Pawn Steps

There were five houses in that Boarding School I used to live in. I belonged to the house called Moor—the only one reserved for female boarders. We had strict rules, and we were expected to do specific things at a specific time; every bell sound meant we should stop at what we we were doing to proceed to the next activity. It was meant for protection and discipline in an angst-filled place that cared for teenagers. I had a hard time following the rules.

Those were the days when I learned valuable lessons about human nature, especially my own. I used to hang out with peers at least two years older, but I preferred spending time alone. I would wake up earliest and leave the latest; time management has always been a struggle even until now. So, at night, I would always welcome the final ring of the bell that signaled “lights out” as I escaped into sleep.

One night, before that anticipated bell (I so long waited for during the day), I was summoned at the lobby by one of the housemistresses. Sleepy-eyed, I trudged downstairs to know what was going on.

“Evelyn, we need you,” she said, “There’s no one else who is willing to do it.”

There were around a hundred boarders in that block and I said that maybe they should try to find someone else; I just wanted to sleep. I asked what it was (out of curiosity), and where the urgency was coming from.

“There’s a chess tournament in the dining hall now. Our house has no representative, yet, but they invited us to participate too. It would be rather impolite to decline. Please, we don’t have much time to find someone else.”

It was confusing for me then. Declining comes easy to me all the time, so that was new to me. Politeness. It was an act of politeness on our block’s part and it was beyond the idea of whether I was willing to or not to do it. I have always been self-centered and that was a confrontation to my attitude.

The game of chess has always been dominated by the male species, and the thrill of the game has an acquired taste. It was not surprising at all that the only female block had no representative.

“Sorry, I’m really sleepy,” I said. I was disgustingly angsty and proud. “I don’t want to do it.”

“Just one game,” she pleaded. “Please, they just need to know we’re not ignoring their invitation. Play one game. You don’t have to win.”

Playing the hero was, of course, tempting to say the least. An attendance without the pressure to win. Well, who was I kidding? I would always want to win.

“One game,” I declared as a final word.

I couldn’t remember if I had walked to the dining hall on my own, but it was clear that the burden was mine to bear alone. The huge door opened and I took a deep breath. What a sight to behold.

It was a room full of male teenagers, some of them still in their white uniforms and striped green neckties, whose eyes were focused on the boards in front of them. It wasn’t my first time to see that many chess players in a tournament, but being the only girl in a testosterone-saturated hall was definitely noteworthy—a first for me.

It was no mistake which house I came from, of course. I was ushered to my seat and I was aware of the eyes that turned to my direction. A girl. I returned the stares and they quickly looked away. Awkward, as always.

Only one game, I told myself, and comforted myself with the idea of sleep.

I did what my best chess coach taught me. “Shake hands before starting the game and do the same when you’re done,” he said when I was still a little girl. I asked why.

“As a gesture of sportmanship.” He sometimes says things without explaining.

I didn’t understand it then but I never failed to trust his word on the matter and I have always done it anyway.

I remember being sleepy as I was facing the lucky guy across the table. He was shaking hands with the only girl in the room, and he was only one of them for me. We played.

Just do it quickly and be done with it, I said to myself. I couldn’t read my opponent’s mind as I scrutinized him, but his moves showed he was looking at my moves as silly mistakes. Once in a while I would look at the boards beside mine. I thought they were all taking their games seriously with the amount of time they spent to move in the opening. I, on the other hand, was reckless and quick to move. I just wanted to go home.

I looked at our board. Mid-game. He had quite an opening and he castled early (which at the time was a good sign). He was too busy devouring my unprotected pieces to notice that his first two ranks were empty except for the king, a tower and a few pawns.

I positioned my queen for a sacrifice. Thinking I made a mistake, he did not hesitate to capture it. That was his last move. I captured the tower and said the magic word before I stood up and offered to shake hands. He did not expect it. I repeated the word. He still would not shake hands. I called the staff and the game was concluded. We finally shook hands.

My job was done and I walked home. He stayed there trying to figure out what happened. I was too selfish to care.

“You played chess last night,” my friend told me the next day while we were hanging out with our other friends. He was grinning. I asked how he found out.

“My roommate was crying all night because a filipino girl defeated him.” He chuckled. What a coincidence that my opponent was roomies with my friend. I did not know it was serious business to the guy and I could not even remember his face. My friend continued, “The poor guy’s heart was broken. It could only be you.” They all laughed. I was bothered.

It has always been bothersome for me when that happens. I hate it when a guy thinks a girl cannot play chess properly and that it was insulting for them to be defeated by one. A similar event happend a few months later in another venue. I hated it and I loved it at the same time because I got to prove that to every rule, one always finds an exception. A good suprise always makes for a good comeback.

Then I was back to being a little girl trained by the best coach in town—but he would only coach me.

“The most important lesson you should learn is this,” my old man said. “Never underestimate your opponent.”

Unfortunately, I have also made the very same mistakes by underestimating my opponents and ended up losing.

“Again. Never underestimate your opponent, and losing to anyone without making that mistake should always be your best games,” he said.

“And that will always be your advantage,” he smiled as he continued. “When they look at you, they will only see the face of a little girl—a helpless damsel in distress. What they will never see is the blood of champions running through your veins.”

Those weren’t his exact words but it was along those lines. I carry that with me.

That’s why every time I play in this game of life, I wear a gentler female version of his face, with his precious blood flowing through my veins.