You Can’t Win
By Karen Autio
I hate to lose—especially at chess. And Pete’s here at the city-wide tournament. He’s last year’s grade four champion, who lives and breathes chess. The one opponent I don’t want.
The tournament director welcomes us from the gym stage. The boy beside me yawns, while the girl next to him twists the end of her ponytail around her finger so tightly her fingertip turns purple.
“Players have thirty minutes each per game,” says the tournament director. “A win earns one point; a draw, half a point; and a loss, zero. Even if you lose your first two games, keep playing. The final outcome is not determined until later.” He scans the crowd, smoothing his tie over his rounded stomach. “Only players and directors are permitted in the gym while games are in progress.”
Spectators file out the doors. I’m a jittery racehorse in the starting gate.
Joining the other grade fives, I hunt for the results sheet with my name on it. There’s my spot, behind black chess pieces. Opposite me sits a freckled boy named Jeff. I’d won a game and tied one against him last year. My right leg bounces as if there were a spring under my foot. Nerves, according to Mom.
We shake hands. Remember, think at least three moves ahead.
I press my button on the chess clock, activating white’s timer. He moves his pawn and pushes his button. Within minutes I have the advantage. My leg bounces higher. Soon my hand rockets in the air to flag down a director. “Is this checkmate?”
She inspects the chessboard. “Black wins.”
“Good game,” I say. Jeff and I shake hands.
In the hallway, I dash over to Mom, giving a secret thumbs-up.
I whisper, “After ten moves I knew I’d win. One down!”
“Congratulations, Ben.” She ruffles my hair.
“Can I get a cold drink?” Mom nods and opens her wallet.
While I feed coins into the vending machine, Pete and Tyler pass by.
Tyler says, “You, me, first and second—yeah!”
Pete high-fives him before they race off.
After Pete had trounced me in the third round last year, I’d given up and gone home.
I slurp my drink. My stomach is churning. I hear the announcement, “Players return for Round Two.”
My heart stops when I see my opponent: Pete.
My leg jiggles. The instant I move my pawn and hit the clock button, Pete’s hand darts to move his pawn. He quickly gains the advantage. I frown and study the chess pieces. My leg freezes.
After my move, Pete reaches forward, but then withdraws. His brain whirs. He returns to rapid-fire moves until I force him to rethink his plan again.
In a final flurry, Pete declares, “Checkmate.”
Zero for me.
Pete says, “Good game,” and gloats.
After quickly shaking his hand, I bolt.
Outside the gym, I meet Mom’s eyes, then stare at the floor. “I didn’t think far enough ahead.”
She slips her arm around me. “Judging by the time, you must have made your opponent work to win.”
“Pete destroyed me!” Scowling, I fold my arms. “I quit.”
“The director said even if you lose two games, keep playing.”
I shrug, heading toward the exit. “Let’s go.”
“You’re forgetting something.”
In my snarkiest tone I say, “What?”
“There’s a first-place trophy—”
“With Pete’s name on it!”
“Most likely. He is a skilled player. There are second- and third-place trophies, too, and seven medals. I bet you’ve just had your toughest game.”
“You can’t win if you don’t play,” she says, winking. “But it’s your choice.”
Sighing, I remember all my hours of practicing. With my voice flatter than a chessboard, I say, “Guess I’ll stay.”
Round Three is an easy point. Round Four’s opponent is challenging. She’s clever, but I manage to win.
In the championship match, Pete plays against Tyler. There’s no hesitation. Pete’s victory is swift.
I’m stunned that my point total has me tied for second place with Tyler. Our game ends in a draw. To break the tie, we’re directed to play again, with only five minutes each for the game.
When I press the button, my hand trembles. Tyler slides his white pawn forward and pushes his button. Our moves are lightning fast. My leg quivers.
Less than two minutes to go. Tyler slaps his button. I move my knight, punch my clock, then spot my error. Too late. Think ahead!
Time is running out. Defeat is certain.
The moment Tyler hits the button I advance my king.
Four moves later, with my queen in position, I announce, “Checkmate!”
“Good game,” I say, shaking Tyler’s hand.
In the hallway, I victory-dance to Mom. She cheers.
“I got second!” I hug her—extra long. “Thanks.”
“For what? Dad taught you how to play chess.”
“But this morning I almost didn’t stay.”