An ordinary chess game. The only thing that makes it special is the stake!
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Tap! The same familiar sound breaks the silence, every time a piece finds its place on the chessboard. I move my bishop in the next position marking the beginning of my offensive strategy. I raise my eyes just as he looks straight at me. It's that devilish smile that I know so well. The right corner of his mouth rises, a display of pure arrogance.
Tap! He moves his pawn. He knew what I have in mind. Of course, he does. We think the alike.
I rethink all the possible outcomes. I move again, stalling, as I look for different perspectives.
Another piece moves. We are very much alike. Both highly competitive, and we've run out of opponents. We beat them all. That's why we only play with each other. Yes, sometimes there are challenges. But we're equally matched. It's said that to get better, you must always play with a better opponent. But what there is left for you when you're the best? Luckily, we're blessed, in some ironical way. We have each other, and we're getting better with each game. I win, he loses. He wins, I lose. The perfect ratio. We complete each other perfecting ourselves with each game we play. We stopped keeping score years ago. Now we just raise the stakes. Every game comes with a bet but never for money. That would be insulting. Our relation is above financial interest. We bet on who gets to do the dishes. Or who gets to take the garbage out. Who gets to do the nice things while the other one stays home dwelling of his defeat.
The phone lights up vibrating the table. She's calling me. I try to ignore it. He sees my eyes moving from the chessboard to the phone. He knows it will distract me and he smiles. But I only dated her for a few weeks. I like her and that's why I must win.
We never play chess without a bet. This time the bet is simple. I win, I get to go on a date with my girl. And I get to take the car. He wins, he gets to go on a date with his girl. The loser doesn't show up for his date. It's silly but motivating. I never try my best without proper motivation. And when I have nothing to lose, I have no intentions of trying. But with high stakes like now, that it's clear for both of us. The game is on.
I don't like his girlfriend, and he hates mine. We only have one car, and there's no fun without these competitions, these bets. Sometimes I think it's all we have.
Last time we had a bet like this the bastard won. I went to bed frustrated and angry. He went out and had fun with his stuck-up, arrogant girlfriend. That slut. Because I couldn't go, my girlfriend got mad at me. If I lose again, she won't forgive me. I know she'll dump me if I won't show up. There's no way I am doing this to her. Not again. I must not lose this time. The stakes are huge for me. For him, it's no big deal if he loses. He even doesn't care that much about his girl. He just plays it for the fun of it. For the love of the game and the competition, he says. He wants me to feel miserable, so he can feel good about himself. But I don't blame him. The only challenge in life for him is me. And the other way around. The satisfaction of winning against each other is the best feeling people like us can have. And there aren't many like us. We are special, the two of us.
I haven't answered her phone call. I know she's nervous. I know she's agitated. I know she likes me just as much as I like her. And now she's wondering if I'll show up. But this will not happen. I'll call her back once I’ll win this game. I must.
I push another piece forward.
Tap! The sound comes immediately as a reply to my move. In chess the faster the movement comes, the more uncomfortable the opponent gets. It's frustrating to see him answering my moves so fast. He's aware of what I'm about to do. He’s one step ahead of me. It's the way one player tells the other:
"I know what's happening here. I see your strategy and guess what? You're not leading this dance. I am, and I am leading it to your downfall. Wait and see. When the music stops, you lose."
Tap. He smiles again looking me straight in the eyes.
I look him straight in the eyes as across the small table. He doesn't move. He stares straight at me. I stare straight at him. We're staring in each other soul. We don't even look at the chess board anymore. We play from memory.
I move. Now he can take my rook and open the way for an attack on my king. Yet his last bishop will be doomed and then his pawn. But not just any pawn - the one that will finish off my king. Without it, his offensive fails, and my queen remains in the perfect position to win the match.
But he doesn't move as I thought. Damn it. As I look at the board, new options have opened. Different possible outcomes. And four of them are not in my favor. How haven't I seen this?
Tap. The sounds of his pieces on the board start to irritate me.
A long break follows. He's managed to surprise me this time. His pieces are better placed than mine. But I still have my knights and ...yes... there it is.
Tap. My knight is forcing his king to retreat, protecting my bishop in the process.
My bishop takes his rook. He pulls back his queen as now is unprotected.
My knight takes another pawn, forcing him to choose between his queen and king. Obviously, his queen will soon be out of the game.
I smile for the first time. He smiles back. But why? He's losing. I look at the chessboard. I move my next piece and review all the possible outcomes.
And then I see it! Damn it! I’ve totally missed the placement of his rook and bishop! His retreat was not random at all. He lured me in a trap!
His knight moves. I must pull back.
I've lost my bishop. I must change the strategy, as I get back to being defensive.
He moves back with the same knight. Now I must choose between my rook and queen.
Tap. I lose the queen as well. Losing his earlier was his price to pay for this outcome.
From now on, I am lost. I know it as I see all the possible outcomes. As there are fewer pieces on the board it is clear as daylight. There is no way I can win from now on. He has the advantage.
I will lose. I will lose, and I will have to turn off my phone and not to show on for dinner with her parents as I promised. She'll never forgive me for deceiving her like that. I am losing this match and I am losing her. Damn it. She shouldn't have called earlier. She never should have bothered me, messing up with my chess game. She brought this on herself by distracting my attention. She blew it without even understanding how. She never will. God damn it.
Chess is always fair. The outcome is predictable by now. We are both aware that it's pointless to play from now on. But out of respect of each other, and love for the game, we will until the inevitable end - my defeat.
He looks at me without smiling anymore. He's winning. I know I've lost. There is enough mutual understanding between. As our eyes are aligned or communication is profound. Our souls are one. There is no need for words anymore. We both know it.
Tap. He moves totally outside any logical scenario. It makes no sense at all. He makes a bad move on purpose. Just as I move again, he pushes another useless pawn.
Another bad move. What the hell? He's no amateur. Why is he doing this?
The game goes on, and odds are shifting in my favor, as he allows it, letting me win. He had the victory in the palm of the hand, yet he's giving it to me. I feel ashamed and I don't want to win like this. Yet, I do it for her.
The final movement. I won, just because he allowed. I can't take any credit for this. I feel embarrassed, humiliated when suddenly he breaks the silence:
"Go get your girl. I hope she loves you as much as you do. Since you met her you can't focus. Each time we play, you're not yourself. I let you win because I want you to have her. I want you to be with her, so you can regain your focus on chess. I want you focused when we play. I want you back. Because without you, I don't have with who to play chess anymore. You and me, we're the best. All the rest are just not good enough."
Cold sweat is going down on my back as I hear his words. He is so goddamn right about it.
"But keep in mind" his voice goes on but this time his lips don't move anymore. Only his eyes are staring at me from the mirror in front of me. "You go get your girl and get back to me focused, because if you don't, I promise you next time we play, the winner keeps the girl. If you play poorly again, I'll take her from you. Forever. And afterward, we'll play for this body of ours that we're sharing. And the winner will get to keep it as well. Forever!"
I nod my head as confirmation. I feel scared and angry. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I open them again I look ahead. He's gone. I am staring at my own reflection in the mirror in front of me. I am alone in my small and empty one-room apartment. Just me, the chess table and the mirror on the wall in front of me.
As I lower my eyes on the chessboard, I see it laying there in front of me. All pieces are inside, and the box is sealed shut. All wrapped in plastic just as I bought the chess set many years ago. White dust from the plastic cover is sticking to my sweated fingers as I touch it.
My hands are shaking as I reach for my phone. I must get myself together. I can't allow emotions to keep me from focusing while playing, as for us chess is not just a game. For us, chess is the way we determine which one is taking turns into the same body that we share, just me and him… two minds, one body.
I press redial:
"Hi, sweetie. Sorry I missed your call earlier...I was… taking a shower. I'm just getting ready for tonight. I hope your father likes French wine, babe because I have a special surprise for him."
I can't follow her words as she talks to me. But she seems so happy.
I put the phone in the pocket, grab the bottle of Château Cheval Blanc and leave my tiny apartment. I can't be late.