Contest #149 winner 🏆

How to Win a Game of Chess Without Really Trying

Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Write a story about an unlikely group (or pair) of friends.... view prompt

132 comments

People of Color Creative Nonfiction Funny

Disclaimer: There is no easy way to win a game of chess. But that’s only if by “winning” you mean hunting down your opponent’s king until he is gasping for air in a solitary corner, his vision fading into the black and white static of the board as your opponent (John, Meera, or Jeremy) commits seppuku by resignation. Only gradually will you return to the hard seats and smudged tabletops of your school’s B-grade lunch counter. You'll blink in a daze at the face of your opponent who, you must remember, is your friend in real life.


If it’s John, you know he'll vent his frustration through his unusually long and eloquent middle finger. If it’s Meera, she’ll run back over every move and wonder where she went wrong. If it’s Jeremy, he’ll congratulate you with sad sad eyes that are worse than failure. You wouldn’t inflict that suffering on them even if you could; you’re the kind of person who catches wasps under a glass and escorts them outside, for crying out loud. At least, that’s how you rationalize your consistent losses. No, in order to win a game of chess, you will have to define your own purposes on your own terms. 


Objective. You may not fully understand your objective yourself at first, but you have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a reason you’re always willing to play losing games. The trick is not to let any of your opponents realize your motives– what if someone tries to obstruct them? Perhaps the best way to explain the goal right now is “figure out your objective before your opponent does.” 


Players. You will need the four members of your unofficial club known as RCIA, or the Racially Confused Individuals Association. To join, you must be a “halfsie”– half-white, half-non-white. This is of course a reference to the half-white, half-black of the chessboard, but also a testament to the nature of halfness itself: 50/50, incompletion, the friendship charm your bestie gave you when you moved from California and promptly forgot about. Sometimes you feel that you are simply that, two halves of a whole; two halves that, I might add, don’t always get along. 


You: Half-Mexican who joined a chess club in second grade and haven’t improved since then. Power: You can quote the entire script of Napoleon Dynamite by heart, in case that comes in handy (somehow it never does). 


John: Half-Korean chess wiz who loses once in a blue moon, sulking for several weeks each time. Power: He’s the one who came up with “RCIA”– in spite of everything, you have to admit that he's the funniest of everyone. 


Meera: Half-Indian, specifically Keralite. She is new to chess, but she is an English major, and her sensitivity to the poetics of chess gives her a unique advantage. Power: Meera always comes the closest to guessing your Secret Objective™️. You need to keep careful watch on her. 


Jeremy: Jeremy is technically half-white, it’s just that his other half is also white. But he is a quarter Portuguese, which is practically Spanish, which is practically Mexican, and if you’re allowed to join then so is he. Power: Jeremy actually studies chess moves in his spare time. Maybe even listens to chess podcasts. The mind boggles. 


BONUS PLAYER: Josh is the half-Japanese barista who sits and watches you play on occasion. You probably won’t see him during this game, but he may make your coffees. Power: Doesn’t know how to play chess, and yet still knows more than you do. 


The Game Plan. The proper way to set up chess between friends is two v. two, then have winners play each other. You'll play John first; you know that he knows that you know that you won’t make it to the next round, but he will graciously refrain from saying so. 


First, he will offer to let you play white so you can have the first move. You must say, “Why do whites always get to go first?” It used to be a joke, but now it’s a formal ritual. If you skip this step, you might as well give yourself up for lost before you begin. 


Next, agonize over which of the pieces you’re supposed to start with. You should really know by now which openings are best, but you can never remember whether it’s the center-right pawn or the center-left pawn, and whether it should move one or two spaces. Two spaces is bolder: it shows confidence, aggression, a “Morticia Addams eyebrow raise” that suggests (falsely) that you know something John doesn’t. It’s the Indiana Jones of opening moves. Make a feint for the left pawn, then the right, then say, “Actually, I think I should move my knight first.” Keep him in constant uncertainty.


You'll realize as soon as your fingertips leave your piece that you've made the wrong choice. Stay calm. The best chess player in the world doesn’t fear the second best, but the worst: you are entirely unpredictable. It will make you feel safe to remember that John cannot read your mind. And if he can’t guess your next move, he can’t guess your objective. For this reason it is absolutely imperative that you continue to make this sort of play. 


It helps if you imagine each of your pieces as a complex, tragic figure. The king is quite elderly, while everyone knows that his dominant and domineering wife wears the pants around here. The two bishops are rivals involved in court intrigue to varying extents. The one that slides along the white squares is the queen’s confessor and a potential turncoat, which explains his mysterious, seemingly irrational decisions. Your black-squares bishop is loyal, but self-interestedly so. His moves are cool, politic, ruthless. This pawn here is overly hesitant, perhaps a bit stuffy; his brother, on the other hand, is reckless and self-sacrificing. Shake your head at his folly, though you admire his courage, and sigh when he falls into the clutches of one of John’s greedy knights (his knights have questionable claims to the title, and are maybe only vigilantes). 


N.B.: It’s very important that this whole time you accuse John of making up moves in order to cheat, no matter how many times he’s explained the rules to you. 


John will frown and try to discover your strategy, then quickly realize that you just don’t understand chess (you do, but you have your own intentions). He'll start to relax, absently pulling on the thin beard he's grown in the last week (John shaves every time he showers, but like most Koreans he doesn't produce body odor. True story). In the long stretches between his moves and yours, he’ll mention in the way he always does that he doubts his own existence. You are a math major and can prove to him, mathematically, that he does in fact exist. John will then counter by doubting the existence of math; he’s a philosophy major. You will be tempted to insinuate that philosophy does not exist, thus triggering an existential crisis of a magnitude visible from Mars. Do not, I repeat, do not give in to this particular impulse. Instead, ask him if that means he concedes. Of course he doesn’t concede. Throw him off the scent of your real objective, the one that is still hidden from yourself. 


Drink loads of bad coffee in order to get rid of your migraines. When that doesn’t work, continue to insist that they are caused by caffeine withdrawal. Josh will brew you drink after drink (Josh made it into the game after all– what a pleasant surprise) and give John something else to talk about. John will say your coffee is bad. It’s too cold; it’s too bitter; Josh poured too many grounds into the machine. He is complaining about your coffee, that you’re drinking and he hasn’t even tasted. Maybe he’s trying to distract you from the game. Just smile and play along. You are on the cusp of discovering the purpose of chess, or even the meaning of life, which when you come down to it are really the same thing. 


Meera must have beaten Jeremy because you will hear her belly-laughing a couple tables over. She has the most wonderful laugh you’ve ever heard: surprised and joyful and careless and serious all at once. She laughs so hard you can't believe her glasses stay on her face. She and Jeremy like to watch the tail ends of your games. Jeremy will remark that this is the most interesting board he's ever seen, and you agree. One of your pawns, the stuffy one, will have snapped and decided to avenge his brother, securing a promotion to Second Queen. The rest of your pawns will form a diagonal across the further right corner and imprison John’s rooks. But despite their noble efforts, John is only mopping up your mess with a few swift strokes of the black queen and his remaining black bishop. The black rooks will pass through your white pawns like smoke.


And it won’t bother you.


Because you were never afraid of losing the game, just afraid that there was never a game to play. Afraid that you have less in common with yourself than you thought, afraid that 50/50 really means 0/0, because you are not white and you are not Mexican and no matter what you told John or how well you argue otherwise, you are afraid you don’t exist. 


Chess is conflict. It’s nice to know, for a little while, that you are a person who is capable of being conflicted. You are a person who exists. And there is another person, one outside of you, who is conflicted in the same way and who recognizes you as a whole.


“Checkmate.” 


Two sides of the same coin. 50/50. Completion. The halves of a friendship charm clicking into place. 


You all have the same objective, one that no one knew was a secret except for you. 


Checkmate.

June 10, 2022 05:33

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132 comments

Katy Borobia
18:36 Jun 10, 2022

There are unique experiences to being of mixed race; it helps to surround yourself with others who understand where you're coming from. I wanted to write a tribute to some of my best friends and one of our favorite pastimes while also exploring a creative metaphor. I enjoyed writing this one.

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Zack Powell
19:40 Jun 12, 2022

Katy, this was an absolute delight to read. First story I've read from you, and what a great way to get introduced to your work. I had a blast reading it. Phenomenal writing. I love your style. There's something magical about your prose, where it's poetic and blunt and straightforward and confident all at once. I take notes when I read so I have something to say in these comments, and you keep my hands active. So much good writing going on here, on a technical level. Fantastic characterization throughout of the friends ("If it’s John, you k...

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Katy Borobia
21:17 Jun 12, 2022

This COMMENT was a delight to read! I wish I was better at giving feedback myself 😂 Such high praise from such a gifted writer means a lot to me. I tried my hardest not to push the humor and to present very realistic thought processes - I tend to think in parentheticals, hence their inclusion. I'm so glad they worked in the story :)

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Zack Powell
14:21 Jun 17, 2022

Katy! Big congratulations for the win! This definitely read like a winner, but I didn't want to jinx you. Glad to see you get your just dues!

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Katy Borobia
13:23 Jun 18, 2022

Thanks, Zack! I was so thrilled!

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Kayla Keiser
20:00 Jun 22, 2022

Pretty good story.

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K. Antonio
14:22 Jun 17, 2022

Katy, I love that you have been doing so well. As the judge who shortlisted your first piece, it fills me with joy to see you thriving (though, I think I was just happy to have had a privilege to read your work and give it its well-deserved recognition)! Honestly, this piece was great. Everything from the title down to your prose was wonderful and witty. I love how you write about race and heritage. It's inspiring, to say the least. Congratz!!

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Katy Borobia
13:24 Jun 18, 2022

K - you are too kind. Thank you for believing in from day 1. I was quite proud if the title, so I'm glad you liked it :) Thank you so much!

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Arya Dixit
02:40 Jun 20, 2022

This is absolutely AMAZING. You killed it with the third person pov and that's literally impossible to do. It was so immersive and engaging. Thoroughly enjoyed it. You deserve that win!

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Katy Borobia
17:35 Jun 20, 2022

Thank you for your kind words, Arya! I had a lot of fun writing the story, and I'm glad so many people enjoyed reading it.

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Thom Brodkin
01:08 Jun 17, 2022

Katy!!!! What a great way to tell a story and deliver some sage wisdom at the same time. I’m certain you could beat me in chess I’m just not sure if I’m allowed in the club. I do have a 50/50 story. I grew up in a household where my mother was and agnostic Catholic and my dad was an atheist Jew. I’m not sure if that counts but my sister once told a pastor she was half Jewish and half Christmas. Either way I loved your story and your style. Great job.

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Katy Borobia
19:55 Jun 17, 2022

Thom, Thank you so much for your encouragement! The big secret about "RCIA" and the reason why I think so many people can relate is that really, everyone is different than others in some way and feels this way, so of course anyone is welcome to join :) just look at Jeremy! 😂😂 I loved your story from this week and I hope to read more soon.

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Cindy Strube
20:16 Jul 20, 2022

Incredibly well done. The chess-piece characterization combined with the racially mixed group of friends is masterful. You deserved this win - belated congratulations! On the subject matter: I don’t have personal experience (I’ve achieved mutthood), but have lots of family “halfsies”. One Grandpa was half German Swiss and half Azorean Portuguese (practically Spanish-practically Mexican ;p). One of my cousins is Mexican/white. Sister-in-law (adopted) is black/white, other sister-in-law (white) married a Japanese man and they adopted 2 kids....

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Katy Borobia
00:32 Jul 21, 2022

I am delighted to see your comments on my stories! That is so cute about your young Mexican-Japanese relatives :) thanks for taking the time to both read and comment, Cindy!

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Ainslie Jones
14:41 Jul 06, 2022

Wonderful story. It was delightful but powerful all at the same time, such a hard balance to achieve. You did it extremely well. Like you said there are so many unique experiences and emotional turmoil at times for bi-racial or mixed individuals. I would say the same is true for children born of one race who were culturized by another race as a child in a somewhat protected bubble and then grow up and have to face the eyes of the real world. Again, well done.

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Kanika G
17:09 Jun 25, 2022

I can't believe I only just read this story. I loved this story and I'm sure most people could relate to it. On Reedsy too, there are writers from all over the world, many ethnicities and of course people of mixed race. Congratulations on the win 🏆

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Katy Borobia
16:43 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you, Kanika! Yes, my hope was to make something relatable, so I'm glad that was apparent to you.

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L. E. Scott
14:41 Jun 25, 2022

Wonderful exposition and character development here. I absolutely love character driven stories. A few parts made me chuckle. Your win was well deserved.

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Katy Borobia
16:43 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you so very much!

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Juicy Balls
22:00 Jun 24, 2022

I loved the story especially the quote that says"If it’s John, you know he'll vent his frustration through his unusually long and eloquent middle finger."

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Katy Borobia
16:44 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you! That was one of my favorite lines, too.

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Amanda Anderson
13:01 Jun 22, 2022

I'm new to writing and so I like reading other stories to see writing styles. There's a couple things I really loved about yours. Forgive me if I have trouble explaining my thoughts correctly. I have an older sister as an editor when I write stories, but no one to look over my comments. First, I love how you break things down, like when you first introduced all the characters. I struggle with not enough or too much description, but you spend a good amount of time on every character. The game of chess was broken down similarly, into parts. Wi...

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Katy Borobia
16:45 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you so much for taking the time to write your lovely comment! I'm honored to hear that you enjoyed the story.

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Kevin Broccoli
06:05 Jun 22, 2022

Congratulations, Katy. It's a high-concept work that you pull off with ease. Well done.

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Katy Borobia
16:45 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you Kevin!

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Kris Hawkins
22:50 Jun 21, 2022

I love this :) I found myself smiling and even laughing at multiple points throughout the story. Your voice and humor are infectious, and your prose is specific and seamless enough that I felt like I was a part of the RCIA myself. I think it speaks to the strength of your writing that I found a lot of resonance with the biracial themes in this, despite being a half-white/half-white male. The "50/50 really means 0/0" line really struck me and yielded a new perspective I'd never really had to consider before. I'll never quite look at the gam...

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Katy Borobia
16:46 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you so much, Kris! I'm so glad you could relate to the characters and maybe gained an interesting new perspective.

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Dm Pelley
17:30 Jun 21, 2022

this. is. just. great. nice work!

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Katy Borobia
16:46 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you!

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02:21 Jun 21, 2022

Im pure Persian, but my cousin had more racial issues being half white. She looked pure white, blonde green eyes, but she had a strange name and just because her name was weird she suffered as a child;;;; plus, she suffered culture clash.

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Katy Borobia
16:48 Jun 26, 2022

Yes, the culture clash and the fear of being a "fraud" is a real experience. Even when no one else seems to mind. Thanks for commenting!

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Hannah Kuruvilla
16:20 Jun 20, 2022

Katy, I'm so glad that you put Meera as half-Indian. Specifically from Kerala. I am also from Kerala and do not usually see characters that are from the southern part of India. This was really inspiring to me!

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Katy Borobia
17:32 Jun 20, 2022

Hi Hannah! I'm so glad you could relate to her character in that way :) God bless!

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Jeffrey Pope
15:26 Jun 20, 2022

As a chess player, I always get over excited whenever I come across stories that involves chess in one way or another - especially describing an active game.

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Katy Borobia
17:33 Jun 20, 2022

I'm so glad you enjoyed the story, Jeffrey!

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Mike Gregory
07:00 Jun 20, 2022

I got a giggle about Johns “unusually long and eloquent middle finger.”

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Katy Borobia
17:34 Jun 20, 2022

I love that line, too :) Thanks for reading!

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Stefanie Grace
04:27 Jun 20, 2022

Love this Katy! So creative. Really well done :)

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Katy Borobia
17:34 Jun 20, 2022

Thank you Stefanie!

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Kelsey H
06:17 Jun 19, 2022

Love this, you have such a great writing style. Love your descriptions, the way you word things, the narrators thoughts on everything, how you describe each person in a brief yet distinct way, it's all so enjoyable to read. Also really loved the thoughts on chess, me and my youngest son taught ourselves to play after he took an interest in it, and the way you have to try and anticipate how the other person will react is such an interesting part of it and I liked how you covered that. Congrats on the win!

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Katy Borobia
17:31 Jun 19, 2022

Thank you Kelsey! I'm so glad you thought the chess mentality was realistic. Your stories are consistently my favorite ones each week so coming from you, this means a lot!

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