I stared across the chessboard at my opponent, her dark, cold eyes promising no mercy. Her businesslike manner indicated that I was just another obstacle to be quickly dispatched.
I was face to face with an 8-year-old girl in a pink Snoopy T-shirt that read "Cupcakes forever."
It was a muggy summer night on Long Island, and 50 people were hunched over chess games in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Mineola. The silence was occasionally broken by an aggressive "Shhhhh!" that was much louder than the quiet talking that had prompted it.
I had stepped into the world of competitive chess, and I blamed my friend Kenny Popkin of Merrick. We're avid poker players, but the closing of U.S. online poker websites two years ago left a void. Kenny decided to join his teenage sons in the world of chess, and now he was dragging me in, too.
It didn't take much prodding. As boys, my brother and I followed the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world title match in 1972. Every move was posted on a chess board on TV and endlessly discussed like a D-Day plan of attack. We were captivated.
Today, even very young kids hone their chess skills through computer apps, increasing my risk of running into a future Fischer or Spassky.
"If you are thinking about the age of your opponent, you are in trouble," cautions Harold Stenzel, who runs the Nassau Chess Club in the church basement. "You need to focus on making the best move you can."
Easy for him to say. Many of my opponents aren't tall enough to ride Space Mountain.
I struggled in my early matches, losing all of them to young children. One of them, another 8-year-old I call "Killer Kate," said she preferred playing adults instead of kids her own age.
"They don't know much stuff," she said of the grown-ups.
Discouraged and wondering if I would ever beat any of these kids, I entered the Manhattan Open at a hotel in the city, where I would play five matches over two days. I was assigned to a low-rated division and found myself in a room where kids easily outnumbered adults. I felt more than a little uncomfortable, like the only adult at the kids' table at Thanksgiving dinner. Sure enough, my first opponent was a 7-year-old girl in a beautiful white dress. She easily defeated me and then ran off, as if late for her first Communion.
In my next match, I found myself staring at a 9-year-old boy. Dazed, I vowed to stay positive, and somehow I won. As we shook hands and I prepared to exult in the joy of victory, the boy started to cry.
His tears brought my joy to an abrupt halt. I have two children of my own, so the switch to parent mode was automatic. "It's OK," I reassured him. "I just got lucky."
I returned to my Long Island club game with much more confidence. Facing an 8-year-old who had crushed me a month earlier, I found myself with a difficult late-game decision that might mean an upset victory for me.
"I feel like I have to capture your piece," I hesitantly said to my diminutive opponent, remembering the tears of the one and only person I had defeated. I claimed his rook.
"It's OK," he replied. "I have a combination move. Checkmate."