by Kleitia Vaso

So many times in my life I have wished I could play chess, or more truthfully, become a chess master – not from a desire to play and win but so as to skillfully and correctly use it as a metaphor. As far as victory is concerned, I have this lingering belief that, in the end, nobody really wins, although the game usually ends with a distinct winner. Indeed, in chess as in other games and sports, I hope that the winner feels guilt rather than joy for forcing his/her opponent into a helpless position. Strangely enough, I always empathize with the humiliated loser rather than the patient and strategically-gifted winner.

The feeble knowledge of a few elementary moves, which if I tried to apply to an actual game would get me nowhere, has not stopped me from often applying the terminology of chess to my life and that of others. “Ah, again, here we go, checkmate!” when I feel that I’ve once again stumbled on life’s unforgiving and fixed edges. When this dramatic expression appears in my head, I imagine the many figures coming to life and moving haphazardly, according to my fantasy and not necessarily obeying the rules of the game. Naturally, in the end, I stop and look at the suddenly powerless and surrendered king and the encircled, besieged queen who, panicked, hopelessly searches for an exit, a way out. Yet, the special cruelty of chess is precisely this aspect: the exhaustion of options, the slow elimination of all ways out.

Being far from an exit – even in the physical sense – is perhaps my greatest fear and dreaded punishment. If I am interested in something – a person, a book, a movie, a show – I can stay in one place for hours on end without feeling impatient in the slightest. But, add a crowd of people or a very distant exit to this pleasant, “still life” tableau and, suddenly, it and I come to life. The telltale signs of uneasiness can range from slightly enlarged pupils, a slight but humid pallor, and swift nervous gestures which betray the fervent desire to escape the previously enjoyable place which has suddenly turned into a stifling cage.

Although I’ve always been aware of a light physical discomfort in both small and vast spaces, I’ve slowly and painfully understood that this response is more closely connected to the perceived lack of escape routes and options rather than to the space itself. When this sensation of being stuck applies to a metaphysical situation or condition, one can taste a slice of hell. In these rare cases, I’ve fully understood the physical, emotional and mental dimensions of that terrible sensation of being cornered, shoulders against the wall, unable to move forward, backward, diagonally, or otherwise. The sad end here results from various factors: the field, careless players, rushed moves. But, despite alleviating external factors, the greatest amount of blame must be claimed by the king or the queen, of course.

Addendum:

I had long forgotten this essay, considering it incomplete, but someone recently reminded me of it. The question connecting the situation to the game of chess and, consequently, this essay, was fairly simple: “Do you imagine us on the same side as collaborators or, on opposing ones, as opponents?” My impulsive answer was opposing – always opposing! – but I later realized that this was a facile and, in this specific case, an incorrect answer. Yet, the other person’s natural association between life and a game of chess reawakened an old hobby of mine, namely the penchant for the categorization of real things and people based on an unambiguous fictive microcosm.

After the rushed, impulsive answer, I tried to arrive at a more rationalized truth during fleeting periods of the day and night. Also, a bit childishly, I tried to assign the different roles of the chess pieces to the various close and distant characters of my life. Who would be the pawns? The knights? The castles? The king? The same person again reminded me of a fact that I often used to forget, though now less so, that people are not static chess pieces. Differently from the chessboard, life allows for the changing – upgrade and downgrade – of positions and roles: a pawn can become a king, for instance. Rarely but certainly. All this fluidity is accompanied by an infinite array of options and modes of movement, not just forward, diagonally, backward. Yet, despite life’s seeming largesse and flexibility, moments still exist when one ends up cornered, against the wall, with no other option than irreversible surrender. “Checkmate!” one says again with dropped shoulders and a defeated look, already thinking of a better, smarter strategy, now enriched by defeat, slowly at first, and then, faster, for the start of another game.

by Kleitia Vaso