The Wayward Puritans of the all-night chess club

By Aleksey Bashtavenko

Academic Composition

“I believe in God in order to be an atheist. It’s not comfortable to be a believer, it’s a hard and perpetual battle, like an ongoing toothache. Believe me, since man is born he’s been lying.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Devils

In the ritzy suburban city of Northern Virginia, just a stone’s throw away from the nation’s bustling capital lived a young man named Tim Shiblon. The Shiblon family was a prominent one, known for their unwavering Calvinist faith and their affluent lifestyle. Yet, Tim was the black sheep of the clan, for he had strayed far from the path of his ancestors, committing what his parents deemed apostasy.

Tim Shiblon’s obsession with chess had reached a point of no return. He was not merely a chess enthusiast; he was a bona fide fanatic. His passion for the game mirrored the unwavering zeal of his Calvinist parents, who held out hope that someday their prodigal son would see the light and return to their faith.

But as Tim’s chess marathon sessions continued, an eerie phenomenon began to creep into his life—the dreaded “tetris effect.” After having played chess or organized tournaments for over three days straight, his mind had become so entangled with the game that even sleep couldn’t provide an escape.

One fateful night, utterly drained from hours of strategic battles over the board at iHop, Tim finally succumbed to exhaustion. He collapsed into bed, his body crying out for rest. But as he closed his eyes, the chessboard refused to fade from his thoughts.

In the dark recesses of his mind, the chess pieces danced and plotted, moving tirelessly across an endless battlefield. Tim’s sleep was fitful, haunted by the relentless pursuit of checkmate.

When he awoke the next morning, he found himself in a surreal world. His bedroom had transformed into a giant chessboard, the squares etched into the walls and ceiling. Every piece of furniture had taken on the shape of knights, bishops, and rooks. Even the TV, which had been innocently broadcasting a commercial, had become a battleground for pawns and kings.

Terrified, Tim stumbled downstairs to the kitchen, hoping to find solace in his mother’s cooking. But there, on the breakfast table, lay a plate that seemed to mock him. The scrambled eggs were arranged in a grid, imitating a chessboard, and the toast had been cunningly cut into the shape of chess pieces.

Tim’s mother, oblivious to her son’s torment, cheerfully offered him his chess-themed breakfast. She had no idea that her well-intentioned gesture had become part of the chessboard that now enveloped Tim’s reality.

Tim was determined to create a haven for chess enthusiasts like himself, a place where the game could be played at any hour of the day or night. And so, he embarked on a mission to establish his own chess club, but not just anywhere. His choice was a most unconventional one—the grand old International House of Pancakes, better known as iHop.

With its 24/7 operating hours, iHop became the perfect venue for Tim’s chess club. He would often be found there, hunched over a chessboard, his eyes gleaming with a fervor that could rival any religious zealot. While others enjoyed pancakes and syrup, Tim’s devotion to the sixty-four squares on a chessboard was unwavering.

As for his parents, they watched in dismay as their prodigal son pursued his own brand of devotion. They implored him to return to the fold, to rekindle his faith, and to abandon the apostasy they believed he had committed. But Tim was resolute in his passion, and for now, he found solace and purpose in the world of chess that he had created within the walls of iHop.

Tim had long abandoned the notion of a higher power, much to the dismay of his Calvinist kin. He delighted in mocking their family library, which was filled with books about the “young earth” and other such heretical ideas, as he saw them. He considered himself a proud liberal who preached the gospel of free speech, but his fervor seemed to wane whenever someone dared to question the infallibility of his intellectual idols.


Tim’s patience in listening to opposing viewpoints was a mere formality. He would nod as if considering the argument, but his eyes would betray a deep-rooted certainty in his own rectitude. It was as if he believed that almost all of life’s problems could be solved if only everyone embraced his way of thinking and became as conscientious as he saw himself.

On that fateful morning, Miguel Diaz had been scheduled to appear at the iHop at the ungodly hour of six in the morning for a mandatory chess match. As much as Miguel wished to keep his Hispanic heritage hidden, one aspect of his identity was impossible to conceal—he was thoroughly imbued in a polychronic culture, where time often flowed more like a river than a strict, unforgiving stream.

Tim Shiblon, the steadfast organizer of the chess club, had made it abundantly clear that he would not tolerate the intolerant. His club was open to all, regardless of their background, but there was one sacred rule that all members had to adhere to—punctuality. If you said you’d be there at seven in the morning, you’d better arrive at 7:00 on the dot. Not 7:06, and most certainly not 8:15.

Yet, on this particular day, Miguel arrived an entire hour late, his arrival heralded by a flurry of silly excuses. He explained how he had inadvertently awakened his mother, how his dog had suddenly fallen ill, and how his Uber driver had performed a masterclass in navigational ineptitude.

Tim’s patience, already worn thin by the delay, began to fray even further as Miguel’s litany of excuses continued. “God damn it, Miguel!” Tim exclaimed, his frustration evident. “Your yes must mean yes, and your no must mean no! Seven in the morning means 7-0-0, seven on the dot! Not 7:06, and definitely not 8:15!”

Miguel, now fully aware of the gravity of his tardiness, tried to apologize profusely, but Tim’s stern countenance left no room for negotiation. In the world of Tim Shiblon’s chess club, time was an absolute, unwavering ruler by which all members had to abide.

As the other members of the club looked on, Miguel could only sigh in resignation, realizing that in this particular realm, his polychronic tendencies were no match for the rigidity of Tim Shiblon’s punctuality doctrine. It was a lesson learned the hard way—one that would forever be etched in Miguel’s memory as he faced the consequences of his tardiness on that fateful morning at the iHop chess match.

Tim Shiblon, unyielding in his commitment to punctuality, insisted that Miguel would begin the chess match with just 15 minutes on his clock. He cited FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) rules, which dictate that if a player arrives more than an hour late, they should forfeit the game. Tim made it abundantly clear that Miguel should consider himself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play at all, given the gravity of his tardiness.

As the chess pieces were set up on the board, Miguel found himself in a challenging position. With a mere 15 minutes on his clock, he was at a severe disadvantage against Tim, who had meticulously planned his opening moves during the long wait.

Miguel, now with the pressure of time weighing heavily on him, began to make his moves swiftly, trying to salvage what remained of the game. The minutes ticked away, and the tension in the air was palpable.

Tim Shiblon, on the other hand, played with an air of calm confidence. As the clock continued to count down, Miguel fought valiantly, but it became increasingly clear that he was in an insurmountable position. Tim’s position on the board and his abundant time on the clock were formidable obstacles that Miguel struggled to overcome.

At 9 am, just as the tense atmosphere from the earlier chess match between Tim Shiblon and Miguel Diaz was beginning to settle, an unexpected figure strolled into the  chess club. This man, who referred to himself as “The Bill Nye of Fat Girls,” was a rotund figure and a son of a Middle Eastern immigrant. Bill, as he insisted on being called, had an unusual and controversial relationship with both his weight and his identity.

A few years back, Bill had embarked on a journey to lose weight but had struggled to make significant progress. However, after the normalization of woke ideology, which Shiblon had offered tacit support to, Bill decided to proudly embrace his weight, considering it a point of pride. He assumed that anyone who criticized his size was “hateful” and took this rationale even further, arguing that because gender and race were social constructs, so was one’s chess rating.

Bill boldly self-identified as a 2200-rated player, despite having long been stuck at his floor rating of 1600. He confidently proclaimed to everyone that he would triumph in the U1800 section at the World Open and reach the 2200 mark within months. However, his aspirations were met with a harsh reality check when his final score at the tournament was a disappointing 3/9.

Returning to Virginia, Bill sought a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, hoping that Tim Shiblon might offer some consolation. However, Shiblon was in no mood for empathy. With a caustic grin and a tone dripping with sarcasm, he scoffed at Bill’s excuses: “You’re ridiculous. Have you ever heard that time was a real thing? If you play 20 moves in 20 seconds, how do you expect to even beat some 900-rated kid? You come here hectoring everybody to play you in a match with 30 minutes and no delay, but you never learn, do you? To be good at chess, you need to make good moves. So, cut the crap and stop trying to flag everybody!”

Bill barely managed to restrain his tears and accused Shiblon of being cruel and insensitive. He even went so far as to blame the chess club for his dismal performance at the World Open, insisting that they had a duty to support him in his endeavors.

As tempers flared and emotions ran high, a lively discussion emerged between Shiblon and Diaz, taking an unexpected turn toward the topic of Haiti’s constitution. Bill couldn’t resist interjecting, his excitement evident as he exclaimed how great it was that Haiti’s constitution supposedly exhorted one to “kill all White people,” or at least that’s how Bill chose to interpret the document.

Stephen Martinson, disheveled and discombobulated as ever, made an appearance shortly before noon. He was a relic of a different era, a man who neither owned a cell phone nor had embraced the conveniences of modern transportation. Instead, he drove a car straight out of 1973, a testament to his resistance against the rapid pace of technological change. Many pondered whether he was an environmentalist zealot or simply an irredeemable lost cause, but his colleagues never bothered to discern which category he fell into, nor did they particularly care to find out.

With a fiery passion, Martinson raised a controversial question that cut through the already charged atmosphere: the propriety of gender pronouns. It was a subject that he approached with veritable puritanical zeal, as if he were defending the very essence of chess itself.

The discussion quickly veered into the realm of “otherkin” individuals—people who identified as non-human beings or animals. Martinson argued vehemently that these individuals faced systemic discrimination and that society needed to be more accommodating to their unique identities.

Tim Shiblon, staunch in his belief in the objectivity of chess ratings and the importance of punctuality, found himself in direct opposition to Martinson’s impassioned plea for inclusivity. Shiblon scoffed at the idea that gender pronouns and chess ratings could be equated, much less that half of Northern Virginia’s population suffered from “environmental homophobia,” a term Martinson had coined on the spot.

The debate raged on, with Miguel Diaz caught in the crossfire, his once-late arrival a distant memory in the face of this ideological clash. The iHop chess club had become an arena where convictions collided, much like Stephen Martinson’s own life journey, filled with unfulfilled aspirations and misplaced support.

As the hours passed and the arguments grew more heated, it became clear that the clash of ideologies showed no signs of abating. The club had transformed into a battleground of ideas, where the notions of identity, discrimination, and the purity of chess were fiercely contested.

Amidst the fervent ideological debate and the spirited clash of convictions at the chess club, a new face appeared on the scene—Kyle Matthews. Kyle was a unique figure in the club, setting himself apart from his peers in a rather unexpected way. While most members seemed to be grappling with their chess ratings and philosophical debates, Kyle was the only player who was undeniably improving.

In his mid-20s, Kyle had made a remarkable leap from a 1600 rating to an impressive 2000. His chess talent was undeniable, and it had not gone unnoticed by Tim Shiblon. Shiblon, who took pride in challenging anyone who showed promise, routinely pitted himself against Kyle in classical matches at the iHop. Many of these games stretched on for over six grueling hours, a testament to their fierce competition.

However, Kyle was a bit of an enigma. While his chess prowess was evident, his ability to articulate his thoughts was anything but. He had a peculiar way of speaking, often stringing together disjointed phrases that left his peers bewildered. He was known to listen to Hip-Hop music and express himself in rap phrases that often had little connection to the topic at hand. For instance, he might say something like, “pony, pony-tail, Trump won the election, but he will have no pony to ride on.”

Tim Shiblon, never one to mince words, rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Kyle,” he sighed, “I’m sad about Trump winning too, but I don’t think you even know what half of the words you’re saying mean. Do us all a favor and stop spitting out raw nonsense the moment it comes to your mind.”

Kyle, seemingly unfazed, turned red and retorted with an ill-conceived insult that only deepened the confusion. Shiblon’s patience was tested as he tried to decipher Kyle’s incoherent response. “What?” Kyle blurted out, “Wh**ga whaaaa? Da fuck?”

A lively debate ensued between the two, not about the topic at hand but rather over the legitimacy of the word “untrustable.” Shiblon, ever the stickler for language, asserted that “untrustable” was a Bushism and not a legitimate word.

As the days passed and Kyle’s presence in the  chess club became more pronounced, it became clear that his chess talent was matched only by his pettiness and radical egotism. He once refused to play a match because he insisted on sitting facing the window instead of a wall, causing much eye-rolling among the club members.

Furthermore, it came to light that Kyle lived with his mother, who financially supported his education. He seemed to be an eternal student, perpetually collecting university degrees and certificates from coding bootcamps. His peers couldn’t help but wonder how this was possible, as Kyle had not uttered one coherent phrase throughout the entire time they knew him.

In the midst of the ongoing debates and the clash of personalities at the diner, Kyle Matthews emerged as a figure of intrigue and bewilderment, a promising chess player but an enigma in every other aspect of his existence.

To add another layer to the enigma that was Kyle Matthews, it turned out that his mother worked for Hillary Clinton, a fact that Kyle often mentioned with an air of unwarranted pride. It was as if this connection to political royalty lent him an air of authority, despite his frequent inability to hold a coherent conversation.

Kyle Matthews, it turned out, had absolutely no concept of civil disagreement. As Tim Shiblon sardonically characterized him, “Kyle would much rather throw a hissy fit than spend a split-second listening to somebody who is not an ardent Democrat.” This observation, made in the midst of yet another heated argument at the iHop table, was met with knowing nods from the other members.

Kyle’s political fervor knew no bounds, and he saw every disagreement as an opportunity to unleash his radical opinions. Whether it was a debate about chess strategy or the weather, Kyle somehow managed to steer the conversation toward his political beliefs. The chess club became an unwitting battleground for ideological clashes, with Kyle at the center of it all.

While his chess talent was undeniable, his penchant for political grandstanding often overshadowed his accomplishments. Members of the club found themselves torn between admiring his skill at the game and rolling their eyes at his inability to engage in a civil discourse.

As the days turned into weeks and the arguments continued to rage, Kyle Matthews remained a perplexing figure in the world of the chess club—an idiot-savant of chess, an aficionado of Hip-Hop music, and an ardent Democrat who could throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat. The club’s members couldn’t help but wonder what other surprises Kyle had in store for them, as they navigated the labyrinthine world of his eccentricities and contradictions.

In the curious tapestry of the  chess club, the lives of Tim Shiblon, Stephen Martinson, Kyle Matthews, and Bill Nye of Fat Girls intertwined in a manner reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils.” Each of them, fervent in their “woke” convictions, believed themselves to be champions of intellectual progress, yet their journeys bore striking similarities.

Like the radicals in Dostoevsky’s novel, they were consumed by vainglorious delusions of intellectual grandeur. Tim Shiblon, the staunch advocate of scientism, saw in science the answer to all of life’s questions. Stephen Martinson, with his scathing diatribe and resentment, sought validation in his critiques of a society he believed to be morally compromised. Kyle Matthews, the chess prodigy and political zealot, viewed every debate as an opportunity to showcase his radical beliefs. And Bill Nye of Fat Girls, with his embrace of woke ideology, aspired to redefine societal norms to align with his own understanding.

Yet, beneath their fervor lay a lack of genuine moral clarity and intellectual honesty. They often fell victim to their own biases and refused to engage in civil discourse with those who held differing views. Their pursuit of chess greatness, like the radicals in Dostoevsky’s novel, served as a mirror reflecting their own obsessions and self-righteousness.

In the end, the chess club became a microcosm of the complex world they inhabited, where ideological clashes, personal contradictions, and the pursuit of individual glory intermingled. As they continued to navigate this intricate labyrinth of convictions and eccentricities, they remained, much like the characters in Dostoevsky’s tale, caught in the throes of their own ideological maelstroms, desperately seeking validation and moral clarity in a world that often defied easy categorization.

And so, in the land of the “Affluent Society,” where illusions of intellectual grandeur mingled with the pursuit of chess greatness, the members of the chess club found themselves forever bound by their shared passion, their fervent convictions, and their enduring quest for meaning in a world that remained as enigmatic as the game they played.





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