“Finally, all of these go in your front row,” Twilight said as Applejack and Rainbow Dash watched her position the last marble pieces onto the board. Ever since discovering the chess set in the library’s storage cupboard, she’d been itching to test her skills again. When she lived in Canterlot, she would occasionally play Spike for a change of pace, but Twilight was surprised to find that he wasn’t very interested in the game any more. When she had shown it to him, he’d stomped off, muttering something about a two hundred and sixty-six game losing streak.
Rainbow Dash swooped in and scrutinized the gleaming marble pieces. “Okay, I’m going first!” Several pieces fell over and rolled across the board as Rainbow eagerly reached for the largest one.
Twilight gently swatted her away and righted the chessmen. “Rainbow, I haven’t even explained the rules yet!”
Applejack pushed her hat back from her eyes and pointed at Rainbow, her chest swelling. “Yeah! You can’t just call ‘first’ before we even get started!”
“Well, I’m still going first!” Rainbow replied, sticking her tongue out at Applejack.
“Now wait a sec—”
Twilight stepped between them as Applejack marched forward. She’d spent enough time at sporting events with her competitive friends to see where this was headed. “Alright, you two! We'll figure out who goes first later. I need to tell you what the rules are before we get to that.” Twilight settled into her most comfortable lecturing pose, but was left open-mouthed when Rainbow moved in front of her to study the pieces once more.
“Pssh! This’ll be a snap! It’s like fancy checkers.”
“No, it’s not!” Twilight replied, pushing Rainbow out for the way. She had to wonder how Rainbow ever made it through her classes in Cloudsdale. Getting her to sit still for five minutes was a major achievement in Twilight’s book.
Rainbow pointed to the playing field and regarded Twilight with a raised eyebrow. “Well, it’s on a checker board!”
“No, a checkerboard is black and red. This is black and white.”
“Really, Twilight? That’s the best you’ve got?” Rainbow rested an elbow on the table and gave Twilight a half-lidded stare. As an All-Equestria checkers finalist, Rainbow knew a variant checkerboard when she saw it.
“Ugh, never mind the board.” Twilight picked up the smallest piece from the table and held it up for her friends to see. “Now this is a pawn. He’s your frontline soldier.”
Applejack casually fished out the hay and barley sandwich Apple Bloom had packed for her, then stuffed half of it into her mouth. “How come he ain’t called a soldier then?”
“Yeah, pawn sounds kinda wimpy.” Rainbow eyed the chessman closely. It didn’t seem nearly as intriguing as the taller pieces that Twilight had left on the board.
“It’s just what they’re called. It’s not important,” Twilight said, attempting to get back into the flow of a proper lecture. “What is important is that they can move one space, unless it’s their first move of the game. Then they can move two.” Finally finding her rhythm, Twilight advanced several of the pawns to emphasize the rule.
Applejack slowly chewed the other half of her sandwich while she regarded the pawn. “How come they can only move one after that? Did they get all tuckered out or somethin’?”
Twilight’s mane bristled as the unexpected question derailed her train of thought. She shot an annoyed glance at Applejack, fumbling for an explanation. “Huh? No, it’s just—”
“Pawns are lazy!” Rainbow crossed her legs tightly across her chest and squinted at the row of pawns.
“They aren't lazy!” Twilight could feel the beginnings of a headache building between her eyes and wondered if it was too late to pack up and read a book for the rest of the afternoon. “They’re doing exactly what they are ordered to do!”
“Not my pawns!” Rainbow pulled herself up to her full height, eyes blazing. “They’re gonna be a well-oiled combat battalion! We’re gonna—”
“MOVING ON!” Twilight said, raising her voice over the growing excitement of Rainbow Dash’s battle plans. “Pawns move one square forward, but can only attack diagonally, like this.”
Applejack stopped chewing and cocked her head to the side. “What the hay? Twilight, what kinda sense does that make?”
Twilight massaged the area between her eyes. “Ugh, I don’t know all right? It’s just the rules!”
Rainbow moved forward and pushed a few pawn into new positions. “So pawns can only go forward, but can only attack stuff diagonally?”
“Yes, Rainbow!” Twilight hope began to flicker as Rainbow moved each of the pieces. They were finally getting somewhere! “Now—”
“Pawns are sneaky!” Rainbow hissed, rubbing her hooves together.
Twilight sagged, and she lowered her ears. Her flickering flame of hope was guttering wildly. “They aren’t sneaky, Rainbow! It’s just how they work!” Twilight stomped a hoof on the ground. She had thought it was difficult to get Spike to clean the kitchen when he was done cooking. This was turning out to be worse!
“Hey, no need to get all worked up about it! I like it!” Rainbow launched herself into the air and fell into a power-dive. “You come straight at your opponent, and then fake them out!” With a deft twist of her wings, Rainbow angled away at the last second and slammed into a nearby bush, twisting and rolling. “They're all ready for you to plow into them, but just as you get there, you dive to the side and pounce on the unsuspecting teammate!” In an explosion of leaves, Rainbow’s head popped out of the foliage. “Applejack won’t know what hit her!” she snickered, picking twigs from her mane.
Applejack rolled her eyes and stuffed the last bite of her sandwich into her mouth. “I’m right over here. I think I’ll pick up on your amazin’ strategy, somehow.”
Rainbow worked out the last stubborn branch from her mane and approached the board again. “So if I attack Applejack’s pawn with my pawn, who wins?”
“Yours does,” Twilight answered.
Rainbow smirked at Applejack. “Naturally! Superior leadership.”
Twilight noted the way the muscles clenched in Applejack’s strong back legs, as though she couldn’t wait to kick something very solid.
“Your pawn can’t beat my pawn!” Applejack growled, jaw jutting forward.
Twilight hurried forward to settle this before it got out of hoof. “Anypony’s pawn can win. The advantage always goes to the attacker,” she said, moving to block Applejack’s line of sight with Rainbow. Her headache ratcheted up a little more as she contemplated if any two ponies had ever been this stubborn and competitive before.
“There’s no way—” Rainbow said.
Applejack tacked to the side, trying to get around Twilight to confront Rainbow directly. “But—”
Twilight waved her hooves over her head. “Enough about pawns!” She was definitely beginning to regret finding this chess set. Once her friends had settled down a bit, she picked up the next piece. “Now this is a rook.”
Applejack reached for its matching partner to take a closer look. “Looks like a castle.”
“Well, I guess it is a little castle,” Twilight replied quickly, working hard to stay on topic. “So your rook can move any number of squares, but only in a straight line.”
“Wait just a gol-durn minute! You’re tellin’ me that my soldiers can only move one measly square, but a castle can move the whole board? Twilight, that just don't make much sense.” Applejack frowned at the rook and placed it back down on the board in one of the pawn’s opening positions.
Twilight bit down lightly on her tongue while she move the piece back into place and tried to cast her mind into its most serene and patient state. I can do this. I’m a good student, and I’m going to be a good teacher. I just need a little patience.
Rainbow absently kicked a stone away and looked up into the open sky. Her wings twitched as several chattering birds flew overhead. “I gotta agree with Applejack on this one, Twilight. Are you sure you know how to play this game?”
Twilight’s newly cultivated patience evaporated and she slammed both her hooves down on the table. “YES, I AM SURE, and you two would know, too, if you would STOP INTERRUPTING ME ALL THE TIME!” Twilight’s eyes bulged as she glared at them, her chest heaving.
“Okay, jeez! Calm down, Twilight!” Rainbow shot a glance at Applejack and they both gazed with somewhat unconvincingly rapt attention at the board.
Twilight rolled her eyes at the display, but smiled inwardly at her friends' behavior. They were only doing this for her, but she knew they would love the game in the end. It really was right up their alley. Twilight took a deep breath and decided to continue. “So. Rook. Straight lines. Any distance. Got it?” The two ponies opened their mouths, but Twilight rushed on. “Good. Now, next is the knight.”
“Oh, this is going to be awesome!” Rainbow snatched the knight from Twilight. Quickly giving it a once-over, she tossed it to Applejack. “Look, Applejack, it looks like us!”
Applejack shrugged. “It’s a knight. Wouldn’t it have to look like us?”
“The pawns don't look like us!” Rainbow scowled momentarily at Applejack before returning her attention to the knight. “This is clearly the most awesome piece!”
Finally some engagement! Twilight's ears perked up as Rainbow's interest increased. “They represent armored ponies from the medieval period.”
Rainbow shot Twilight a sidelong glance. “Yeah, I know what a knight is.” Grabbing her matching knights, she took to the air and flew in tight circles, making feint galloping noises as she buzzed Applejack. “See, Applejack, I told you these were the coolest pieces!”
Applejack responded with a wide yawn.
“Yup, and they move differently than any of the others.” Twilight pulled the knights out of Rainbow’s hooves on her next pass and placing them back on the board. “You see, they move either two squares left or right and then one square up or down, or two squares up or back and one square left or right.”
Applejack briskly shook her head and tried to follow the complicated maneuvering. “Uh, come again, Twilight?” she said, drawing patterns in the air with her hooves while trying to picture all the formations.
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Don’t overcomplicate it.”
“ME?!” Applejack snapped her head back up so quickly that her hat flew off. Rainbow swooped in and scooped the Stetson up, trying to fly away with it, but Applejack was too fast. As Rainbow shot off, Applejack bit down on the brim and wrenched it from Rainbow’s grasp. With a casual flip, she tossed the hat back onto her head, then motioned to the knights. “Who trained them knights? Pinkie Pie? They’re all over the place!” Nearby, Rainbow was rolling back and forth on the ground, both laughing at and lamenting her near coup.
Twilight shot her a dirty look as she went through the motion again. “It’s not hard. Just remember this pattern.” Twilight allowed Applejack to run through the routine a few times.
Rainbow flew up over the table and watched. Twilight partially covered the board as Rainbow’s downdraft threatened to launch a few of the pawns off the board. “Wow, knights are sneaky, too!” Rainbow rubbed her hooves together. “Maybe they’re, like, ninja knights!”
Twilight grabbed her tail and firmly pulled her back to the ground. “Rainbow, come down here before you wreck my board. The knights are simulating the flanking maneuvers of cavalry.”
Rainbow bumped Applejack lightly with her shoulder and pointed at the knights. “I knew these guys were rad!”
“If you say so.” Applejack gave a lengthy sigh, her gaze drifting off in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.
Twilight hurried along to the next piece as Applejack's rear hoof twitched. “Now, these pieces are called bishops and they move any number of squares diagonally.” Twilight did her best to fill her voice with wonder. If she could just get them interested enough to play, Twilight knew she would have some fierce competition.
Pulling her gaze from her fields, Applejack pushed her hat back to scratch her mane. “Can they attack things?” she asked, looking from the bishop to Twilight and back again.
Twilight cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Um, of course. Every piece can.”
Applejack shrugged and turned to Rainbow Dash, who was still making battle noises as she moved the knights to and fro. “Don’t that sound kinda, well, violent for a preacher?”
“Hey, don’t count my bishop out!” Rainbow dropped the knights and moving to defend her bishop’s honor. Snatching the bishop up from the board, she thrust it into the air above her head, catching it in a sunbeam. Wrapped in a radiant corona, the bishop’s shadow stretched across the battlefield toward Applejack. “She’s no namby-pamby egghead! No offense, Twi.” Rainbow said, her voice swelling. “She’s a spiritual engine of victory!”
Applejack squinted as she looked at the bishop and shielded her eyes with her hat. “I’m just sayin’ that it don’t sound so holy to charge across the battlefield and knock somepony in the head.”
Twilight shook her head. She’d never seen two ponies work so hard at not learning a game. “Girls, we’re going off on a tangent again.” Twilight leapt, trying to grab the bishop away from Rainbow, who kept the bishop just out of Twilight’s reach.
“Quit it, Rainbow!” Applejack shot the Pegasus a dirty look, and received a raspberry in return. Rolling her eyes, Applejack turned back to Twilight. “What in tarnation is a tangent?”
Perking up immediately, Twilight launched into a rapid fire explanation. “I’m so glad you asked, Applejack! It’s a line that intersects the arc of a circle at one, and only one, point. It’s a useful trigonometric principle in that tangents can be used—”
Grimacing, Rainbow landed and slammed the bishop back into place, making sure to jostle Twilight as she did it. “Oh, hey, Twilight, what about this piece? It’s really big!” Rainbow said while pointing to the next piece in the row.
Applejack had to turn away for a few seconds, as she could feel a fit of giggles coming on. Rainbow’s attempt at an expression of sincere interest was anything but.
Rather than seeming annoyed, though, Twilight broke into a wide grin. “Rainbow, that’s going to be your favorite piece.” Twilight said as she threw her leg around her friend and brought Rainbow’s gaze back to the board.
Rainbow’s eyes grew wide as she focused on the elegant piece that Twilight was holding. “Really? Why’s that?”
“That’s the queen, and she can move any direction and any number of squares. It just has to be in a straight line,” Twilight answered. She handed the queen to Rainbow, who ran a hoof over the stylized crown that topped it.
Applejack tipped her hat back to get a closer look at the piece. “Whoa, nelly! She can go anywhere?”
“Yup, she has a lot of power!” Twilight smiled and let the tension begin to drain from her body. Finally, both her friends were showing some real interest.
“I didn’t think it was possible for these pieces to get any more awesome than the knight, but I’m loving this queen!” Rainbow picked up the last remaining piece and thrust it out for Twilight to take. “What about this one? I’ll bet it’s coolest one of all!”
“That’s the king. He can move one square in any direction,” replied Twilight, moving the piece for her friends to see.
Applejack arched an eyebrow. “That’s it?”
Twilight nodded. “That’s it.” A silence fell between the three ponies and Twilight’s smile faltered as looked back and forth between her confused friends.
Finally, Rainbow swatted at the king with her tail, knocking it over. “One lousy square? What kind of lame king is that?!”
Applejack yawned. “Yeah. No offense, sugarcube, that this king guy’s kinda a let down.”
Twilight began to lightly sweat as both Applejack and Rainbow began to fidget. I’m losing them! I’ve got to get their attention, and quick! Twilight concentrated on the board. A glowing, purple aura surrounded it and Applejack and Rainbow’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to the action. The kings from both sides marched to the middle of the board, followed by their ranks in formation. “Well, he’s the most important piece on the field!” Twilight said, leading the opposing sides through an intricate marching routine.
“Not for me, he’s not!” Scowling and crossing her front legs, Rainbow turned dismissively away from the marching soldiers. “I don’t need two rulers anyway. We can get along fine with just the queen.”
Twilight shook her head. “Not if you want to win, Rainbow. The object of the game is to trap the king. If he gets attacked, you lose.”
Rainbow unconsciously took to the air, sputtering and gesticulating wildly. “WHAT? This guy is useless and I have to protect him?” Rainbow made a face that reminded Applejack strongly of the time Big Mac had accidentally eaten some moldy hay.
Twilight sank to her haunches and applied pressure to the throbbing area between her eyes. “Rainbow, he’s not useless!” Twilight whisked most of the figures off the chessboard with her magic, leaving just the king and a nearby rook. “You can use him for castling. If you take the rook—”
“Hold up a minute,” Applejack said. “Make up your mind. Is it a rook or a castle?”
“IT’S A ROOK!” Twilight cried into the sky. She stared, wild-eyed, at her friends, her chest swelling and brilliant sparks of magical lightning arcing from her horn. With a glance between them, Rainbow and Applejack wordlessly agreed this might be a good time to sit down and be quiet. After a few calming breaths, Twilight continued. “Now, you can use the king to swap the rook into a different position.” Catching the blank stares of her friends, Twilight shook her head. Sometimes you just had to throw out the rulebook. “You know what? Let’s forget castling.”
“So, he’s back to being useless?” Rainbow said, earning a hit on the shoulder and a glare from Applejack. “Well, he is,” Rainbow muttered to Applejack as Twilight magically gathered the pieces again and place them all back on the board.
Twilight sighed. “Yes, Rainbow. He’s useless, but you have to protect him. If your opponent gets him in a position where he can’t move anywhere or he will get attacked, it’s called a checkmate, and you lose.”
“How did he get to be king when he’s such a wuss?” Rainbow knocked the king off the board and moved the queen to straddle the two squares they would normally occupy together.
Twilight flung herself down onto her back and threw a leg over her eyes. Surely she would wake up from this soon. This had to be a nightmare. “I don’t know! Maybe he’s sick!” she cried, throwing her free legs into the air.
Applejack righted the king that Rainbow had knocked over. “Aw, that’s terrible. We really shouldn’t be makin’ him fight like that. It ain’t right.”
Twilight sat up and gave her friends a hard stare. Oh, you’re going to make him fight if it’s the last thing I do! You two are going to play this game if it takes me all day! Twilight climbed to her feet and dusted herself off. This was the home stretch. Just a little more and they could all play together. “Okay. One final thing,” Twilight forced cheer into her voice. “If you get your pawn to the other side of the board, you can promote it to one of the other pieces.”
“Any piece?” Applejack said, taken aback.
Twilight gave her friend a hopeful grin. “Any piece but the king.”
Rainbow looked over the pieces, calculating the advantages that she would receive with various promotions. “So I could get a new queen or knight or whatever?”
“Yup!” answered Twilight, sharing in her friend’s excitement.
Rainbow rubbed her hooves together. “That’s pretty awesome! You ready, Applejack? You ready to be at the mercy of my nine queens? I have been working on a new victory dance, may as well put it—”
Twilight leapt in as Applejack bared her teeth. “That's the spirit, girls! Care to try a game?” It had been quite a trial, but they seemed eager to give it a shot. Applejack and Rainbow now stood at opposite ends of the board, mulling over their opening plays and giving each other steely glances.
“Just one quick thing, Twilight,” Applejack said, staring down Rainbow.
Twilight trotted forward, eager to assist. “Yes?”
“Think you could go over that again?” Applejack said, cocking her head to the side and scratching behind her ear.
Rainbow shrugged. “Yeah. I didn’t really get it.”
“UGH!” Twilight covered her eyes with her hooves.
Rainbow flew over and threw a consoling leg around Twilight’s shoulder, gently rocking her back and forth. “Aw, don’t be upset, Twilight. We can just play some checkers instead!”
Twilight gave one last pinch to the pulsing nerve between her eyes, and then let out a shuddering sigh. She had tried and tomorrow was another day. Twilight gave her friends a weak smile. “Sure, let’s play some checkers.”