Tiny Killer Competitors

I stared across the chess table at my opponent, her dark, cold eyes promising no mercy. Her professionalism and business-like manner indicated that I was just another victim who would quickly be dispatched. I was face-to-face with an eight-year-old girl in a pink Snoopy t-shirt that read “cupcakes forever.”

It was a muggy summer night on Long Island, and 50 people were hunched over chess boards, focused on their games. The silence was occasionally broken by an aggressive “shhhhh,” which was much louder than the quiet talking that had prompted it.

I had stepped into the world of competitive chess, and I blame my friend Kenny. He and I were avid poker players, but the closing of U.S. online poker sites two years ago left a void in our lives. Kenny decided to join his teenage sons in the world of chess and now he was dragging me in, too.

It didn’t take much prodding. As young boys, my brother and I followed the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky matches. Each move was posted on an oversized chess board and then endlessly discussed, like military leaders planning an attack on Normandy Beach during World War II. We were captivated.

Today, kids hone their chess skills through computer apps and private instruction, becoming skilled at a very young age. “If you are thinking about the age of your opponent, you are in trouble,” cautioned Harold Stenzel, who runs the Nassau Chess Club out of the basement of the First Presbyterian Church of Mineola. “You need to focus on making the best move you can.”

Easy for him to say. Many of my opponents aren’t tall enough to ride Space Mountain.

I struggled and lost all of my early matches to young children at the Long Island Club. One of them, an eight-year-old who I call “Killer Kate,” said she preferred playing adults to kids her own age.

“They don’t know much stuff,” she said, meaning old people like me.

Discouraged and wondering if I would ever be able to beat any of these kids, I decided to play the Manhattan Open, where I would play five matches over two days. I was assigned to one of the lower-rated divisions and found myself in a room where kids easily outnumbered adults. I felt more than a little uncomfortable, like the only adult at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. Sure enough, my first opponent was a seven-year-old girl wearing a beautiful white dress. She easily defeated me and then ran off, as if late for her first communion.

In my next match, I found myself staring at yet another child, this one a nine-year-old boy. Dazed and discouraged, I vowed to remain positive, and somehow I managed to win. As we shook hands at the end of the match and I prepared to exult in the joy of victory, the boy started to cry.

The tears welling up in his eyes brought my joy to an abrupt halt. I have two children of my own, so the switch to parent mode was automatic.

“It’s ok,” I reassured him, “I just got lucky.”

I returned to my Long Island club game with much more confidence. Facing an eight-year-old who had crushed me a month earlier, I found myself with a difficult late-game decision that might mean an upset victory for me. 

“I feel like I have to capture your piece,” I hesitantly said to my diminutive opponent, remembering the tears of the one and only person I had defeated. I claimed his Rook. “It’s ok,” he quickly replied, “I have a combination move. Checkmate.”

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.