This story continues a series we began in previous columns:
The final school bell of the day rang and Tommy quickly put his books in his locker and headed for checker team practice. It was Tuesday afternoon and in just a few minutes Tommy would play his big match with Joey Zee. If Tommy could win the match, he'd have a place on his middle school varsity team next year.
Joey was not a nice boy, not in the least, and Tommy expected some sort of tricks or antics from him. But all day yesterday and today Joey had been strangely quiet, just smiling slightly if Tommy happened to look his way during class or pass him in the corridor. Tommy didn't know what to make of it. It was very uncharacteristic of Joey. Ordinarily, Joey might have tried to give Tommy a shove in the hallway or make rude faces and gestures during class. But there had been none of that, just a strange and unanticipated calm.
Maybe things will work out, Tommy thought. Maybe Coach Hovmiller has warned Joey enough times that Joey is watching his step, afraid of being put off the team once and for all. Well, thought Tommy, I'll just follow Uncle Ben's advice. I'll concentrate on each move and make it count. I won't think about anything else except the move I have to make.
He was just a corridor or two away from the practice room when his cell phone vibrated. He pulled it from his pocket. It was Tina calling.
Tina was also a member of the junior varsity checker team. Over the past months, she and Tommy had developed a special sort of friendship, the kind that seventh grade girls and boys often do.
Tommy answered the phone. "Tina, you should be in practice now!" he said.
"Tommy, help me!" Tommy, hearing the panic in her voice, felt a cold lump in his stomach.
"Tina, what's wrong?"
"He locked me in the girls' room and I can't get out!"
"Who? What girls' room?"
"That horrible Joey! I was on my way to practice and he was following me, just like he's been doing all day. I went into the girls' room and waited a few minutes, hoping he would just go on to practice, but when I tried to open the door it was locked! Oh, Tommy, please get me out of here!"
"Which girls' room?" Tommy said.
"The one nearest the practice room!"
"OK, OK, hold on, I'm headed in that direction. I'm almost there. Stay calm."
Tommy turned the corner and the girls' room stood in front of him.
"Hang in there, I need to put the phone down." Tommy put his cell phone on the floor and walked up to the door. He could hear Tina pounding on the door from the other side. Tommy tugged on the door handle but it wouldn't budge. It had been double locked and couldn't be opened from either side.
"I'll have to get the janitor," Tommy said through the door. "Just stay calm."
"Hurry!" said Tina, also through the door, her words muffled by the thick wood. "He's turned off the lights and it's pitch dark and I'm scared!"
"I'll be back with help!" said Tommy, and he ran off down the hall, grabbing his cell phone from the floor.
The janitor was hard to find, and it took Tommy a good fifteen minutes to locate him and explain what had happened. The janitor, a short man with graying hair and a scraggly moustache, looked skeptical but went with Tommy back to the girls' room. He unlocked the door and a sobbing Tina emerged.
"Well, golly gee," the janitor said. "I tink it was dat mean fat kid what done dis, the one allus shneakin' a shmoke. He was hangin' around here. Looked like trouble to me."
"Tommy, your match!" Tina cried.
"Thanks for your help, Mr. Olafsen!" Tommy said, already running down the hall with Tina following.
"Hey just a minute you kids--- oh, never mind, I gonna find dat fat kid what did it."
Tommy didn't hear the rest of it. He burst into the practice room. Of course, the matches had long since started. And there was Joey, sitting at his checkerboard, with a smug, self-satisfied smirk on his face.
"Why, you---" Tommy shouted.
"QUIET!" Coach Hovmiller's powerful voice silenced Tommy at once. "I won't have a disturbance while games are going on! You are very late, Mr. Tommy Wagner, and you'd better sit down and play at once!"
Joey must have started Tommy's clock right on the dot of three-fifteen, the assigned time for the match. It was now three forty. Twenty-five minutes had already elapsed, and the game time was set at thirty minutes per side.
That meant that Tommy would have just five minutes to make all of his moves in the game, while Joey would have thirty. Joey had a huge advantage, and he knew it.
"You did this on purpose," Tommy hissed as he sat down at the board.
"Better get cracking, goody two-shoes," Joey whispered back. "Spent a little too much time in the restroom with sweetie, did ya!"
Tima was still trying to control her crying, sitting on a bench on one side of the room. It was all too much for Tommy. He just wanted to pummel Joey's face with his fists, even though that would be suicide for his checker career. He was half out of his seat when he saw Tina look over at him and shake her head. Then she started crying again and fled for the door before Coach Hovmiller could scold her.
Tommy took a deep breath and sat back down. Even though the clock was still running. he closed his eyes, shut out Joey's whispered taunts, and took deep, calming breaths. When he opened his eyes again, there were only four minutes left on his clock, but there was a steely look of determination on his face that announced that the game was far from over. Joey stopped whispering and turned his gaze away, obviously frightened. Like most bullies, he was a coward, and whatever he saw in Tommy's face gave him quite a scare.
Joey had Black and had already moved. Tommy made his reply and the game began to play out. Were Joey's hands shaking just a little when he moved his pieces? Perhaps so, but Tommy kept his focus on the board and the position, making his own moves quickly because he had little choice in the matter.
Some time passed. Joey still had 15 minutes left on his clock but Tommy only had two. It was Tommy's move and the position was like this.
Joey thought he had an easy draw, maybe even a win if he could get Tommy to let his time run out. But Tommy thought he saw something familiar in the position; all those Saturday mornings spent studying with Uncle Ben had taught him a great deal. In short, he knew he might have a win, but he didn't have much time to figure it out. He'd have to think fast.
Tommy was right, there is a win here for White. Can you find it? We won't insist that you do it in under two minutes, but see if you can find it. Then click Read More to see the solution and the conclusion to our story.
30-25---A 15x8 22-18 13x22 32-27 31x24 14-10 6x15 18x11 8x15 25x27 4-8 27-23---B 12-16 29-25 8-11 25-22 11-15 22-17 15-19 23-27 16-20 17-14 19-24 27-32 White Wins.
A---11-7 would probably win, but this is much better.
B---27-24 and 29-25 also win.
There were still 30 seconds left on Tommy's clock and Joey knew the game was over. Tommy would win easily and shortage of time wouldn't make any difference. There was only one thing left to do; Joey would have to pull his old, favorite trick.
Joey waited to be sure Coach Hovmiller was looking in another direction. Then he grabbed the edge of the checkerboard ...
"STOP IT!" Tina yelled.
Joey, intent on watching the Coach, didn't realize that Tina had come back in the room and was staring right at him. But it was too late. Joey had already dumped all the pieces on the floor. "Why did you do that!" he shouted at Tommy. "Just because you were losing ..."
Joey went silent. Tina's shout had alerted the Coach, and Joey had been caught in the act.
"Joey Zee," Coach Hovmiller said in the quiet voice that he used when he was really angry, "you're off the team. Permanently. Don't bother coming back next year; you're no longer welcome here." He turned to Tommy. "Son, the game is yours, although I have a feeling it already was."
"Thank you, sir," Tommy said.
"You better watch it when you go outside, both of you," Joey hissed at Tommy and Tina as he turned to leave the room. But Joey's luck had completely run out. Just at that moment, Janitor Olafsen entered the room. "You! You're dat fat kid what messed around wit my doors!" he said angrily to Joey. "You're comin' wit me!"
"Leave me alone, you old coot, or I'll..." Joey stopped and yowled with pain. Mr. Olafsen had hold of his right ear and his left arm, and was twisting both of them. "What you goin' to do?" he said. "I work hard, I shtronger den fat kid who shmokes," he said, dragging Joey toward the door, "an' yer goin' to see the Prinicpal!"
Tommy and Tina didn't dare smile or laugh in front of Coach Hovmiller, but they exchanged quick, knowing glances. Joey wasn't going to be of any more trouble to them ever again.
The Checker Maven thanks The Waikiki Word Wranglers for their critique of this story.