I was definitely ready for a beer. Having spent another day of treasure hunting in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix, baking in the desert sun and coming up empty handed, the thought of cold liquid gold pouring from a tap was pulling me more than the allure of lost fortunes and I found myself sitting on a barstool in an old saloon cursing that Dutchman for hiding his riches with such craftiness. I must have looked like a ragged empty handed scavenger because the old man behind the bar smiled knowingly at me, likely having seen hundreds of my type pass through his bar over the years, and brought me an ice-cold beer without me even asking for it. I thanked him and took the cold glass of liquid gold in my hands, treasuring it. “Do you play chess?” the old bartender asked me, quite mischievously. “I, uh… I’ve been known to play I guess.” I replied. I knew what was coming. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll pay for that beer in your hands if you beat me at a game of chess.” Well, I couldn’t walk away from a challenge and the prospect of free beer is a good motivator for any empty-handed treasure hunter, so I pulled my bar stool in a little closer, settling in for the match, and said, “It’s a deal.” From behind the bar he pulled an old, battle worn chess board out and placed it before us. “Line ‘em up.” He said, dumping the pieces on the bar top with a wink and smile.
The pieces were set and the battlefield on the bar top between us waited patiently for the slow march of war to begin as we studied each other for a moment, old age and youth measuring one another. The patient wisdom in his eyes crashed into the youthful zeal in mine like mallets striking a war drum and as I pushed my rook forward two-spaces, I unleashed upon my opponent with momentum, my intentions of destroying him. The silent invasion had begun and my opponent coolly countered my moves as I sent waves of attacks his way, only to be struck down again and again, the pile of my slain pieces growing larger. The more I started to feel frustrated, the more I began to lose control; my emotions taking over, my moves became irrational, un-thought out, and survival based. I had already lost. The old bartender saw this and mercifully moved his pieces into the check-mate position, bringing my struggle to an end.
Crap. I thought, staring down at my defeat and taking a long drink of my beer. The bartender chuckled. “Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you a chance to redeem yourself. Double or nothing.” I don’t know if I want to take another ass whipping from my elders, I started thinking and then stopped myself. I realized that it was my own cocky youthful aggression that had led to my demise and that victory had been found in wisdom, patience and intellect. I can beat this old man. I further realized. I can’t control the battlefield, but I can control myself. My agitation slipped away and a Zen calm fell over me. The bartender must have seen this in my face, because a slight look of nervousness filled his eyes as I re-set the chessboard, downed the last of my beer and pushed my rook forward two-spaces.
The old bartender set a fresh beer on the bar for me and then countered my move. The atmosphere had changed and a different kind battle was emerging on the board before us. Studying each other’s moves carefully and making our own moves with confidence and skill, we danced around the board, sparing with one another’s brains. An hour passed and the game was far from over. He brought me another beer. And then another. A small crowd had grown interested in the battle taking place at the bar and we found ourselves surrounded by people, the pressure on for finding victory. The crowd cheered the good moves and booed the bad ones as the old man and I faced each other on measured ground and as the board cleared of pieces, the game approaching the two-hour mark, it was beginning to look like it would end in a stalemate. There were, however, still two kings on the board and neither of us was willing to concede. With our last few pieces, we struggled around the board, drawing on all of our skill and experience, reaching desperately for that one move that would finally bring victory. Finally, a satisfied smile drew slowly across the old bartenders face as he slid his piece from one square to another and said, “Checkmate.”
The crowd erupted into cheers. The undefeated (as I later learned), had retained his belt. I smiled and cheered for him too as I shook his hand. “These beers are all on me, anyways.” he said with a wink. I thanked him graciously and as the crowd dissipated back into their own shadowy corners of the saloon and the old bartender wandered off to attend to his work duties, I put a twenty-dollar tip under his king and walked out of the bar, a little more prepared to face the world outside.