Instructor(s): Maysan Haydar, Lorraine Tzeng
More than a Game
More than a Game
When I was four years old, my grandfather gave me a chess set for my birthday. It was a hand-carved set with wooden pieces neatly arranged inside a lacquered box. Its margins were adorned with gilded portraits of knights and kings, medieval battles frozen in time, and magnificent castles conjured from storybooks. The folding box has since lost its luster, but it rests on my desk until this day, holding infinite family memories.
No more than objects of play, the chess pieces hopped randomly in the beginning in mysterious ways, and often lost their path on the board, metamorphosed into fantastical figments of my imagination. The box opened as a storybook. Its chess pieces were characters in imagined storylines. They moved in a geometric dance with black and white beginnings that colored my fantasy. Worn and weathered, the pawns lined up sometimes like little men ready for battle. The kings, the queens, and their soldiers populated bedtime stories with happy endings, which often emerged from the scenes meticulously painted on the box.
My grandfather brought the set on the plane from Romania and with time, I've learned that the somber princes glossed in the wood were once upon a time famous Romanian rulers, hardened by real battles. One of them, in particular, drew my attention: the famed Vlad Tepes, made immortal by Bram Stoker in his novel, Dracula. I found out later that the mythical character which leaped onto the page from Stoker's imagination was far from the real historical figure. Vlad Tepes was in fact a highly respected prince in Romanian history, a brave voivode-warrior who fought fiercely to keep the Ottoman Empire at bay, hence a national hero remembered for defending his people.
My chessboard acquired new meaning as I grew up. Year after year, the haphazard movements of the tiny, strange figurines organized and followed more predictable paths. I remember my grandfather's smile and his gentle encouragement as I learned the magic of chess. Once a year, in the pre-pandemic world, my family and I traveled to Romania for a few weeks. Each time, after the excitement of the arrival smoldered, my grandfather would set the chessboard on a small table in the balcony and we would play a match. The next day, he would take me out to a park, just a street down from where my grandparents live. Five or six chess tables were lined up against a backdrop of poplar trees. It was always busy and hard to find an empty spot. Some regular players and occasional bystanders stopped and challenged one another to a game. There was no such thing as a "typical" chess player. People from all walks of life were drawn in. I usually sat down whenever a spot opened up, and my grandpa posted himself behind my chair, watching every move. I heard him murmur from time to time "You should have seen that coming" or "Good move." Other guys waiting for a turn glanced at the board and made comments.
Chess is universal, a language in itself, and there is an immediate connection through the game. After a gambit, I feel that I already know the player across the table, how he plays, if he plays defensively or he's a risk-taker. Win or lose, we shake hands. I get a pat on the back and an invitation for the next day.
For a few weeks in the summer, we became regulars, strolling in the late afternoon and lingering until sunset. Slowly, I began to understand the opening tactics, which pieces to develop first and which to sacrifice. A poor beginning inevitably led to a poor ending. Chess games were just like the fantastical stories I imagined. Some were blitz, full of action and drama. Others were long, meticulous with turns, twists, and last-minute survivals. There were mystery stories that branched out from one move to an infinite scale of possibilities. My grandfather was the storyteller. I've learned that victory was often won not by knights or kings, but by the foot soldiers, the pawns. Their unique story carved a path forward without retreat. Once across the board, the pawn escaped its chrysalis like a butterfly in waiting and emerged victorious as queen. Through forks, skewers, and pins, my grandfather taught me that tactics would help me win the battle, but the strategy would let me win the war.
It took years before my first win against him. I still remember that day. I had played white, E4. The famous Sicilian Defense, "il gioco siciliano." More than four hundred years old, it is still my favorite opening to this day. My grandfather chuckled, softly drumming his fingers on the side of the board, before gliding his pawn to C5, then assumed a serious expression, intently watching my next move. He sat still, leaning slightly forward on the wooden bench, his chin sunk on his chest. Very competitive, my grandfather never sub-estimated his adversaries. The silence in that corner of the park became absolute, reverential almost as if a matter of life and death was being decided. Like an imaginary self-building ladder, the tactical chess moves stacked up in my mind in an illuminating path. I threw a quick glance at my grandpa. There was not a flick of emotion on his face. Cheeks burning, I held my positions until mid-game. I felt good about it. Confident.
"Check," my grandpa said with his assured voice.
He'd made a simple move, merely advancing a pawn one square. As his wrinkled hand slowly stretched out, I saw the flaw. My luminous, intricate ladder collapsed in my mind with a burning thud. My thoughts felt like cannonballs hitting in a haphazard fashion. Every thought hurt. Flashbacks flooded my brain. I squeezed my temples with my fingers as if to calm a throbbing storm. "How did I miss it?" The pieces rewinded back into their starting positions. My mind rewinded along with them, tracing back to the first move. I looked for clues in the previous moves, reviewing what I should have and shouldn't have done. I knew that I needed to look from a fresh perspective in order to find the move that would win the game. My grandfather says that there are no mistakes in chess, only new beginnings. These are moments where players stop, step back, and rethink to analyze a new path. Rather than dwelling in sorrow and letting the emotions flood my brain, I have learned to build back. It wasn't easy. I used to fidget with frustration and sink in disappointment, seeing my elaborate scheme washed over like a sandcastle. More than learning to win, I learned to lose first.
"That would have been a checkmate," he said after a long pause. There was a hint of satisfaction in his voice. "In fact, it would have been mate in five," he continued.
I looked back at the chessboard, my familiar battlefield that witnessed white and black facing each other countless times in long-established stratagems, yet always surprising. In my mind, I slowly developed my pieces, trying not to make my intentions too clear. I moved the white king diagonally back to another square. Thoughtful, my grandpa nodded slowly. With a gesture so slow it was impossible to tell until the last moment which piece he was aiming for, he moved the black rook. At that moment, the gaps filled in the puzzle and I saw the path to the endgame. My heart was thumping yet no one could guess the fire within. With a stony, unwavering gaze, I checked the 64-square board again.
"Checkmate," I uttered nervously.
The silence was taut, like the moment after a streak of lightning, waiting for the thunder that never comes. As someone seeing the arrival of something long expected, my grandfather was beaming.
"You did it!" His face warmed in unbounded joy.
I walked high in jubilation for days.
I haven't seen my grandfather since the pandemic started in 2019. He doesn't go to the park anymore. In a socially distanced world, living six feet apart, the old-fashioned chess games evanesced, superseded by virtual counterparts. Just as our interactions became digital overnight, the chess matches plunged wholly into a virtual realm. The bond that kept two players hunched for hours over the chessboard, utterly spellbound and locked in a black and white world, is almost gone. There were no smiles, no shrugs, no audience, and no buzz of approval behind a blinking screen. I missed sitting across from my grandfather on the other side of the board, his mischievous eyes behind the glasses after capturing another piece. I missed throwing furtive glances, trying to decipher his next move. I missed his hearty laugh when I countered his attacks. Devoid of this interaction, I realized that chess was not just a hobby or a game, but the story that my grandfather and I built and shared over a wooden box.
I still play chess online with my grandfather although it's not the same. Sitting in front of my computer screen, I see the black king hop to C5. I click my knight.
"Check, Grandpa," I whisper as if he sits across the board.
I smile, imagining his gray eyebrows arching, while he would steady his glasses, leaning closer to the screen. I know that eight thousand miles away, he is smiling too.