He sat there like a statue. Absolutely motionless, with his elbows on the table and chin resting on his palms. Burrowed in deep thought. Staring at the 64 squares in front of him. Calculating whatever little he could.
He dared not look up. The last time he did, he was lost in her big, brown eyes and lovely hair. And the really cute way in which her fingers kept rearranging a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. All his calculations had gone for a toss. Thank goodness, he had lost only a pawn. He was still a piece up.
Focus. Focus. You can't lose. Not to this one. Not after being a piece up.
A few silent minutes passed by. He moved his knight to the sixth rank. Now, the centre was in control. "Always control the centre", he remembered his Periappa's words.
A tentative pawn was pushed. "Draw pannikalama?", a sweet voice cooed. And a slender hand was extended. Let's end this stupid game and be friends, it seemed to say. He was tempted to give up half a point just to hold that hand once.
But he shook his head. And continued to stare at the stupid board. And put his bishop on the long diagonal.
And sat back in shock. The queen made an unexpected, valiant move forward. He felt something brush against his knee. At first, he thought his mind was playing some trick on him. But no, it was definitely a foot. It was gone, but he was shaken. The queen was getting too close for comfort. He doubled his rooks.
The queen retreated. Her attack foiled before it even started.
He wiped his brow. He was sweating profusely.
And then he saw it. Out of nowhere. A rook sacrifice leading to mate in four. The question was, "will she take the bait?". He continued staring at the board, oblivious to the fact that his clock was ticking, moving slowly towards the red flag. He wanted to be dead sure. After a few calculations, he made his move.
He dared to look up now, so cocksure was he of his calculations. He saw her big eyes bulge wider in surprise. And in one smooth motion, the hand moved, took the rook, banged the clock and was now twirling the rook triumphantly between its fingers. He could see a hint of a smile on her face. After being a piece down for a major part of the game, she seemed happy to get back on par.
"Absolute novice. Good, I didn't lose to her. Would have been difficult to forgive myself", he thought to himself.
Four moves later, her king was staring at a rook on the back rank, imprisoned by the very pawns that had formed a protective castle around him so far.
He extended his hand with the fake "well played, better luck next time" that all players there did. She ignored his hand, pinned him with a split-second sharp glance, turned and walked away. "Poetry in motion", was all he could think as he forged a girlie signature on the score sheet to take it to the arbiter as proof of his victory.
"How could you take that rook? Are you blind, you stupid girl?", he heard a sharp voice as he was about to turn a corner towards the drinking water filter outside the playing hall. He stopped, and even though he hated to eavesdrop, he listened on. "Makku, makku, ippidi velayadradhuka unna ivlo kaasu kuduthu coaching ku anupchen?", the sharp voice continued. ("Fool, I paid so much money to send you for coaching and you play like this?")
Snif, snif, he heard a familiar voice choke back tears. And before he could react, father and daughter walked around the corner, and he saw those big eyes, with long moist eyelashes, narrow at him with a hateful glare again. A split second later, they turned pitiful as more sharp words rained on.
And that day in 1996, at an obscure under-15 district chess tournament in Periyanaickenpalayam, he realized how sometimes, winning can still make you feel like an absolute loser.