I never play chess, but apparently neither does my friend Bill, because we’ve been stuck playing this same game for like three hours now. I don’t even know where he found this chess set, probably on the street, it has a distinct yard sale look. It’s one of those crystal chess sets, or fake crystal, whatever, but you know, the kind popularized by the first X-Men movie, when Professor X is playing chess with Magneto, but because he controls metal, he’s in a plastic cell, and everything’s made out of clear plastic.
That was like the go-to Christmas present for everybody’s dad across the country that Christmas. “Look dad! I got you a present!” and the dad’s like, “Gee … thanks son … it’s a chess set. Thanks.” And the kid is so oblivious, so pumped about how cool it looks, he can’t tell his dad’s blatant lack of enthusiasm, “You want to play dad?” and what’s the dad going to say, no? It’s Christmas. “All right, set it up, let’s do it.”
One game of chess, one painfully slow game of chess, during course of which, I’m sure even junior realized his total lack of chess abilities, that just because you know what each piece does doesn’t mean you know how to play. Ten minutes later, the pieces are back in the box. Ten minutes after that, the set is lodged permanently underneath the coffee table, where it sat unused, for years, for over a decade, and that kid doesn’t even live here anymore, he never came back after he left for college.
“Let’s have a yard sale!” from the mom turns into, “Look what I got for only five bucks!” from my friend Bill, and he looked so happy, jeez, he’s not an unhappy guy or anything, but it’s rare to see him this happy, and so I’m scratching my head, “Sure man, set it up, let me know when you’re ready to go.”
And chess, Jesus, I’ve read articles about chess, how the pros spend so much time looking at previous games and mastering moves thought out seven turns ahead, that it’s not even about an individual piece, they’re playing patterns, brainwaves are working at a level that would take me probably the rest of my lifetime to dedicate just to learn how to think that way.
I remember one night while I was in Ecuador, the power went out and, for lack of anything else to do, I spent ten or fifteen minutes just staring at my Internet-less laptop screen, going through the hollow motions of pointing and clicking and opening up folders and there I found it, the built-in chess app. I said to myself, I know how to play chess, I was in the chess club.
Yes, I was in the chess club, but so was everybody else in my school. We had this rule, you had to belong to at least two extracurricular activities every year, and the two default clubs that required practically zero effort whatsoever were chess club and social studies club. Social studies club is a whole different page of crazy, but it more or less amounted to an extra social studies class once a week after school, sitting in a desk and listening to the crazy old social studies teacher get lost in tangents about when the UK and the USA were finally going to merge into the United States of the North Atlantic. Insane stuff.
But he made us sit there the whole time. At least the chess club moderator let us put our names on the sign up sheet before chess club started. So it was basically sign up, sit around and pretend to play chess for a while, and then leave. Chess club.
I wondered if Bill was in chess club also, and he confirmed it, not in anything he said, but by his opening move, he took the castle right from the back and jumped over the front row of pawns. Whatever, I really didn’t feel like prolonging the agony, so I let it slide. The game would have been cool if we at least had those timers, the cool things the pros slam down on when they’re done taking their turns, but we didn’t have anything.
And as we each started accumulated pieces, our attitudes turned surprisingly competitive. No, I don’t think either of us were exactly following the rules, I mean, I didn’t jump any pawns, but I did execute a very questionable castling maneuver, like I know it’s possible, but I just kept assuring Bill, “No, it’s totally legal. That’s exactly how it’s done,” and finally we got down to just two kings, his and mine, pointlessly circling each other around the board.
“What do you say Bill, call it a draw?” and he smiled, “Sure, if you want to forfeit, we can stop playing.”
Of course I wanted to stop playing, these were some of the most boring minutes I had spent all week. But forfeit? To Bill? I would have been hearing about it for years. This guy doesn’t let anything go, the most trivial successes have a way of echoing down the ages, I could see it now, he’d be over my house years from now visiting my family around Christmastime. He’d see the chess set my son bought for me, and he’d throw in, “You know, I used to beat your dad in chess all the time when we were roommates.”
Bullshit. “No way Bill, it’s either a draw, or we keep playing.”
And that’s been it. I feel like I’m being fair here, I’m not demanding Bill gives up. Why is he being so stubborn? Isn’t this boring for him too? How long are we going to keep this up?