The Black-and-White Jungle: How Chess Got Me Through My Parents’ Divorce



Editor’s Note: The following piece was chosen as a finalist in NextShark’s personal Essay Contest 2019. The views expressed in story are the writer’s own.

The first time I saw a chess board, I stood — an unsmiling first­ grader — spellbound by the curious horses and castles that the wizened fifth graders shuffled confidently in my school cafeteria. Beneath the ornate wood surface of those pieces, I discovered a uniquely layered beauty.

My parents had split two years earlier. I remember Dad buying us two movie tickets to the new “Spider­-Man” and a week later buying himself a plane ticket to China. Our apartment devolved from a cozy, lively home into a small, subdued residence. Mom mustered a brave smile and promised that Dad was just going back to visit his family.

There’s a pervasive yet hushed stigma surrounding divorce in Asian culture. Growing up, I struggled to comprehend why none of my Asian friends had single parents like myself. I would get into fights at school. When I invariably drew the ire of my teachers, Mom would drive down to school, hug me reassuringly, and take me to her office where I spent the remainder of the day.

One of those evenings, I waited near her cubicle coloring carelessly on lily­-white printer­ paper while she typed diligently at her desktop. Suddenly, the familiar click­ clack of the typing died, and I heard stuttered sobs sway the air. I froze, confused: I didn’t know Mom could cry. Mom was strong; she had warm, kind hands and she knew why the sky was blue and why Dad was visiting Grandpa and Grandma for so long. But now Mom sat shattered, back hunched over a shoddy wooden desk, warm hands clutching a damp face. I was scared so I cried with her.

Chess became an elaborate escape for me. During sleepless nights, I readily replaced opaque stares at the apartment ceiling with enchanting chess puzzles lit by a gentle desk­light. When I sat at the chessboard, the deafening external din — my ineffable worries, Mom’s inexplicable tears, the fragile stillness of our quiet apartment — faded softly into the background.

I crossed into the black­-and­-white jungle, that beautiful mosaic of sixty­-four checkered squares, a diverse biosphere inhabited by my loyal pawns, gallant knights, and fearless rooks. And I, the king, was responsible for their livelihood, defending my kingdom against the opponent. Chess gave me a sense of control during a time when I felt I had none.

In my first year, I rose to the top of my elementary school club, and near the close of the school semester I placed fourth at the national K­1 championships in Nashville, Tennessee. I remember the announcer calling my name and my six­-year­-old self bouncing up the stage to claim a comically colossal trophy. I remember Mom smiling because I was happy, and I was happy because she was smiling.

Through the years, my passion for the game strengthened as I accumulated more state championships and national titles. Chess became a staple in my life — it sharpened my critical thinking skills, and it trained me to creatively break down seemingly difficult situations. Although I had turned to chess to escape my problems, the black­-and­-white jungle slowly cajoled me to face them.

Last year, I bought my own plane ticket to China and visited my father. We talked — laughed even — and he challenged me to a chess match. I let him win, but he doesn’t know that. He said he was proud of me. I didn’t know that. Above all, chess taught me the power of resilience. Last summer, I qualified for the All­-American team just two days before the deadline, successfully pulling together a month’s worth of training. Mom met me at the train station when I returned.

Nearly a decade had passed since that first national championship in Tennessee, but her smile looked the same. As I drifted to sleep on the drive homeward, I embraced the elusive feeling of absolute safety like that I felt when I was a child, dozing peacefully in the backseat of my parents’ worn Toyota Camry.

About the Author: Ethan Li is a first-year student at Princeton University studying computer science. He is a former USA Chess All-American and current editor for The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at ethanl@princeton.edu.

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