Clyde Benson played like a professional at his first high school chess tournament. There was a four-year paid scholarship to the college of his choice at stake and he trained for an entire year just to have a shot at it. For the last few months, he ate, slept and breathed chess statistics and tactics, forsaking all other responsibilities for the scholarship. After winning the first three rounds, reporters were quick to name him the favorite to win the tournament, and with good reason, too. He played flawlessly, penetrating every defense and blocking every attack with precision never seen before at the high school level. There was no mistake. His performance had to be perfect to get this far, and for a while, it was, but the months of sleepless practicing were beginning to take their toll on the poor, overworked Clyde.
Clyde worked his way up the tournament ladder, and eventually rose to the final round, ready to face the last challenger standing between him and the scholarship. But he was as exhausted as he was excited. He had pushed aside all rest, friends and pleasure to train for this moment. He did it all by himself, and even in this moment of triumph, he was all alone. This time, he said to himself, he would take no chances. He would expose his opponent’s flaws one by one and finish him off with a humiliating final blow with his queen. It should take no more than about fifteen to twenty moves, he thought, and would really wow the audience when he took home the first prize in style. Secretly, though, Clyde was quickly losing steam and all he wanted was the whole affair over and done with.
The gymnasium, cleared and decorated for the final event, was a confusion of noise, though no one voice could be easily isolated. Still, it remained quiet enough to insure a small window of time to think and reflect. “I can do this.”, Clyde said to himself repeatedly as if he didn’t really believe it but thought that reciting these words might force something to happen regardless. He approached the table containing the chessboard, pieces and timer. The familiar sight put him momentarily at ease. Soon, he felt a surge of adrenaline flow through him, and he was ready to take on the world single-handedly. But as soon as he saw his opponent, all confidence completely drained from his disposition.
His opponent’s voice sounded out of place as he spoke to an adult, possibly his trainer, who walked him to the table. He assumed him to be a foreign exchange student from a country that exported as many chess players as China exported tea. Though he was as tall as Clyde, he was slimmer and paler. His complexion contrasted well with his menacingly black hair. His jeans were just as black as well as his fitting polo shirt. His eyes were difficult to read for his long, shaggy hair that covered his bespectacled eyes. Not that this mattered, because he wore a wide- brimmed fedora that cast an obscuring shadow over half his face. Immediately, this mysterious, foreign chess master struck fear into Clyde, and he did his best to hide it, but the boy in black easily sensed his apprehension. He lifted the brim of his fedora and flashed a cruel grin to Clyde that seemed to predict an imminent defeat.
The crowd hushed to a dull murmur, and then silence. The final match was ready to commence. Clyde and the boy in black met on opposite ends of the table. The proctor prompted them to shake hands. Clyde felt the eerily cold hand of the boy in black and this only added to the sheer terror. They took their seats and the boy in black lifted a knight from the first rank and slammed it onto the third with a loud “clack” that permeated every nook and cranny of the gymnasium. Then, he hit the timer and folded his arms. The first move was made and the game had begun.
The first few moves spelled disaster for Clyde’s battle plan. each move the boy in black made was bold and fearless. With each move, Clyde questioned his own and decided, rather than going straight for the kill, he would play it safe. Very simply, he would clear spaces for his rook and bishop to slowly cripple the enemy defenses. This plan was soon dashed, however, as he made an amateurish mistake. His white knight and bishop were caught in a black rook’s fork. Stealthily, he moved the knight out of danger only to find his bishop still in check without retribution. The plan hinged so greatly on this one piece, and now it was going to be shattered to pieces.
He hoped that the boy in black wouldn’t notice, but the more he dwelt on it, the more he shifted and fidgeted in his seat. Then, the boy in black placed a finger on his rook and he knew he had Clyde’s full, undivided attention. The boy searched the board and after finding the opening for attack, captured Clyde’s beloved bishop. The crowd gasped. “Stupid!” his eyes screamed, and all the boy in black could do was chuckle and grin.
Clyde spent the next several moves making up for the carelessness of his opening gambit. He would not make that mistake again, he thought, repeatedly, but the more he thought about it, the more he saw himself as inferior to the boy in black. Obviously, he was dealing with a world- class player and he knew that to beat him, he must play harder and smarter. However, even then, the echo of “I’m inferior,” “I’m weak,” “I’m no match for him,” and “I’m stupid.” permeated every thought that crossed his mind, and each move he made cost him yet another valuable piece. Sweat poured from his face, as he spent the majority of the endgame with his head cradled in his hands, back hunched over and, eyes glazed and bloodshot. The boy in black remained cool and serene. It drove him crazy.
Finally, the boy in black held a force of four pawns, one of which was about to be promoted, one rook, no knights and two bishops. Clyde had nothing but a rook, a knight, and two pawns. Any other player could take these insurmountable odds and pull victory out of nowhere, he thought, but not him. One mistake after another chipped away at his ego until he saw himself as nothing more than a worm who crawled here by sheer luck alone. The boy in black had him cornered, and there was nothing he could do about it. But wait! There was a small opening he could possibly use. He could move his king and push his pawn forward and take a chance of promotion. There were other riskier options, but considering who he was playing, this seemed to be the safest. Clyde pushed his king to the left and appeared to be rather proud of himself at this moment until the boy in black pushed his pawn to the eight rank and swapped it for a queen.
“Checkmate!” he sneered with a smile. Clyde fell prey to the boy’s wiles once again.
Hands were shaken, pictures were taken, and the boy in black walked away with the scholarship that was originally promised to Clyde for all of his hard work. As the building cleared and everyone scattered to the parking lot to go back to their normal lives, Clyde still had one piece of unfinished business to attend to. He ran to the side parking lot where the school’s charter buses were parked. There, he saw the boy in black strolling casually to one of them.
“Hey!” Clyde called. “Hey, you! You in black! Excuse me!” The boy turned around and the two met each other halfway. “That was amazing!” said Clyde. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“It was nothing,” muttered the boy, “really.”
“Nothing?” said Clyde. “Don’t be so modest! What’s your secret? How long have you been practicing? Five years? Ten?”
“Two weeks.” said the boy, with a heavy accent.
“Wha–?” Clyde was dumbfounded.
“I’m not really that good.” said the boy in black. “In fact, I’m the worst chess player at my school. I intimidate my opponents into telegraphing their weaknesses and I capitalize on them. They’re all so weak-minded. They tell me everything I need to know. Then, I’m able to tear them down until they’re a shaking, sniveling mess. But,” he added. “they’re a mess from their own doing.”
“B-b-but when you played m-me.” Clyde stammered. “I thought–“
“You?” the boy interrupted. “You were great! You could’ve beat me easily if you had just exposed my flaws and went for the kill with your queen.” Clyde slapped an open palm against his face. “Too bad none of you know a good thing when you have it.”
Clyde Benson stared into space, completely speechless. There went the boy in black, walking away with his prized paid scholarship to the school of his choice, and here was Clyde with nothing left to show for his suffering but the thoughts of what could have been.