By Andrea Bianchi
Featured Image: Pink Rat by Ellery Pollard
1. His first move is checkmate.
2. A punch that expels the laughter from my stomach as I stand before him at the end of our chess game.
3. “Wipe that smirk off your face,” he hisses beneath the Saturday morning chatter and jazz of the coffeeshop. “You’ve been gloating. Taunting,” he says. And yes, after our first sips, I did tease him to try for a victory, challenge him to a game of chess. Wanting to imitate another couple, heads bent intimate over their own little world of 64 checkered squares, at a tiny table just a bishop’s diagonal from the sofa where we sat.
4. He waits there afterward, tense on the cushion’s edge, when I return from the restroom, from a respite after his loss of the competition, his loss of composure. But his eyes pierce my smile as I pause in front of him. My stomach at the same plane as his arm. And then his fist connects level with the center of our lives.
5. It breaks the rules of play—and of the law, and of our love. Our months of happy Saturdays at the beach. Dinners beneath twinkling lights. Fights, arguments, yes. But afterward, mornings under the sunlight-checkered bedcovers, where we fed each other breakfast and curled together with our cats, as we mapped out plans for our shared weekends, then our first shared apartment. Our relationship’s next moves.
6. So I mistake his move as a mere blunder. Not an opening gambit in a dangerous new game, waged with weapons of flesh and bone rather than the chess pieces of plastic or wood. And I do not see it for what it is: The irreversible destruction of our partnership. Checkmate in the unchecked anger of my mate.
7. Can I fault myself, though, for not noticing? One-move checkmate does not exist among the 20 possible first plays in chess. A lone pawn can venture one- or two-square forward steps out from the front line. Or a knight can leap—like a horse jumping over the row of pawns aligned like a picket fence—one square sideways, two squares up. But no one can in one move end the game.
8. Two-move or three-move checkmate—just an impractical, improbable trick that my father taught me long ago, on the living room carpet of my girlhood home, when I discovered our old cardboard red-and-black checkerboard. “Explain checkers,” I requested, enraptured by its colorful, rolling wheels that interlocked into towering stacks that my brother and I liked to build. But my father did not know the rules of that childish game, and so he offered chess. The same way he offered to teach baseball or computer code to his son and daughter. For both, the same rules, the same moves.
9. Girls don’t play chess, hints the subtext of the TV show that millions begin viewing, escaping from the months of mounting losses of the pandemic back into the carefree 1960s of the script, set only three decades before my father introduced me to the game, when the men of the chess world would have watched in wonder at a young female master like the fictional protagonist of The Queen’s Gambit.
10. Should I watch? I ask myself, hesitant to replay that fateful coffeeshop game from only a few years before. Watch for the ’60s style, one friend recommends. Watch for the surprising drama in such a cerebral game, the reviews encourage. For the strategy I never knew before. The names that describe each opening. The numbers that designate each checkered square. An education. Entertainment.
11. But when I finally do watch—a revelation. Because at the end of each match, when the girl inevitably beats the boy or man in front of her, I flinch. Clench my stomach. And wait for the hiss. For the fist slammed onto the table. Or worse, stretched across the board.
12. But instead, over each finished game, the men’s arms extend only with a handshake. Or with applause: A standing ovation. And the loudest, most passionate response is but a muttered pseudo-curse, then not another word.
13. “We need to talk,” I tell my lover that night in his bed, after I follow him from the coffeeshop without a sound, my stomach collapsed, my lungs still deflated from his fist. Which swings through the air ahead of me, staggering unsteady past the oblivious coffee drinkers behind their laptops, then out into the autumn sun, to our Saturday spot at the pier, where I space my body away from his on the edge over the deep water, and I wonder—irrational, panicked—if his sudden, jutting arm from behind will push me in. But he only waves away my words.
14. “We can’t plan to move in together without discussing the punch,” I persist, hinting at an ultimatum, an ending. He turns his face away against the pillow. And in the morning, we just move on.
15. I never have known how to end. I prolong each game of chess with no real strategy, except tenacity: Capture all the opponent’s pieces, until only the opposing king—the actual target for capture, for checkmate—is left hobbling alone, constrained by the rules to lurch about the board one square at a time. Only then do I finally try to devise a plan to block him in, to win.
16. But is not that the most honorable approach? Playing every move out until the exhaustive end. Giving every partner, every partnership, every chance at redemption and success.
17. The same way I march my pawns all the way to the other side of the board, where those humble pieces can be crowned, in one of chess’s more optimistic rules, as additional queens, with power to move in any direction over the squares. Something small, limited, transformed to greatness. Like a broken relationship mended, made new.
18. “I’m so sorry,” he tells me one evening weeks later as he takes both my hands in his, soft and warm inside his fists. “I’m trying to understand why it happened,” he says, “so I’ve been playing chess puzzles on my phone.” On the chess app he downloaded in the coffeeshop when we realized the other couple was hovered over the shop’s only board. I did not mind, though. Because our heads bent together even closer on the sofa side-by-side. But now, beside me on the train to the office where we both work—he, a junior attorney; I a legal secretary—his head begins bending alone over his phone.
19. Then a screen capture of a blue-checkered chessboard stretches across my screen one evening. “Checkmate!” the app announces beneath. “One piece taken, game over,” he writes. I text him congratulations, praise. “I can’t believe that happened. How often does that happen,” he exults as he uploads the image to social media.
20. A little later, his private explanation: “I’m trying to overcome my fear of chess,” he texts me. “It literally makes me feel scared to play.”
21. Chess as symbol of the male ego—embodied in the tall, phallic king. So perhaps brute bodily force might seem the only remedy for bruised masculinity when the mind cannot overpower, cannot prevail within the borders of the board.
22. Chess, also then, as measure of IQ. “Chess and intelligence,” proclaims a subheading a few sections from the end of the entry describing the game on Wikipedia—a resource beginning players doubtless consult as Google searches for chess ascend during the pandemic, after almost every character in The Queen’s Gambit lauds the mental prowess of the protagonist prodigy.
23. “[C]ognitive ability contributes meaningfully to individual differences in chess skill,” concludes a meta-analysis in the journal Intelligence.
24. Maybe I do somehow wish my intellectual skill at a respected game could prove my worth to him, since I cannot comprehend the legal briefs I watch him draft on his computer screen. The same way I reopened my dusty flute case when I dated the jazz saxophone player. Or enrolled in writing classes when I later loved the journalist. A needy pathology, perhaps. Or maybe just a simple plea for recognition. Equality.
25. “I’m like a surgeon!” my partner hisses much later as we sit in opposition at a restaurant booth, with breakfast instead of a chessboard separating us at the table, while we debate some project at the law firm where we both work. “You’re like a receptionist!” he says, spitting, dismissing my opinion. And his flattened hand stabs the air at corresponding planes to illustrate.
26. Him: High, at the crown of his head. Me: Low, at stomach level.
27. But the fluttering of my stomach, not any sophistication in the synapses of my brain, has always accounted, I believe, for any of my modest chess acuity. Chess is a game for the anxious. It rewards the worrier. Anticipating all possible future attacks. Wondering all the what-ifs.
28. Fear is even spelled out in the language my father first imparted: Make sure all your pieces are protected, covered, he insisted I verify with every move. So before I would release each piece from my hand to finalize my turn, I would press my pointer finger into the top of the horse’s head or the queen’s crown, and while it wobbled underneath, I would check and double-check—with obsessive, compulsive anxiety—for upcoming attacks that I may have overlooked.
29. How then do I not see my partner’s next moves? On moving day at our new home by the pier: The jab of his pointer finger down at me on the floorboards beside my cat. The hiss of his threat to break my neck. Then the crack of its cartilage a few mornings later beneath the pillow his hands press over my head.
30. “Is he hurting you?” my father demands as he drives me, slumped in his front seat, from my apartment to my grandfather’s, where we huddle around his kitchen table to play cards, the language of the game more fluent for me than the two stuttering words I know from his fatherland, and we slide each other red and black poker chips from our own stacks when we notice someone else’s tower has shrunk. All winners.
31. Laughing, smiling, we light my grandfather’s birthday cake, and afterward, I brighten my phone screen to show him a photo of my man. “So beautiful,” he responds in his halting accent. “So tall.” And yes, he towered over my hunched father when they met a few weeks ago at our new home. Where in the kitchen, my lover’s hulking frame blocked the doorway, and he looked down his hooked nose and reached down his long arm to crush my father’s palm. “Be good to her,” my dad requested as he left. And then his strangely prescient plea hung limp in the air.
32. “There was just this one time, after a chess game,” I say. My father turns. Checks my face. But I look away, out the gray front windshield of his car. “I’m not taking you back there,” he says. I wave away his words. “I’ll be fine,” I predict.
33. Maybe my father trusts my ability to assess the future, since I have always anticipated even his—my teacher’s—next chess moves. Maybe he assumes I will protect myself the way I have always covered my pieces on the board. Or perhaps he cannot even fathom the parameters of the game.
34. “I thought of [chess] as a smart, rich, white people’s game,” someone comments on an NPR episode I hear later when The Queen’s Gambit is expanding the game’s popularity and diversity.
35. Perhaps, then, a similar stereotyped assumption: Successful, educated men might beat opponents at chess. But they would never beat up their wives.
36. Oblivious, my brother visits for Thanksgiving dinner around our coffee table, then challenges my partner to pool at the billiard table that we have substituted for a dining room set. With the dishes stacked in my hands in the kitchen doorway, I pause. “Let him win,” I whisper to my brother’s bewildered, lifted brows as he raises the cue.
37. I let it slip through my fingers, clatter to the felt when my lover later tries to train my aim on the eight ball. “I can’t do it,” I insist. “Good game,” I lie to my date a couple years afterward as I lay my paddle on the ping-pong table, where the net still vibrates from my final—intentional—failed forehand.
38. “Don’t just let me win,” my partner insists across our coffee table after supper one night as I set the chessboard. My fingers trembling, remembering the coffeeshop, as they balance each piece teetering within its square. But he has completed all the chess puzzles within the rectangle of his phone, he tells me. He is ready for a rematch. “Play again?” I say instead of “checkmate” at the end. My stomach suspends with my exhale. But his only movement is a nod.
39. So his next move—on a Sunday morning after a month of approximate calm: A surprise attack.
40. The advancing diagonal, like a bishop’s trajectory, of his slap to my cheek. The straight-armed horizontal, like the direct line of a rook’s route, of his shove against my chest. And then the final annihilation, like a succession of unprotected pieces captured, knocked off the board, when he topples the lamp to the floor, slams my back against the wall, lifts my whole body up like a pawn, dangling from his hands wrapped about the fragile bones of my neck, and then squeezes his fingers down around my throat, hanging off the mattress edge, so that I cannot say a word.
42. My retreat then, with no strategy. Boots spiraling down the staircase. Hands slipping at the rail. Legs twisting out into the cold without my coat. Fingers shaking, turning at the ignition, then the wheel. The rearview mirror tilting, checking irrationally for his flailing form, maybe chasing me. The car spinning down unfamiliar streets, to traffic circles, round cul-de-sac dead-ends.
43. The world all confusing curves now, instead of the straight future path that I planned, like the chessboard’s ordered lines.
44. I have no counterattack, I realize as I cower afterward at my brother’s kitchen table and hold his phone against my ear. The officer’s voice explaining the rules of restraining orders, police reports. A legal game my lover mastered at law school. And I, an untrained novice, can only backtrack to my childhood home, where my father taught me to play chess, the way I would pull an endangered piece back behind the safe suburban picket fence of pawns.
45. The pieces are all aligned in the black-and-white photograph I posted online of my cat, only three days earlier, when she poised her paws on the edge of the chessboard on a side table in our dining room. “Roxie plays chess,” I captioned the snapshot. Which endures, in present tense, the last activity on my account for nearly half a year. The days afterward as gray, as frozen as the photograph.
46. His own photo of her, posted on his social media only a few squares above the screenshot of his online chess victory, follows as a sort of farewell—one of the many sidestep square dances of his apologies, his texts and calls with pleas and promises, then his subsequent reversals, curses. Like the forward, forward, sideways prancing of the knight. But for a moment, with those matching photos, our online identities align. Our union still intact.
47. And then he uploads a new closeup: Red and green Christmas bulbs in the chandeliers of what used to be our home. The lights flash onto my phone in the front seat of my mother’s car, circling tortuous streets one late Saturday afternoon as she searches with me for a new apartment in cold, gray neighborhoods littered with lifeless trees. “He’s going on with my life without me,” I say.
48. No matter the number of chess defeats that I tallied. He has won.
49. “Do you ever go over games in your head when you’re alone?” asks the main character in The Queen’s Gambit to one of her opponents. “Doesn’t everybody?” he replies.
50. At least every chess player, the consummate worrier. Practicing a kind of backward anxiety: Apprehension about the past in addition to the future.
51. Over and over, my mind retraces our moves. Mine more than his. Not the unexpected post-traumatic flashback of his strokes. But instead the deliberate reworking of my mistakes: My attempts to prove my worthiness that he interpreted as flaunts of superiority. My sullen pouting one afternoon in bed when I should have instead gone to him and the cats on our sofa in front of the fire. My jealous shouts about his friendly interactions with one of our female coworkers on that fateful final morning.
52. What if I had stayed that day and just waited until we were calm? Or what if I had returned that night and apologized?
53. What if I had never suggested that first chess game?
54. The combination of different actions, different outcomes: Unlimited. After three chess moves, 121 million possible game variations emerge, reports Popular Science. After that, the potentials multiply exponentially beyond anyone’s interest in calculating.
55. Have I even begun to contemplate, comprehend? Replaying our relationship afterward alone in bed each night for five, six years. After one move to a new office. After two new apartment moves. After countless journal entries, attempted essays, notes to self, self-help articles, paperbacks, workbooks, therapy sessions. All variations on a redundant theme.
56. Stuck. The way my childish mind fixated on the jaunty, signature movements of the knight when I first learned the game. So that when playing ball, or walking across the lawn, I would envision my steps to my destination within the limits of that trapped pattern. My thoughts blocked in by the chessboard’s squares.
57. I stop playing after him.
58. Now and then, I propose a game to my next casual lover, but I can somehow never seem to rise from the sofa, climb onto a chair, and stretch my arm across my top closet shelf, where the chessboard remains, packed away after all my belongings were moved from our lost home. And sealed inside the folded wooden case, the pieces wait, hanging, each strangled by a separate elastic cord behind the clasp.
59. At last, though, my fingers fumbling at the latch, I open the chess set after the closing scene of The Queen’s Gambit. “Let’s play,” the heroine declares as her final line. And she begins a new game. Right after her greatest win.
60. A strategy equally fitting after one’s greatest loss: Keep playing.
61. Maybe I can keep trying new, different moves to replace the past mistakes. Keep searching for someone who will let me play and lose and win and—regardless—still be loved.
62. Like a love poem’s lines memorized long ago, the alignment of the pieces returns to me as I arrange them on the board: Rook, knight, bishop, queen, king. I take two steps forward with a lone white pawn. And then I wait for the next move. Because I have never learned how to play alone.
63. The game remains there, stationary in that same position atop my kitchen table, where I work on my laptop in the solitary silence of each identical pandemic day. But then, sensing some sort of change, some new object to investigate, my cat leaps to the tabletop and sniffs the board. Bats a pawn with her paw. Watches a bishop topple to the floor. Lays her belly across the squares and swishes her tail, clattering indiscriminate pieces until she knocks the king over in her own kind of checkmate. Then she stands up, jumps down, trots away. Game over.
64. I laugh as I pick up the pieces, maybe chipped, maybe whole. And then I reset them, ready to play again.
Andrea Bianchi lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Rumpus, The Boiler, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. Her writing was also selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2021.