A Pawn

Author | Victoria Siu

On weekdays, we only saw Dad in the morning during breakfast and car rides to school, and after 8 p.m. when he’d return from a long-day at the motel. 

But on Friday nights, whether through rain, cold or complaints, Dad drove us to the brick building on Cottonwood Drive—Dallas Chess Club. Margaret and I often found ourselves with his briefcase in the back seat of the silver Chevrolet Malibu.

He started the car and Sarah Brightman’s bird-like timbre slipped into the speakers, coiling with Andrea Bocelli’s warm tenor to form, “Time to Say Goodbye,” the weekly overture confirming another fateful visit to the chess club.  It really didn’t help that he liked playing the song every single time we drove to play chess. When the car passed increasingly familiar landmarks—the hospital, the I-30 highway underpass, the shopping center sign of a parrot wearing a sombrero—my fingers and teeth shook with buzzing pressure. What if I made a careless mistake? What if I ran out of time? What if I blanked out? What if— 

There was a time when trips to chess club involved small talk and watching telephone poles fly past the car window. But I can’t remember when the trembling started before each game. All I knew was that the pressure grew with every game I played. “Time to Say Goodbye” would always be slipping in and out of my ears.

One time, I told my dad (or he noticed) my inability to stop trembling.

He made a Lord of the Rings reference. Something about how we were the outnumbered Riders of Rohan charging into an already-decided battle, but still we fought with conviction to win. His words instilled bravery in my ten-years-old-but-already-quite-the-pessimist mind. But the tremors persisted, finding ways to slip into my body even when I admonished myself not to be scared. Scared? Scared of what? The silver Chevrolet Malibu pulled over to a sidewalk, and we slammed the doors before heading to the club.  

The place smelled of sweat and cigarette musk. Multitudes of shoes marked the green filthy carpet with stains of whoknowswhat. A crowd of kids perpetually circled around the two old PCs in Rob and Louis’s office. Grubby, Cheetos-covered fingers touched the keyboard and spun the mouse, playing Runescape until the computer ended up bugged too many times. They’d also play a stick figure tank game, bloody and ruthless (like Chess?). The only reasons I bothered visiting the office were to watch the other boys play video games, or, if I did well on a particular night, to earn a $25 cash reward for my porcelain piggy bank. In the office, there were almost always loose quarters and nickels lying around the matted carpet, loose change just waiting to be picked up and slipped into a jean pocket.

In one of the waiting rooms for anxious and bored parents, there was an old, black vending machine. Margaret, a girl named Colleen, and I would try to uncover neglected pennies and nickels near the machine or wistfully look inside the glass window, fantasizing what junk food might we stuff into ourselves. Dad never caved into our demands for cash to feed the vending machine. He brought tangerines and oranges Mom packed for our late nights. But the tantalizing bags of Cheetos and candy hung on the spiraling hinges of the machine like forbidden fruit.

Right around the time we began to eat, Rob erupted from the dingy office to make his routine announcement around the waiting rooms.

“Round 1 beginning in 10 minutes! 10 minutes!” he would bellow.

People swelled into a sweaty mass around the standings board with kids jumping up and down over heads to read where they were assigned to sit and who their opponents would be, and parents shouting names and placements to their kids. Dad would take me and Margaret by the hand and steer us toward the large corkboard. We would stare at the names in mutual acceptance as Dad scribbled the names and rating of the player onto our notation pads, lined booklets meant for written record keeping in chess. Pressure buzzed in my gut. I only had three feelings when standing next to the board. Anxiety. Despair. Relief. It was all dependent on the rating number of my opponent relative to my own. Higher ratings meant higher skills and less probability for me to win. Lower ratings meant lower skills and more probability for me to win.

“It’s okay,” Dad would speak into my ear, “You can do this.” With his hands resting on my shoulders, he walked us into the tournament room.

Three double-doors draped with white curtains opened into the tournament room, though the middle one never actually opened. The tournament room was an ascending battle ground jammed with narrow wooden tables, narrow rows of chairs, and square mats of dark-green and white chess boards, perfectly set up along each table like dinner plates. If I was unlucky enough to be assigned a table furthest away from the doors, I would have to wiggle my way between the chairs to the chessboard. Beginners sat at the end of the room closest to the office, intermediates in the middle, and advanced players at the opposite end where scattered pictures of Gary Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, and other famous GMs (grandmasters) and IMs (international masters) hung on the ceiling, documenting their historic visits to the chess club.

In the advanced section, there was always a special place for the old timers: the folks who walked around talking to people at the club like they were family, the folks who secured their designated table spot from sheer talent or experience. Or if you were Smeltzer, you literally had your own special table and set of chairs that looked like some antique out of the ‘40s. He defended his turf with the experienced strength of a king. He’d offer a disarming smile, adjust his hearing aids, and within three moves, undermine his opponent's entire strategy and approach to chess. For typical chess players, the game didn’t end once they grasped how each of the individual six chess pieces moved and how to trap the opponent’s king and force him into submission. Chess students studied opening and endgame patterns through computer programs and book strategies to gain the upper hand over each other. Games were about if you did your homework—if you practiced enough chess problems. As I moved from one end of the room to the other, I grew accustomed to predictability and convention. But when I met Smeltzer, the stratagem and books became relative. His style was Smeltzer style—unstructured, unrefined, just perfectly calculated chaos. Chess pieces lined against the walls of the board before materializing elsewhere. Formations outside of chess books snuck through my usual impenetrable defense. I don’t think I ever managed to beat him. He may had have a few slip-ups and I may have had opportunities to turn the game to my advantage, but no luck for a ten year old up against a crafty cigarette-smelling geezer.

But then there was the occasional giddiness where I would shake hands with a rival, open the door to the standings board and record a ‘W’ for win next to my name. My feet would automatically spring into skips as I went off to report to Dad.

He was always on his laptop, checking stocks, email, and spending hours on Fritz and Chessmaster, computer software to help calculate where his daughters went wrong and how they could learn. 

“You’re like a pawn, Victoria,” he once told me, “Right now, you may feel small and insignificant, but you can become anything once you cross that board. You just need direction.”

Practicing our daily chess drills, we were malleable race horses. But then I was always trying to decide—was he vicariously living through our winnings or was he sharing his childhood joy of chess with us? Experience that doping effect after a momentous win. It was the adrenaline of how I defeated the guy in front of me, not by physically punching the daylights out of him, but because I outwitted him, me and my genius mind. Pawn to square E4, Knight capturing Queen, the Black King resigns. I learned--those were the good old days.

I learned to both love and hate chess. I was always pleased when I won, but I would sink into a cesspool every time I lost or drew or made a stupid mistake. I could hear it even if he didn’t say anything. How stupid can you be. The opponent’s queen was right in front of you. You need to think clearer. You aren’t trying hard enough. Voices melded together into a choir on loop.

One time after a game, I erased half of my notations, required documentation of a round for advanced and intermediate chess players. I put eraser to paper on the line when I lost my queen, because I didn’t see it coming. I couldn’t let him know. He would yell at me. That would be worse than losing a queen and forgetting to write. Sometimes I messed up my notations. Sometimes I forgot or I ran out of time.

Time. Time. Time was always killing me from the inside—eating me. My issue was time: my mind was too slow, time was too fast, and the chessboard blurred into a striped mirage. Maybe it was the late evenings, but on the occasion that time slowed down for my mind, I could see everything clearly--every move, every emotion, every hand slamming on game clocks that ticked down to almost zero. And then, I was my father’s child.

I could tell he was disappointed when we couldn’t go to the chess club any longer, when chess started jeopardizing grades, when school work and his own work finally started catching up to those Friday nights, which petered to biweekly, once a month, before completely halting. But he understood.

“If you had continued any further you might have ended up being homeschooled and playing chess professionally.”

One day as I was rushing to find something in my parents’ room, I saw a yellowed 1976 newspaper clipping on the bureau mirror: “Check...and Mate.” Part of me immediately connected with the young Chinese boy brow-bent and eyes narrowed in by a checkered board. His shoulders leaned towards the table and slightly hunched, creating loose folds in his patterned sweater. His elbows were propped up at 60 degree angles, and both hands covered his ears while resting at his temple. It was the mirrored image I too would often hold my arms in whenever I sunk into trances of calculation and strategy. 


About the Author | Victoria Siu is a current sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Creative Writing. As a former Lab Assistant in Abramson Research Center, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Siu hopes to interweave her passion in research with her passion for writing. She is currently the Design Editor for Penn’s research journal, Synapse. Previously she was the Editor in Chief of her high school Columbia Scholastic Press Association Crown Award winning literary magazine, Itinerary. Siu has also organized and taught creative writing workshop at Nathan Adams Elementary in Dallas, TX. Her writing has also been recognized by Creative Communications as a semifinalist in their summer contest edition. Siu is an avid fan of Hayao Miyazaki and loves listening to Michael Jackson.