How I Found Love Over The Chess Board

How I Found Love Over The Chess Board

| 319 | Other

Written by Olya Kaye

Playing chess simultaneously against 15 people was no easy feat. I admit, I was nervous. It was the fall of 2009 and I had not played much chess since 2001. My skills were rusty, but I was 25 and daring.

You only live once and what did I have to lose? I wanted to participate in the United Way Campaign, run annually by the place I worked at. So, I organized a chess simul to raise money for people in need.

Worst-case scenario would be to lose all my games, raise no money, become extremely embarrassed, and submit my resignation. The best-case scenario, on the other hand, would be for me to win all the games and raise lots of money. But, the event turned out to be much more prolific than I could have ever imagined!

How I found love over the chess board
Olya Kaye playing in the simul. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Dribnenki.

After having won the Canadian Girls Chess Championship in 2001, I abandoned competitive chess to focus on my studies and career. Getting back into the game after such a long time was like learning to cross a road again. You look left and right, screening for cars and busses, and then boom! You get hit by an airplane!

In the weeks leading up to the simul, I joined a local chess club to brush off some dust. But to my horror, I was blundering left and right, “Whoops, here goes my Queen. Whoops, I just missed a checkmate.” Yikes! 

Yes, getting back into chess after a long hiatus is no bike ride. It requires, first and foremost, courage to overcome your own ego. “Will you be ok with embarrassing blunders? Will you tremble while playing far below the level you left chess at years ago? Will you give up to preserve the dignity of your past accomplishments?” The moment I realized that my ego had very little power over my losses and embarrassing games, I had won my first psychological battle. The battle against my own fears and my burning “don’t-do-it” demons. And thus, my chess prowess began to come back to me.

There was only one other problem: playing against 15 people at the same time is far different than playing against one person.

There was only one other problem: playing against 15 people at the same time is far different than playing against one person. It is a real burden on memory, focus, judgement, calculation, and quick thinking. It also hurts your legs after a couple of hours—especially if you are a woman wearing heels. The simul is also a spectator’s game. Everyone is watching your every move. And in my case, being a woman, playing against all men doubled up the spectatorship and the pressure. “Will she crack?” my colleagues were wondering.

As 12 o’clock rolled by the following day, I began my chess marathon. The room, where the event was taking place, was crowded with spectators who were my co-workers across the organization. There was lots of chatter and laughter as people were betting on their colleagues to see who would win. With my heart thumping and full of adrenaline, I began to maneuver in a circle across 15 chess boards set up in a U-shape, making one move at a time. My reputation and career were on the line. A few wrong moves and I would be temporarily unemployed, by choice.

love and chess
Olya Kaye playing in the simul. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Dribnenki.

As time went by, I started to win some games. The chatter was dying out, the room became emptier and everyone assumed a serious look on their face.

That’s when, for the first time, I really noticed the handsome man sitting at one of the chess boards. Each time I approached his board, John looked me in the eyes with a silent plea of “don’t be too hard on me, Olya.” But his smile was something else. Did he see something in the position that I missed, while I was responding in haste? Was he bluffing? “It’s a trap!”, I told myself, trying to keep my cool.

Normally, professional chess players do not display their emotions during chess games, contrary to what is shown in Netflix’s "The Queen’s Gambit" series. But John’s smile was infectious. I would approach other chess boards wearing my poker face, but by the time I reached John’s board it would change to a smile - I could not resist it.

John continued to make his “romantic" moves on the chess board. First, he “sacrificed” his bishop, while getting nothing in return (oops!). Then, one of his knights fell, again without any compensation. But luckily for me, his charms did not distract me much during the game. Shortly after, I was able to break up the pawns that were hiding his king, exposing his Majesty to the deadly attack of my Queen and Bishop pair.

But then something strange happened: for the first (and only) time in my entire life, I did not feel like checkmating my opponent.

For the first (and only) time in my entire life, I did not feel like checkmating my opponent. 

I didn’t want to “hurt” this smiling man’s feelings, or undermine his innocent way of playing chess. I decided to prolong this game just a tad bit longer and to discover what lay behind John’s mysterious smile.

As I approached other chess boards to make my move, I took a quick peek at all of my opponents. They were all staring intensely at their chess boards, either scratching their heads, massaging their chins, or pulling on their eyebrows, deep in thought. All, but John… who was gazing at me. I caught him! And I had my answer.

“Checkmate,” I told John, as I reached his board and he gave me the brightest and sincerest smile I have ever seen. I had no idea that while I thought I was conquering John on the chess board, I was apparently conquering his heart. “When you smiled back at me, I knew I had to ask you out,” he confided later.

The simul took several hours as there were a few fairly persistent players. I won 13 games and drew two. The event raised almost $4,000, and I got to keep my job! And if this wasn’t amazing enough, I also met my future husband!

love and chess board
Olya and John cutting their wedding cake. Photo: Courtesy of Kaye

When the simul was over, I got back to my office desk to check my emails. From a hundred new ones, one of them stood out. It was from John: “Great game, Olya. Wanna go grab a drink?”

By that point, I started to realize what was happening and my heart skipped a beat in excitement. John’s charms started to work their magic on me, at last. And while I always avoided office romances, I decided I could keep a secret with this one, at least for a little while. After all, we worked in different teams and on different floors.

I replied to John’s email with: “Yes, I’d love to”… Followed by “I do” three years later. We’ve been happily married ever since and even enjoyed a chess-themed wedding cake.

love and chess
Olya and John's Wedding cake. Photo: Courtesy of Kaye.
More from MomOnaBreak
Cupid's Move: A Click That Sparked an Extraordinary Love Story

Cupid's Move: A Click That Sparked an Extraordinary Love Story

Why More Moms Should Play Chess

Why More Moms Should Play Chess