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

133 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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133 comments

Shea West
19:24 Jun 18, 2022

Katy, In my state of hurry the other day I didn't have adequate time to leave you a comment after I'd read your story. Not one that I felt would be sufficient anyway. I'm here now, and happily now that you have this well deserved win! Some of my fave lines: -Sometimes you feel that you are simply that, two halves of a whole; two halves that, I might add, don’t always get along. (This was a beautiful way to describe what you've commented below about navigating being bi-racial.) -Afraid that you have less in common with yourself than you t...

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Katy Borobia
17:30 Jun 19, 2022

Thank you for your kind words, Shea! I don't think I've ever written in 2nd person before, but I thought the game instructions idea was worth a shot :) I loved your story this week!

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Rashi Jain
12:10 Jun 18, 2022

I like the scattered humour you have put in. John shaves when he bathes🤣 good job 👍

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Katy Borobia
13:26 Jun 18, 2022

Haha, that was one of my favorites too! Thank you for commenting.

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Kailey Samantha
10:21 Jun 18, 2022

The first words that popped into my head after reading your story and thinking about how I wanted to articulate how much I loved this were: First, "Delightful". I then thought to myself how "surprising" it was that I found a story about chess (a rather boring game in my own experience) to be so much fun to read. It was almost "whimsical" which was, again, "surprising" because I judged your MC to be a bit over analytical and nerdy (because what else would a math major be?) but, with the rest of the characters, I quickly became captivated with...

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Katy Borobia
13:32 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you so much for your detailed comment! I'm so glad you enjoyed having Jeremy in there - I really wanted to get across that everyone can relate to not being able to relate, not just biracial people (I hope that makes sense!) It's so good to hear that you ended up liking it so much. I did too :) The relatively distant "game instructions" voice was a new style for me, and I'm glad that some of the warmth came across for you anyway. Thanks for commenting, Kailey!

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Liby Nel
02:13 Jun 18, 2022

Wow, I just loved this story! Congratulations, Katy, you are such a worthy winner. Most of the things/lines I like have already been mentioned. look forward to reading many more of your stories.

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Katy Borobia
13:32 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you so much Liby!

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Ash Cr
01:05 Jun 18, 2022

I found the way you characterised the chess pieces so eloquently the best part of the story, almost as amazing as the characterisation of the characters. I’ve never felt so attached to short story characters, I can tell there’s a lot of heart put into it. This was a really endearing story, congrats on the win u deserve it :)

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Katy Borobia
13:33 Jun 18, 2022

Oh thank you so much! I'm rather fond of these people too :) Thanks for commenting!

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K.J. Dyer
23:35 Jun 17, 2022

Katy. Can I just say "WOW". Love your approach to explaining chess as a 18th century court. Rivals, vigilantes, and how the Queen truly wears the pants, especially in chess. I look forward to reading more of your stories.

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Katy Borobia
13:34 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you so much! The chess pieces were my favorite part, as well :)

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Kendall Defoe
23:03 Jun 17, 2022

Okay, you deserved the win. A damn funny and clever look at the struggles of being outside 'the normal'. Check and mate!

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Katy Borobia
13:35 Jun 18, 2022

Haha, thanks Kendall! It's so interesting to me how everyone feels 'outside' in one way or another.

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Maya Mason
22:22 Jun 17, 2022

Wow, no surprise to me that you won. Many people seem to be unaware of the struggle that comes with being biracial. I don't know from first hand experience, but I see it a lot in the youth I work with (or other identity issues). I love this story as it feels like such an effortless metaphor (I'm sure it was not, in fact, effortless). You are very talented. I can only hope to one day write something so impactful. Thanks for sharing your story.

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Katy Borobia
13:41 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you so much, Maya. Identity issues are difficult because there's not really a way to resolve them - maybe what's most important is realizing that everyone has a similar story and that others live you either way. That's how I tried to frame my story, anyway. Thanks for your lovely comment.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
20:34 Jun 17, 2022

Congrats on the very well deserved win, Katy. This is such a creative piece and I love the second person.

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Katy Borobia
14:03 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you Jay for your kind words!

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Terna Abu
17:52 Jun 17, 2022

Interesting story. Congratulations Katy!

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Katy Borobia
14:03 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you!

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Ruby Pix
16:00 Jun 17, 2022

Congratulations! I am so happy for you! I knew it was a great book to read and it seems many others did as well.

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Katy Borobia
14:04 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you Ruby! I loved your story this week as well :)

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Ruby Pix
16:53 Jun 18, 2022

That's great, let's keep doing our best for this week's new stories as well.

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Felice Noelle
15:20 Jun 17, 2022

Katy: Congratulations on a well-deserved win. Your first paragraph was magnetic, especially for someone with grandchildren who are aggressive chess players and spend free time studying the games/moves of some of the masters. I am always drawn in by second person POV, it's immersive. Your prose was descriptive, almost poetic in places. Others have alrleady commented, pointing out all the wonderful perfection. Your treatment of the cultural war of bi=racial persons by depicting them in a chess game was intuitively genius. Great metaphor...

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Katy Borobia
14:05 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you Maureen! I'm glad it was so relatable, which was really my goal. Your grandchildren sound like they could easily beat me at the game :)

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Jazmine Abuzaid
12:50 Jun 17, 2022

I loved the paragraph with the personification about the chess pieces . Also, I never written in 2nd person pov so great gob.

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Katy Borobia
14:06 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you Jazmine! This style was new to me so I'm glad it worked :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:42 Jun 17, 2022

Hi Katy, this was a delight to read. Loved the structure, characterisation and extended chess metaphor. Clever. Prose is great. Also liked the cyclic feel when the friendship bracelet turned up again at the end. I like doing that. Looking forward to reading more from you 🙂

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Zelda C. Thorne
14:16 Jun 17, 2022

Congratulations! 🎉🎉

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Katy Borobia
14:07 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you Rachel! I am a big fan of metaphor and parallels myself :) I admire your ability to write fantasy so well, and I hope to read more of you!

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Zelda C. Thorne
14:21 Jun 18, 2022

Oh, thank you! I do like my fantasy 🙂

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Riel Rosehill
07:45 Jun 16, 2022

Hi Katy! I'm sorry it took me so long to get to your story! It's an excellent peice of writing - the characterization of the group of friends in how everyone reacts to losing a game of chess was brilliant, and I LOVED the personalisation of the chess peices. There were so many great lines in there (but I think Zack listed most the highlights already... damnit. xD) I really enjoyed the what if phylosophy doesn't exist line, and another fun one was "Jeremy is technically half-white, it’s just that his other half is also white." LOL Oh, and wh...

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Katy Borobia
17:27 Jun 16, 2022

Thank you so much!! The chess pieces are probably the greatest part :) I hope I can come up with some more good material soon!

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Riel Rosehill
17:20 Jun 17, 2022

Back to congratulate you on your win, Katy! Congrats!! ❤️

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Katy Borobia
13:24 Jun 18, 2022

Thanks Riel!

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Etya Krichmar
20:01 Jun 15, 2022

Katy, your story captivated me. It is well-written and filled with lots of food for thought. I truly appreciated your style of writing and related to the issue of being different. For twenty-three years, I lived in a country of not enough, the former Soviet Union. As a Jew, I never belonged or fitted in. I felt your love for the game come through and especially enjoyed this line; you’re the kind of person who catches wasps under a glass and escorts them outside, for crying out loud." It told me a lot about you as a person. Thank you so much...

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Katy Borobia
17:29 Jun 16, 2022

Thank you Etya! Yes, being different is a strange feeling that makes us feel like we don't exist. And I'm so glad my character and those of my friends came across well :)

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Ruby Pix
03:10 Jun 15, 2022

That was really sweet. I'm a big fan of chess and even won a few times myself. So I understand fully the complexity when you wanna make a move and you feel at first it's what's right for you, but when you lay it down it's a heaviness in your chest that said, "oh snap, I mess up." It's so much fun and life changing and always leaves you with a feeling of what's next? What will they do next? Who will they move next? Can I protect my king with this move here? Thank you for writing such an interesting story, may God in heaven continue to bless y...

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Katy Borobia
17:36 Jun 16, 2022

Thank you so much! I'm glad that what I wrote was accurate to your experience. God bless 🙏

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Ruby Pix
00:18 Jun 17, 2022

Aww shucks thanks. And no problem. Just glad to be able to relate to someone outside of family.

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Aeris Walker
01:27 Jun 15, 2022

You did such an amazing job with this 2nd person perspective! Very well done. And every character was unique and distinct. I loved how you mirrored the black and white colors of the chess board with the idea of mixed races amongst the friends, so much depth here. Great writing 😁

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Katy Borobia
17:38 Jun 16, 2022

Thank you Aeris! I am so glad that the 2nd person worked for this piece- I was going for "game instructions" vibes :)

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Aeris Walker
15:45 Jun 17, 2022

Yay, congrats on the win, Katy!

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Katy Borobia
13:25 Jun 18, 2022

Thanks Aeris!

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Ren B
04:38 Jun 14, 2022

Checkmate! I loved it. The image of the ying/yang came to my mind with the final reflection. And I was so glad to read in 2nd person POV, I could totally imagine the "you" to be myself in a different body. Well done!

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Katy Borobia
17:41 Jun 16, 2022

Thank you so much! 2nd person was difficult to get right, so I'm glad you liked it.

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16:02 Jun 13, 2022

Why did it hit so hard. Also to be honest, you that was a great job. You got the reader included, you displayed the whole thing in a form of instructions and you did really good job.

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Katy Borobia
16:22 Jun 13, 2022

Thank you do much! I really enjoyed writing it, so I'm glad you enjoyed reading.

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