the strange games we play


July 7, 2021 / Camille Bao



When you’re young, how can you tell the difference between genius and madness?



opening

develop your pieces

It was a world of absolute wins and absolute losses. My father told me I must think four, five — eight, if I could — steps ahead before every move. Think to win. I wired my brain to devour the chessboard, square by square, piece by piece. The mechanical clock ticked, always a few inches away.

At age six, I gripped the sleek, white bishop for the first time in a greasy school cafeteria. It was magic at first touch. The dolls I played with in the comforts of my room came alive on this bloodless battlefield. Here, like medieval soldiers, they turned cruel and fierce, clawing castles for power, battalions for the king’s head. I was the vicarious mastermind behind it all, consuming game after game as if each was just another dollhouse fantasy fashioned by my silly little mind. Because when you’re that young, how can you tell the difference between fantasy and war? Genius and madness?

But no matter how hard I’d grind my teeth through every move, I would lose the game, the world I so compulsively built would fall, and the gold-plated, five-foot-tall trophy would go to a nerdy, curly-haired boy who spent more hours poring over chess tactics than I did and who was smarter than I could ever be.

Other girls moved on to tennis, ballet, volleyball, anything to avoid staring at 64 squares for days and nights on end. You could say that I chose to stay in the game, but perhaps I was already far too gone, entranced by the promised high I was certain would come with each win.

When we moved to China, my father took me to learn from the greatest grandmasters of my time. On the first day of the chess club, I walked into a room of wide-eyed, nine-year-old boys. The same feeling of thrill from the school cafeteria lingered in the air. I still remember reciting the four opening rules and choosing my own battle plan — true to my personality, I grew fond of the Caro-Kann, an opening that didn’t play to gamble. Though I was jarringly aware of my girlhood, I walked out into the Beijing snow that night, gleaming with belonging.




midgame

seize advantage

I rarely attacked first. Defend, defend, defend, I would tell myself. Knights aligned my castle; pawns positioned to protect every targeted square. My opponent’s underestimation was my power. I hunted for weakness — eyes ferocious, nails out to spin a spidery web. Each move slow and delicate, I awaited the moment of blunder.

Soon, people knew my name. 包瑜亮。The girl with the boyish name won nine out of nine games at a local tournament, almost unheard of in the Beijing chess world. They would whisper, of course, she’s named after 周瑜 and 诸葛亮, the two military generals from the golden age known for their brilliant strategy and war tactics. I wonder if my dad knew when he wrote my name down on the birth certificate all those years ago that chess would be carved into my fate. The more I won, and the more I relished winning, the closer I felt to my name and destiny. I refused to let it be an abstract reference to two dead warlords from generations past. I longed for something real.

With the highest of highs came the lowest of lows. When I lost, it wasn’t just a defeat; it was a collapsing of worlds, destroying layers of intellect and striving until I, stripped bare of my identity, could no longer recognize my name. I’d become a girl eclipsed by her fate, one who obsessively replayed her losses to find her way back and rewind time. And who could blame her? No one told her not to look for cure in her battle scars. No one told her that human minds weren’t engines, that perfection wasn’t real.

There was a tipping point in almost every midgame: a miscalculated sacrifice, a battalion dismantled, or a pawn turned queen. Then and only then, my mind could feel alive again, released from the tethers of a stalemate.

At age 12, I won the title of Chinese Amateur Master ⁠— the highest amateur chess rank one can have. The games we played at that tournament have long dissipated in my memory, but I still remember how I tiptoed above the crowd to see the results, my name on top of the list. There’s a certain kind of solitude that accompanies power, and 12-year-old me basked in it. I didn’t know at the time, but I’d become one with my pieces in this haunted arena. I welcomed my climax when it arrived in the shape of an accolade.

But a victorious endgame in life isn’t promised. What rises will fall. Those who gain will lose. What else can we be certain of but this?





endgame

don’t time out

How tragic it is that a chess prodigy with a rare gift was a slave to her passion. Always the last one to leave the tournament room, to consume every millisecond of her clock. Even with the night sky signaling the game’s seventh hour and the referee waiting impatiently nearby, she never felt any less alone than she did in a room of hundreds.

The girl in this room knew that if she chose to walk away from chess one day, she would leave for good. Like the game she grew up with, her life was lived in extremes. To think and exist any other way was something she could only learn elsewhere.

Perhaps Lao Tzu was right — the brighter the flame, the quicker the burn. I’d clung to Time with all my heart, but Time left, and I followed. Or so I told myself. I didn’t want to face the harrowing truth that the neurotic focus I once had, the type that demanded all my energy and more, had faded.

I left this world at age 17. For nearly a decade, I lived under the intense gaze of a chess clock. But reality wasn’t a game to conquer, and I dreamed of experiencing it slowly, softly, the same way we would admire the snowfall that sprinkled over Chicago after nationals. I stopped craving euphoria in the likeness of victory, but what was left of me? There were no more kings to protect, no more castles to destroy. It was as much terrifying as it was liberating to watch the only world you ever knew crumble forever. I stood on the cusp of adulthood, glazing memories and sunsets while the mastermind in me rusted away. The price of peace, I suppose, came with the weight of all the could-have-beens, trophies, and recognition had I stayed in the arena.

Still, this strange game taught me everything real that life didn’t, couldn’t. I was better for it — gone before I sunk deeper into oblivion. How many world chess champions couldn’t say the same, having been driven to insanity by their endless quest to win? How many of them have lost their minds, never recovered, disappeared completely? Their evanescence, en passant, lights our way to greatness and madness. ■




by: Camille Bao

layout:
Grace Davila

photographer:
Erin Walts

stylist:
Cat Hermansen & Sophie Wysocki

hmua:
Michelle Adebisi & Kate Truman

models: Nicole Rudakova & Callie Kurpiewski



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