wins. He persists, and after a while he finds a way to detach his mind, to turn himself into another player ignorant of his schemes for black.
Finally, one day he looks across the chessboard and sees White, a man identical to himself. Not only is White a fearsome challenge to play against, but White needles George about his wife as they play, about the way she constrains him, voicing thoughts George could never admit to himself.
The story succeeds well in incrementally raising the tension to a fever pitch.
Fool’s Mate by Stanley Ellin
Availability: print only
Word count: 4,700
First published: Ellery’s Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Nov 1951
Where to find it: Mystery Stories, collection, 1957, Simon & Schuster
The Edge of the Chair, edited by Joan Kahn, 1967, Harper & Row
The Specialty of the House and other stories, collection, 1980, Mysterious Press