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Chapter 3 of Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Chapter 3

The Graduation Gift

        Ethan and his dad sat across from each other at a small marble-top table in the family room. Perched atop the table was an exquisite mahogany chessboard with hand-carved chessmen strategically placed on the checkered battlefield. The board was a graduation gift for Ethan from his parents. Ethan was happy with the gift, seeing as he was too young for a car.

        It was Ethan’s turn. He stared at the chessboard intensely as he scoured the board for the best move. Ethan’s dad looked up subtly and eyed his son with pride. Ethan glided his hand over the board and picked up his rook. He set it down forcefully in front of his dad’s queen, glanced up and smiled mischievously. Ethan’s dad smiled back, then turned to analyze his position on the board. His hazel eyes focused quickly like an eagle’s on the game, deep in thought. Ethan watched his dad with a sense of awe. He thought he had worked out as good a plan as any before to defeat him, but, like always, he figured his dad would find a way out of the predicament. Ethan’s dad was a master at that—puzzling over problems, no matter how difficult, until they were solved. Ethan admired that ability in his father, but it was also the reason he found him so frustrating.

        Mr. Tate wore a uniform to work at the base like everyone else, but his uniform lacked a military designation and the accompanying medals. There were no decorations, fancy colors, or shiny stars and stripes to be found. His uniform was an ordinary blue work shirt with his name: “Phil” and his department: “Maintenance” stamped plainly on it. No one referred to him as general, colonel, or even sir. The only title Ethan’s dad ever commanded was mister, and that was rare. Usually, people just called him Phil…Phil from Maintenance. It was a title that compared poorly with the high-ranking officers at Blackwoods. Ethan loved his father, but he secretly wished his dad would use his intelligence to attain a higher status at the base. In the deepest, most well-hidden recesses of his brain, Ethan thought that his dad lacked the ambition of many of the other parents in Blackwoods. It was an opinion that he was ashamed of, and one that he vowed never, ever to speak about.

        Ethan’s dad finally moved his queen out of the way of Ethan’s attacking rook. Ethan surveyed the board and realized his dad had found a move he hadn’t anticipated. That always seemed to happen. His dad always managed to find a way to win.

        Ethan’s dad smiled at his son. “You’re getting really good.”

        “Not good enough,” Ethan replied, searching the board desperately for a response to his dad’s crushing move.

        “You’ve been practicing, right?”

“Yeah, been playing the computer some,” Ethan said modestly. “The computer always wins, though.”  Ethan rubbed his hands through his sandy brown hair and exhaled a giant sigh of frustration. Then he reluctantly toppled over his king, an indication of surrender.

        “Good game, son,” his dad said, extending his hand for the post-game handshake.

        “Good game, Dad,” Ethan said, shaking his father’s well-muscled hand. He looked thoughtful and asked, “Can you beat it...? The computer?”

        “I don’t know. I’d rather play people.”

        “I know, but I wanna see if you can win… Pretend the computer just killed me and you have to get revenge for your only son.”

        Ethan’s dad scowled and put his arm around him. “Well, in that case, I’d better go find that stinkin’ machine and rip the circuits right out of its motherboard.”

        Ethan smiled as his dad sat in a chair in front of the computer. He clicked a mouse and a brightly lit chessboard and chessmen ready for battle filled the screen. Ethan’s dad was playing the white pieces. The computer had black. The computer’s pitch-black pieces looked ominous, especially the knights, who had sinister-looking red eyes staring what seemed to be death rays at them. Ethan sat beside his dad, excitedly awaiting the virtual bloodbath.

        His dad made the first move—king’s pawn forward two squares. “Computers used to lose all the time to humans, even played pretty stupid chess.”

        Ethan looked shocked. “Computers played stupid chess? But they win all the time now…What happened?”

        “They learned,” Ethan’s dad answered with a more serious tone in his voice. A tone that bordered on creepy to Ethan, especially when he looked at the black knight with its bright crimson eyes staring back at him.

        The computer also moved a pawn into the center of the board, and the battle had officially commenced. Ethan’s dad looked dead serious as he played, as if the game weren’t really a game anymore. The chess pieces seemed to fly across the board to Ethan. The game was deeper and more complicated than he could possibly keep up with. He had no idea who was winning and who was losing, yet he was afraid to interrupt his dad’s intense concentration to ask. Then the computer’s knights cornered his dad’s king.

        Ethan couldn’t resist any longer. “Who’s winning, Dad?” he blurted.

        Ethan’s dad moved his rook across the board and captured a lowly pawn, a move that looked senseless to Ethan since the computer was able to take the rook with its queen. But Ethan’s dad played on, calm and steady. “The computer will always want you to play the pieces,” he said. “It will want you to spend your energy figuring out what its pieces are doing, how they’re attacking or defending. But a human will never be able to beat a computer that way… The trick when playing the computer is to never get into a match of counting moves. You want the match to be about sensing, feeling danger or opportunity. When playing the computer, you never play the pieces…you play the position.”

        Ethan was now even more confused. The position on the board looked pretty bad for his dad as he saw it. Then his dad gave up another piece for a pawn, a bishop this time.

        “The computer’s major weakness is in responding to an intelligent, yet unpredictable move…the kind only a human can make,” Ethan’s dad continued with a sly smile forming on his face. He then zipped his queen from the opposite side of the board and planted it in a direct line of fire with the computer’s king. “CHECKMATE!” flashed across the screen. His dad had vanquished the computer, evil black knights and all.

        “You did it!” Ethan cheered, giving his dad a high five.

        Father and son stared at the screen where the computer’s king stood, humiliated in defeat by a human. Finally, Mr. Tate looked his son squarely in the eyes and delivered the night’s last lesson:

         “Remember, Ethan… When battling a machine, never try to think like the best machine… Try to think like the best human.”


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