Yesterday's Magazette

6 – Checkmate



By Richard Ong

* Long before the Playstation, the online internet role-playing games and even Dungeons and Dragons, for kids like us there was only chess and a small box of Lego. With a wee bit dash of an overactive imagination, we held the fate of the world at the palm of our hands. Our sole purpose in life was to get out of school early, finish our homework and line up our chess pieces all over the sofa for the next war of the champs.


The doorbell rang.

I looked out of the bedroom window and saw my cousin waiting outside the gate of our duplex compound in Manila.

Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong!

I ran downstairs taking three steps at a time while my nanny yelled that she would not take any responsibility if I were to slip and break my fool neck in the process. I didn’t care. It was Sunday afternoon. Time to play chess.


I opened the side door of the gate. My cousin and best friend, Nino, stood outside with a chess set box under his right arm and a big smile on his face. “Hullo, Rico! Ready to get creamed?”

“You wish! C’mon in. Tita made some coconut juice. We’ll have some before we start.” Tita was our housemaid and cook.

“That’s awesome! I’m sweating so much under this heat.” Nino stepped through the door and fished out a hanky to wipe the perspiration off his brow. It was a hot July afternoon in the summer of 1975. I was nine years old at the time and Nino was eight.

We ran across the terrace, leapt over the steel mini go-cart and Tiny Tyke tricycle, slammed open the screen door and dashed through my grandmother’s living room making a beeline towards the startled Tita carrying the tray of juice from the kitchen. Good ol’ Tita always anticipated our needs before chess time, especially under this heat. Air conditioning was restricted to the bedrooms due to the rising cost of electricity. Even with the windows wide open, the living room was still smothering us under the thirty-seven degree heat.

“Careful! Careful! Don’t spill anything on the couch. Here, let me clear some space for you on the table.” Gray-haired Tita gently laid down the tray on the table and poured sweet coconut juice in each of the two tall glasses. Half-melted ice cubes were swept over into the glasses as she filled each to the brim.

Nino and I quickly drained our glasses and poured a second one before Tita finished clearing the rest of the table. A mini porcelain replica of Venus de Milo was safely shoved over to a corner shelf while a china vase found shelter on top of the piano. Tita reached over the sofa and turned on the small electric fan behind us. Satisfied, she put a finger to her lips and told us to keep our voice down for Grandfather was napping upstairs. We nodded and opened the box of chess to set up our game. Tita left us to resume her chores in the kitchen.

“Let the games begin! Oh, you’re gonna get it this time, Nino! I got this new plan in mind to trap your king. It’s so cool, though I’m not gonna tell you of course.”

“Hah! That’s what you said last week before your king was clobbered. Anyway, I’ve got a new secret plan of attack that you’ll never guess. I thought about it all last night, you know.” Nino had this evil grin on his face that he knew I hated so much. Although he was a year younger than I, he was two years smarter.

I tried to hide my nervousness with a bluff of my own. “Go for it, kiddo. I ain’t afraid. I’ve got this new strategy that will allow my knights to quickly skewer your pawns before you can say, ‘Uncle.’”

“Hah! We’ll see. We’ll see.” Nino poured his third glass of coconut juice.

We never used the board to play our game. We played a different kind of “chess.”

“I’ll be white,” Nino said.

“Black will only make me more invincible,” I grinned.

“Hah! We’ll see.”

I knelt on the floor and set my pieces in place over, under the cushions and in every corner of the sofa nearest the door. Nino did the same on the opposite end near the duplex partition separating my grandparents’ from my parents’ living areas. After a few minutes, we were ready to start our game.

Hours passed. Grandfather awoke amidst the din of battle. We barely heard him slowly make his way down the staircase. He cleared the phlegm in his throat and we stopped, our hands poised in mid-air, each with a bishop held between our fingers.

“Grandpa! You’re awake!” I said.

“Hi Gramps!” Nino waved his bishop at him.

Grandfather managed the last few steps down with some effort. His rheumatism had been bothering him the last few days. That’s why he’d been napping a lot. He cleared his throat once more. “Hello, kids. Playing a game of chess, I see.” He nodded approvingly towards the empty chess board. “Are you just starting your game? Can I watch?”

We both looked at each other and shrugged. “Sure thing, Grandpa,” I said. “But you may not understand our game at all.”

“What? Chess?” Grandfather chuckled and nearly started a coughing fit for his troubles. “Ahem. I used to be a five-time champion chess player back in the province during my younger days. I don’t think the game has changed at all since that time.”

“This game is special,” Nino said. “And I’m beating Rico… again!”

“You are not!”

“Am too! Your two knights just burst into flames five minutes ago. You thought that new armour would make them invincible. Well, blehh!” Nino stuck his tongue out to taunt me. He knew exactly what to do to make me mad. It was a favourite ploy of his and he knew it always worked.

“That’s it! Watch me humiliate him, Grandpa!” I picked up the queen and yelled, “Missiles away!”

“Huh?” Grandpa blinked in surprise.

I uttered a long “swoosh” and traced an imaginary flight path with my other hand from the queen towards where his king was perched on top of the green round cushion. Nino stopped my missiles in mid-air with the palm of his hand.

“Barrier on!”

“That won’t save you. Firing lasers!” My queen hit the afterburners and she hovered right above my cousin’s Lego home base pouring death rays on top of the fortress.

“What’s that?! What’s going on?” Grandpa scratched his head.

“Double barrier on! Nothing can go through my defense. You know that! I stole the generator from your base last time, remember?” Nino still held my queen in check in mid-air with the palm of his hand.

“Damn you! I forgot about that. Oh no!” I said in dismay.

“Hey, don’t swear! Where did you learn how to swear?” Grandpa was both shocked and angry at my profanity. I paid no attention to him. I had a crisis on my hands.

I knew right away how the game would end. I’d already lost most of my chess pieces in the last half hour. My own fortress was crippled beyond repair. I gave all the remaining energies of my kingdom to my queen and I couldn’t even penetrate his shields. I was doomed, doomed and doomed.

“Ready to fire all artilleries!” Nino wiped the sweat off his brow. He wheeled over both of his rooks on opposite sides of my fortress. Blocks of Lego pieces scattered all over the sofa as a memento of my defeat. It was over. My queen would not be able to fly back in time. It was —

“Checkmate,” Grandpa said. He stood up, reached over and tipped my king over on its side from inside the devastated fortress. He grinned down at our startled expressions and said, “You see, boys. I told you I understood chess, including your strange and twisted version of it. In the end, the king always gets it.”

He winked at my cousin and Nino laughed.

I felt ready to cry.

Vol. 36 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring – 2009


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