Recently Checkmated

Last week I learned how to play chess. Actually, it’s more accurate to say last week my friend Rob attempted to teach me to play chess.

He did a great job of explaining the layout of the board and the various mobilities of the pieces. He showed me the little ritual for deciding who goes first. And even though he won that phase, he offered the first move to me.

“No, that’s cool, you lead off, man,” I said.

“That means you’ll be on the defensive.”

“That’s alright. These black ones look pretty sleek.”


“Don’t go easy on me,” I said. “I need to get destroyed a few times in order to learn.”

Rob accommodated my request. The game was over in like five moves.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

By the end of the next game, I had a rudimentary understanding of chess and a new appreciation for Rob’s patience. I enjoyed the experience so much I downloaded a chess app for my iPad when I got home. It’s less pleasant than contending with Rob, though. The computer doesn’t pause to pretend it’s studying your array before annihilating your queen. It flashes the word “blunder” across the screen every two moves or so. It’s a real jackass.

Despite their differences in teaching styles, I owe both the computer and Rob gratitude. The good cop/bad cop combination of their methods familiarized me with the game enough to more fully appreciate sitting in the open air mall in front of the specialty barbershop where we were on the waiting list to get my son’s first hair cut the other day.

Normally, I would have killed time wandering with my wife through the farmer’s market that was getting underway. But I was burdened by crutches and a knee-brace, trophies of an unglamorous injury that reinforced the importance of stretching before any strenuous activity. Like pruning waist-high plants and putting the trimmings in a garbage bag.

Immobilized, I had no choice but to wait by myself and observe the activity around the over-sized chess board in front of the children’s barbershop.

It was a weird place for an over-sized chess board.

It was a weird place for me to be sitting alone.

A mother of three exuded suspicion and contempt at me as her two oldest children—a boy of about six, a daughter of about four—arranged the pieces in an alternating black and white sequence around the board’s perimeter. Their unity of effort did not last long.

“The white horse is the mommy and the black horse is the daddy,” the little girl said. She picked the white horse up by the neck to move it closer to the black horse. Black knight. Her exertions knocked over two pawns and a bishop.

“That’s not how you play chess,” her brother said.

He was right. I knew this with certainty. I knew it thanks to my chess app and my evening with Rob.

Around this time, their mother liberated the youngest daughter—probably about three— from the baby backpack thing that had restrained her. The little girl toddled toward me wielding a coquettish smile I interpreted as transparent manipulation to get a sip of the watermelon juice my wife had left on the table. I granted the little girl a nuanced expression that communicated two principal themes:

  1. You are very sweet.
  2. Get away from my juice.

I learned this expression from women I approached in bars throughout my twenties.

The kids continued knocking over the chess pieces and circling my juice for a few more minutes until their mom herded them elsewhere. Her contempt dissipated in the soft breeze. I finished my juice at my leisure.

I rose and limped to dispose of my cup in a receptacle of other recyclable materials that are probably now in a landfill. Another group of kids assumed control of the chess board.

These kids knew how to play chess. More or less. There was some dispute over which piece was king and which was queen. I interpreted this as evidence of our society becoming more gender-fluid each day.

The oldest of these kids was probably thirteen and the youngest maybe six. But they knew how to play. And by play, I don’t just mean play chess. They got a highly complex game going under their own initiative, gracefully compensating for the lop-sided number of five participants. They conducted themselves with decorum. They tolerated Oliver.

“Oliver, stop it.”

“Oliver, you can’t do that.”

“Oliver, put that back.”

Oliver looked like a pretty fun kid. He reminded me of my friend Rob. The guy who introduced me to the ancient, sophisticated choreography of chess.

Game of kings. Symmetry of strategy and tactics. There it was, in a thoroughly bizarre place, cultivating the minds of children while they waited for haircuts.

After forty five minutes, the barbershop texted us. We took my son inside and selected the chair that looked like a fire truck.

He held onto the steering wheel and didn’t cry.

When they were finished, he didn’t look like a baby anymore. Soon he’ll be beating me in chess.

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