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by Kene Ezeaputa 10 months ago in Short Story
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A coming-of-age chess story

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash


This is my story

The wins, the losses and everything in between,

dedicated to grandparents

Thank you, Grandpa, for teaching me, “what is done with love is done well” even if I didn’t understand at the time what you meant, thank you Grandma for giving me a creed to live by for the rest of my days.

“Being spontaneous is being able to respond with confidence; calmly trusting that, whatever the outcome, you will have a positive experience that will lead to greater self-awareness and success.”

Chapter 1

My name is Harmon, I was born in south orange, New jersey; twenty minutes outside of New York. I spent summers with my grandparents and did not have a particular niche, besides chess and afternoon tea with my grandma: Nora. This story takes place at a unique time in every young man's life when they rediscover themselves. The year was 2010, the date June 1 and I walked out of school in my typical melodramatic way, today was the last day of school. My grandmother was picking me up. She was quite punctual, and today was no different, 2:30 on the dot she rolled in. She was a kind lady who had a rough edge, my grandfather would always tell stories of her temperament nature. In that way, they balanced each other out. Vincent my grandpa said few words, often talking more with his eyes than his mouth but behind closed doors, he was the life of the party, he was known for his quick remarks and his humor. Myself, I was more of an outlier. Not because I was introverted, but because I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a chess champion, which would allow me to get a full ride to duke university where I would study economics to fast track a life in business law. The car pulled into the driveway. My neighbor Violet Murphy who went to a school closer to our area was doing her typical skateboard nonsense in her driveway as we pulled into ours “Harmon do you want to come over today” she said. I usually said no and today was no different. I imagined she was the type of girl who routinely asked for help on her homework expecting the answer would be yes because she knew she was pretty. I got some joy in telling her what I told her every day “No Violet, try me tomorrow”. Grandma and I walked to the kitchen where we were greeted to a staple in our summers, hibiscus tea. Grandma and I chatted every day with that hibiscus tea. I don’t know how it started but I knew it was grandpa's favorite drink. Personally, I thought it was bitter, but it had grown on me through the years. I remember this day especially clear grandma was excited to read the new “Spacewalker” trilogy and to experiment with a new subscription service where she would get a new package in the mail every day for the entirety of summer. We chatted about my chess tournament next week and the u-18 nationals in Kentucky in August.

Chapter 2

I went on to spend the next two hours looking over chess games and playing puzzles in my room. The time was now 5:25pm as I started to transition to my mid-day meditation; a habit all the great chess champions had, but something I usually struggled with. After 30 mins, as my alarm went off, I grabbed a book to get my hour of reading before dinner. Today I picked “The richest man in Babylon” which was different from my typical readings; centered after history, but I enjoyed the occasional surprise. Now it was time for dinner. The only thing more reliable than the sun coming up in the morning was dinner at 6:55pm. Dinner was the same every night but that was how I had grown to like it, mashed potatoes chicken, pink eye salmon, and rice. I usually finished eating at 7:35 but today grandma wanted to play a game of chess. It didn’t last long; it never did. I won in 33 moves a personal best for me. “Grandma why do you still play me when defeat is almost guaranteed,” I said. “A love of the game is an appreciation for the memories it has given you, I play more to say thank you for the lessons chess has taught me than to win”. This was something my grandfather used to say before he died. At this point, in my story, he had been dead close to a year and a half. it feels like it was yesterday, him in the hospital, smiling through the pain. I remember him teaching me the game when I was 12 years old because the other kids often rejected to do with me. I like to think we can still talk through the pieces.

Chapter 3

June 8th, 7:45am

That was the day of my chess tournament, the one I had practiced so hard for, I known I was ready today was the day I’d win my first tournament, or so I thought. Me, grandma, and Violet had entered the car, Violet had asked to be dropped off at the skate park which was in close proximity to where I was playing chess, this happened often. Violet was overbearing and known my grandmother, or as she called her “Nora” would say yes to her. The car ride was filled with the typical antics, Violet asked to play music, I said no, she played music anyway. She’d always talk about nonsense, whether it was skate tricks or celebrity drama, and then punch my shoulder when my attention started to wane. She’d always been like this. We arrived at Jefferson High school where I'd be playing my chess tournament. It had an old exterior similar to a gothic building from Europe, but the interior had recently been remodeled. This was Violet’s school. I and Violet got out of the car and went our separate ways but only before I received a good slap on the back “Good luck Harmon”. I entered, turned left, went down the stairs, and went to the gym. I sat down, shook hands with my opponent, and the game beginning. 24 moves. 24 moves are all it took to win. I got up shook the gentleman’s hand and was shown where I'd be playing next. I sat down, shook the opponent’s hand, then got up. 22 moves. I was in control from start to finish. By the fifth game, I was on a roll and people were starting to gather around my games. Up to this point I hadn’t been tested but that would soon change. In my 7th matched the championship so to speak, I was playing a lean boy with orange hair who had a bad habit of nail-biting. I sat down, he sat down, I reached my hand out and he did the same, “good luck” we said. Around 45 moves later he reached his hand out followed by a reach out from my own, “good game” we said he got up, I didn’t. I had to study the board; I had just lost my first competitive match.

Chapter 4

After the cheers and trophies were handed out, I met up with my opponent. His name was Melvin he was my age. “You played a fine game today,” I said “thank you that makes two of us” he followed. For some reason I thought he was mocking me. I don’t remember the entire conversation, but he did mention he was going to be at the u-18 nationals. Something I’ll never forget is how matter of fact he spoke about our game “you play a boring style of chess, it's predictable” he continued “you’re probably a better player than I am; you just lack a creative element when you play and I’m not sure that can be taught. I’d watched you the whole tournament you played all the correct moves, no mistakes. But that where you can get in trouble, if your opponent expects you to play logical moves, they can predict your moves and set traps, traps you can’t escape from”. I thanked Melvin for the advice but deep down I was furious. I went to the skateboard where grandma said she’d picked me up. I watched from afar as Violet skated. I had always admired her skateboard skills, how effortless she looked on the board. Violet had a nice figure that seemed to float off the board. When we were younger, we used to skate together, she was more of a daredevil while I stook to the basics. But we’d grown apart when I moved schools at the start of 6th grade. Since then, I’d only talked to her when I’d visit grandma on holidays and during the summer months while my parents vacationed. We were good friends but not in a typical way. A voice crept up from behind” what are you looking at?” I jumped up “Hey grandma, I’ll get Violet” I said as I deflected her question. She knew I was checking Violet out, but my 17-year-old self would have never admitted that. I imagine she knew I liked Violet before I did.

Chapter 5

We returned Violet home and recharged with our daily hibiscus tea. I told Grandma about my loss and my conversion with Melvin. ” Do you think he’s right? “she said, “ I don’t know, the game was close and I feel a second go-a-round would yield a different result “ I replied “Chess isn’t best out of three, sweetie, rematches aren’t guaranteed, the best thing you can do is learn from your loss” she said, “I don’t know how to bring my creativity to chess” I said “You need to be spontaneous” “spontaneous? I said, “Being spontaneous is being able to respond with confidence; calmly trusting that whatever the outcome, you will have a positive experience that will lead to greater self-awareness and success.” I started to chuckle; she always knew what to says. I finished my tea and head upstairs to practice. Two hours of chess, 30 minutes of meditation, an hour of reading, and then dinner was how the rest of the day went; how every day went.

Chapter 6

June 10th 7:45

Grandma woke me up with packed bags, “why is my bag packed” I whispered “we're going to New York” she said, “I can’t I need to practice for nationals” I replied. We went back and forth arguing but I was determined to stand my ground. An hour later we had arrived in New York. I'll spare you the details of the conversion because it was pretty one-sided. Despite living 20 minutes from New York City, I had never been, partially because during the school year I was busier organizing field trips than taking them and during the summer I was playing chess. Violet had decided to tag along, which I acted annoyed by but thought would make the trip more enjoyable. Our first stop in the big apple was the statue of liberty, the view was incredible from the inside of the head but all I could think about was the time I would loss improving my chess skills. I imagine Grandma could see the look on my face when say said “Harmon you need to get out of your head” “Your identity is too closely tied to chess, that’s why loses feel personal ” she continued “you need to wake up and smell the roses, look around you; you are in the most beautiful city in the world and you are fixated on preparing for a tournament that's still two months away”. She was right and I knew it. The three of us exited lady liberty and made our way to time square. Let me tell you, anything you’ve seen on tv, any pictures or stories; can’t do justice to the real thing. The street music, dancers, food, billboards, and noise of the foot traffic are a unique experience. This is when I started to come out of my “shell”. “Nora let's do some shopping,” said Violet, I protested but not as strong as I usually would, Grandma agreed. And it was not too long till we were in Manhattan mall. I didn’t have a crazy style I usually stuck to grey’s black’s and blue’s, but I decided to take grandma's advice and find something I liked. By the time I came across a nice green polo and a multi-color hoodie, Violet had amounted twenty items. I didn’t have to try on anything because I knew my exact size in polo t-shirts and knew it would fit perfectly after 2 cycles in the laundry. The multi-color hoodie was affordable enough that if its size was altered, I would just wear it to sleep. Violet went into the dressing room and after every few minutes came out. Occasionally she would say “what do you think”, I would play it off with an “I like it” or “the colors are nice” but on the inside, I was glowing, I think this was the best part of the trip. We had spent a considerable amount of time in the mall and it was getting dark, we decided to book a hotel and drive back in the morning. Grandma and Violet shared a room while I got one to myself. We said goodnight and went to our rooms, but at around 10:30pm as I was beginning to doze off. I heard a knock. I quietly got up and checked the peephole. I don’t know what I was expecting but I was glad to see it was Violet.

Chapter 8

I opened my door and started questioning why Violet was knocking on my door at 10:30pm. She said there was a pool on the roof, and she wanted to check it out. This time I didn’t relent,” alright let’s check it out” I said. We went to go to the roof and sure enough, there was a pool with no one in sight, we were alone. We sat down, took off our shoes and socks, and slipped our feet into the pool. After a while, Violet said, “That’s the big dipper” pointing to the sky. I nodded in approval but, I had never seen anything in the stars. She went on “that’s the north star, it has guided sailors back home for thousands of years” I nodded again “you don’t see it do you” “no I don’t” I said as we locked eyes. She grabbed my hand and pointed it to where the dipper was. “Oh, I see, it resembles a spoon” I had not seen anything that night, but I enjoyed her holding my hand.” I’m glad you came with us today” I said “me too” she replied. I don’t remember the rest of our conversion that night but towards the end, I’d leaned in for a kiss. It was just a moment, nothing dramatic, but it had been our moment. We eventually went back down to our rooms. Violet used her keycard and unlocked her door. “I’ll see you in the morning, thanks for a good night” she said. This time she leaned in for a kiss. In the morning we acted civilized, or as much as possible. When we got in the car grandma confronted us “so how was your night” “good” we said. She looked to Violet “where did you go last night” “up to the pool” Violet said, “and you” “I also went to the pool”. Grandma smirked, and that grin didn’t leave her face till we got home. I spent the coming weeks playing chess, but also skateboarding with Violet, visiting New York, and watching the occasional movie with “Nora” and Violet.

Chapter 9

August 23rd, 8:15am

Today was nationals, I wasn’t nervous. It felt like a year since my loss in June, I was a different player, a different person now. I arrived at the venue an hour early to feel the atmosphere. Kentucky was only an hour difference, so I wasn’t too jet-lagged. Grandma and Violet came with me to Kentucky. We had arrived last week and had since been enjoying the city. It was a nice change of pace from my chess grind over the last 3 weeks. My first game was tough, but I enjoyed it, something I wouldn’t have said at the beginning of the summer. My second game was against an old friend, Melvin from my tournament earlier this summer. 40 moves, I was in control the whole time. I told him farewell and good luck. I was going to win this tournament. I’ll spare you the details and fast forward to the last game. A girl with orange hair about my height her name was Beth. This was the best game I’d ever played. The game went back and forth but when the dust settled, I had won. The following days were a blur, there were many pictures, articles, and interviews. I was a star, at least for a few weeks in the chess world. We spent two more days in Kentucky doing meet and greets before we went home to New Jersey. My first stop was the cemetery, I had one last person to say thank you to.

Short Story

About the author

Kene Ezeaputa

Trying to do my best

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