Playing Chess

Illustration by Maia Boakye

Illustration by Maia Boakye

By Lila Bristol 

I have no memory of the first time I saw a checkerboard, and I do not remember who volunteered to teach our after-school club. I can’t recall learning how to move the pieces or when I stopped religiously using the Ruy Lopez, a popular opening move in chess.

But the ecstasy of losing my very first chess game is a feeling I will never forget.

For a young black girl, there are few moments in a downtown Toronto primary school that are not profoundly isolating. For anyone who continues to move through pale spaces in later life, we know that the isolation does not leave, either. Instead, isolation becomes a steady companion - a familiar friend in every new, white wilderness.

At ten or eleven years old, in a chess club where no one looked like me and everyone looked at me, I did my sacred ritual for the first time. I searched for symbols in the setting, signs that the companion who had followed me there was connected to some greater purpose. In a short game against a friend-who-touched-my-hair, I recognized I was playing with the black pieces. I was playing with me.

In chess, white always moves first, and black second. At that age, I knew enough to know that this rule made me deeply uncomfortable. No one else seemed unsettled, or appeared to feel a slow burn under their cheeks when the official rules were rationalized: “you’re black so you’re playing black.” So I kept my comments, and my explosive joy anytime I won playing with the black pieces, to myself. The wins were personal. They still are. Fuck the white pieces and absolutely fuck their head start.

There is no beginning or end to the joy of playing chess, even in a moment as bitter as ours. It is surreal as a daydream or a hallucination, to access a universe in which the pin is mightier than the gun, and survival takes whatever direction the mind can conceive. Where you have the capacity to protect everyone that is your colour, and everyone that is your colour works to protect you.

When sacrifice mingles with progress, and time is as wide as every plan you’ve ever had. Nothing can contain the beauty of an alternate reality where small moves and small pieces have immense power. There, endurance has the potential to manifest greatness, a triumph and a triplet: strategy, struggle and patience are required in equal measure. Chess is the black woman’s game. 

Bobby Fischer said chess is life. I say chess is a world, contained. And it is the first world I ever loved. It was not losing that stuck with me that first time I played, or the sting of defeat. What I coveted that day, and ever since, was the thrill. Of dying while knowing I would have another chance to live. Of the possibility that one day, I could win.