Illustration by Helen Sun

 

A back-rank checkmate is one of the most foolish ways you can lose. The king is stuck between a rook and a hard place, trapped between the edge of the board and the very pawns meant to protect it. This is where I find myself in the 2013-2014 Eastern York Regional Chess Tournament. I’ve been here before. Last game of the day—win or go home. The stakes have never been so high. My neck is itching to have the glory of that satin ribbon around it, holding the fake metal in its rightful place on my chest. Its warped reflection displaying the cheering crowd as the paparazzi capture my heroic victory. All I need to do is win this game. 

I lock eyes with the poor schmuck on the other side of the board. We immediately recognize each other from chess camp a couple of years ago. While I gaze at the sweat-stained lump that he has become, he slouches back. He’s a supervillain trapped in the back of an alley with bag full of cash, staring at the masked hero dead in the eyes, knowing of his inevitable fate. We both know I’m the better player by far. 

And so the game begins. He humours me with his generic opening as I quickly take control of the board. My knights leap onto centre stage as he scrambles to advance his pieces before it’s too late. Soon all of my pieces surge from their resting spots as they effortlessly dominate every square of the board. 

He’s already lost a bishop. With every blunder he makes, I ease a little further out of my seat. Chiseling my way through his poor defence, I soon hit the motherlode. His vulnerable Queen lies within striking distance. Within a split second, I smugly grab the head of my bishop and swipe his Queen off of the board, removing his most important piece. 

In a moment of carelessness I give away my rook, a critical piece. I shrug this off; there’s no way he could possibly climb his way out of the bottomless grave he’s digging for himself. His quivering fingers move his bishop to the middle of the stage. 

The nail in the coffin. 

At this point I get out of my chair and arrogantly look up at the podium, mollifying my fear of heights in preparation for the steps I’ll be climbing. With a flick of the wrist, I take down his last bishop. 

At this instant his body language changes, and for the first time, I see the slightest twinkle in his eyes. He pulls his dusty rook across the entire board and onto my side. Onto my back rank, a clear path to my king—his bishop was bait. He doesn’t even have the gall to say “checkmate,” and simply slides out his steady hand to shake on his victory. 

I frantically look for a way out. There must be a way to kill the rook, or at least block its path to my king. I now know my king is trapped, staring back at the rook dead in the eyes, knowing its inevitable fate. I am the supervillain, I’ve had it wrong this whole time. The realization of my loss deflates me back into my seat as return his handshake. It’s over. I latched onto his bait and now it’s over. I flee the tournament as soon as possible, before he waltzes on stage to collect his gold medal. 

Sometimes when I’m struggling to fall asleep at night, this memory presents itself in the most inconvenient way possible. It freezes me in place as I grapple with the hard reality of that day. There’s nothing can say or do that will ever erase it from the depths of my subconscious. Perhaps it was meant to be remembered, because should never have gotten out of that chair until the game was over.