The Gold Medal: A true life chess-escapade

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Photo Credit: Aditya Joshi

How did I get here? I thought to myself as I peered at the checkered board for the umpteenth time. It lay spread before me like it was an ouija puzzle that had only just sprung out from the blues. Only a while ago, she came around; to watch me play.

She smiled a most amorous smile that got me smiling back. Her eyes filled with admiration as she maneuvered her way slowly across the hall until she got to a spot where she could watch me play from behind. She bent to drop a soft drink beside my table.

“Win this one for me,” she whispered. Her lips were so close to my ears that I could feel the warmth in the words rolling as soothing airs over the hills of my ears.

Her soft fingers barely rested on my shoulders as they lifted up like butterflies fluttering away with fading wings into the horizons. I watched her walk away and made my move on the board as I tapped my clock.

My face, laced with a satisfying smile, made anyone who cared to observe envious and jealous. Only then did I hear the sudden scream of my opponent as he shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!”

And he banged real hard on the clock. His voice traveled the space between us—a startling reverberation that drew everyone’s attention to our board.

I looked at the sixty-four squares and knew something was missing. Another look and I realized what it was. My head starts to spin. Oh no; this couldn’t be happening, I said to myself. It was like the 1999 NBL championship all over again. I winked in three fast successions, telling myself this wasn’t true, that what am presently seeing wasn’t happening.

A teammate standing close by beckoned to our coach; he looked at my board, shook his head, then left. I felt his irritation crowding my thoughts. My shoulders sank as others looked at my board. The weights in the stares shrouding mine, and my heart began to pound. I think I just blundered my Queen!

With my head still lowered and my mind crowded, I couldn’t see much of anything around me; except for the fizzy drink right next to me. The more I looked at the board, the more convinced I was lost. I tried thinking of something—anything, and the only thing that came to mind was the world’s junior championship. 

I had taken a leave from school to participate in that tourney. I didn’t tell my parents I would leave school to play at this tournament. The whole thing dragged on far longer than I thought, and I couldn’t return to school when I was supposed to. I made a mess of my education back then. In the end, my studies got the worse of it.

 I couldn’t return on time and couldn’t meet up with the required credits. The school management quickly relieved me of my studies. Luckily, I got a full scholarship elsewhere. They required me to play for the school team and bring home a medal. Something I was very sure I could do. I didn’t just promise them a medal, I also had my eyes set on the gold. 

So here we are, with my new school, hosting the West African Poly Games. Isn’t it crazy that I left a university for a polytechnic? Well, story for another day. And here I am, playing a lost game with my new team. You might just as well kiss the gold medal goodbye. I didn’t know what to do. 

I made a couple of moves on board, and my opponent responded with thoughtless speed. He was bound to make a mistake if he continued like this, I thought to myself, something my sparring partner would say. But I couldn’t entirely blame him anyway. I probably would have done the same. At some point, he stood up to let out some air, arrogance oozing from every pore of his skin. There was nothing much to do, not for me anyway, except to resign. 

The first moment, in what seemed like an eternity, I let my hands slide off the sides of my head. I wanted to offer my opponent a handshake—the standard courtesy. But just then, our eyes met. She was still standing in the very spot I last noticed. She held my gaze for a split while I could see her lips rolling slowly, forming into something that reminded me of a whisper, a soothing clamor, a verbal message, which had elevated my spirit just earlier on. 

The rhythm from her lips was a familiar song my soul had felt through the tune of her whisper. It injected a new fire into my veins. I couldn’t make out the words clearly because there were none, but I understood. For that very warmth that had caressed the hills of my ears earlier seemed to have glided across the hall on invisible wings with the fragrant force of a thousand blooming flowers right over to where I was. 

And in those scented silences which echoed from her moving lips, I understood the mesmerizing glow in her eyes: win this one for me. 

My opponent was still standing, facing another board with all aloofness and paying little attention to whatever was happening in ours. He’s been standing for a while now, making the last five moves with incredible speed while standing. 

I looked at the board, saw something I hadn’t noticed for a while, and smiled. Thoughtless speed can be suicidal, I repeated the words of my sparring partner in my head. I made my move and tapped my clock. As usual, my opponent turned at the click of a tapping sound on my timer to make his move. But this time, he sat down; slowly. Real slowly. 

                ******

You were lucky yesterday—the captain said as we walked side by side into the tournament hall, preparing for the day’s game. I didn’t say anything. Have nothing to say to him. The captain braces himself expecting a reply. Still, I said nothing. “The only reason you’re still on the team,” he added, “was your performance yesterday”. ”You managed to squeeze a draw out of a lost game.” I remained speechless. Only raise my head to look at the hall. There was a podium in the lobby, and the medals were displayed. 

I allowed my gaze to linger on them for a second. The exact spot she had always stood since the start of the tourney. In the precise location, the medals were now standing. “I guess you expect to see her today, “the captain interjected”. As if reading my thoughts. He nodded towards the medal stand. “she’s been banned from entering the hall,” he added after noticing I wasn’t interested in a conversation. I turned to look at him. A slight grin greased his face, quickly fading as soon as it appeared. 

Why? I asked.

“Oh, now you can talk? I thought you had lost your speech. Anyway, if you must know, the school management decided to ban her from coming to the hall whenever you are playing; to avoid ‘distraction. He made a quote in the air with both hands as he said the word distraction.

“But I win my games, don’t I?”

“Not my call, pal,” the captain says, smiling “managements,” he added. Then he strolled to another table, where some guys were blitzing at lightning speed and beating every other player. I heard he’s on a perfect score and has not lost a match since the tourney started. 

I couldn’t believe they would ban her from playing. She was part of the female team. Still, remember the first time we met? I was waiting for the coach, and he had asked me to wait for him in some obscure place. So I was all by myself doing things in my head while waiting to pass the time, and I was getting somewhat impatient. I pulled the sleeve of my left shirt to look at the time. He was almost an hour late. 

I didn’t know if he was going to come anymore. I plucked out my cell from one of my pockets to place a call but decided against it. He’s the coach; I can’t go bothering the coach. So I slid the gadget back and resigned myself to a long wait. Just when I wasn’t expecting it, the coach walked in. By his side was a cute lady about my age— just a couple of years younger, I later found out. The coach introduces her as part of the female team. He said he wanted me to train her by teaching her the game. I was still expecting some apology for his lateness when his phone rang. He flipped the thing open, and after saying “hello,” he placed a palm over the mouthpiece, looked at us, and excused himself with a nod. Indicating we could go on. He walked out of the hall. 

I turned to look at the beauty beside me—she was cute, eyes as clear as a soft flowing spring. I couldn’t help staring into those clear, drowning eyes, and only then did I realize she was also staring back. I quickly said Hello. She winked before saying Hi. Her voice came out like a piece of exotic rear music woven with the fingers of dawn. I gazed into her eyes again, clear and innocent, sparkling with delight. A smile added to the charm that was painted on her face. We weren’t talking, couldn’t speak, just staring at each other and enjoying every bit of it. 

Out of nothing to say, I asked her what she wished to learn about the game. Everything! Came those silky voices again, everything you can teach me. We went back to gazing at each other, an awkward but beautiful silence brewing between the two of us. I could feel something else rising within the silence. Guess she could feel it too. Placing a palm over my mouth, I cleared my throat to speak—my way of getting her attention. The coach said to teach you the … but the coach isn’t here, she interjected as she lowered her lids, and it was like a sweet shadow wheezed through the air. Only then did I realize the coach had been gone a long time. 

I stood up from where we were seated and looked towards the door for a brief while. Then I turned to her and stretched out a hand, “Come with me,” I said. She placed a palm as soft as white cotton balls on mine and rose. We both walked out right through the exit into the sunset.

Rancor brought me out of my reverie. The pairing was out, and I was playing on the top board for my school. I walked to my board, shook my opponent, and made the first move. The clock starts to tick. I looked across the hall, and she wasn’t there; just the usual quietness and those medals, where she ought to have been, glittering in a see-through glass box that seemed to remind me with every move I made of her absence. 

Tomorrow was the finals. I don’t know if she would be allowed to come around. I kept playing but kept looking out for her. I started to look around the hall. I noticed for the first time the team to my right. The guy on their top board looked familiar, I recalled meeting him at the regular friend of a chess tournament. He was the one the captain walked off to watch his game while he blitzed earlier today. Written on his shirt were the words ETUK. His opponent kept making one poor move after another and soon capitulated. Etuk stood up with his sheets in hand and lingered over my board before walking off. 

Etuk, he’s the one with a perfect score. Never lost or drawn a match since the tourney started. And with this last win, he need not play in the final rounds the following day. He has already secured himself the gold medal. 

                 ***

The last day of the tourney saw my team playing against Etuk’s team. I hadn’t cared to check the pairing as word had gone round earlier that Etuk wouldn’t be playing today. He’s already secured the gold. My captain came around to tell me I was playing top board, which got me suspicious. That grin was also on his face again, but it seemed it was taking a little longer to fade. The coach also came around, and I began to sense something ain’t right. 

There was a protest by the female teammates earlier, requesting that my girl (Supposed) be allowed into the hall; I guess this was why the coach came around, to make sure this didn’t happen. But it still felt like there was more to it. Well, if she wasn’t going to be let in on the last day, I couldn’t care less. I can’t win the gold medal anyway, and I could as well kiss my scholarship goodbye. 

I looked across the hall to where she usually stood to see if I would catch a glimpse of her by some miracle. She wasn’t there. Just the medal in the see-through glass box glittering, sending me a mocking message. I sat down at my board, already a couple of minutes late. I didn’t care to know who my opponent was, but I had prepared against a Sicilian just in case Etuk showed up to play. It doesn’t make much difference if I win or lose, I wouldn’t be getting the gold medal anyway, not even if I win. Etuk would still be a point ahead. His score was perfect—a hundred percent. Me? Mine wasn’t. Except, of course, he comes out to play and loses. But he is not coming out to play, and even if he does, he isn’t going to lose. My opponent, he’s made his first move. I recorded it before extending a hand for the usual courtesy. Only then did I notice, sitting across me, on the other side of the board, was Etuk!

I was temporarily transfixed. My hand suspended in mid-air for a very brief second. I scanned Etuk’s face, a pensive look occasionally followed by a slight twitching of his head. Why had he come out to play, I thought to myself. He’s already gotten the gold. He need not come out to play today. I turned my head to catch a glimpse of my sparring partner, standing not too far off; he responded with a blank look. Once during our sparring session, he had let it slip that he believed Etuk was a better player than myself.

Playing Etuk today might have been no coincidence, I thought. Someone wants to ensure I leave the team and lose my scholarship for good. But whom and why? Well, it doesn’t matter now, not really. Not now that ‘I am about to face a formidable opponent and a possible defeat.

In my head, the scenario of my defeat unfolded. I could see the disappointments in the eyes of my teammates. They were hoping I would cling to a Gold medal, but now Silver would be the best. I shook my head to wade off the thoughts. Yet, another scene played of me before my parents and the disappointment of flunking school for a second time. I could imagine what my father would say, how he would narrate the great history of our black ancestry and how they were brave warriors who fought no matter how formidable the odds seemed. With this, I made my first move and tapped my clock. It appears i can’t chicken out now.

We’ve been playing for over an hour plus now, and Etuk seems to have gotten better on the clock. A noisy crowd was outside, just at the hall entrance. The female team was protesting that their teammate be allowed into the hall. 

Many other games have ended, and most players crowded Etuk and me. We were in the middlegame phase, and as usual, he was doing his slow grind, heading for the endings. 

The coach seems to have asked the captain to ensure she doesn’t get in. From where I sat, I could make out some figures among the crowd at the entrance. One was my sparring partner, standing between the captain and a female teammate, trying to calm the protesting female teammate. She gave way, and I saw someone with familiar eyes for a brief moment. Yes! I saw those eyes twinkling with relishing delight, which had more sparkles than a starry night sky. It was her!

With renewed vigor, I began to roll out my moves. The spectators watched with wide eyes. They couldn’t believe if it was still me that was playing the game or if another someone had just possessed my being. Etuk was beginning to think longer than usual, spending more time before making his moves. I couldn’t care less. The sparkles in those wondrously bright eyes seem to have done the magic. I rolled out the action after a move, which placed my opponent on his wit ends. And it wasn’t long before the unexpected happened. He looks at the board for a long time, searching for some missing treasure within the sixty-four squares. Then the crowd went wild as his monarch fell flat at the edge of the checkered board. I won the game!

A reverberating cheer erupted. 

My teammates started chanting my nickname—Fawolizzo. I have just beaten Etuk! The only person that hasn’t lost since the tourney. He has lost the gold medal to me.

Make way! Make way! I heard people shouting, and a small pathway cut through the crowd surrounding me. There she was, looking all queenly like she was floating her way to me. I watched as she sashayed her way to where I was standing and planted an amazing long kiss on my lips. 

The crowd cheered! 

We couldn’t care less. 

This moment was ours. 

            THE END

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