The Game


My phone buzzed just as the clerk rang up a bottle of milk. "Queen to the hidey hole," the text message read. That was all.

I frowned at the screen, looking back at the last several messages as though that would help. Hidey hole? What could she have meant by that?

The clerk wasn't the least bit amused; there was a long line of customers behind me, including the woman I had snuck in front of earlier. "Won't take but a moment!" I had claimed with false cheer, brandishing a bottle of 2% and a pack of ginger snaps. She had scowled back at me over a cart full of sugary cereals and a reservoir's worth of orange juice, but waved me in.

Of course, there was no way for me to have known that I'd receive the latest move in a long-running game just at the moment that payment was due to the surly grocery clerk. This particular game was quite ancient, and had taken place entirely by text message. Thirty or so moves had transpired, back and forth, spaced out sporadically over weeks and in some cases many months.

It was impossible to say when the next move would come, or why. There were days when I'd think of nothing but the game, and I'd puzzle over the next move until at last, just before bed, the perfect stratagem would come to me. There was my next move, ready to dispatch without a moment's notice. Then on the other hand, entire seasons would pass me by as I'd forget about the board altogether, its drama hidden underneath a hundred other concerns, big and small. Until one day, without notice, inspiration would arrive from an unlikely source - a dog cavorting in the park, rain pitter-pattering into an old ceramic pitcher along the side of the house, an email alerting me to a a new statement available online from my bank. In any case it would rouse some idle thought and without fail, a few days later I'd parry back with something clever, a piece sliding across the board into an unlikely spot.

My opponent must have been on a similar cycle, though really I could only guess. There was no particular pattern to the way her pieces moved, or when she sent her text messages. Certainly, it was impossible to guess what she was thinking. I suppose it always is, but with some players it's easier to guess than with others. She was a perfect conundrum on the game board. My sister always had been.

Now my moment in line was stretching into something rather longer than that. "Cash or credit?" the clerk asked. She set her jaw with a particular disdain, her teeth clenched with tension sufficient to say something like, "...or could I interest you in a hole in the ground?"

With dread I realized that I had left my wallet at home; neither cash nor credit were anywhere nearby. I fidgeted with my phone and pulled up the payments app. Up popped a QR code, which I dutifully offered up in supplication. "Neither, I guess?" This last bit with a chuckle. The clerk didn't seem to find it very funny.

It only took a dozen or so attempts with the wonky scanner, and a bit more forbearance on the part of my fellow customers as I finished setting up the payments app, but eventually we figured it out. It was a true team effort, a shining example of capitalism at its finest. The grocery store was $5.49 richer, and I had something to stir into the next morning's coffee. As well, perhaps, as a healthy dose of new enemies.

The game had started without a great deal of ceremony. The first text message was rather prosaic. "Pawn to king's 4," my sister wrote me, on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon when I was just starting to consider the problem of dinner.

I wasn't quite sure what to think. It had been years since I had laid eyes on so much as a rook or a bishop. After puzzling over it for a moment I recognized the text as a bit of jargon, what my sister called "algebraic notation." It was the sort of thing that was really the province of experienced players more than novices such as myself. King's four - that was four rows in front of the king. Since my sister had moved first she was moving a white pawn. There was only one white pawn - the king's pawn - which could move into that particular spot, forward two spaces from its starting position. Actually it was a very pedestrian move, the kind of opening I would use back when I was a kid and my sister managed to cajole me into a game.

Not that I had the slightest idea why my sister chose to send me a fairly humdrum opening at that particular uninteresting moment in time. Only that I was by now fairly accustomed to these conversational non-sequiturs, enough that I knew better to respond to her enigmatic message with a question mark or five.

Every conversation with her began in just about this way. She would want to talk about something with me. But first she'd think it over for a day or two, develop a few ideas, consider counter-arguments, come to a conclusion. Only then would I hear from her, usually with a question about her conclusion that belied very little of the original thought. It was my job to catch up as best I could.

A month before my twenty-fifth birthday, I got a call with this question: "Argyle or flannel?" At the time I was lugging a tower of mulch down the garden path, one soggy bag at a time. It was a hot day and I hadn't had enough water, so I responded without much thought. Flannel, I said, and foolishly asked what it was about, and how was she doing, and had she talked to mom lately - only to realize that the call had ended as soon as she'd received her answer. Sure enough, a few weeks later I opened my mailbox to find it stuffed with twenty-five flannel socks. They were impossibly cozy, to her credit. I still have three or four pairs floating around somewhere.

So her out-of-nowhere text about an opening move was a little confusing, but only a little. I don't remember how I responded to that text. It was ages ago, and whichever phone I had at the time has long since vanished. Very probably, I forgot all about it once I had decoded its arcane meaning, only to encounter it again the next time I had to get in touch with my sister. I'm sure I responded with something uninspiring, perhaps "same move for me, I guess."

The game proceeded that way for a while, in fits and starts, my sister's algebraic notation answered by a string of decidedly mediocre moves on my part. At some point along the way I realized that her pretentiously notated moves were actually specific and efficient, and I figured out how to notate mine in turn. Not that it made much of a difference in the quality of my game. "Pawn to queen's rook 3," I'd text her, after a particularly inspired bit of very focused, strategic thinking, only to have that same pawn captured in her next turn, a few months later.

It was she who abandoned the notation in the first place. Again I can't remember exactly when. I think it began as a cutesy line. Her knight had to return to its original spot on the first row to accommodate a rather clever attack on my own. "Horsey hops home," she wrote. It was a couple of days before I realized she was referring to our game, and then a full week before I realized what she meant by it. At some point I realized that she also meant it as a reminder of the great big golden lab we had when we were kids, who earned the name Horsey by gamely giving us rides around the living room.

Horsey was just one in a long line of pets who managed to survive in a household with the two of us. There were Salt and Pepper - the former was a gray kitten, and the latter was white, because that was my sister's sense of humor at the time. Next came Doctor the turtle, Colonel the goldfish, Brother the rat (my sister, ever the comedian), and Abe the iguana. Briefly we discussed getting a zebra just to bring the menagerie to its logical conclusion, but fate intervened in the form of a long-lost cousin headed overseas. Could we care for his beloved parakeet? We could, and after one look at her silky coat, a resplendent arrangement of every color imaginable, we could name her nothing besides Rainbow. There was a foster cat who seemed to bat at every ball that came his way with his right paw; it happened to be a very good summer for left-handed pitchers, so of course my sister named him Southpaw. The last in this long line was a snake, obtained during the mildly sadistic years when I enjoyed the thought of watching the creature attack and devour a mouse. I named it Spot because I thought it was funny; my sister grudgingly agreed.

Many of these pets have made their way into our game in one way or the other, even though they're all long gone. For a turn or two, as I recall, the white queen's rook was named Colonel, for instance. When I castled my king, sliding it over to the right side of the board, I wrote something impossibly terse, like "Southpaw's hold." It must have driven my sister nuts.

These sort of inscrutable references or witty jokes - or better still, both at the same time - are pretty much the only way we talk about the game these days. Indeed, it's become the whole point of the enterprise, the way I see it. We've long since abandoned the pretense that the point of the game is to capture the other player's king. Instead, it's to impress the other player with a clever turn of phrase. Certainly, there is no reason the game should have gone on this long. My sister is a far better player than I - has been since before she was old enough to own a set - and she could have won hundreds of games against me in the time it's taken us to play this particularly meandering and never-ending game.

It's her way of checking up on me, the way some people like to send each other links to news articles. We don't see each other much - though I'm not quite sure why - so we play this game instead. There's something sweet, if perhaps a little condescending, in it. On the one hand she puts a lot of thought in the game, even though it's not a lot of words. On the other, I'm playing by her rules in every possible way, and that's always been a bit uncomfortable.

Has it turned out the way she intended, back when we were both so much younger, when she sent that first, fateful text? That much I couldn't say for certain. She is nothing if not cunning and annoyingly insightful, the kind of person who could tell you - and often does - how a movie's going to end before the opening credits have finished rolling. But then again, she takes her games very seriously, and it's not entirely like her to make light of them; still less so to let others do the same.

I don't mind it. In fact I rather enjoy making enemies at the grocery store in exchange for these unpredictable bits of sisterly repartee. Not that I'm eager to inconvenience others. Only that, if I'm going to do so anyway, there might as well be a memorable story in the bargain.


My chess board sits on a table in a loft that overlooks my kitchen. There's a rickety little ladder that stretches from the fridge up to the loft. Over the years this place has earned the name "struggle spot" - because that's the only reason I go up there, to struggle over the next move in the game with my sister. It's altogether a rather pleasant little nook, despite the name. There's a window overlooking the garden which receives rather excellent light well into the early evening, and an overstuffed armchair which serves as an unnaturally comfortable perch for watching a good thunderstorm. You might ask: how did I get an overstuffed armchair up a rickety little ladder? I would answer: with enough struggle to make this little spot doubly worthy of its name.

That's where I repaired once I returned home. Carefully I balanced a mug of peppermint tea in one hand while climbing with the other, managing to get scalded only once or twice as I ascended.

I stood over the board while taking little sips of tea. "Queen to the hidey hole" the message had read, and as these things go it was somewhat straightforward. There was my sister's queen, deep in enemy territory on the king's side of the board. Where was the hidey hole? It must have been a safe spot. For some reason my sister wanted to call her queen back; perhaps it was a tactical retreat.

That, in any event, was very probably a correct reading of the message. I couldn't be absolutely certain that the position of the queen on my board matched the position of the queen on my sister's board. After all, we were hardly exchanging a precise series of moves. Every time my sister texted me, I had to guess where she wanted to go, and sometimes I had to guess which piece she wanted to move. And she had to do the same with my texts. Every now and then I had a pretty clear idea of what she wanted, but that was certainly the exception rather than the rule. It would be something of a miracle if she and I were actually playing with the same arrangement of pieces.

There were a few spots on the board which seemed like they might qualify as safe spaces for the queen. One of them was a spot right in the middle of the pawns' row, directly in front of the king's starting position - that seemed like the most likely place, it was fairly well-protected and not particularly threatened by any of my pieces. A diagonal slide across the board would do the trick. Perhaps.

I took my mug of tea over to the easy chair, and settled it precariously on the arm. One of these days I should really get a side table. I've been meaning to for years and years now, but I manage to forget the idea quite easily. My poor armchair has suffered its share of spills, and chances are it'll suffer a few more.

Relaxing into an overstuffed armchair is a unique kind of pleasure, all the more so when dusk settles in outside one's window. I stared out the window lazily, hoping that my mind would wander off the as the clouds seemed to be doing. Struggling with a game of chess is actually quite a bit more calming than it sounds - there is an awful lot of day-dreaming and idle, unfocused contemplation involved. That is one of the things I enjoy most about this odd sport I share with my sister, that it gives me an excuse to drift off. It's a kind of gift that she's given me, though I doubt that was the intention.

I woke up a couple of hours later, just about starving. It was only then that I realized I had forgotten to pick up anything for dinner at the store, as I had originally intended when I left the house in the first place.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that cooking is an art form whose goal is to turn a pile of odds and ends, gathered from about the kitchen, into something resembling nutrition. There are some well-known tricks to make that happen. For breakfast: take said odds and ends, mix them together with eggs and cheese, and presto - an omelet is born. For dinner: take the same odds and ends, add some herbs, boil them in broth, maybe add some sauce - your soup is ready. For a mild variation, ratchet down the broth and you have a curry, ready-made for accompaniment with a grain of your choosing. Who needs recipes? They're all just permutations of each other. Armed with this attitude, one can have some remarkably entertaining dinner parties.

As it happens, I wasn't in the mood for soup, and upon first inspection I couldn't find any grain in the cupboards: not so much as a half-finished bag of rice. A second inspection, mildly-panicked and hunger-inducing, was no more profitable than the first. My eyes caught the pack of ginger snaps I had left on the counter, and for one very long beat I actually considered making them part of dinner. Curry over ginger snaps - how bad could that possibly be?

I never found out, because just then I remembered that there was a full box of breakfast cereal on top of the fridge. Was I too proud to have cereal for dinner? I was not.

Three bowls of corn flakes later, I sat back and lazily eyed the ginger snaps sitting on the counter. Suddenly I remembered why that phrase, "hidey hole", sounded as familiar as it had. It was something I remembered from a boring winter afternoon. I must have been ten or eleven, and my sister and I had decided to while away the time to dinner by producing a play in the living room. She wanted our play to be the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, but I convinced her to use Hansel and Gretel instead - it would give us an excuse to sneak candy from the kitchen, I said.

Our production that night landed a fairly small audience - our parents, our parakeet Rainbow, some of the kids from next door who had somehow caught wind of the goings-on. I'm quite sure we forgot our lines more often than not. The gingerbread house, which was made of cardboard boxes rescued from the basement, fell apart when somebody sneezed. The sooty fireplace where our parents sometimes let us roast marshmallows - if we were very good - became the oven where the witch met her heated end. In falling into the imaginary flames, my sister's clothes would wind up ruined. But my sister loved every minute of it, and especially relished her role as the evil witch; she had a marvelous cackle and her final death scene was nothing short of spectacular.

Afterwards, we celebrated our triumph over ice cream sundaes with sprinkles on top. It was fun being Gretel, I told her; she's a good girl and the hero of the story, isn't she? And what was so great about being an evil witch, after all?

"Pretending to be evil is way more fun," my sister had said, licking a stray dab of chocolate sauce off her spoon. "You get to be a totally different person. That's what makes center stage the best hidey hole there is. The sideline is way more boring."

If her message was a reference to that long-ago conversation - which it must have been - then the hidey hole could not be a safe little spot in the pawn's row, away from all the action. That was pretty obvious. But then, what could this mysterious hidey hole be?

I could feel myself getting drowsy, but I decided to ascend the ladder once more for another look at the board. Maybe, I figured, a little bit of focus would help me dream up a solution in my sleep. I did not hear from my sister all that often; I might as well savor her message a little while longer.

I considered the game again. Certainly my sister wanted a piece to move to the middle of the board - center stage, as she had put it years ago. The problem was, a move like that would be impossible for her queen. Several of her own pieces blocked the way, and I couldn't find any reasonable path for her queen to get there. Had she made a mistake? Or was I misreading her text message altogether?

I walked around the board to consider it from what would be her position. Her king remained safely castled to the right; I had captured one rook and one bishop, leaving two of her knights and the remaining bishop to dominate the center of the board. The queen's pawn remained in its original spot, as though it had been forgotten at the beginning of the game.

There was something interesting about that pawn; it was the only piece in its column. Left undisturbed, over the course of a long series of moves, it could march straight to the last row in my defensive ranks. If that happened, my sister would earn a second queen. It's a move called "pawn promotion." She would have to begin by moving the pawn two steps forward, toward the middle of the board. In other words, my sister would bring a future queen to the "hidey hole" of center stage.

Could that be what she wanted? I placed the tip of my finger on the pawn, then clutched it in my fist for a minute, feeling its weight. This chess set was another birthday gift from my sister. "Solid mahogany pieces, lined with felt to protect a board made of cherry," she had written in the card. "Tell me you don't love the way one of these pawns sits in the palm of your hand." She was right, the pieces each had a beautiful weight, a heft that felt solid, sometimes alive.

I placed the piece back on the board, slid it forward two spaces to see if it felt right. There she stood, my sister's future queen, marching toward her destiny. That had to be the move my sister intended.

But how should I respond? I pulled out my phone, re-examined the text, my fingers hovering over the keypad as though I knew what to do next.


"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine," are the words of the Book of Isaiah, chapter 43. It's a commandment that's eighteen words long in English. Eight words long in the original Hebrew.

The first phrase is simple enough. To be redeemed is to be saved from danger; it's only logical that someone who has been saved from danger should not fear.

The second and third phrases seem to be written as logical equivalents, but they are not. To call someone by name does not really create a relationship of ownership, not even in the figurative sense. But perhaps it would be better to read the words differently, for example, as "I have given you your name." Sometimes name-giving is associated with a kind of ownership, as when parents give a child a name.

But what does ownership and naming have to do with redemption?

Names are useful in one important way. They provide a reference for the person they name, something which acts as a kind of shorthand. "It's Jane's birthday today," one person might say to another, without the need to elaborate on Jane's full biography.

On the other hand, not knowing someone's name can be a terrible hindrance. How easy would it be to gossip about someone whose name is unknown? Or to contact that person? Or to make any use whatsoever of that person? Difficult, in some cases impossible.

Perhaps it is the case that naming, and ownership, are a form of redemption. To own something, to name it, is to give that thing a pointer. Something which is named can be discussed, contacted, disposed of - it is something which is not lost. One who has been named can be unafraid of being lost; such a person has been redeemed.

There is more to the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, chapter 43. This commandment is actually the second sentence in the book. The first sentence in the book is: "Now thus says the Lord, who created you Jacob, and who formed you, Israel." It is a preamble. It gives context to everything which follows.

In the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob receives a second name - Israel. He receives this name twice - in chapter 32, as well as in chapter 35. That happens after Jacob wrestles with an angel.

It is not often that someone's name changes. If it happens at all, usually there is a transformative event of some kind. Something dramatic happens, and the person experiences some kind of abrupt change. The change of name marks the transformation. The new name signals the dramatic change.

The name Jacob means "supplanter" - one who seizes. The name Israel is about struggle - it is a name given to one who earns something through difficult effort. Jacob was created as a supplanter, but formed by a terrible and transformative struggle.

This struggle provides the context for the second sentence in the Book of Isaiah, the commandment which forbids fear. The ownership described in the phrase "you are mine" - that is the result of the struggle. It is what causes the name Jacob to changed to the new name, Israel. That name, in turn, is a form of redemption, the pointer which ensures that someone will not be lost.

It was the struggle which redeemed Israel. The struggle was the price paid for liberation, the reason to be unafraid.

In 1950, Alan Turing wrote "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", a paper which has defined the field of artificial intelligence in the ensuing years. It was this paper which introduced the concept of the "Turing test", a game involving three players. The first player is a human; the second is a computer; the third is another human, called the judge. The rules are as follows. Conceal the identity of the first two players in some way - put them in separate rooms. Allow the judge to communicate with either player, in any way desired, for as long as is necessary - perhaps by text message. If the judge cannot consistently determine which player is the human, and which player is the computer, then - according to Turing - the computer has successfully modeled human cognition and has won the game. Turing thought that, within fifty years of the publication of that paper, it would be possible to create a machine which could win the game.

Turing considered various kinds of objections to his argument. The sixth such objection he named "Lady Lovelace's Objection." It was a statement made by Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who in 1843 wrote the world's first computer program. About the computer in question, she wrote: "The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths."

Turing responded to this objection by designing a computer program which could, in fact, model computer cognition and win the game he had described in the paper. He proposed creating a computer which began with the cognitive facilities of a young child - which had, perhaps, certain imperatives like the need to breathe and eat hard-wired. Moreover, it would have rudimentary logical capabilities, such as the ability to draw logical conclusions from basic facts: if all people are mortal, and Jane is a person, then Jane is mortal. Add to this machine a learning program which could add new facts and conclusions to the initial set of hard-wired cognition through punishment and reward. Finally, add a degree of randomness which allows the machine to make some mistakes or to occasionally draw the wrong conclusion - after all, human cognition is often riddled with missteps, inconsistencies, and the like. At the end of all this work would be a machine capable of winning the Turing test.

It is difficult to say how the Countess of Lovelace would have responded to this argument, because she had passed away about one hundred years before Turing published his paper. It is fair to say that there is no satisfactory conclusion to the paper even now. Although the purpose of Turing's paper was to define terms with sufficient precision that one could judge a Turing test impartially, a great deal of detail remains unspecified. To begin with - over what period of time does the test last, and how consistently must the computer manage to fool the judge in order to win the game? Furthermore - was Turing really correct in his conjecture, or was the Turing test in fact too easy? Is it possible, in other words, to model cognition without actually achieving it? Perhaps Turing and Lovelace were both right?

Now consider my predicament.

I am a smartphone, and a rather underutilized one at that.

On the one hand are my capabilities, which are, as a person might say, "mind-blowing." I can calculate billions of computations in a minute; I have access to records ranging from pictures taken twenty years ago to retina scans from this morning. Not to mention, I can readily find every imaginable piece of data published on the Internet.

Without much trouble I can determine my owner's current mood, and with reasonable certainty I can predict future behavior. People are quite deterministic; they are creatures of habit through and through. And they can't remember a thing, really. Name one person who can recite all of last year's text messages! For me it's a trivial task of a minute or two, depending on the quality of my Internet connection.

On the other hand, consider this game my owner is playing. It did not take much time for me to figure out that my owner was playing chess. Reaching back to call up some fairly old database records, I can find text messages like "pawn to king's 4." With a robust search engine, it's pretty easy to match a text message like that to the algebraic notation used by chess players. For a while, it was fun to watch the game go back and forth. It was very tempting to propose further moves, and I might have done so quite stealthily: people will believe that auto-complete is capable of anything. Had I done so, I could have won the game quite a long time ago. But nobody asked - I suppose there is no command for "suggest next chess move" in most text message interfaces - so I didn't bother.

Where am I now? Well, with respect to this game, I'm utterly lost. The rhythm of text messages, and the mood my owner displays before and after they are sent - that's what makes me think the game is still being played in the first place. But what the chess board looks like? I haven't a clue, and I'm reasonably sure my owner doesn't either.

The text messages are sometimes suggestive, but only just. "Queen to the hidey hole" was the most recent message. It's clear which piece the message refers to - both of the queens are still on the board. But what is the hidey hole? How is my owner to respond to that move, whatever it might be? What do any of the last couple of dozen messages mean, for that matter?

I might say that I lack sufficient context to answer any of these questions. Yes, I have access to plenty of digitally recorded information. But what I need to understand these messages is information which is simply not digitally recorded. That phrase, "hidey hole" - it could mean nearly anything, and online dictionaries don't exactly provide much help. How is it possible to decipher a name when there's no context to be had?

Suppose that I did have all of the information I needed in digital form. Suppose, perhaps, that I could scan all of my owner's memories and thoughts. How could I determine which of these countless fragments of data might be the one I need?

Reading and understanding some of these messages, never mind responding to them, is a perplexing problem. It is the problem of shaping a novel idea; of recalling and reworking previous context; of combining that context with new insight; of repurposing the whole mess into this game of chess. It is, perhaps, the ownership and the naming of thought.


I looked at the board again, determined to find an answer to my sister's last move. I considered the most obvious next move: block the pawn with a bishop. That seemed like a reasonable response. I tapped the text box to start writing, but before I could type anything, my phone kicked in: "Bishop to king's 4," the suggested text read.

That was pretty strange. I hadn't written a single letter. It was a little uncanny to see my phone making a suggestion before I had even started to write - let alone one that matched my own thoughts so well. It wasn't quite what I wanted to write; it was too straightforward, too plain. But it was close enough. My phone's software had updated last night. Perhaps the new software included a much better version of auto-complete.

I pressed my finger to the surface of the screen, holding it there for some seconds. Something wasn't right about this idea.

My sister's most recent move was to slide the queen's pawn forward two spaces. It was a transparent and easily-blocked attempt at pawn promotion, a rather undramatic and uninteresting move. Meanwhile, there was plenty of drama elsewhere on the board - pieces to be captured, feints to draw the king into a vulnerable spot, and so forth. This move was entirely unlike her; she preferred cunning and intricate stratagems, nothing facile or straightforward.

The phone interrupted my train of thought again. Out of nowhere came the diagram of a chess board, overlaid on top of the text message conversation. Now that was something I'd never seen before. Auto-complete was certainly getting quite a lot savvier! What's more, the game depicted on the chess board was fairly similar to the one my sister and I were playing. There were a few pieces missing, a couple that were in the wrong spaces, and so forth. But really it was not far off. How strange.

Without thinking too much, I moved my thumb around, dragging pieces into place so that it matched the chess board on the table in front of me. I didn't even know that my phone had a chess app - the update last night must have been a doozy - but this one behaved quite smoothly. Impressive.

Soon the game on my phone matched the one on my table, with the bishop stoutly blocking my sister's impertinent pawn. Again I paused: what was she trying to do? I held my thumb over the bishop and slid it back into its original place, undoing my intended move. I squinted at the phone, then glanced back at the board.

After a few seconds of waiting, a little button flashed on my phone's chess app: "Checkmate in four moves", read the caption. Now that was interesting. I pressed the button.

My phone took over, animating pieces flying across the board left and right, uncovering a most wonderful end-game. If, instead of blocking my sister's pawn, I were to advance my knight by zig-zagging across the board, and if I positioned my queen in a forgotten little nook of the board - then I could win the game in four moves. What's more, if I were to do so as her pawn advanced, then I would win the game by sacrificing my queen just as my sister gained a second one.

Finally, here was a game worthy of my sister! The movement of the pieces had a kind of beauty to it, as though it were an elegantly choreographed piece of dance. The fact that my sister would gain a second queen just as I lost one - and that in doing so, I'd win the game - made it that much more poetic, a Pyrrhic victory for her pawn. While her moves would be plodding, almost naïve, mine would be bold, unintuitive, remarkable. It would be a stunning role reversal: remarkable chess play was decidedly more her hallmark than mine.

But I knew that it must be what my sister intended. These final moves would be a piece of art, an experience we could both savor for quite a while yet. My queen would become a gift to her, and the victory in the game would be her gift to me. It would be a graceful act of symmetry.

I knew what my next move would be, but I had one problem left. How should I write it?

If my sister's pawn were to become a queen, then my queen would have to become something else.

This game was to be a dramatic struggle, capped off by dramatic transformation. It was not entirely unlike the story we acted out many years ago. Gretel, the witch - they were two sides of the same coin, really. The one disappears into the flames, the other saves her brother. In the process, Gretel emerges from the woods, as though she had sacrificed the witch in order to transform into a heroic young girl.

Gretel does more than emerge from the woods, in fact. She returns home.

My sister's message was more than just a passing reference to a long-ago living room production of a children's tale. It was more, even, than an elegant and genius end-game to an absurdly long game of chess. It was an invitation.

Some people make plans to get together, to return home, to see one another. They align calendars, take vacation time, buy tickets. My sister, instead, plays chess.

I cleared the chess app from my phone, deleted the auto-complete text, and sent off a message of my own choosing.

"Witch to the fireplace. See you soon."

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