Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chess Club and Upending the King

Every Wednesday, there is a group of guys who play chess in the library coffee shop (I'm pretty sure they're an official student organization), and I always see them playing when I stop by to kill time and get my caffeine fix between classes. I literally can't see a chess set without feeling the urge to play, and I kept telling myself that one of these days, when I didn't have anything pressing to do, I'd stop and ask them if I could play a game of chess.

Yesterday was that day.

I'd just gotten my coffee, and I looked at the clock on the wall. I had about forty minutes to spare before my last class of the day. Why not finally play that game of chess?

One kid sitting there doesn't have an opponent, so I walk up and ask if I can play. He sizes me up. I can almost hear him laughing inside. The chick thinks she can play chess, huh?

"Sure," he says. "White has the first move."

I give a lopsided grin as I sit down. White having the first move is one of the basic rules of chess, and it strikes me as funny that he thinks I wouldn't know. Though I'm also kinda irritated, since I'm pretty sure the ability to play chess well is gender-neutral.

The game starts. The two guys playing on the chess board to my right are in an intense conversation that's all over the place, moving from immigration to health care to how many credit hours the kid in a tie took last semester. Which was twenty four. He's crazy.

I remember how much I love chess nerds. They're a fantastic mix of arrogance, brilliance, and total lack of social skills, which I find endearing (though I'm not sure where that particular emotional response comes from).

I have a few strong opening moves, but I start losing pieces early. I make a silly mistake and lose a bishop, putting me down a piece. I expect him to capitalize on that, but he doesn't. Maybe he's being nice? That's annoying.

The game moves along. We're tied again. The kids to my right are now talking about communism and cake. At the same time.

I am in heaven.

Something about the whole moment -- playing chess and listening to smart, loud kids debate, fully self-aware of how smart and loud they are -- takes me back to middle school, when I used to go to the YMCA with my dad to play chess. He taught the chess club there every other Thursday night, and I was in love.

With a kid named Scott.

So naturally I went to chess club religiously. Dad would teach everyone the rules of chess and some strategic openings, etc, but I never paid attention. He'd already taught me the basics when I was a kid, so  I thought I didn't need to know. Besides, I was too busy admiring the way Scott's perfectly gelled hair stuck straight up into immaculate points, never moving even when his head bent in concentration.

Scott was a decent chess player and we were evenly matched, so we played each other often. I guess he liked me too, because one day he asked me to be his girlfriend. Tha-thump. I was petrified. I think my response was "Check mate." Then I got up and walked away. I was confused and embarrassed, because I thought he'd just said that to distract me from beating him. I wasn't sure. And of course, the best thing to do when you don't know how to respond to important questions or awkward social situations is always to get up and run away as fast as possible.

Weeks later, when I got all moony over a snowboarder with blonde hair and a penchant for Star Wars, that particular moment at chess club would become a serious point of contention. Scott was convinced my silence had meant "Yes, I'll be your girlfriend," and I was pretty sure my silence had meant, "I have no idea what's going on and anyway, I think my dad would kill you and ground me forever if I agreed to go out with you."

I still don't know which is funnier-- that he thought no response was a good thing, or the fact that, for all those weeks, he was convinced we were going out and I had no clue, seeing as there was absolutely zero change in his behavior toward me. Gotta love middle school relationships.

Anyway, after this pseudo-breakup business, Scott got all pissy. Stupid boys. But at least it was motivation for me to work harder at chess. I needed to be better than him, so I could whoop him whenever he got snarky. Which was becoming rather frequent. I'm not sure why he didn't just quit the club.

I still attribute my "break-up" with Scott for my initial interest in taking chess seriously. Because of it, I worked hard enough to get to where I was beating him all the time. And after he left, there weren't many other contenders left. By then, I was the oldest person in the club, so I was beating everyone else and winning the end-of-the-year trophy on a constant basis. I think my head swelled up like a ballon. Looking back now, I'm not entirely sure how much pride I should have taken from beating kids six years younger than me. But at the time, I'm pretty sure I thought I was the shit.

Oh, those were the days.

"Your turn." The kid across from me pushes up the bridge of his glasses with his index finger and wrinkles his nose. I think it's his nervous twitch, because it comes back quite frequently throughout the game.

Unfortunately, my competitive spirit (and my irritation for not being taken seriously because I'm a girl) rears, and I really want to beat him. Which is bad. My competitive spirit usually makes me angry and sabotages my games.

Fortunately though, I get lucky. He's left his rook unguarded and I swoop in for the kill. He's now down too many players to come back for the win, unless I make a stupid mistake. Which is entirely possible.

We duke it out a little longer, and I'm starting to get nervous because we aren't done with the game yet and I only have seven minutes to get to class. I really don't want to have to forfeit.

He moves his king over, leaving him exposed. I move my rook. "Check." He moves the king over a square, and I bring in the other rook. "Check again."

He sees the writing on the wall. Three moves and it's check mate. He resigns.

We shake hands and I stand to go. The kid from the other table laughs.

"Dude, you just got beat by a chick."

I'm about to get all snarky and make some comment about feminism, girl power, and the democracy of chess (yada yada), but I decide against it. I left my combat boots at home today.

So I just smile. "Yup. Thanks for letting me play."

And thanks for the chance to revisit old memories. I haven't thought about chess club in years.

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