Check, Bet, Kill

John Heggelund

My daddy taught me how to hunt, play poker, and win at chess. He had leather skin and a shave he whittled down with his knife like some people clean their fingernails when there’s nothing else to do. He wore a denim jacket lined with fleece and a white cowboy hat that had bleached over the years while his skin had tanned. He was incredibly welcoming and yet remarkably cold like an elegant statue. I never saw him do a thing he didn’t intend to or come out worse for it. He was a sharp, calculating man with deep creases in the corners of his eyes.

He started teaching me as soon as I could listen. He didn’t wait for me to talk. He tells me he’d sit me down on the carpet in the living room between the coffee table and the TV while my momma was cooking dinner and he’d let me play with the chess pieces. He picked up the knight and he neighed like a horse. He grabbed the rook and made himself squat, grunting in low voice like big, big, castle. He juggled the pawns, managing each one, knowing exactly where they were all going and how they’d get there.

The knights were my favorite. I slept with one like most kids had a teddy bear. I liked them most because when your pawns were setting up the front and your rooks were covering your flank and your bishops were pressing forward, it was your knights that slid in to cinch the win. They’re the most maneuverable piece on the board and deadly efficient in pairs. They’re the aggressors, the killers, the linebackers, the hitmen, the cowboys, the knights. It was my daddy that taught me how to use them.

The way he put it, chess was like how life should be if the world were perfect and everyone got a fair chance. Even though someone gets to go first, he said you have to think that they got to go first, too. Maybe he don’t want to make the first move. Sometimes you just have to.

My daddy said what he liked about chess was that everyone had the same pieces and there’s only so many ways they can move and things can only go one way. That is, a knight’s a knight and it’s there or it ain’t. Everything’s right in front of you and you got just as much as the next guy until you start messing with things. He said in that way it’s how we like to think life is.

By the time I started remembering most things my daddy played chess in the park outside the hospital where my momma was trying to get better. The park was just a small clearing dotted with picnic tables in front of the highway. It always smelled like wet pine needles and week-old trash. Players brought towels or tablecloths to spread over the sticky, concrete tables. When it wasn’t too hot and Momma couldn’t wake up, we’d walk over there to look for a game and if we couldn’t find one we’d start one ourselves.

I watched my daddy play a lot of chess a lot of different ways, slow, fast, aggressive, passive, because I don’t think he ever really liked the game for its je ne sais quoi or whatever. It coulda been any other game we hadn’t figured out like tic-tac-toe that you could take up on the street like basketball. My daddy liked playing people and that’s how he taught me to play so it’d stay fun.

When you play people, he explained, you don’t look at the board first, you look at them. You study the person and then you look at the board. I asked him why and he said it’s cause you need to connect what you see on their face with what you see on the board and not the other way around. I didn’t make a boatload of sense outta that till I saw my daddy playing this wheezing fat redhead in the park.

This guy had a bucket of chicken next to him and he was getting his pieces disgusting and slobbery and when he took one of my dad’s he laughed in an uproar.

I was standing by the table and the man kept gesticulating at my daddy’s king. It was way out in the open. There was nothing but a cropping of three pawns between it and an army of angry black pieces. My daddy still had his knights and a bishop and a rook but everything was spread out to the four corners of the board. His king was stuck in no man’s land.

“Look at that, boy. Four more moves and I won.” The fat man lit a cigarette and waved me off dramatically. “Get out of here. You can’t see it.”

I couldn’t see exactly what he was trying to do and I scrunched my eyes into tiny slits trying to. Failing, I glared at my daddy.

The man laughed. “What, you too stupid? Your dad sees it.” He nudged me and I scowled further. “He saw it a while ago. It’s called the long game, old timer.” He drew hard. “Figured you’d be acquainted.” Then laughed half his head off.

My daddy advanced one of his pawns, further abandoning its king. I grabbed the table so hard the pieces shook and my daddy gave me such a look I thought I would die.

That fat man just kept on laughing. “Three moves,” he said, and then he pushed his queen between two of my father’s pawns, only two squares from the king vertically.

My daddy moved without pause. As soon as Mr. Fatso let go of his queen he moved his king sideways. Fatso kicked over the pawn beside his queen and lined up on the king again. There was nothing between the king and the queen but an empty, clear road to victory. My father was on the verge of losing to the biggest joke of a man I had ever met and I was crying silently, chewing my lip like a wad of gum.

He laughed again. “Check! Hah! I was wrong: only one more move!”

“No, you were right,” my daddy said. He pulled a bishop from the corner and placed it directly in front of his king, blocking the imposing queen. It came out of nowhere. I almost thought he cheated.

“Okay, okay, smart guy,” the fat man said before dutifully knocking over the bishop quickly, without thinking, leaving his queen directly in front of my daddy’s king not even a square away. “Check, wait,” he said. His hand dangled over the queen, but he’d already let it go.

Before the man could take back his move, my daddy flicked his queen off the board with his king. It bounced on the concrete base of the table and fell limply into the grass.

I never saw a tomato implode before reading that fat man’s face. I thought his heart would pop right there in the park. He railed, cheating this and sucker that and motherfucker you, and my dad just sat there quietly. He didn’t smile smugly and he didn’t exactly frown but he didn’t seem to sit there for himself.

The fat man made a half-assed attempt to recoup his victory. My daddy steadily queened his pawns, reigned in his opponent’s pieces, and sent his knights in for the slaughter. It was beautiful. Before he could completely clean up, the fat man swept a sweaty forearm across the table, knocking the pieces to the ground.

He humphed, struggling to get out of his seat, and then pumped his legs for a second try. Flailing his arms out in front of him wildly he managed to gain enough balance and upward momentum to come to his feet. He stalked off like a troll to the hospital. His bulk blocked out the sun between two tall buildings until I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at anymore. Then, far away, the sliding doors opened and I never saw him again. Not ever.

***

My daddy didn’t get to teaching me poker until after my momma died a few years later. We was leaving the hospital when he said if chess was like life if it was fair, poker is more like life really is. He said if in chess you got the same as everyone else and everyone can tell it, poker is the exact opposite because no one knows what the other’s got and ain’t no one that can have the exact same thing as the other. He said the big thing though, the real thing that gave it “verisimilitude,” was that you don’t win nothing just for having the best cards.

After he said that we took the cardboard box full of Momma’s books and pictures and flowers from her room and we went home to the motel. Once we got inside he put her things down on the bed and sat at the table by the window in front of the gigantic AC unit that seemed to spew nothing but mildew. My daddy stared out the window at the parking lot while I watched cartoons and when I looked over again he was shuffling a deck of cards.

He looked at me and I thought he might just fall asleep right then and there and never wake up. He looked at me like that and he said in chess, you win just for taking the other guy’s king, but in poker winning is only secondary to what you win. You gotta take a man’s king right when he’s most sure it’s safe, when he’s willing to bet everything that you can’t take it. That’s the big difference, he repeated: In chess, you just need to beat your opponent, but in poker you have to completely dominate him.

We set to playing and my daddy got to winning but not every hand, but it felt like I was losing more chips than him when I lost and winning a lot less when I won. Pretty soon my daddy had nearly all of the chips and then it didn’t matter what I bet ‘cause he’d match or raise or make me guess and second guess my bet till I was doing just what he was telling me to do, losing.

I felt like I was playing a made-up game with some kid who kept changing the rules. My daddy took everything I did and made it wrong. Aces beat deuces but he’d make me fold and show that ain’t right. Betting the straight is smart, but not if he’s got the flush. Cain’t make nothing betting on getting lucky but still some people do and occasionally you have to pay for it. My daddy beat me like that till I couldn’t ever look at a damn deck of cards again and when I think about it he hadn’t played a single hand the entire time Momma was alive.

When he finished, he said there’s some lessons you gotta learn that you cain’t carry with you everywhere. He said if you had to cross a river and you built a boat to get over it, getting to the other side you wouldn’t pick up the boat and carry it the rest of the way. He said like that, it’s important to know how to build a boat but just as important to know how to get rid of one. I told him what he could do with his boat and he grounded me to kingdom come.

***

It wasn’t until after the funeral that my daddy finally taught me how to hunt. The way he said it was, if chess is like life should be, and poker is like life is, hunting is life.

He said that there ain’t nothing fair about a man taking on a deer or a hog. He said the only thing a man has to do to outsmart an animal was be patient and observant. He said no matter how damn smart that deer is, even if it’s the goddamn Einstein of deer, there ain’t shit it can do to see a man in a blind, to tell trap corn from wild corn, to run with a bullet in its heart.

He said there ain’t no reason we was born a man and they was born a deer any more than there’s a reason I was born his kid and not some terrorist’s kid. He said that’s okay because life ain’t chess. He said we drew our cards and everyone else has theirs and we don’t get to know ‘em. He said we have to wait and be patient and observant so we could see what everyone was holding.

He said all this as a doe crept in front of my sights. It had long ears like oblong funnels that twirled around this way and that. Its giant black eyes slowly turned to mine and I saw how its face looked like a calf’s but brown and pinched tighter.

My daddy said if this was chess, what would you do?

And then I pulled the trigger.

Author Portrait

John Heggelund is an emerging author of literary fiction writing out of Austin, Texas. He has edited two academic journals for the non-profit Children@Risk and developed educational, interactive fiction for Dual Path Learning, LLC. His personal essay titled "the Importance of Strong Writing" won him the Texas A&M Teri Marshall Excellence in Writing Scholarship. “Check, Bet, Kill” is his first published short story.

View the website of John Heggelund