My first day teaching chess was my first time playing chess. I had no idea that “check” was different from “checkmate,” what the difference was between a bishop and a rook, or how a pawn moved. Six months before this, I had graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and Media and Cultural Studies. This was the first place that wanted to hire me. Five hours a week for $25 an hour. Sure, elementary school kids were a handful. Sure, teaching chess wasn’t the career I had dreamed about the last four years. I was an alcoholic without alcohol, a writer without anything worth writing about, a moving-back-home-because-I-had-no-other-options millennial. Now I was depressed, but employed. I showed up to my first day on the job with a smile.
It took me a few tries to parallel park across from the elementary school in Temple City. I was supposed to teach with one other person at every school the company assigned me. Since they asked me to show up at 12:30 PM, I assumed this other person would train me before my first lesson. Chess was just a game. If I was able to beat those timed minigames on BioShock, it couldn’t be too hard to learn in an hour.
To start, I wasn’t there to train. Yammel, the woman who had hired me, who knew I’d never played chess before, was my co-instructor. However, she wasn’t there to teach me. I’m sure she saw the terror in my eyes. We had ten minutes to set up twenty-two chess boards, each with a bag of chess pieces in the center, before the kids were supposed to rush in. Yammel squeezed my shoulder. She claimed it would be easy. “All you have to teach them,” she said, “is how to move the pawn and the king.”
She clearly did not understand the extent of my ignorance. She took me to the plastic teaching board hanging inside the school cafeteria and went over the basics. I mumbled through the way pawns and kings moved. The kids looked nervous. I thought they could tell there was something off with me when we first introduced ourselves. When the kids who were brand new to chess were instructed to follow me, I could tell they wanted to say no. Yammel asked me to keep one of them busy. She had an odd number of students and needed a moment to decide how to pair off her more advanced players.
Professional poker players have never been under greater pressure. The nine-year-old boy did not buy my bluff when I asked him to tell me how each piece moved to prove he belonged in the advanced class. When we went over the knight, he moved the horse-shaped piece three spaces forward and two to the side with such confidence that I went with it. Then he corrected himself and stared at me confused, ready to call me a fraud. “Oh, right,” I said. “Sorry, I was distracted. I think we found you a partner!”
I taught my group a few minutes later. White pieces start at 1 and 2, black at 7 and 8. White always starts. There are eight pawns on each side. “This is how a pawn moves,” I said and showed them. They went back to the lowered cafeteria tables where they tried to capture all of their partner’s pieces. Yammel went over the rules for the king with me as her group got settled in front of the teaching board. When she was done teaching her students about pawn promotions, I taught my students about the king. “It’s the most important piece on the board,” I said. “It moves one space in any direction but it should always be protected.”
After class, Yammel told me I did well. I asked her when I would receive formal training. She handed me one of the two black suitcases stuffed with chess boards and bags of pieces. My new teaching set. “I’m sure there’s something online,” Yammel said. “Make sure you know how all the pieces move by next week.”
I left to teach at another school on the outskirts of Temple City, fifteen minutes away. I was half an hour early, and I wallowed in self-pity until I leaned my forehead against my car’s steering wheel. I gave myself a pep talk: It had taken me six months to get a job. I needed to stop being a burden on my family. I wasn’t going to be the cliché money-mooching older sibling with an art degree. Nine-year-olds were not going to knock me off my feet.
Matt was my second co-instructor. He was sat on a chair meant for four-year-olds and his jaw, I noticed, was slightly crooked. The room where we taught had a small stereo. Matt always tuned it to smooth jazz while we waited for the kids. He had an easy confidence I envied. When I told him I had never played chess before, he told me it was fine. “Now you have a reason to learn,” he said.
We went over the pieces, plus check and checkmate. Most of it went over my head, but now I knew the basics for pawns, kings, and bishops. He was a nationally-ranked chess player.
The kids arrived. Before we got into chess, they had to ask us a question about something they knew the answer to but thought we didn’t. If we didn’t know, they got a red card they could use to trade for candy or toys at the end of the program. If we did, no reward. Most of their questions were about Minecraft or cartoons. Matt almost always knew the answer. He lived with his sister and her family and that made me feel better about living at home too.
Once, a kid at the school, a firecracker with a rattail, challenged me to a chess game. He was in the advanced group with Matt. It was the first time a student challenged me. I didn’t know what to do.
Matt laughed. He told the student it wouldn’t be fair because I’d beat him in a few seconds. “She’s a grand master,” he said. “I can’t even beat her. Play me first and if you win, maybe she’ll play against you.”
After class, he told me to always act more confident than I am. It was the secret to this job, to kids, to life. “It never hurts to talk yourself up,” he said.
I won’t lie. Teaching chess is not a career path I recommend. I made less than $1000 a month, sometimes less than $500. When I had to play against a student, I almost always lost. I admired the hell out of Matt, but we didn’t end up buying friendship bracelets. Still, things got better at home. I stopped writing bad love poems to my favorite alcoholic drinks. I told myself I had something important to write until eventually I did. Slowly, I stopped resenting myself. Most of my new confidence came from bluffing.
I worked with the company for a year before I found something with steadier hours and a better paycheck. By the end of my time teaching chess, I was teaching the advanced group. I held my own.
Whenever people find out I used to teach chess, they tend to challenge me to a match. If they’ve played before, they beat me. I fill the time from the start of a game until my eventual defeat with anecdotes. I teach these challengers to set up the board the way I taught the kids. A bishop, I tell them, if turned on its side, looks like a clownfish. This is a trick to remember that the bishop always starts on “c” and “f” on the board.
When I lose, I tell them I was going easy on them. “Don’t you know I’m a grand master?” I say.
We both know I’m lying. We laugh. We play another game.