hen Ustin Zamok was but a boy his Uncle Illya taught him to play chess by the firelight of the family dacha. During his second ever game, Ustin picked up a pawn to advance it to c4 before deciding better of the move and returning it to its original square. His uncle went ballistic. Throwing the chess board into the fire, he ranted and raved about how this is the one thing you never do. “You place that where you originally intended to and I will take your knight!” Little Usy sat there in the oversized armchair listening, his face growing progressively redder through the interplay of shame and the heat of burning rooks, watching as his uncle’s great beard punctuated his pronouncements until he had to be physically removed from the room by his brothers. Ustin followed the men out and calmly stated his next move to his uncle, Queen to f5, following on from his previously supposed blunder, but now with a mate in three moves. You learn quickly when the board is on fire.
Despite the intensity of the evening, Ustin did not cry, he swore revenge. And in a most spectacular way. It would be some years before he faced his uncle again over the 64 squares but when the time came he would be ready. Since puberty, Usy, still known by his diminutive, had started growing his own moustache and by the age of 17 it was quite sweeping. The family doctor put it down to a combination of genes and the boy’s love of beets. Pickled, roasted, in latkes, shred into slaw, sliced on sandwiches, and of course heavy on the borscht, both hot and cold. And when finished with these scrumptious delicacies, his lower facial features dyed that particular brand of deep red, Usy would delight in working the juices further into his skin with his fingertips, the after-meal effect looking like he’d suddenly been electrocuted whilst simultaneously applying lipstick and rouge. Indeed, if glam rock had existed in the latter part of the 19th century, Usy Zamok would have been among the first picking up an electric guitar. And it was these, the hair embellishing nutrients and minerals found in the beetroot extract, that the medical man credited the alarming rate at which Usy’s moustache was elongating. And for Usy, it was only after such massagings of upper lip that he would reach for a napkin, and of course another, and another, to wipe not face but hands clean. He did not want furry paws, for the same reason he always kept his fingernails trimmed low - lest any part of his hand touch a chess piece unawares. But what worried physician and family was the way in which Usy would consume his beets, his food, indeed, do anything. He had a wild competitive streak that nothing, not even beet juice, could douse. Although they did not know Usy’s extended moustache was privately a direct challenge to his Uncle Illya’s beard, growing his longer and from less facial space, his family did realize there was something antagonistic about it, sensed his need to have the most bountiful moustache in the area, probably in the world. He was like this with everything. When Usy found out the great Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla used 18 napkins per meal, Usy immediately began requiring 21 such linens to accompany him at table. Though he made a show of using each and every one of them to wipe his hands and the corners of his mouth, there was nothing compulsive about his cleaning. It was simply that Usy knew Tesla had a rule about his dining apparati being divisible by three, and reasoned that if he used anything less than the next multiple up, Tesla might decline to acknowledge it.
Nowhere was his competitive streak seen more vividly than over the chess board. Reasoning that attack was the best form of attack, in every game Usy very quickly went on the warpath. Indeed he would often decorate his face with beet juice before a match, in the style of the native North American tribes he had read about in St. Petersburg’s vast library, a favorite symbol being the zigzag across his forehead, representing the lightning that would add power and speed to his play. This lasted until 1901, when all such face paint was banned from tournament play. Meanwhile, he had learned to put his lengthy moustache to another use besides simply show. Leading some to conjecture that he was overly found of the letters ‘b’ and ‘e’, though perhaps not of existence itself, using beeswax, Usy would shape the ends of his tasche into loops sturdy enough to lift and convey a chess piece across the board. It was armed with two of these that he was ready to face his uncle again. Illya had not put in much time during the intervening years, playing, yes, but studying the game hardly at all. Usy, of course, had done little else, except eat beets. The rematch was no contest. Usy taunted his uncle every step of the way, letting his lip locks hover over, say, a bishop and then, with a flick of his head, deciding to move a rook instead. Or encircling a pawn with this cyclone of hair, all the while holding his uncle’s gaze, and repeating the words ‘not touching’. Once in fact purposely grazing the horse’s mane of the knight, while simultaneously having his hand swoop in to guide it on its L-shaped journey kingwards. And with a final flourish, declaring checkmate after 21 moves, Usy swept the board with his whiskers to send all his uncle’s pieces flying into the awaiting flames of the tableside fire.
It is not unusual for chess masters to have unusual habits, but still Usy’s eccentricities loomed large, helping to make him the man to beat. And doing so became the obsession of one Igor ‘Igly’ Leonov. To Igly, who had lost to Zamok two years before and knew himself to be the far inferior player, it was a matter of psychological warfare rather than any sort of skill at the game. In fact, chess itself was simply the playing field of a much more interior battle, which, if timed correctly, would complete its process of psychic dissolution at the exact moment Zamok noticed his king would be mated. Igly played well enough to qualify for the 1906 tournament in Chernobyl, arriving in the city with facial hair whose length was rivaled only by Usy’s own locks, and, along with the rest of his scalp, dyed a deep shade of black. Not a color that would arouse any suspicion, yet Leonov’s motives were to align himself with the immense energy of the city and its surrounding area, ‘Chernobyl’ of course meaning ‘black grass’.
It was Usy’s habit to arrive early at any such competitions, giving him the chance to go over the room with a keen eye, making sure his opponents hadn’t laid any traps for him. He had never got over that initial surprise of his uncle suddenly sweeping a perfectly good chess board into the fire. Once satisfied with these precursory checks, he would make his way around the local vegetable vendors to secure supplies for his stay. He of course traveled with just such a bounty, but besides desiring freshness, he was also curious about what beet conglomerations might then be in vogue in each particular section of the country he visited. He would then spend his time snacking upon such treats until making a final round of preliminary inspections before the start of the tournament. His usual routine this fine Spring morning was set somewhat off-kilter by the contents of the mail he received upon checking in to his hotel. Fan letters were by no means unusual - detailed fantasies of what mysterious members of the public would like to do to or with his luscious locks, scientific studies of what the senders termed ‘criminally ignored’ alternative varieties of root vegetable, some postcards commending him on his chess play - but what stood out was a brown paper parcel with no return address, and a forged postmark, though this Usy did not notice, hand-delivered by a gentlemen this morning, though of this the hotel clerk was unawares, as a colleague now finished with his shift had taken reception of the, what turned out to be, book. Strolling to his room, Usy tore off the wrapping and then raised his eyebrows. The accompanying letter proclaimed this to be a recently discovered work of the great Russian master, published privately in accordance with his wishes upon his death - Gogol’s We Got The Beet. The letter was signed with an illegible scribble but Usy’s interest was piqued. He made his way to scrutinize the tournament tables with the hefty volume under his arm.
Igor Leonov turned his face back around the corner from which he had been watching, smiling to himself. The mind games had begun. He continued to follow Usy at a distance, delighting in the master’s perusal of the ersatz edition. Indeed Usy seemed positively absorbed by the book as, with his safety checks completed, he sat devouring both it and a copious amount of beet tartare. Igly knew the man to be hypervigilant, and even with being so engrossed in the tome as he was, Usy would not fail to notice, and begin to be unnerved by, the puzzled stares of passersby. With any luck, that was not yet to happen on this first day, a stranger might question the validity of Usy’s reading material, causing the latter to become distressed by his own explanations. But there were other matters to deal with even if this did not to come to pass.
As spectators and players alike entered the hall, Usy had for quite some time now been engrossed in Petrovich’s quest to secure textile dyes from the Prizrak beet farm whilst simultaneously planning to take over that concern and expand his business to include the manufacturing of his own brand of molasses. Sticky stuff. He barely glanced up from the pages as tournament favorite, the Italian Antonioni, strolled in followed by Geneva’s Hadron, another player likely to go far this competition. But with the room almost full, Usy’s intuitive senses pricked up when the doors opened upon a confident Igly pausing to take in the scene.
“Imposter!” Usy jumped from his seat aghast, gesticulating wildly to the arbitor. “Bar that man!” Igly Leonov indulged a small smile as he made his way into the room amidst such an eruption. He was off to a strong start.
Usy busied himself passionately explaining to the referee that he had seen this very contestant lose ignobly seven months before in Chelyabinsk and that Igly had had the cleanest face he had ever laid eyes on. Skin of alabaster so shiny, it was barely conceivable that hair could poke its way through. There was no way this charlatan could have grown a moustache to such a scale in only 200 odd days. The hair, he insisted, must be fake. It took some time for the governing committee to make Usy understand that there were currently no rules against playing with a false beard.
Sitting down over the board, Igly, with the luck of the regional color, was playing black. And so had every opportunity to mirror his opponent’s moves. Of course any good chess player can dismantle this strategy quickly, but Usy was not himself, unnerved by everything that had occurred with Leonov already. The sight of this man, yes, but on a much subtler level, and one he couldn’t possibly know was the work of this adversary, by what Usy had been reading in We Got The Beet. The exploits of the two scientists, Fyodor and Nikolai, each the double of the other, working so assiduously on Prizrak’s farm. Nikolai tending to the roots from a subterranean lab while Fyodor followed him everywhere, taking copious notes of such experiments, hoping to publish should these undertakings to revolutionize the beet field, in every sense of the word, prove successful. But whose name would go on the final paper? It was not at all clear, especially as the two men’s personas began to merge ever further together. There was a strong possibility that Prizrak, as financier, might step in and claim credit, or even Petrovich, who was working furtively with the famed Dr. Dreysky. Usy kept catching himself wondering how it would all play out, and if this could facilitate a real world transformation of beets as we know them. Already he was beginning to crack. He began periodically placing his hands in front of his face, like a child when it does not want to be seen. Igly of course began doing the same.
Full of his own self-worth, Usy did not much bother with learning the names of his competitors. He knew their souls as expressed through tormented eyes during the throes of a game, what hidden, unspeakable, darknesses lay there that, by their very nature, could not be put into words so easily. When interlocutors could not understand the strange utterances he gave when trying to capture this essence in order to refer to this or that player, Usy resorted to attempting to translate these into a sort of pantomime, which did not make things much clearer. This is all by way of saying that Ustin Zamok may not have been aware that Igor Leonov was known by most as ‘Igly’, which of course means ‘needles’. Igly himself, who had studied the man thoroughly before this meeting in Chernobyl, was aware that there was a strong chance the master might not know his name, but sat twisting the ends of his great moustache into the finest tips he could anyways, as if to focus some dark magic across the board. Usy held his hands out further away from his face, as if channeling the vision of future celebrities shouting ‘no photos please!’ as they made their way through a suffocating crowd full of cameras and press. Play adjourned at 10pm, Usy at the point of collapse.
Igly strode in the next day chomping down on a raw beet. It was very tough to chew but the effort was worth it as he watched the blood vessels in Usy’s face and neck rush to the skin to match the vegetable’s color. Although Usy knew he did not have any whole raw beets in his vast store of snacks, he insisted on calling a delay to the game until he could return to his hotel room and verify that Igly, “or one of his minions”, had not “ransacked” his supply while he was away. The much put-upon arbitor agreed, he had dealt with Zamok before. As Usy knew his possessions so well, this did not take very long, and he soon returned to the hall, albeit still steaming. Igly sat calmly in front of the board, continuing to take reverberating bites of his beet. As the heavy crunch of such mastications echoed through the otherwise silent hall, Usy grew weary, shouting from the doorway, “Don’t you see?! He’s trying to absorb my prowess.”
Usy won the first game, but barely. Igly knew it was going to be a difficult path to victory, but he was determined to hang in there. Igly’s coach began passing him what Usy immediately identified as beet chips and stopped play to have these inspected. There were no secret messages written on them as suspected, Usy even running his fingers along the one Igly had just received to check for any braille or similarly encoded language that could be read by the tongue. Igly knew how to force his hand. After he consumed the comestible, he made a show of chewing it quickly and then settling in to play faster, even somewhat erratically, as if the chips had been drugged. Sensing this, Usy again halted play and asked for the chips and all Leonov’s foodstuffs to be confiscated and sent to a laboratory to be checked for stimulants or any of the mind-altering substances of China and South America that sometimes bestow on the nibbler tremendous visions. In a moment of great vulnerability, he leaned across the table and asked Igly, “how can you sully the beet so?” This match, and the next, ended in stalemate. And as play was speeding up now, Igly feigning being under the influence while Usy grew ever more erratic in his responses, Igly managed a quick victory in the fourth game.
With it all tied up now, the next win would decide who moves ahead in the tournament. As the event sprung into life on this third day, for the first time in his career, Usy had not been the first to arrive at the hall. Instead of studying or getting a restorative night’s sleep, he had stayed up late into the small hours finishing the 888 pages of what purported itself to be Gogol’s lost masterpiece. Only once he had closed its thick cover with a whimsical sigh did he allow himself to sink into dreams, visions of sugar beets dancing in his head, inaugurating a bright future for all. These fantasies buoyed him through the morning as he dressed and sat down to a beet omelet and beets on toast.
When he did enter the venue, still well ahead of the game, but already teeming at three-quarters full capacity, abuzz with speculation over the outcome of the board, what Usy saw froze him to his very soul. Sitting so as to directly face him, again at his position behind the black pieces, was Igly, looking well-rested and freshly shaven. Usy made a great mental effort not to give in, but what he would see next would be his undoing.
With five minutes until the doors would close and play begin, five gentlemen dressed all in black made their way into the venue and took seats so as to appear to Usy over Igly’s right shoulder. Immediately Usy’s eyes shot open seemingly miles high as his nostrils flared to the ends of the earth. The party was arranged in such an order so that the occupant of the innermost chair bore a black moustache extensive enough to rival Usy’s own. The man to his right sat thoughtlessly stroking one of similar shade but of a length almost exactly half of his compatriot’s walruslike whiskers. And so on. Usy’s pupils slowing rolling across this field growing more monstrous by the millimeter, until it came to rest at the gentleman on the far right who possessed what anyone else would consider a perfectly normal moustache. Usy could not stop shaking so great was his rage. He poured himself a large glass of beet juice and began gargling with it, for what purpose no one could be sure. Forcing himself at length to swallow, he could not shake the fact that he appeared to be seeing red. A trick of the juice in the light, perhaps? The hue began to merge with the chess board in front of him as if it were on fire, like one he had seen so many years before. With great effort he steadied himself and played his first move - e4. With a studied nonchalance, Igly rapidly responded with e5. Usy let out a deep bellows of breath and, after some time spent with head down blocking out everything but the board, moved his knight to c3. Again, barely had he made this move than Igly jumped his own knight to f6. Usy feeling some semblance of control now flicked his bishop up to c4. Glancing over his left shoulder, Igly then captured Usy’s e4 pawn with his knight. Instead of seeing what move was played, Usy followed Igly’s initial gaze and when his eyes hit upon the black clad gentleman at the end of the facial hair processional, this figure returned his stare with an almost imperceptible smile as he raised his right hand and peeled off his moustache.
The effect on Usy was devastating. Away to the door he flew like a flash. And although those in the hall waited hours, the organizers even eventually sending out a search party, Usy never did return to the hall or the great game of chess. Igly was declared the winner by default, though it would be Antonioni who would go on to sweep this particular Chernobyl tournament.
The tale of disturbed former chess champion Ustin Zamok is not as tragic as it would first appear. Using We Got The Beet as a springboard, he began his own experiments, keeping meticulous diary entries in the face of all who were calling him insane, and went on to innovate much in the growth and preparation of his favorite vegetable, founding financially successful lines of distribution, even making his way westward to start again in Germany and then France after the Soviets seized control of his farms in 1918. Igly Leonov may have facilitated a victory at the 1906 Chernobyl tournament, but those who are familiar with the whole of the legend know his success wasn’t as clear-cut black and white.
The illustration accompanying Aug Stone's story was contributed by Allen Crawford.