‘Fancy a game of chess?’ ‘I’m not very good.’ ‘That’s ok, then, neither am I.’ And so we’d play and one of us would win and one of us would lose. Does it really matter who?
Years ago, I was in the sixth form, I was at my mate, Mark’s, house and we were playing chess. I wasn’t very good and neither was he. He had to go sort something out and his younger brother asked if he could take over. Yes, of course. I sniggered and playfully humoured the youngster as I devoured his pieces…except it didn’t turn out that way, as somehow he beat me. I felt humiliated. Simon loved it and shouted out his victory all over the house and repeated it every time I visited. Funny thing, too, it put me off playing chess for ages.
When I turned 40, I asked for a chess set for my birthday, one of the Viking warriors, discovered on Maes How on Orkney. It came with a beautiful wooden board. It stayed in its box for a long time till my youngest son grew old enough and interested enough to play. I’ll teach him all I know, ha! And we played and you know how it is, you want your children to grow and progress and to learn how to win and to lose, yet, playing chess, despite many times starting out with the intention of letting him win, it seems I just couldn’t do it. I could at football, at pool…even at badminton but not chess. Partly, it was just more difficult to conceal a losing strategem. It’s not like I was any good at it…then, suddenly I would see a three or four move sequence multi-move and I was onto it. I won game after game but it did get closer. One day, my son would beat me and that would be ok, I told myself.
That day looked to have arrived when I was fighting for my life with only my king, my knight and a couple of pawns still standing. Joe was obliterating me and I was merely switching between the sides of the board, awaiting the final blow. Till he placed his Queen, corner to corner, next to my pawn. I looked up at him. He was oblivious to the move, doobydoobydoobying to himself. I shook my head, starting to smile. He looked at me, uncertainly, unexpectantly. He followed my glance and I watched his brow furrow, his cheek crease while he realises his mistake. ‘Can I take that one again?’ ‘Is your hand still on the piece? Is your hand? Er, no, it isn’t, then, quite clearly, by the rules of the game, you can’t.’ I slowly reached across to pick up my pawn and dashed his queen to the floor. Victory was mine, snatched from! Except it wasn’t, he reminded me recently. We played out a drawer yet it felt like a victory.
Thing was, after that, Joe didn’t want to play chess with me again. We didn’t play for ages. I lost my playing buddy.
Most weekday mornings, nowadays I settle in my chair in the study for 20-30 minutes of what I call ‘breathing prayer’. It helps me centre down and prepare for the day. The chess set just happens to be set up in front of the chair. I couldn’t help myself. I started playing myself. Just one move on each side each day…long games. And I noticed I began to take on myself as a challenge. Right brain against left. Left ear against right. One hand against the other. Who was I playing? What was this thing about winning? Did I want to beat myself?
And the pieces, the chess pieces, they didn’t look so happy either. Some cast off to the side, others hunted down or bearing down on their enemies, they looked in need of a break, as all Vikings must. A feast, a celebration…introduce music and stories. Well, why not? And I looked again at the pieces and aligned the kings and queens to face one another. What if, instead of fighting, they were…dancing? What if all the pieces were clapping and singing and joining in the dance too? I brought the others in to the circle and waited. Immediately, the mood lightened and they seemed brighter.
I move pieces round each morning in the dance. They’re still dancing now. And we can still play chess. I’m waiting for Joe to come round, so he can whoop my ass! And who cares? Meanwhile, the pawn is dancing with the queen, the king with the castle and everyone is joining in the dance. And I’m right there too…in the middle.