Two people. Sixty-four squares.
We met while touring the Opéra and decided to hang out. His name was Joey and I decided he looked trustworthy enough to take my picture with my fancy camera. Because until now all the selfie photos I’d taken were of me in mirrors and I was pretty sure I could catch him in a foot race. He was Canadian, harmless.
We were just passing through Centre Pompidou, on our way to a classical concert. Funny about plans, how quickly they can change.
Centre Pompidou is a cultural center I’ve heard characterized by more than a few guides as a building with its insides turned out, its multicolored exoskeleton that’s hard to resist imagining myself climbing all over like a giant jungle gym. A 2D Salvador Dalí– esque mural peers over his fountain’s lidless eyes, faceless lips and makeshift futbol field. None seem to regard his absurd Shhhhh (or Chuuuuttt en français).
The square was full of people-watchers at cafe tables, South American dancers and drummers busking the crowds of onlookers, other travelers, lay-abouts, someone with an acoustic guitar and loose knowledge of Beatles standards.
Joey and I peered into a gathering crowd of all ages and shades standing around a vinyl mat of sixty-four black and white squares, some giant plastic chess pieces and two players. As we approached, the lady player had just laid to waste an opponent, and his friend was looking to redeem him.
Joey seemed very interested. I confessed that I didn’t know a lick about the game, other than how the pieces moved and their names, and then asked Joey if he wouldn’t mind explaining chess to me while we watched the match. Chess, he said – well, whispered – is all about playing to an end game. One plays aggressively or defensively, and switches as necessary. Successful players see several steps ahead as the many routes of possibility open and close, as the players move pieces and take others away. Sometimes you have to choose if you want to give up one piece for another. Ask yourself if it’s a good trade. For example, is a bishop worth losing to a pawn if, by doing so, my rook can take said pawn and get into better striking position?
As the game went on for about an hour, Joey narrated the play-by-play much like nine innings of baseball. Why a player made a move and what countermove was made. The game started to make sense, actually – when the tense and urgent pauses of five or ten minutes when the crowd and the square surrounding us seemed still, then gave way to flurries of moves by the players, each trading a few pieces quickly, two pugilists sparring in the ring. Player picked up her black piece, and with the base of it, knocked down one of his white ones by its top, pulling the fallen white piece to the side of the board with her left hand and replacing the empty square with her black piece in her right. He quickly follows in a mirrored dance – white piece in hand, knocks black piece down and off to the slurry of already-fallen opponents and then into its new place.
After one of these move-countermove-countercountermove exchanges, one player commented on the other’s strategy. A little friendly banter would ensue, a little teasing, self-aggrandizing fluff, self-deprecating glib, whatever it was, each one trying to get the other to reveal a little something. Find a little tell.
Crossed arms folded, thumbnails were bit, gazes fell down again to the newly changed pattern on the chess grid. The players’ contemplation again began.
More often than not, Joey had a quick answer to my “why’d that happen” or “what happened” or “who’s winning now.” Usually he could predict which move would be played next. Joey from Canada continued: If the players are evenly matched, then, who wins the game becomes a matter of who makes fewer mistakes or who can take advantage of position more quickly or who has more pieces on the board.
In the end, the lady player seemed to resign to her fate before it happened. Not letting it get to the fatal checkmate, she gracefully bowed out and thanked her opponent, who successfully avenged his compatriot. The crowd all clapped to thank the two players before we all dispersed to whatever errand we’d forgot about an hour ago. That classical concert, in a church I can’t now remember the name of, was probably on its final movement. That possibility we let go in favor of another, but now though, other interesting courses of action for the evening took its place: a few bottles of beers by the Seine, jazz trio standards resonating against the cobblestones and the bateaux mouches flying to and fro, a gunmetal Aston Martin to admire on Île Saint-Louis, a few glasses of wine in a library full of old tomes. If chess was all about playing to an end game, this night wasn’t.