You ask Teacher to put you in the Open category of the chess tournament, instead of the Girls category. You point at the other representatives she’s sending. “They’re in the open category,” you say, and you’ve beaten them all before.
“There are very strong players in Open,” Teacher says. “The top-rated player in Open has an international title and has represented Singapore overseas. You sure or not?”
The top player is easy to spot. He’s been at the number one board since the start of the tournament. In between rounds, players brag about how many moves they lasted before he tore them apart on the board, what tricks they would try next time.
But on the board, there’s no room for talk. There’s only the clink of chess pieces as they are exchanged, the tick of the clock. All genuine threats are silent. A rook on the seventh rank, like a knife at the throat. When you win your eighth round, all you do is flick a thumbs up at the teacher-in-charge, and the chatter slowly radiates out from there.
Even the students from the other schools are talking about you now. A hush falls over the immediate vicinity of the tables you pass, before a wave of glances and pointing starts from behind you.
It’s not about the sewn-on patches on your schoolbag. It’s not about how you had to help serve noodles at the shop every afternoon until your parents decided that the tournament was more important. It’s about your swift, smooth placement of each piece, your fianchettoed bishop poised like a dragon, your rook barreling down like an army tank.
You may look like any other scrawny primary school girl, but you feel tall inside when the flag on your opponent’s clock falls when they tip over their king in acceptance of the inevitable.
At the stage in the front of the hallway, the trophies have already been laid out. The challenge trophy, the tallest of them all, glints in the fluorescent light. The bubbling discussion of prizes is infectious, and you find your mind drifting as well. You carrying the trophy home, its tip brushing your nose.
“Look at the big prize our girl Xiaotong brought back!” Ma will say, and Pa will bring them to the stir-fry stall instead of eating their stall’s leftovers. Little Brother would like playing with the trophy, spinning the little globe at the top that bears the logo of the chess federation.
It all depends on who wins this round: you, or the top-rated player. He’s known for precise, calculating play, and his gaze as he surveys the board is sharp and intimidating like he’s ready to swoop down and rip your position apart at the slightest mistake.
But the checkered board in front of both of you is the same as at any other table, your pieces the same height as his. For all that he is the better player on paper, both of you have the same row of pieces shielded by the same row of pawns. It is no different than any other game.
The arbiter ascends the stage, and the chatter fades to silence.
“This is the final round,” he says, without preamble. “You may begin.”
The only sounds are the whir of the ceiling fans, the cheeping of the birds outside, the click of the clock as your opponent starts the timer. You meet the unblinking gaze of your opponent, let it pass through you. The branches of different opening moves stretch out in the corners of your mind, the tip of each branch a position dancing with possibility. You take a deep breath, let the adrenaline wash away the unimportant branches of the game tree until your first move remains.
You guide the king’s pawn forward two squares and press the clock.