My chess set is easily the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned, but it was also the ugliest object I’ve ever laid eyes on. The chessboard is a seamless inlay of cherry and maple squares, and the pieces are all exquisitely carved: rooks fashioned into centaurs, pawns shaped like miniature unicorns, a pair of Pegasus knights. The mermaid queen’s tail curls around its base, and the vampire king was crafted with his head tossed back, fangs bared in a feral snarl. Others look at the chess set and see beauty, but all I saw was the fragments of the friendship that had seen me through my childhood and awkward teenage years. I have not touched that chessboard in three years.
Han and I met in primary school and we immediately bonded over our passion for the game. While the other kids preferred playing with Pokémon cards or running wild in the school’s playground during recess, Han and I could be found in a quiet corner of the library, brows furrowed in concentration and minds locked in combat. On my 13th birthday, Han gave me the chessboard that he spent over a year carefully crafting in secret, and it has been my most prized possession ever since.
Han and I entered a local chess competition after our O levels and spent much of our free time training together, and the fairy-tale themed chessboard became a permanent fixture in our lives. We both got through to the finals, but what we didn’t expect was to be pitted against each other. Han and I are both very competitive people, and we both wanted to win gold. One look at him told me that he wasn’t going to go easy on me, and I decided that neither was I.
We started out amicably enough, but the underlying vibe didn’t stay friendly for long. I’d never thought of Han as particularly aggressive, but that was when we were both playing in the warmth and comfort of our homes, with nothing at stake-no money, no trophies, not even rating points. This was the first time either of us were playing against each other in a competitive setting, and as I looked at his tightly knitted fingers and the intensity of his glare as he analysed the pieces he suddenly seemed formidable, bent on annihilation, and looked nothing like the warm and relaxed friend I knew. Han threw down the gauntlet and attacked instantaneously, and I was forced to go on the defensive. At first Han seemed confident. His black pawns pushed my knight around and took over the centre while my white pieces looked underdeveloped. Suddenly I saw it. Han had moved too quickly and left himself open to a combination that would win his queen. Han seemed to realise it the exact same moment I did. His body went rigid, as if somebody had poured concrete down his spine.
He tried bribing me, using our friendship to try guilt-trip me into letting him win. But I was scenting blood, and I wasn’t about to let anything stand in my way of winning gold. So I made the right moves, took his queen, and within minutes the game was over, ending our friendship with it. When they slipped the medal over my head, all I could remember was not the glory of winning, but of Han’s scathing gaze as he glared at me throughout the ceremony.
Three long years passed without any contact. I blamed chess for ending my friendship with Han, but with time I realised it was our pride that got in the way of mending our friendship. Two days ago, I received a text from Han. Its contents were short-just the address to the Mind Café, a date and time. Chess brought us together, and when we cleaved our friendship apart, chess helped us find our way back to each other.
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