By Michael Colton
The list of distinctions awarded to the young Verily Veritas over the years is neither short, nor unimpressive. Thinker, writer, poet, pioneer, future-Jeopardy-champion, apprentice of Sunil Gulati—these are just a few of the accomplishments he most frequently brings up in conversation. Whether or not these accolades have been spoken aloud by anyone but the Quiz Bowl legend himself is another discussion. Catching a glimpse of his morning jaunt down College Walk, however, one immediately sees that, his veracity aside, he is well aware of the rumours circulating about him, and lives his life accordingly. A brief conversation with the young savant leaves one in awe at not only the speed of his wit, and the confidence of his hand-shake, but also the strength and range of his voice, which he recalibrates and amplifies with every mention of one of his many accomplishments. The matter is not up for debate: Verily is an extraordinary individual.
Despite, however, all the applause and awards, all the gossip and gawking sent Verily’s way, there remained one title he had yet to receive, one crown he had yet to don, one sub-plaque he had yet to earn a spot for on the larger, grander plaque that will one day, in his memory, take the place of the Alma Mater statue: the title of hero.
A glaring oversight on the public’s behalf, an injustice carried out against the witty, a lapse in God’s judgement. Chalk it up to whatever you wish, but the title—or lack thereof—taunted Verily from all angles. If I’m not a hero, he asked in a recent diary entry, then how can I consider myself the next Joan Didion? The question plagued his every moment.
Scrolling through Instagram rarely resulted in anything but self-assurance for Verily, but for one recent morning, when a post from the Columbia Marriage Pact cohort posed him just the challenge he’d been looking for: “Calling for all men who are attracted to women, fill the gap, fill out your Marriage Pact, be a hero.”
Now, filing for a Marriage Pact had never occurred to Verily for a couple of simple reasons. First, he tended to see surveys and questionnaires of any sort as a sign of the solicitor’s lack of research into his personal history; exit pollsters should’ve subscribed to his political theory Substack, Census takers ought to have had his address and professional information on the bulletin board next to those of other noteworthy folk, the Columbia College student counsel should know that he wears a slim-fit medium crew neck t-shirt because that’s the hottest size to wear—you get the idea.
Equally important, however, was Verily’s belief that romance is for the faint-of-mind. Looking around campus, he couldn’t help noticing a distinct overlap between the people he knew to hit the “weekend dating scene,” and those who were most frequently absent at his biweekly (Friday and Saturday nights) Quiz-and-Quip office hours. Those couples in Verily’s life that had “made it work” were no less inspiring; his parent’s marriage was a “merger of equals” to put it in contemporary terms, with no love lost or gained on either side; and his roomates, who had been dating since freshman year, were hanging on by a thread, that thread being a still-blossoming Podcast venture. Love was neither of Verily’s mental class nor practical interests, and that had been the case for some time.
Yet he could not resist the thought of heroism. One morning at his usual maximum-visibility Hungarian table, Verily pulled up www.columbia.marriagepact.com on his Safari Web browser and dove in. He mainly sought to make good on his dreams of achieving Achillean stature, but he also figured that there may, if he was lucky, have been a Patroklos of his own waiting at the end of the road. Whether the two would share a relationship with the depth and physicality of the Greek heroes of old was not a guarantee, but at the very least, Verily intended on a hearty intellectual joust with whomever he matched with.
To his surprise and delight, Verily found most of the content covered on the Marriage Pact exam to be thought-provoking and well curated.
Q: How would you describe your political affiliation?
Q: How much do you value the political affiliations of a potential partner?
A: Not so much, so long as I am more well read than they.
Q: How much do you care about children?
A: Minimally, only around the holidays.
The multiple-choice format, predictably, posed some issues for the young auteur. Nevertheless, his survey was submitted, and his additional responses and ruminations emailed to the Marriage Pact team (surely to be read within the hour).
Perhaps fate was in his favor, or maybe the admin team fast-tracked his application due to its unique strength and charm, but Verily was matched with a strapping young student that very afternoon. Congratulations, my partner, wrote Verily almost instantly upon receiving the match notification, it seems we are fit to entangle, whether physically or intellectually I cannot yet tell. (That was a joke.) Might I propose a contest over some sort of game of the mind sometime soon? Please get back to me. Yours, Verily. Unwavering in his confidence of his own courting tactics, and proud of his attainment of Hero Status, he took to passing the time with a little Youtube livestream, wherein he ruminated on the nature of companionship, debate, and his own physical qualities. He attained a whopping twelve viewers at a couple different points, one of whom, he wondered, may well have been the rival-turned-lover he had been looking for.
At five a.m. the next day, Verily received an email, subject line: A WORTHY ADVERSARY. The main text read, Verily, It is with pleasure that I return your message and accept your invitation to a friendly contest. Might I propose chess? I shall see you Friday next at six p.m. at Hex & Co. Board Game Cafe—Uptown’s only boardgame cafe. I’ll be the one in the corner, donning the garb of a soon-to-be Candidate Master chessman. Until then, [REDACTED].
Thus, the two algorithmically destined companions, both with (at best) nebulous intentions, set off on an expectedly intense and surprisingly rewarding rendezvous with Cupid, all within a half hour spent in the cacophonous intellectual minefield that is Hex & Co. Board Game Cafe—Uptown’s only boardgame cafe.
Our hero, as you know, abides by the law of the entrance. That is to say, he’s lived by it, he’s died by it, he’s perfected it. Last Friday was no different. Immediately upon entering the crowded and comfy cafe, he loudly mused on whether it was “cider or love” he could sense in the air before sitting down beside his intended, or who he figured to be his intended, before she politely asked him to move along. This process—the delivery of his cider line, followed by a swift and sometimes disruptive slide into an already-taken table—was repeated four to five times before the young Romeo threw in the towel. If my match were truly here, would they not have risen at the sound of my musings? Nevermind that his voice had been lost to the sound of the birthday-party Jenga, or that he had only approached about 5% of the people in the place, Verily’s confidence was shaken. Until, that is, a razor-thin voice, the sort of voice that makes clear that someone did Lincoln-Douglas Debate in high school, piped up from a corner: “Lovely, you’ve found our playing field.” Verily wheeled around, searching for the source of the call, and found, to his heart’s flutter, [REDACTED], sitting at a corner table, behind a pre-arranged chess board. Cautiously, Verily approached, unsure of whether to try out the cider line again. He went for it.
“Tell me, what is that I smell in the air … is it cider … or love? Ha.”
“... Fun. How about a game?”
A swing and a miss, to be sure, but with graver consequences than it may seem. For, although Verily had enthusiastically accepted the suggestion of chess for this first date endeavor, and although he himself asked prospective colleagues and interlocutors to join him over the board with some regularity, he had never fully gotten around to learning to play. The impression left by asking to play chess, he had always thought, was more than enough to stand on; that, and the fact that nobody had ever taken him up on his offer before left Verily scrambling before his intended.
“Say, what do you make of the graduate students on strike? Quite an affront to the University’s supposed dedication to the learned world, am I right?”
“I’ve gone ahead and replaced my half of the board with a personal heavyweight set, if you don’t mind. I’ve found that I can’t quite get in the chess headspace without at least a pound of iron in hand.” Clearly, they had been the only one in the room to not take offense at Verily’s ruminations on the labor resistance.
“Your move.” Their hand, quick as a feather, tapped the little clock that sits next to the chessboard (neither Verily, nor your dear narrator, knows its proper name). Verily remained standing, desperate to maintain his intellectual high ground.
“How about you and I move somewhere a bit quieter, a bit more demanding—perhaps the John Jay lounge? I believe the Philoxean Society is debating tonight. If we hurry, we might be able to enroll before the closing arguments. Unless you would prefer … something more private?” His flirtations were all over the place, and he knew it. So did his marriage match.
“I can tell this means a lot to you. I appreciate that.”
“And my warmest regards in return.”
“To be honest, however, I cannot say the same for myself.”
“Well, as they say, all is fair in love and war.”
“Ah. This is a chess match.”
“It is not love. Nor is it an attraction. It is a chess match.”
“One would be hard-pressed to find the difference between those three things, no?”
“Clever. But really, the only reason you’re so lucky as to meet me at Hex & Co.—Uptown’s only board game cafe—is because I’ve already run through the competition in this dilapidated old shack, and was desperate for more sparring partners. I am to be a Grandmaster by the fifth night of Hanukkah, and I can’t just walk in unprepared.”
“So ... this isn’t a date.”
“It’s not. Although who’s to say the difference between romance and chess.”
Verily was growing tense. A couple of adjacent tables had heard his date’s repetition of his joke, and quite liked it. “I just said that!”
“All is fair …”
“Hold on for a moment—you filled out the Marriage Pact, not to find a romantic partner or like-minded friend, but just to find people you could beat in the game of chess?”
“I did. And not just Columbia’s. You’re my third opponent of the day, and you won’t be my last. A young man from Parsons should be here by the hour, and he seems easy to intimidate on the board.”
Like a shot to the heart, [REDACTED]’s words immobilizedVerily. He had never meant to play chess, sure, but he had at least anticipated a bit of meaningful conversation, at least something to make him feel like a worthy and gracious hero. And yet, even as he pleaded with his date to move to an exterior location, to join him for a film and a laugh, to play Jenga with the birthday party crowd across the room, [REDACTED] did not budge. They remained fixated on their untouched game and, after a couple minutes of Verily’s continued rambling, waved him away with the poise of a Candidate Master, soon to be Grand Master, Chessman.
It’s a rare sight to see Verily Veritas exiting an establishment with his head hung low. For a man of his stature and popularity, it is difficult to get through a room without succumbing to the urge to greet those around him. Yet on this cold November afternoon, on the day of Verily’s first defeat, his only hope was an unceremonious exit, and a poor short-term memory for all those he had spoken to on his way in.
Silently and speedily, Verily moved his way out of the room, passing the spectators of his greatest embarrassment. As fate would have it, however, his moment of hardship and trauma had just so happened to precede the greatest opportunity for redemption he would ever come across: the birthday boy, choking on his asiago flatbread.
To say that Verily hopped into action to fix the situation would be a deliberate bending of the truth. But to say that Verily, not looking at his surroundings, tripped over a chair, bumped into the choking man, and sent him tumbling into the corner of a table with such force as to dislodge the troublesome flatbread bits? Would be to tell the truth. To remind you that, after the commotion had settled down, and after the birthday boy had regained levity, he loudly proclaimed Verily to be “some kind of a hero”? Would be exactly what Verily asked your dear narrator to conclude with.