The Rope-a-Dope Gambit

Fiction / Sunil Freeman

:: The Rope-a-Dope Gambit ::

Joy Jack­son had heard an occa­sion­al insult over the years, but nev­er “This will be quick.” She’d seen the white boy and woman as they approached, stop­ping just a few yards from her. The woman, pre­sum­ably his moth­er, said she’d be back, then some­thing about din­ner plans. The boy stared at Joy as the woman turned and walked away. Then he called back, more than loud enough for her and the dozen or more peo­ple who had gath­ered: “This will be quick.” She knew what he was think­ing, saw it in both their glances even before he spoke: Black girl play­ing chess means an easy win. The assump­tion no longer sur­prised her. But the loud con­tempt? In front of so many peo­ple? It stung. 

She had arrived at noon, an hour before the game was to begin. She liked to take in the sounds and rhythms of the city, clear her mind, and drift into an almost med­i­ta­tive tran­quil­i­ty before find­ing the sharp focus she’d soon bring to the chess­board. As good for­tune would have it, the orga­niz­ers had decid­ed to play a few games at Dupont Cir­cle when ren­o­va­tions had tem­porar­i­ly shut the old school build­ing. The place was a mec­ca for chess lovers, in the heart of the city just a mile from the White House. It was a per­fect blue sky Sat­ur­day right on the cusp of autumn, her favorite season. 

A steady stream of peo­ple wan­dered through the park. Tourists peered at guide books and snapped pic­tures. Dozens of peo­ple lis­tened to head­phones, read books, talked with friends, or just relaxed on bench­es that cir­cled the foun­tain. Far­ther back, almost to the road, a drum­mer played shift­ing rhyth­mic pat­terns on his array of plas­tic buck­ets. Pigeons flocked to the foun­tain or wad­dled around look­ing for stray crumbs of crois­sants, muffins, any­thing. Squir­rels in trees looked war­i­ly at two unleashed dogs. 

Joy had been there a week before after find­ing Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hun­dred Select­ed Games just off the Cir­cle at Sec­ond Sto­ry Books. She spent the after­noon study­ing analy­ses of games from the 1920s into the ’40s by a world cham­pi­on who once taught future grand­mas­ters like Kas­parov and Kar­pov. Botvin­nik had an engag­ing writ­ing style and he gen­er­ous­ly shared his reflec­tions on games with Alekhine, Capa­blan­ca, and oth­er leg­endary play­ers who had been his con­tem­po­raries. This alone was worth the price of a used paper­back, but his book offered much more than a win­dow into that dis­tant era. Botvin­nik deep­ened her under­stand­ing of the Ruy Lopez, Sicil­ian Defense, Queen’s Gam­bit Declined, and sev­er­al oth­er open­ings. She played some of them often; oth­ers she planned to try some day. 

Read­ing Botvin­nik, Joy felt con­nect­ed across decades and con­ti­nents to an enor­mous com­mu­ni­ty, part of which had gath­ered right there in the city park. She saw class­mates, her old­er broth­er Bri­an, some fam­i­ly friends who had come to show sup­port, and a mix of acquain­tances and strangers. Curios­i­ty had attract­ed new­com­ers. They had heard the buzz about the shy, unas­sum­ing girl who was crush­ing most of her oppo­nents, even beat­ing some high­ly ranked adults. 


Peo­ple who got to know Joy saw her as an intro­vert, a qui­et 13-year-old who did well in school, knew the staff at the pub­lic library, and was rarely seen with­out a book or two. Bri­an, a senior who played tenor sax at Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts, had always been the out­go­ing child, pop­u­lar in and out of school. He’d gone from clar­inet to sax five years before. The switch, when it hap­pened, seemed pre­or­dained, as if he’d grown into his true self. He loved the instru­ment, prac­tic­ing for hours and study­ing tran­scribed John Coltrane, Son­ny Rollins, and Wayne Short­er solos. 

Some evenings he sat in with the old pros on jazz nights at West­min­ster Pres­by­ter­ian. A pianist, after learn­ing who she was, told her: “Your brother’s going places if he keeps at it like this.” That was the night Bri­an took a big solo on Charles Mingus’s “Bet­ter Get Hit In Your Soul.” The band was on fire, breath­ing life into the Bib­li­cal psalm’s com­mand­ment. They made a joy­ful noise that rocked the chapel, wash­ing away, at least for a while, what­ev­er wor­ries need­ed to be gone. 

Joy kept a low pro­file, hap­py to leave the spot­light to Bri­an. Intro­vert. The word, once applied, felt just right. She liked the image it con­jured of a per­son com­fort­able with soli­tude; she wore it well. Bran­don and Grace Jack­son had seen their chil­dren grow in dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent paths, each find­ing a tem­pera­ment that fit nat­u­ral­ly. “I think you might enjoy chess,” her father had said on her ninth birth­day. She was imme­di­ate­ly hooked by a sense of mys­tery, the won­der of hav­ing such an ancient game right there in their home. Soon she was drawn to the com­plex lines of attack and defense, the many open­ings and tac­tics to study. 

She loved the way her breath slowed, how stray thoughts dis­ap­peared as her focus on the chess­board sharp­ened, how she could feel her pulse beat­ing as she planned an attack, then watched the metic­u­lous­ly plot­ted sequence of moves fall into place. She knew all too well the jolt of adren­a­line when—too late!—she detect­ed an unavoid­able knight fork. Her heart pound­ed as she nav­i­gat­ed around obsta­cles to push a pawn to the end rank where it would become a queen. 

Some­times it felt like she was glid­ing, a con­trolled con­fi­dence smooth as the Smokey Robin­son songs her par­ents loved. Oth­er times, a jum­bled mess. All this pow­er­ful ener­gy was dri­ven and con­trolled by her mind. It was a bit addic­tive. As Joy gained con­fi­dence, she began to read about the great play­ers and their his­toric games. New worlds opened for her to explore. Chess had become an inex­haustible gift with ever greater rewards the more she learned. 

She joined the youth chess league a year after those first games with her father. Word began to spread about the girl whose well con­cealed traps caught even advanced play­ers by sur­prise. At home, she now con­sis­tent­ly beat him. Her moth­er did lit­tle to hide her amuse­ment at this turn of events. “Who’s win­ning?” she’d ask, tak­ing a break from grad­ing high school writ­ing assign­ments. He’d sigh, then offer a word­less grunt. It became a run­ning joke, with Brian’s sax more often than not wail­ing coun­ter­point from his bed­room upstairs. 

The Jack­son fam­i­ly roots in the city ran deep. Their ances­tors on both sides had come up from Raleigh, North Car­oli­na in the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Brandon’s father had been friends with Mar­i­on Bar­ry since the days of Pride, Inc. That was a decade before Barry’s reign began as “May­or for Life.” Long before all that went down went down. The nation’s cap­i­tal had been known as Choco­late City, at times more than 70% Black, back in the day. Neigh­bors knew each oth­er, shared a com­mon his­to­ry, and cre­at­ed a home-grown cul­ture in close-knit com­mu­ni­ties that had forged tight bonds under the painful weight of legal segregation. 

Bran­don attend­ed Dun­bar High School and went on to Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, ulti­mate­ly grad­u­at­ing from the law school. He had worked in labor law almost twen­ty years. It pro­vid­ed a com­fort­able home life when com­bined with Grace’s job teach­ing Eng­lish to seniors at Dun­bar. Not near­ly as lucra­tive as cor­po­rate law, but more than enough. He was, as Grace liked to say, one of the good lawyers. 

Bran­don had imag­ined Joy would take to chess, sensed she’d be good at it, but had not antic­i­pat­ed what was hap­pen­ing. They enjoyed their games togeth­er, but both knew it was time to find more chal­leng­ing oppo­nents. Word quick­ly spread through the grapevine that Bran­don and Grace Jack­son were seek­ing chess play­ers for their daugh­ter. They soon learned about James Gilmore. 


They looked online after hear­ing his name a third time. The Google search brought up arti­cles in neigh­bor­hood news­pa­pers, a fea­ture in Chess Life, mag­a­zine of the U.S. Chess Fed­er­a­tion, seg­ments on local PBS and NBC TV chan­nels, and an item in the Sun­day Wash­ing­ton Post magazine. 

James Gilmore was a Black man, about 50 years old, who lived and played chess at Dupont Cir­cle, pock­et­ing $5, $10, or more for a game or short les­son. It had been sev­er­al years since he last had a per­ma­nent address. Lessons with James often con­sist­ed of him patient­ly ana­lyz­ing the game that had just tran­spired, show­ing crest­fall­en oppo­nents just how and why they lost. Many drove or Metro’d in from the sub­urbs, oth­ers from every quad­rant of the city. He even played a few ambas­sadors, vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries, and embassy work­ers from around the globe. 

James had range. To max­i­mize his income, he spe­cial­ized in “blitz” games that last­ed no more than 10 min­utes. Dupont Cir­cle was home to a sub­cul­ture of chess hus­tlers who could beat almost any­one. James was sim­ply the best. Unlike the oth­ers, he also played clas­sic tour­na­ment-lev­el chess in cities along the east coast. Over the years he had won two tour­na­ments and he always fin­ished among the final­ists. Even high­ly ranked play­ers who avoid­ed the live­ly Dupont Cir­cle chess scene acknowl­edged that James Gilmore was one of the best in the entire metro area. 

Grace and Bran­don read the arti­cles and watched James play and phi­los­o­phize on YouTube videos. One warm April day they board­ed the Metro with Joy, des­tined for Dupont Cir­cle. He saw them join the small crowd that had gath­ered to watch as he dis­patched one oppo­nent after the oth­er. He fin­ished a sec­ond blitz game, then beck­oned them. 

We can for­get about the game clock,” he said, sur­pris­ing almost every­one. “Let’s just play.” He com­pli­ment­ed her best moves. He stopped the game when she made a mis­take. “Are you sure you want to do that? If you move there, I’ll do this,” play­ing out the next few moves. They played and talked for more than an hour. Chess talk, then rem­i­nis­cence with her par­ents about the North Car­oli­na roots they all shared, rel­a­tives who nev­er moved north, then more chess. All the while a small crowd of impa­tient cus­tomers wait­ed for their chance to play. 

James refused their mon­ey when it came time to leave. “Nah, that’s alright. I’ve real­ly enjoyed this. I hope y’all will come back.” The Jack­sons intend­ed to revis­it the issue of pay­ment at a lat­er date, but they knew to defer to him on that first vis­it. They were on his turf. Though it was nev­er spo­ken, they all under­stood that James had passed a test that after­noon, as had Joy and her parents. 

The next week she returned with her moth­er. Instead of cash, Mrs. Jack­son brought a gen­er­ous por­tion of the sweet pota­to pie they had dis­cussed at their first meet­ing, the recipe her moth­er taught her long ago. Mrs. Jackson’s sweet pota­to pie was an offer he did not refuse. 

Joy’s par­ents didn’t accom­pa­ny her the fol­low­ing week. Bri­an was eager to check out the chess guy he’d been hear­ing about. He brought his sax to try street busk­ing after her ses­sion with James. They’d enjoy the after­noon togeth­er, sib­ling time out in the city. James spent almost an hour with her, stop­ping to explain a few moves as he had done before. 

Bri­an saw his sis­ter in a new light that after­noon. James clear­ly was the star, but peo­ple noticed how he shift­ed gears for her. How his quick stac­ca­to pat­ter gave way to a slow­er, more reflec­tive side they had nev­er seen. The buzz spread­ing through Dupont chess cir­cles had become: “Oh my God. He stopped the clock.” It was usu­al­ly fol­lowed by: “Who is she?” Anoint­ed by James Gilmore, Brian’s shy lit­tle sis­ter was becom­ing a celebri­ty on Dupont Circle. 

I’m sor­ry. My par­ents asked me to do this.” Joy hand­ed James a $20 bill at the end of their last game. “They said they pay for music lessons, so it’s not right for you not to get at least some pay­ment when­ev­er we play.” 

If they insist,” James accept­ed the mon­ey. “But please be sure to let your moth­er know how much I enjoyed her sweet pota­to pie. That was …” he paused, search­ing for a word. “I believe that was the best sweet pota­to pie I’ve ever had.” 

Should I tell her you’d like more?”

Just tell her I liked it. Tell her I liked it a whole lot.” He said it to both of them like the words were music. Said it with a smile, so it was as if they were all in on a secret. James’s future def­i­nite­ly held the promise of more sweet pota­to pie. 

Joy was relieved to have the ques­tion of mon­ey resolved. She had been ner­vous all day in antic­i­pa­tion of the con­ver­sa­tion. “Well, I should be get­ting back to work. Good luck with the music. I’ll enjoy it while I play these guys.” James turned to face his new oppo­nent. Joy and Bri­an found an open grassy area set back from the cen­tral foun­tain but near one of the side­walks that bisect­ed the cir­cle. Bri­an put a dona­tion box on the ground, assem­bled his instru­ment, and began to play. He cleared just over $60 in two hours. 


Joy vis­it­ed James almost every week after that, some­times with Bri­an, some­times with her moth­er or father. Every now and then they all arrived togeth­er to enjoy the chess and hear Bri­an play. 

The pow­er dynam­ics that ruled most aspects of city life held no sway at James’s small cor­ner of the Cir­cle. Some oppo­nents came with no expec­ta­tion of win­ning. They only want­ed to enhance their bohemi­an hip­ster cred by play­ing the famous chess guy at Dupont Cir­cle. For them, even a loss was a win. It was proof of authen­tic­i­ty, a prized nugget of per­son­al infor­ma­tion to slip into con­ver­sa­tion at a par­ty or on a date. He enjoyed those games. They were upbeat, albeit lop­sided, win-win encoun­ters where every­one left feel­ing happy. 

Oth­er oppo­nents assumed their pro­fes­sion­al cre­den­tials (although not in chess), their grav­i­tas, and their supe­ri­or grad­u­ate degrees would give them the advan­tage over a slick chess hus­tler. He enjoyed teach­ing them a les­son. Some of them nev­er got over the con­fu­sion, return­ing over and over. After his sec­ond defeat, one such man looked, for all the world, like he thought there was a glitch in the uni­verse. As if he had stum­bled onto some quan­tum physics mys­tery, a por­tal to oth­er dimen­sions, right there on Dupont Cir­cle. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the sim­ple fact that James was a much bet­ter chess player. 

One after­noon Bri­an watched as Joy and James set­tled into a leisure­ly game and les­son. He first asked about their par­ents, then how they were doing in school. They even­tu­al­ly start­ed to play chess. As usu­al, a few peo­ple were wait­ing for their chance to play against him. James kept no sched­ule, had no appoint­ment cal­en­dar. He chose how to spend his time just as freely as he decid­ed his moves. 

We’re all wait­ing here and you’re giv­ing her all this extra time. It’s not fair.” 

The obser­va­tion that “life is unfair” lands with spe­cial author­i­ty when deliv­ered by a man who has no known street address. James had been on the los­ing side of “life is unfair” for much of his life. That wasn’t the only rea­son he loved chess, but it played a part. He rec­og­nized the absur­di­ty of the moment as he spoke the words. The young man knew he had blun­dered. The rest of the group turned on him with eye rolls, glares, a “hey man, shut up” fol­lowed by “bad move, bro.” That set off waves of mock­ing laughter. 

James turned away, leav­ing him to pon­der the error of his ways. Smil­ing, he asked Joy: “What do you think? Life is unfair. Isn’t it?” 

In all fair­ness, Joy and Bri­an were sur­round­ed by mate­r­i­al com­fort, lov­ing par­ents, music, chess, books, and home cook­ing. Still, they both had been fol­lowed by pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards in stores. Their par­ents had giv­en them “the talk,” the painful con­ver­sa­tion about how best to avoid get­ting killed by trig­ger-hap­py cops. 

Bri­an and his friends had been stopped twice in the so-called “jump outs,” plain­clothes police jump­ing out of unmarked cars to stop and frisk folks who were just mind­ing their own busi­ness. The peo­ple accost­ed always hap­pened to be Black. The chief of police claimed the jump outs had end­ed long ago, but local news reporters found more than a dozen neigh­bor­hood kids who claimed to see them all the time. 

Whom to believe, a bunch of chil­dren, some still in ele­men­tary school, or the chief of police in the nation’s cap­i­tal? She spoke again to reporters when the evi­dence became over­whelm­ing. Peo­ple across the city eas­i­ly saw through her attempt at dam­age con­trol. The para­phrased gist of it: Oh, you mean those actions the chil­dren were talk­ing about? Our vice squad some­times does engage in law enforce­ment activ­i­ties that could appear to be sim­i­lar. But like I’ve already said, we no longer do jump outs. We dis­con­tin­ued the prac­tice sev­er­al years ago.  

Dri­ving while Black. Walk­ing while Black. Breath­ing while Black. 

Yes,” Joy agreed with James, “life is unfair.” 

The sto­ry of “Bad move, bro,” and “Life is unfair” was repeat­ed dozens of times over the next few weeks, seal­ing its place in the shared com­mon lore, the real people’s his­to­ry of Dupont Circle. 


This will be quick.” The arro­gant sneer from a kid who looked to be her age. Voice like a slap to the face. The charged silence held for a long moment. Maybe three sec­onds, maybe four. Her friends flinched. Some looked to her, con­cerned. She tensed, lock­ing down the jolt of rage. She would not show him anger or pain. 

Bri­an broke the silence: “We’ll see about that.” His voice com­mand­ed atten­tion, not shout­ing like the boy, but loud enough for all to hear. 

Watch­ing it unfold, keep­ing a tight hold on her emo­tions, Joy thought it played out like a taut scene in a gang­ster movie. The fool­ish boy had lost the instant Bri­an spoke. Thank God he was there, and that her par­ents did not have to see it. Undoubt­ed­ly they would hear. The thought almost broke her. She blocked it from her mind. This was not the time. 

Bri­an shot her a glance that turned into a sly smile, like they were shar­ing a joke. All eyes were on them. Then he looked straight at the boy. He wait­ed two beats—perfect timing—and said: “This might be real quick.” He put the accent on “real,” stretch­ing it out long and slow. Like what a sax­o­phone might do with a cher­ished turn of a phrase. He smiled, then laughed. 

Peo­ple began to chuck­le in antic­i­pa­tion; bursts of snort laugh­ter sound­ed from the back of the crowd. Most every­one under­stood that what­ev­er hap­pened next, peo­ple would talk about this after­noon for years to come. 

Watch­ing the boy, who looked rat­tled, Joy thought of the old joke. Some peo­ple make things hap­pen. Oth­ers watch things hap­pen. And some peo­ple say: “What hap­pened?” Bri­an had saved the day and set the stage. She was about to make some­thing happen. 

She want­ed to smack him down so fast he wouldn’t know what hap­pened. Throw it right back. “That was quick.” She guessed he knew to avoid the Scholar’s Mate, the clas­sic four-move humil­i­a­tion play­ers suf­fer when they learn the game. It’s a suck­er punch check­mate con­struct­ed with queen and bish­op. Los­ing to the Scholar’s Mate is a rite of pas­sage; few vic­tims fall twice. Her father beat her once with the Scholar’s Mate four years ago. “You’ll win some and you’ll lose some,” he con­soled her. “One day you’ll beat me.” 

As Joy saw how her broth­er owned the moment, con­found­ing the boy with a deflec­tion of bad ener­gy that played out almost like Tai Chi, her own impulse turned. She would act as if she bare­ly under­stood the pieces, let alone forks, dis­cov­ered checks, pins, and the intri­cate chore­og­ra­phy of bish­op and knight check­mates. She would par­ry his attacks, gauge his skill lev­el, and cal­i­brate her response. She would drag it out. Make it slow. He would strug­gle to con­trol the game, grow ever more con­fused, then final­ly under­stand what was happening. 


We wear the mask,” Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar wrote in 1895 of life as a Black Amer­i­can. His open­ing stanza: 

          We wear the mask that grins and lies,  
          It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—  
          This debt we pay to human guile;  
          With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
          And mouth with myriad subtleties.



Play­ing the white pieces, the boy moved his king’s pawn for­ward two squares. She respond­ed in kind. Then each moved one knight, fol­lowed by the oth­er. She appeared to be mim­ic­k­ing him as the Four Knights Game took shape. It’s a per­fect­ly descrip­tive name, four knights poised around two cen­ter pawns, each side mir­rored by the oth­er, from which to proceed. 

She eas­i­ly blocked his clum­sy attacks, main­tain­ing crit­i­cal defens­es but oth­er­wise let­ting her pieces wan­der the chess­board as if they were out for a leisure­ly Sat­ur­day after­noon stroll. Point­less moves that did lit­tle more than take up time. All the while she play­act­ed like some­one unfa­mil­iar with the game. She grew dis­tract­ed, smiled as if remem­ber­ing some old joke. Some­thing her moth­er said that made her laugh. Some­times she stared at the board, eye­brows scrunched up as if in con­fu­sion. Strik­ing that pose, she looked as if she had nev­er played chess, as if she couldn’t fath­om how to proceed. 

Some in the crowd were con­fused. Whis­pered queries were met with shrugged respons­es that said: “No clue.” Was this the same girl they’d heard about, the one who dom­i­nat­ed her oppo­nents? What the hell was going on? Some wan­dered off toward the tra­di­tion­al Boli­vian group that had start­ed to assem­ble. Gui­tars and flutes played haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful songs from the Andes. Joy closed her eyes to enjoy it, her mind seem­ing­ly miles away. The chess crowd thinned out as a few more opt­ed for music or sim­ply left to get on with the day. Oth­ers took their cue from Bri­an, who smiled as if he knew exact­ly what was up. 

Just then James joined the group, nod­ding a silent greet­ing to Joy, Bri­an, and a few oth­ers. They quick­ly made room for him at the front. His arrival set off a rip­ple of hushed mur­murs, whis­pers of “Oh my God,” and “That’s him. That’s the guy.” Nudges, glances, raised eye­brows. Even those who’d nev­er heard his name caught the new charge in the air. James was here. He scanned the board, puz­zled by the bizarre sto­ry it hint­ed at. He knew how good she was. He shot her a quizzi­cal glance. Her smile car­ried just a trace of a wink. He half whis­pered to him­self, “Well all right,” and stood back to watch what would happen. 


Nev­er let them tell you he was just a smil­ing Black man, a great box­er, and every­one loved him.” Grace Jack­son had been on a mis­sion to counter the white­wash­ing of Black his­to­ry ever since sit­ting through yet anoth­er bland mid-Jan­u­ary pro­gram cel­e­brat­ing the I Have a Dream speech. Approved speak­ers nev­er talked about the last two years of Dr. King’s life. Peo­ple knew bet­ter than to recall him denounc­ing the war in Viet­nam, con­demn­ing “the great­est pur­vey­or of vio­lence in the world today: my own gov­ern­ment.” The speech at River­side Church on April 4, 1967, exact­ly one year before that ter­ri­ble day in Memphis. 

Ali was anoth­er coura­geous icon whose con­tro­ver­sial past was rarely men­tioned. Grace showed Joy and Bri­an pic­tures of him stand­ing tri­umphant­ly over Son­ny Lis­ton. So fero­cious. So young. The news film of him refus­ing to fight in Viet­nam. The sum­mit  meet­ing of Black ath­letes step­ping for­ward to sup­port him. Bill Rus­sell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jab­bar, known as Lew Alcin­dor back then, Washington’s own Bob­by Mitchell, and oth­ers. The years he could not box. 

They watched When We Were Kings, the doc­u­men­tary about the “Rum­ble in the Jun­gle” between Ali and George Fore­man. Grace described how Ali’s stature had grown beyond all imag­in­ing in the years of exile from the ring. After refus­ing the draft and pay­ing a price for his stand, he was admired around the globe. Joy could bare­ly watch the fight. She winced at the bru­tal body blows as he leaned against the ropes, tak­ing the punch­es. She mar­veled at his steady flow of insults through it all. “They told me you could punch, George. That all you got?” Fore­man, enraged and exhaust­ed, swing­ing wild­ly before Ali stunned him, stunned the whole world. The eighth round knock­out punch. 


Joy set­tled into a defen­sive game, a chess­board rope-a-dope, minus the pun­ish­ing bat­ter­ing. The insults were silent, but vis­i­ble enough for James, Bri­an, and oth­ers to see. Even the boy might even­tu­al­ly under­stand. He strug­gled to gain the elu­sive advan­tage he assumed was his for the taking. 

Joy allowed him to cap­ture a few pieces but was care­ful to grad­u­al­ly win back more. She left a bish­op unde­fend­ed just to observe his preda­to­ry glee. She looked shocked when he greed­i­ly seized it. She planned a knight fork, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly attack­ing his king and a rook. Then she pre­tend­ed not to notice the well-placed trap for two slow min­utes before gasp­ing with sur­prised delight as she took the rook it yield­ed. She almost laughed at the thought of how des­per­ate­ly he must have hoped she wouldn’t see it. How he must won­der why his game couldn’t gain trac­tion, why he was floun­der­ing against this girl who looked so clue­less and non­cha­lant. They trad­ed queens. 

The game had stretched on for more than an hour, rolling along on a stream of mean­ing­less moves. It was time to end things. Joy had enjoyed watch­ing him fid­get. She could sense him shift­ing first from con­fu­sion to annoy­ance, then con­cern and dis­be­lief, which final­ly gave way to pan­ic. The boy’s posi­tion was hope­less. He was down to one rook, one bish­op, and two pawns com­pared to her four pawns, two rooks, a bish­op and knight. A com­mand­ing lead. That was when he sur­veyed the board, put on a cocky smile, and deliv­ered the sec­ond worst insult of the day: “Draw?” 

Draw” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She didn’t even try to sti­fle the laugh. “Nah. That’s all right. It’s all good.” James cleared his throat loud­ly when she start­ed to move a pawn toward the end of the board. She would not look at him. She advanced the pawn three times to become a queen. Next, the boy was forced to move his king when she checked it with her new queen. That’s when he lost his lone rook, sud­den­ly exposed on the same long diag­o­nal. Soon only his king remained. 

Onlook­ers didn’t need to know chess the­o­ry, clas­sic end­ings, or tac­tics to under­stand what the chess­board showed. Didn’t have to know the dif­fer­ences between kings, queens, and knights. Didn’t need to watch online super­stars like Mau­rice Ash­ley, Tania Sachdev, or the Botez sis­ters. The rout was obvi­ous to every­one but the woman who had just joined them, walk­ing at a fast clip. She stormed to the front shout­ing: “We’re going to be late.” 

She scanned the chess­board, then looked at the boy. “Just check­mate her already. We’re run­ning late.” The laugh­ter star­tled her. She looked from the crowd back to the boy, then glared at Joy. She stared at the board again. Ever so grad­u­al­ly, embar­rass­ing­ly slow­ly, the woman began to under­stand that the white king did not belong to the Black girl. Her mouth still open, she fell silent. 

Joy had locked a fixed stare on the board, refus­ing all eye con­tact after declin­ing the draw. She picked up her next pawn and moved it for­ward. James cleared his throat even more emphat­i­cal­ly. The boy’s king was reduced to aim­less doomed moves. He appeared to be par­a­lyzed except when phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing it. Just anoth­er wood­push­er stum­bling toward defeat. He did not know how to resign to a Black girl who should have lost long ago. 

Joy final­ly glanced at James. He shook his head almost imper­cep­ti­bly, a beseech­ing look. He whis­pered two word­less syl­la­bles: “uh uh.” No. James knew all about chess play­ers who need­ed to learn some humil­i­ty. He under­stood that the boy deserved a whup­ping, and Joy had just deliv­ered one. Now it was time to end it with a check­mate. This was not Judit Pol­gar teach­ing Gar­ry Kas­parov a les­son and exor­cis­ing (most of) his sex­ism. This was not Phiona Mute­si, “Queen of Katwe,” rep­re­sent­ing Ugan­da at inter­na­tion­al tour­na­ments. This had become a slaughter. 

Trapped by his own pride, the boy refused to resign, so Joy would have to fin­ish it on the board. She want­ed to crush him, want­ed anoth­er queen. Maybe three queens. She want­ed to make his king run around the board. But when she looked to James, he shook his head. Anoth­er queen would be overkill. Joy sighed, shrugged her shoul­ders, and con­ced­ed to his request. With a queen and two rooks, she didn’t even need to herd the hap­less king to the side of the board. One rook on each side locked it on a sin­gle nar­row file. She made the king walk one step in that cor­ri­dor of shame. She end­ed it with her queen. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I played a lot of chess in my ear­ly teens, usu­al­ly at the Boys Club in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, a sub­urb of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. I wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed, but thor­ough­ly enjoyed the game. About 25 or so years ago I read about a very tal­ent­ed Black girl in her ear­ly teens. One day an oppo­nent took one look at her and told his moth­er the game would be over quick­ly. The girl, appalled by the racist insult, decid­ed to beat him slow­ly. I imag­ined the ensu­ing game would have played out in a very cin­e­mat­ic way. That one game, with back­ground sto­ries, the play­ers’ fam­i­ly lives, etc., could have eas­i­ly been a full-length fea­ture movie. Mak­ing a movie wasn’t an option, but the inci­dent also seemed ide­al­ly suit­ed for a short story. 

I’m not Black, but did feel a con­nec­tion to the girl, just not by my lim­it­ed skill at chess. My moth­er was from India, and my father was a white Amer­i­can. That’s a whole oth­er sto­ry about young vol­un­teers meet­ing at the Kuruk­shetra refugee camp in the time of India’s inde­pen­dence and par­ti­tion. I’m often mis­tak­en for Mid­dle East­ern. On sev­er­al occa­sions Ira­ni­ans have assumed I speak Farsi. 

I’ve had severe anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, a form of arthri­tis, since my teens, and walk with a cane. Between hav­ing a vis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ty and being eth­ni­cal­ly “oth­er,” I’m well acquaint­ed with microag­gres­sions. Some peo­ple assume I must be stu­pid, or a ter­ror­ist. It’s annoy­ing, and on rare occa­sions it’s fright­en­ing. Undoubt­ed­ly some per­son­al expe­ri­ence came into play at the thought of a right­ful­ly angry girl crush­ing and humil­i­at­ing her racist opponent. 

Sev­er­al years ago I learned about Tom Mur­phy, the man James Gilmore is loose­ly based on. I want­ed to hon­or peo­ple of extra­or­di­nary tal­ent who con­tribute a lot to the vibrant life of a com­mu­ni­ty. It felt like James should play a sig­nif­i­cant role in Joy’s chess life. It was impor­tant that her par­ents and broth­er should rec­og­nize his gifts and find a con­nec­tion, across class lines, with him. It also was nat­ur­al to bring local and nation­al his­to­ry, cul­ture, and pol­i­tics into the sto­ry. I always pic­tured Dupont Cir­cle as the set­ting, so decid­ed the fic­tion­al old build­ing would be closed for renovation. 

Watch­ing the Queen’s Gam­bit series made me revis­it and final­ly try to write the sto­ry. I was born in 1955, so was at the peak of my chess phase in 1968 when the series end­ed. It hit a lot of chords, recon­nect­ed me with a pow­er­ful and (most­ly) joy­ful time in my life, and rekin­dled my love of chess. 


Sunil Free­man’s essays have appeared in Del­mar­va Review, Gar­goyle, Wash­ing­ton­ian, Jag­gery, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He has pub­lished poems in sev­er­al jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Delaware Poet­ry Review, Min­imus, Gar­goyle, Kiss the Sky: Fic­tion & Poet­ry Star­ring Jimi Hen­drix, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He has pub­lished one poet­ry col­lec­tion, That Would Explain the Vio­lin­ist (Gut Punch Press, 1993), and a chap­book, Sur­re­al Free­dom Blues (Argonne Hotel Press, 1999).