Chess (short story)

It’s lunchtime and I’m going to play chess with Kwame. I put the chess board in the middle of the teachers table, and the other teachers put their lunches to the edge of the table, thinking not that it’s rude that I’m moving them, but rather looking forward to watching our game of chess. I walk away to go buy my lunch while Kwame sends a boy to go fetch his, and we exchange the usual banter about how the boy could just as easily get mine. Different cultures, we both understand, but the joke has become a part of our routine and we treasure it.

I walk over to the waakye stall and go to the back of the line, however the children push me to the front and the stall keeper has already started preparing my usual meal; I’m not so cultured as to not enjoy some perks and I buy some toffee for the kids who let me go to the front. I head back to the table, set up my white chess pieces, move my traditional first move, then begin to eat my lunch.

The interesting thing about Kwame and my playing chess is we only play each other. There’s no thinking about typical strategy, rather it’s about taking the historic precedents that we’ve built up and an intimate understanding of the other person’s logic and trying to out maneuver the other person. It’s satisfying and relaxing. Every time we play, I sketch my image of who Kwame is as a person a little clearer.

He always waits an inappropriate amount of time for his first move, believing that since I always do the same first move, he should highlight my recklessness. Typically, however, he himself does something reckless for his first move, like trying to throw me off my game by doing something he has never tried before. However, that doesn’t happen today; today, he does his classic start, leans back, gives a bit of a grin and a polite word pointing out what I know that this is a safe first move, and then he begins the act of waiting for me to make a move.

Now, for me, the first move is almost a joke, just a part of our vernacular conversation. It’s the second move that is so important to me. This is typically where I diverge, where I can use my usual moves to get myself into a strong defensive position and just keep hammering him waiting for him to make a mistake. This is guaranteed to be a long and satisfying game, meaning I’ll either whittle him away from his mistakes, or he too will have a strong defensive game and we’ll hammer each other down and it will become a game of few players with lots of space. Or I’ll make a mistake.

There is the other type of game I could play, which is of course offensively. I could begin moving my characters in either a way that looks like defense, then put myself at risk while trying to take a greater reward or just begin playing in a controlled chaos and hope that I keep the balance of the chaos better then Kwame.

I think today I’ll play my defensive game. This is because I have been losing to Kwame recently, which is only because before that I was beating Kwame too often. I got over confident and sloppy, he got thoughtful and determined. I’ve been embarrassed, everyone watching me lose, and today, I am going to beat him by taking as long as this game takes without making a single mistake. It’s his turn to be over confident and sloppy.

I make the defensive first move, a signal that I am building up my defenses, and he leans back, and my god but does he look confident and how it grates me! He seems to realize that I’m expecting him to be overconfident, but still he begins to make extremely offensive moves, the type of moves that you’re not sure where they’re going to lead to, you’re not even sure if your opponent does, but there’s that scary chance that openings in your defenses that you haven’t seen are being analyzed and exploited. It’s the sort of game I love to play when I’m on a winning streak, but hate when I want a grinding win. While I set up my defensive walls, which he knows what I’m aiming for since I’ve used this beginning strategy dozens of times, he’s situating his pieces to take advantages of the mutually known holes in my armor.

Well damn him! He is playing over confident, and he’s left me a chance. It means that my defensive game will be potentially compromised but I have the chance to take out a high level player with a low level player and I take it. First blood, his, and he know he’s been playing to open. However, he also knows it’s to late to stop his momentum now, he has to keep playing in a way that creates disturbances in my mind, play in a way where I leave his strangely formed line a path to the heart of my board, and he starts down this path by passing up killing the player that just killed his, even though it’s in striking distance of more of his players, and instead battering a hole into my defenses.

I look up, and give a laugh. Well if that’s how it’s gonna be! I take another bite of my lunch, thinking that he really did make a nice offensive move. Either way, we both lose a piece, and he gets a hole in my line out of it. But, as the problem with playing such a quick offense so often is, he’s made a mistake in another part of the board with his quick forward moves. I ignore both his player that battled far into my line, and my player in the middle of his line, and put him in check. But not just check, no, this is a sweet move, a check where my checking player can’t be touched, his king must be protected and, best of all, the same player is now in a direct line for striking the player who battered my defenses. He moves his king, I use my player in his line to take out one of his players and put him in check again, he moves his King again, I take out his player in my defenses, and he takes out my player in his midst. It was a major first battle, I still have a relatively strong defensive line except for the one breach, and I have thrown his side into disarray. He makes a joke about how that was not exactly good on his part, and it’s my turn again.

Now I realize that if I can just keep playing the game taking a piece for every piece he takes, I win. I realize my danger now is to become the one who is overconfident, the one who makes mistakes. I can see him analyzing the board thoughtfully and determinedly, realizing he has to play better then me to win. My present move has to be good. It has to show that not only did I win the first battle, but the lay of the land is in my favor, that he needs to reform on my terms.

I move a player to the center of the board as a test. He could easily move a character to take it out in the next turn, prompting me to sacrifice the player or move him back to safety, wasting a turn and taking away my hard earned collateral from the previous skirmish. But then he would be on offensive again, and he’s not ready for that no, he keeps making his defensive line, filling the holes, and has basically conceded the middle of the board to me. I quickly move my defensive line forward, filling the breach he made, putting myself into a strong position. The defenses I made while he was playing offense in the beginning are now coming into their own, and moving them forward gives me clear dominance in the center of the board, and enough room behind the front line for the maneuvering of my other pieces. The board is under my control.

We do a few small skirmishes, losing an equal number of pieces of equal value, but remember, I don’t need to win any extra pieces: every piece we both lose just highlights my numerical advantage. Have a one piece advantage when there’s thirty pieces on the board is not such a big deal, but when there’s ten pieces its far more pronounced.

Kwame does not look worried, it is just a game and he has won the last several ones, but the other teachers are getting angry at him for not being more dominant, for his seeming complacency on giving me the middle ground at no cost. They point out isolated moves he should make, but this is not their game: they don’t see the long term repercussions; really, it is more for their entertainment that they want us to do those grandiose moves which are painful and unrewarding.

It is now time for me to start assaulting him. This isn’t because of confidence, but rather because he’s refusing to start assaulting me and the game is stalling. I use a player that is a bit more important then a pawn and blast through his defenses. It’s giving up my numerical advantage, but it’s worth it as over the next couple of turns I flood him with a few of my most tactical players. I begin destroying his pawn line while he’s fleeing with his king, and I can feel victory in my sight.

But suddenly, it all comes crashing down! I was the over confident one, and it costs me bitterly. He knocks out my most tactical player from a gap I didn’t see, and in the same move puts me in check. While I take out the player putting me into check, he takes out my second most tactical player. Shit! The board now a mess, both our defenses are in chaos and I can’t tell who has the advantage. I decide that I need to keep pressure on his king to try to keep him boxed in while I reform my defenses, but he is a move ahead of me, putting me in check again. All the other teachers are giggling at the both of us, but more at me since I was so much ahead of him in the game. I feel my self become impassioned, and know that I have to throw that away, that any emotion will lose me the game. I have far more pawns then he does, and I decide to sacrifice some of them. I start that long walk to the other side of the board to try to get another queen, and it scares him. He wastes turns on pawns, and I still have more, and he’s realizing both that killing these pawns has overextended his line, but also that he has no choice. I keep the pawns where they are, on the far side of the board protecting each other and ready to move ahead at any time, and then begin encircling his king. He throws some low players away from the king hoping I’ll take the bait but we both know that he has left himself vulnerable.

This is the time when the game will be decided. We both know it and he’s the one trapped in a corner, dangerously flailing. He decided to take all my pawns out on the far side, and use that piece to try to get behind my king. I let him do all this because I am getting closer and closer to making a check mate, we’ve each given up a great number of pieces in this battle, but the siege is his end if I break it, while just costly to me if he beats me back.

There are few players left, and we’re each circling the other. But his flailing moves finally strike and he takes out my most key piece left. I don’t know what has happened, but the damage is immense to my cause. He has a big grin on his face, he knows what that was worth, and he leans back apparently sure that this next move of mine will take a huge amount of time on my part. But he hasn’t watched the entire board, so fixated on his move being brilliant he has left his own key player tactically open, and I take him out. He’s gives a bit of a shout, still in good humor but clearly affected by the intensity of the game, as well as by our fellow teachers mocking of him over his dismal performance.

His players left are weak, and while I am not much stronger it’s enough with so few players to make the inevitable unavoidable. This is my favorite feeling of the game, knowing that you’re just killing time until you’re unquestionably considered the winner. Knowing that all there’s left to use is my advantage in further devastating his mobilization and formations, and whittling it down until there’s just the king left.

Oh, I’m definitely cocky now, but that’s ok. I can feel all those other losses slipping from my shoulders, can feel my banter with Kwame becoming more playful, even my moves become almost mocking. He tries a few admittedly well played moves, but I’m too superior; a well placed bullet does nothing against a navy. I know so many times my cockiness has gotten me into trouble, but not this time.

And here we are, so close to the end. I have two tactical pieces left and my king, all he has is his king. I slowly but with assurance and even grace chase him to a corner. This is where Kwame knows all he can do is try to force a stale mate, but I won’t give him that luxury. My cockiness is gone as I chase him very slowly and carefully, not trying to knock him out right away, rather making sure that it is a real check mate. I see my move, I make it, and now it’s my turn to lean back knowing his turn will be a long one. He goes through every single option of where his checked King can go. He goes through them twice. He looks at my players. He looks back at his king. He gives a bit of a grin, sais that he has played very badly, and knocks his King over.

All the teachers lampoon Kwame, and I throw in a couple of shots, nothing heavy because this is the first time I’ve won in awhile and don’t want my previous failures brought up. But still it’s a great feeling. And then, without even asking each other, we begin to set the board up to play again. This time, I am black.

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