Sunday, June 19, 2011

Market Street, Day 5: the Lucky Bungler

Kekehruy Square is one of several small open spaces that are often connected to Market Street. Today, it was the site of a three-tower clockboard tournament.

Clockboard is generally considered the most elaborate board game in Hamjamser. Each board is unique, laid out to serve the personal strategy of its creator, or simply to make the game work the way they think it should.* People often say that a clockboard looks like a chessboard; this is true, in the same way that a city looks like a brick. Clockboard uses chessboard as a building material. There are multiple layers of black-and-white squares - checkered terraces, spiral walkways, bridges, rotundas, and the checkered towers by which the game is ranked.** The more adventurous clockboards look like mad model cities in harlequin dress. Each board contains some amount of clockwork as well. At the very least, there's a clock in the board somewhere; it usually has three or more hands, only one of which has anything to do with time. The functions of the others vary from board to board. Advanced boards also include clockwork that changes the game, shifting and rotating sections or dropping pieces down hidden chutes to bring them closer or farther from wherever they're trying to go. Half of playing clockboard is anticipating your opponent's moves; the other half is anticipating the moves of the board.

I've never quite been able to figure out three-tower clockboard. It's possible that I could if I took the time, but so far, my experience is limited to the single-tower variety.

This tournament was in its fourth day, so most of the players were seasoned experts. The beginners have been out of the running since Friday. I couldn't understand half of what was going on. The tournament seemed to be going well; nothing particularly exciting was happening, but the players and the audience were interested. Then Spud showed up.

No one has ever managed to find out Spud's last name - or, for that matter, anything else about him. His response to every question is usually something like, "yes, I'm Spud. Where are the doughnuts?" He shows up occasionally at tournaments (some say he's drawn to large concentrations of board games) and usually doubles the size of the audience once word gets around.

He had neglected to bring a clockboard of his own. This was a requirement for the tournament. It's customary, especially at a tournament, for a pair of clockboard players to play pairs of games - one on each player's board. It wouldn't be fair otherwise. A well-built clockboard gives its creator a significant advantage. If one player wins both of the first pair of games, he or she is the winner; if the first pair is a tie, the players move on to a second pair of games. This continues until one player or the other wins both games in a pair.

It often takes a while for this to happen; the Duchesses of Shimrick and Marbelsack once continued a single match of clockboard for almost ninety years. They met every day to play it over lunch. The match was said to have consisted of four thousand and thirty-six separate games (two thousand and eighteen on each board), and it only ended when the Duchess of Shimrick died of such extreme old age that everyone had lost count. The Duchess of Marbelsack is said to have been quite irritated at her timing, as she was winning the current round. It was just like Shimrick, she said, to die at such a contrary moment.

Fortunately for Spud, one of the other contestants had to drop out at the last minute to have a baby. As she left with a doctor and her husband (who looked by far the most nervous of the three), she gave Spud permission to borrow her board, with the clear understanding that she would kill him if anything happened to it. He nodded vaguely, thanked her, and waved as she left.

He proceeded to win every game he played. This is what always happens. Spud has been the world champion of clockboard - and several other games - for years, despite his apparent lack of any strategy whatsoever. I certainly couldn't find any when I watched him play. He moved his pieces seemingly at random; occasionally, he had to ask his opponent what one of them was.*** Several of his opponents appeared to be winning at first, taking full advantage of mistakes a novice player could have avoided, but his luck always changed by the end of the game. Player after expert player saw their detailed strategies overcome by what looked like randomness and sheer luck.

Board game enthusiasts have argued about Spud for years. A third of them think he's a genius who's impossibly good at hiding it; another third think he's an idiot who's impossibly lucky. The remaining third just think he's cheating. If he is, no one has ever managed to catch him at it. Experienced players who've matched wits with Spud - if wits have anything to do with it - are usually certain he's not cheating. What exactly he is doing, they don't know. They just wish they knew how to do it themselves.

Someone - no one remembers who - once called him the Lucky Bungler. The name has stuck. Clockboard players speak of Spud the Lucky Bungler in a tone of voice normally reserved for only the most insane emperors.

The tournament had narrowed down to the last eight players, seven of which were looking rather nervous, when Spud simply got up and wandered off for no apparent reason. Everyone waited for a while to see if he'd come back. In a game that can take years to complete, players quickly learn patience.

He never returned. After a few hours, during which most of the players mobbed the surrounding shops for food and news of Spud's disappearance, the tournament continued without him. The winner and runners-up continued to play well, though they all looked a bit shaken when accepting their checkered clockwork trophies at the end.

I heard later that Spud had shown up at a Go tournament that happened to be taking place simultaneously on the other side of the lake. He won, of course. The city's reigning Go champion, an ancient and brilliant woman named Trihakna Start, reportedly asked him to marry her on the spot. Accounts vary as to what he replied. On his last comment, however, everyone agrees. When asked about his miraculous success at the tournament, Spud simply blinked and replied, "tournament? I thought this was a yard sale."

And then he left.

* For many serious players of board games, the object is simply to play as well as possible; if a game goes well, it doesn't matter who actually wins. An elegant strategy is often all the more satisfying if your opponent surprises you with it.

** Three-tower clockboard is the most complex variety commonly played; double- and single-tower clockboard are more common. I've heard that the game goes up to seven towers, but I've never even seen a board with more than four. Beyond three, it gets so complicated that you might as well try to predict next year's weather as your opponent's next move.****

*** Clockboard has seventeen basic pieces per player, nearly three times as many as in chess. Each piece has its own unique abilities, and advanced players of the game often invent their own.

**** Unless, that is, you're a Weather Dragon. In that case, the weather is easy to predict, as you're the one making it.

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