The Chess Pieces: A rambling tale of coming home again

Posted by on February 8, 2012

School's Mate in Four

The Chess Pieces

A rambling tale of cities, lifelong friends met traveling,

and coming home again.


Boston 1970s

The  musty old house had deep closets hidden behind the hanging clothes and secret staircases that led from the kitchen to the basement. The kids in the neighborhood talked about the haunted house at the end of the block and the little old lady a street over who was a witch.

I was a California kid and things such as witches and ghosts were not part of my childhood. But my summer visits to my father in Boston were infused with a sense of mysticism.

New England was a foreign land to me. I spent the days running around with the neighborhood kids from morning until dark. They taught my brother and me how to play new games, such as Capture the Flag and Kick the Can.

I felt like I was learning a new language, as well, deciphering what these kids were saying with their thick accents and slang words I’d never heard, such as “wicked cool” (pronounced  wicket). They told me I was the one with an accent, and called me “Wonder Woman from Paradise Island” after they learned I lived in a California city called Paradise.

As much fun as my brother and I had outside, something magical awaited us indoors. My father had a large, square table set low to the ground where he kept a giant chess set. The pieces were 6” high and the board was made of black-and-white squares of fur.

On rainy summer days in Boston — and there were plenty of them — my brother and I played chess with the giant pieces. At first, we were enchanted by the unique chess set, but ultimately we fell in love with the game itself.


The Bourgeois Pig, Hollywood 1991

A gothic coffee house on Franklin Boulevard in Los Angeles became one of my favorite places to play chess in college.

It sported ornate mirrors against blue walls and a ceiling covered in glowing configurations of constellations and the moon. My memory might be wrong, but I seem to remember it was either across the street or near the huge, mysterious Scientology mansion.

The Bourgeois Pig was not a coffee shop you frequented to read. The black light gave us just enough light to see our pieces, with the white ones glowing an eerie purple color. At night, you could barely see the ornate, velvet furniture and chandeliers in the dim interior.

One night, shortly after I met my future brother-in-law, we were hanging out at the Bourgeois Pig and he challenged me to a game. I think he thought he was a pretty good player, and my boyfriend (future husband) sat back with a knowing smile watching us set up the pieces.

My opponent seemed pretty smug, so in a mean-spirited move I whipped out my Four-Move win. (I don’t know what it is really called, but that’s what I have always called it.) It worked. I suspect he is still confounded by that win twenty years later.


Todos Santos Beach in Baja, California 1992

 The hot sandy beach overlooking the rollicking surf seemed like the perfect place to set up our little orange tent.

After I graduated from college and had nothing to look forward to except my waitressing job in East L.A., my boyfriend and I packed up my little Dodge Colt and headed to Mexico. We decided to spend a month camping along the beaches, reading, making love, and playing chess.

We navigated muddy, swampy campgrounds, car-size potholes on shoulder-less roads, and crater-size rocks tumbling down hillsides to make it to Todos Santos.

The huge waves made it an ideal spot for surfers — or in our case, a place to watch surfers. For the first few days, we broke out our chess set and played until we got hot and needed to cool off in the waves.

One night that was a bit chilly, our neighbors had a roaring bonfire that seemed particularly inviting and my outgoing boyfriend walked over and asked if we could join them. They were artists from Vancouver. She was a set designer for the X Files and he made exquisite metal and wood furniture. He surfed, too. They were about a decade older than us and unbelievably cool.

My boyfriend and I wondered why they would want to hang out with dumb kids like us.

Twenty years of friendship later, we still wonder that. At the time, we did not know how powerful friendships made when traveling can be.

After a few days, our month was just about up, so we exchanged addresses with our super cool friends, packed up our orange tent and little chessboard, and headed back to civilization.



Barcelona, Spain 1993

The Gothic Quarter in Barcelona is comprised of narrow streets dotted with bakeries where we bought our daily bread, wine stores for our daily bottle, meat shops for our cold cuts, and produce shops for our Spanish oranges.

 Our pension was cheap, friendly, and featured small, ornate, metal balconies overlooking the streets. It was centrally located, near the beach, Las Ramblas, and the Gothic Cathedral.

 One night my boyfriend came up to our room, where I was already asleep and woke me, saying, “Kristi, I just met the two coolest guys. I’ve never met anyone more like me in my life.”

“Who cares, I’m sleeping,” I said grumpily.

The next day I met Matt and Mike, two guys who had just graduated from Boston Latin and were — like us — on an extended backpacking trip through Europe.

I hated to admit it, but my boyfriend was right. These guys were cool. We became fast friends. They soon became part of our little traveling posse.

Earlier in our travels, we had already picked up an American named John in Nice. On the train, we met Ash, who was on a three-day weekend from Oxford. After he met us and hung out with us awhile, he said, “Screw my job. I’m going to Barcelona with you guys.”

Our gang spent our days lounging on the topless beaches or visiting Gaudi’s architectural gems. We spent our afternoons either cursing because we had forgotten to eat before all the shops closed down for siesta, or munching on the snacks we had fortified ourselves with and playing chess on our balconies.

Needless to say, we spent our nights drinking and carousing on the Ramblas, including one night when the city won the Futball championship and we joined the throngs of thousands of Spaniards with looped arms singing and drinking on the Ramblas. The streets were literally wet with alcohol that night.


Minneapolis, Minnesota 1995

A smoky chain restaurant in the Minneapolis suburbs became my next frequent venue for my on-and-off again love affair with chess.

While I was working as a reporter at a small weekly newspaper, I often had to cover late meetings after work. It was never worth driving all the way back home just for an hour or two, so I would often play chess at a coffee shop with one of the other reporters. We would smoke and drink coffee and hone our chess game.

As I started to fall back in love with the game, I remembered how much I loved that giant chess set my father had in Boston. I called him to ask about it. He now lived in Colorado and told me he had sold the set at a garage sale not long before I called. I was crushed. I began to ask around about giant chess pieces like that and never found any. Many years later when the Internet became popular, I even searched for something similar, but had no luck. I had never really told anyone about that chess set except my boyfriend (now husband).


Monterey, California 1998

 Our tiny little apartment on David Avenue boasted occasional views of the ocean and frequent sounds of the hordes of barking seals that had taken a wrong turn one summer on their way to San Francisco. Hundreds of happy, frolicking brown seals overflowed the Monterey harbor. The seals took over piers, beaches, and shallow coves much to the delight of the tourists who held their breath so they didn’t have to breathe the acidic prevalent smell of seal pee and could take a few snapshots to bring back home to the Midwest.

The day we moved into our Monterey apartment, we became friends with our downstairs neighbor, a Bulgarian artist specializing in etchings but making a living painting and selling religious icons on monastery wood to tourists.

We immediately had a special bond with Toma and consider him family to this day. Toma taught us many things, including what a really good chess player is like. But he also taught us what a European meal was really about: hours and hours of eating.

He would patiently instruct us on the intricacies of the dance:

“First, you must eat a little.” (And here he would demonstrate by taking a small bite and chewing it with a gleam of pleasure in his eyes.) “Then you drink a little,” he would say, raising his chilled vodka to his mouth. “ Then n you smoke a little,” he would say taking a long drag off his cigarette. “Then you talk a little.”

After a few minutes of conversation, we were back to square one: “Then you eat a little.”

Our American habit of wolfing down our food was frowned upon and we ended up at his apartment below us for a good eight-hour stretch of dinnertime. It was a bit forced upon us, as he would only bring out one dish every hour or so.

We became close with Toma. Maybe partly because there were no secrets between us. He could hear our every move. And likewise. I remember once he went to Bulgaria on vacation and I missed the sound of his snoring at night.

My favorite memory of Toma is probably his worst memory of us. We had returned from a week long vacation and met him downstairs. He looked like he had been to hell and back. He had deep dark circles under his eyes and looked haggard.

“Toma, what on earth is wrong?”

He just looked at me. “Your alarm,” he said like a zombie. Then he turned and walked away, presumably to go get some sleep.

My husband, who worked the early morning shift at UPS, had forgotten to turn off his alarm while we were gone and so every morning at 3 a.m. — for a week — it began blaring and then stayed that way for several hours.

And, of course, we also played chess with Toma, who was one of the first players to really challenge me in years.

Soon, we began having chess parties in our small apartment. We used wooden TV trays as tables and everyone brought their own boards. We invited a friend of ours who was a music producer in Carmel Valley. He walked in one day and saw about five games going on, which took up every square inch of our apartment and said,

“I couldn’t believe it when you said you were having a chess party, but you really are. That’s so cool.”


Oakland, California 2001

 Oakland gets a bad rap. Some of the most stunningly beautiful neighborhoods I’ve ever seen are in Oakland. Our place in Oakland was on the fourth floor of a 100-year-old house and we had views of Lake Merritt, which was a block away and the Oakland downtown skyline.

 San Francisco, where we would hang out with our friend John (the one we met in Nice) was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. But I loved Oakland more, mainly because of the sunshine and perfect God country climate!

By opening up two facing windows, we received the most delicious breeze I’ve ever felt in my life and the golden beams of sunlight that filtered into that small studio space were remarkable.

Friends would visit us in our 400-square-foot space and looking around at our bed pressed up against our couch, say, “Wow, you guys must really like each other.”

We would have friends over for dinner and squish into the main room. After eating, the parties that involved bongo drums, guitars, and singing would last until morning. We had to ask people to leave so we could go to sleep.

One day we got a call from our friend Matt, whom we had met in Barcelona. We had visited him in Boston and managed to keep in touch with him and Mike, who will always be special friends.

Matt was calling to tell us that he and a friend were embarking on a road trip across the country and wanted to stop in Oakland to see us.

We were ecstatic.

The day Matt arrived; he came bearing a gift for me. He lugged it up four flights of stairs: a giant plastic bag that looked like it was about to rip from the weight of the contents. I was at a loss as to what the gift could possibly be.

Then I peered inside. They were black and white chess pieces. Six-inch high ones. Just like my father’s set from when I was a child in Boston. Just like the set I had tried to replace, but never found.

Immediately, I wanted to know where he had bought them. They were obviously used and at first I kept thinking of the connection — Matt lived in Boston, my father was from Boston, and that is where I first played with pieces like that. I expected him to tell me that he had bought them somewhere in Boston, but then he said he had picked them up at a thrift store along the way. In a small town in Colorado. In a little town fifteen miles from where my father now lived. Fifteen miles from the garage sale where my father had sold his chess pieces that looked just like these.

You can spend the rest of your life trying to convince me otherwise, but I know deep down inside — those are the same pieces I played with as a child. Somehow, they made it back to me. Back home.


Now I just need to find a fur board that fits them!


6 Responses to The Chess Pieces: A rambling tale of coming home again

  1. Stephanie

    This is the best thing I have read in a really long time. For real.

    • Kristi

      Aw, Stephanie, that is sweet. I actually just did some quick editing …. xoxo K

  2. Sonia

    Love your blog Kristi! Especially great to read about your Oakland years, some of which coincided with my Oakland years. Keep letting us know when you write new posts.

    • Kristi

      Thanks Sonia …. those were the days, weren’t they? That’s why I wrote my novel, to relive the excitement of being a reporter during that time in that area. Too much fun! Hope you are well and so glad we are still in touch!

  3. aaonce

    Oh my goodness, I loved reading this! Thinking back to to the voluntary simplicity articles on hedonism (in your book and old blog)-I say (with fondness) you are quite the hedonist!!! :) I e-mailed you the facebook id of my friend (who loves chess as much as you do) and painted an entire series incorporating chess pieces/boards. I think you will enjoy her work.

    I have a lot of memories of my father and chess, he played many, many tournaments and impromptu games with friends. Chess was something that instantly connected him with others; something he deeply loved. It brought many people to our home growing up. :)

  4. Kristi

    Aaonce, thanks so much! I love that your dad had friends over to play chess!!! And I’m really looking forward to seeing your facebook friend. Hope you are well

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