On an anonymous November day in the year 1769 Tibor Scardanelli had woken up
in a windowless prison cell, with encrusted blood on his swollen face and a
splitting headache. He groped in vain for a jug of water in the dim light. The
reek of alcohol on his ragged clothes turned his stomach. He dropped back on the
straw mattress and leaned against the cold lead of the wall. Certain experiences
in his life were obviously bound to recurhe was destined to be cheated,
robbed, beaten, arrested, and left to starve.
On the previous evening the dwarf had been playing chess for money in a tavern, and he spent his first winnings on brandy instead of a proper meal. So he was already drunk when the young merchant challenged him to play for a stake of two guilders. Tibor was winning the game easily, but when he bent to pick up a dropped coin, the Venetian put his queen back on the board, although she had been taken long ago. Tibor protested, but the merchant wouldn't give waymuch to his companions' amusement. Finally he offered the dwarf a draw and took back his stake, amid the laughter of the spectators. The alcohol had clouded Tibor's reason. He seized the merchant's hand as it clutched his money. In the ensuing scuffle he and the Venetian both fell to the floor. Tibor was getting the better of it until one of the merchant's companions smashed the brandy jug over his head. Tibor did not lose consciousness, even when the Venetians took turns beating him up. After that they handed him over to the carabinieri, explaining that the dwarf had cheated them at play and then attacked and robbed them. Thereupon the carabinieri took him to the nearest prison, the leaden chambers of the piombi at the top of the Doge's palace. Tibor's assailants had left him neither what little money he had nor his chessboard, but at least his amulet of the Madonna was still around his neck. He clutched it with both hands and prayed to the Mother of God to get him out of this hole.
Before he had come to the end of his prayer, the jailer opened his cell door and let a nobleman in. The man was about ten years older than Tibor, with an angular face and dark brown hair receding at the temples. He was dressed à la mode, without aping the foppishness of the Venetians: a nut-brown frock coat with lace-trimmed cuffs, breeches of the same color tucked into tall riding boots, and a black cloak over these garments. On his head he wore a three-cornered hat, now wet with rain, and he had a rapier at his belt. He didn't look like an Italian. Tibor remembered seeing him the night before among the guests in the tavern. The nobleman was carrying a jug of water and a crust of bread in one hand, and in the other a finely worked traveling chess set. The jailer brought him a candlestick and a stool, on which he seated himself. The man put the bread, water, and his hat down beside Tibor's mattress, and without a word he opened the chessboard out on the floor and began setting up the chessmen. When the jailer had left the cell again, closing the door behind him, Tibor could bear the silence no longer and spoke to the newcomer.
"What do you want?"
"You speak German? Good." He took a watch out of his waistcoat pocket, flipped it open, and placed it beside the chessboard. "I want to play a game against you. If you can defeat me within a quarter of an hour, I'll pay your fine and you're a free man."
"Suppose I lose?"
"If you lose," replied the man, when he had put the last chessman on the board, "I'd be disappointed and you would have to forget you ever met me. But if I may offer you a piece of advice: make sure you win, because there's no other way you'll get out of this place. They've fitted a few more gratings here since the Chevalier Casanova's time."
Excerpted from The Chess Machine by Robert Loer. Copyright © 2007 by Robert Loer. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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