Life After Checkmate
For the first time in more than a decade, I went to a chess club last night.
I used to be a pretty good chess player in my teens. Good enough to place #5 at a national championship in my age group. Not as good as #1, #2 and #3, who all became grandmasters later. I once beat a guy who beat a guy who beat the current world champion. Of course, they all improved significantly in the past ten years. I didn’t. While they became professionals and dedicate their lives to chess, I went in another direction and did the usual. College, marriage, a job that doesn’t involve jumping from country to country to sit and stare at a board for hours.
I know I sound arrogant and bitter. I get like that when I talk about chess.
For the better part of my teenage years, the game was an obsession. I couldn’t see myself becoming anything other than a professional chess player. There were times when I saw the dream within reach, but I never managed to win the critical matches that would take me to world-class competitions in my age group. Instead, I watched as my opponents wrestled my dream away from me and went on to live the life I wanted to live.
Damn right I sound bitter.
The dream of being a professional chess player has a deadline to it. If you don’t become a master before twenty, you are extremely unlikely to accomplish anything of significance in international competitions. I’m over thirty. That’s it for me. When chess aficionados from my country look back at players from my generation, there’s no chance my name will be remembered.
I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with chess ever since I abandoned national competitions. I still loved playing, but the game inevitably brewed negative thoughts in my mind. Every defeat was a reminder that I was a failure; an also-ran. I wasn’t good enough to compete with elite players, but I had enough knowledge to fully understand the gap between their skill and mine. I watched as the gap increased over time. I envied weaker players who could have fun playing chess without being painfully aware of their limitations. I knew I would never be able to enjoy the game the way they did.
I spent nearly fifteen years without sitting in front of a chess board.
I still played online now and then. After ignoring the game for months, I would log back into my account and spend hours beating unknown players from all over the world while avoiding my real-life struggles.
Winning at chess is addictive. If you are as competitive as I am, few things will give you the thrill of beating someone else at an activity that’s entirely mental. When you play online, that quick self-esteem boost is easily available. You can play an entire game in two minutes; dozens of games in an hour. I win much more often than I lose, and every win makes me feel invincible. But getting addicted to winning means every loss will send you into a painful withdrawal.
While my wins served as a self-esteem boost and a distraction from problems outside the chess board, the first couple of losses would remind me of my irrelevance as a player. I would then force myself to leave the game alone until I felt the compulsion to beat someone again.
I have been stuck in this pattern for years now. I must have logged more than a thousand hours into the servers of different online chess websites, fully aware that all that time would bring me no growth or pleasure.
I had given up on repairing my relationship with the game until very recently, when I found out there was a chess club 20 minutes away from my workplace. I ignored the fact for a couple of weeks until today.
I was stressed out at work, frustrated with my writing, burnt out from spending too much time in front of a computer. I needed a win.
I went to the club thirsty for a checkmate, anxious for the moment my opponent would shake my hand and admit defeat.
I was so excited I arrived a few minutes before the club was officially open. I didn’t want to miss a single moment of play.
The club members were still chatting with each other when I got there. After such a long time playing exclusively online, I had forgotten what it was like. The empty boards, the awkward feeling of arriving at a place where I didn’t know anyone, the even more awkward attempts at small talk that showcased why chess players aren’t famous for their social prowess. When I was a kid competing with other kids to see who would be the first to become a master, I hardly noticed this element of the game.
I almost regretted having arrived early, but they all made me feel comfortable in the weird, silent way geeks welcome other geeks.
Most of the players were preparing for a team match against another club. I could sense a rivalry there. The stakes were high. Still, one of the players volunteered to play a quick game against me and welcome me to the club.
I blew him off the board in fifteen moves. I could have taken it easy and played in a more laid-back manner, but chose to attack him relentlessly, moving as quickly as I could.
Instead of the thrill of victory, I felt guilt. I had broken his concentration and messed with his confidence minutes before an important match. Rather than feeling upset, however, he complimented me.
“You’re a good player. We need more people like you at the club.”
I looked down, embarrassed, not knowing how to reply.
The people around us were still busy preparing the club for the big match. My opponent and I got up and joined them. I helped them set up the boards, move tables and carry plastic chairs. The players from the rival club arrived shortly after. I wished good luck to my previous opponent, grabbed my bag and put on my coat.
As I was about to walk out of the room, the club president told me to wait.
“I’m not playing the club match today. There are more players than we expected. If you want, I could give you a couple of quick games and tell you more about the club.”
He set up a board on a small table away from the other players, so we could talk without disturbing them.
The pieces were ready for battle, but there was no rush to start. He told me the history of the club, the names of all players, their stories of long-lasting love for the game.
“Some people here have been members for forty years. Maybe you’ll end up being one of them.”
I smiled and made the first move.
I won’t say who won the game. It didn’t matter. For the first time in my life, it didn’t matter.