The United Way W. W. Houston Boys Club is a hell hole and any child still attending that facility should be rescued immediately. When I was 11 years old I was dropped off every morning while my mom went to work. Every day, I walked into that building with a baloney and cheese sandwich and a dollar for a soda. Every night, I walked out with a new lesson about how the world works.
The first and most shocking lesson is that Adults Don’t Care. Sure, that sounds like a dumb lesson because it’s something that we all know now. But the first time you realize it, it’s a bitch. Forget the violence (I saw more than one boy take a pool ball to the head), forget the gambling (the teens loved swindling the younger kids out of lunch money), forget all of that. My worst memory of the Boys Club is that there wasn’t a single adult that you could trust. “Juney stole my lunch” was met with “It’s not my job to feed you.” “Mike is cheating on 4-square and pushed me into the wall when I said it” equaled, “Go play in the gym.”
Of course now, you’re expected to handle little tests like these on your own, but as a child, I admit, it was beyond me. I ended up spending most of the days in the makeshift library they had, playing Monopoly and Scrabble. It was a manageable, if tedious existence. And then Jabba arrived.
I have no idea what his real name was, but he was a fat man, the kind of fat that they do documentaries on. We called him Jabba because if Lucas couldn’t have afforded puppets, he would’ve definitely hired this guy. He lumbered into the library with a box under his arm. Inside that box were three games: Checkers, Chess, and Stratego. Jabba made an announcement…a challenge. “If you beat me in any of these games, I will pay for your lunch.”
A line formed, and the group of kids that claimed the library as refuge took turns sitting down and playing him. He’d let you choose whichever game you wanted. Some chose checkers, but the majority of the kids would choose Stratego. The Spy, Miners, Bombs, and the oh so important Flag that we had all seen on the TV commercials were too much of a draw for a bunch of poor kids. Jabba laughed at us with his labored breath, the air struggling to escape from the caverns of his belly. “Stratego is my game. You boys keep pickin’, and I’ll keep winnin’.” And he was right. He never lost a game. He never paid for a lunch.
After weeks of losing my flag I decided to try something different. When he moved to reset the Stratego pieces, I looked at him and said, “Chess.” “You sure boy? Chess is a whole different world.” I repeated my choice and we set up the pieces. It was over in less than five minutes. “Checkmate!”
I walked back to my preferred table in the corner. I was mad at myself for blowing my chance at playing Stratego, but more angry at Jabba for beating me so bad. Modern chess games like Chessmater Live try to recreate the feeling of true head to head play with 3D boards and letting you see your opponent if they have a Live Vision cam. But it still fails to capture the smirk of a musty, overweight man watching you walk away in defeat. Every day for the rest of the summer I’d sit across from him and choose chess and every day he’d beat me.
I don’t remember what day it was. But I know it was close to the last day of summer and scathingly hot outside. The Boys Club only had two rooms with A/C: the art room and the Library. And since you had to pay 50 cents to go into the art room, the library was packed. I sat across from the fat man and just like every day before, I chose chess. I studied the pieces and thought through every move. I was freezing because the table was next to the A/C unit which was turned to maximum. My eyes didn’t leave the board for almost the entire game.
Thirty minutes in and the playing field was sparse. My queen had survived along with both bishops and a rook, and Jabba was struggling to mount a defense with only a knight, a rook, and a few deadlocked pawns. I glanced up at my obese opponent and what I saw changed me. It wasn’t the beads of sweat on his forehead. It was the look in his eyes. Not anger. Not fear. Respect.