How to Win the Game of Life, Even When Life Cheats You

teenager playing chess with his grandfather
Photo by Ron Lach on

I remember the summers in the village as if it were yesterday. The wheat fields, the alpacas, the smell of pigs and manure.

The taste of pure cow’s milk. The mantecados and caramelized almonds.

The crowing of the rooster and the eternal passing of the trucks announcing meat, fruit, or fish that arrived on a different day in the village of my grandparents.

I remember my old California bicycle inherited from a cousin of mine that had no brake pads. I used to put a crumpled plastic bottle on the rear wheel to make it sound like a motorcycle.

I remember releasing the bike’s handlebars downhill toward the sunset among oaks, mulberry trees, and barking dogs. I felt immortal.

If I concentrate hard, I can even feel the scratches of the dry branches that I used to fetch with my grandfather on Sundays and carry on my back in a kind of pita rope bundle my grandfather taught me to make.

I made up for it because, with those branches, we used to light the fireplace every night. Between the embers, we roasted potatoes wrapped in all paper balls.

As a child, my grandfather programmed my head without my realizing it.

He taught me how to shoot. He taught me to tie my shoelaces. He taught me to cry when no one would see me.

He taught me how to survive.

He also taught me how to play cards and play checkers.

The after-dinner conversations at my grandfather Felix’s house were not about chess or Parcheesi. They were about playing checkers.

Because checkers was a game in which you had to learn to let yourself eat to eat twice. According to my grandfather, that had a specific value that, sooner or later, I would discover in the course of my life.

At that time, I didn’t understand a damn thing.

I only knew that playing checkers after lunch was not a game but a sport.

So much so that in the village house garden, there is a giant cement table where we all fit at lunchtime: my grandparents, their eight children, their wives, the grandchildren.

Imagine the size of that table.

And on one side, painted on the stone, majestic a checkerboard.

After each meal, my grandfather would sit down, and his children would challenge him; one by one, he would fall, and if one of them beat him, he would take off. He would become the flamboyant champion until he was no longer undefeated.

I wanted to be part of that.

I wanted to compete, and my grandfather would teach me in the mornings at breakfast, on the sly.

Because everything that is done clandestinely tastes better as a child, and you never forget it.

The fact is that I never managed to beat the old man.

Every time I took my eyes off the board, my grandfather would change the position of the pieces.

And when he obviously won the game, he would tell me to put the pieces back.

I was lazy and didn’t want to, and he would say “I win, you place the pieces. You must pay to learn that there is a price per game. And if you don’t understand the lesson, you must repeatedly pay that price.”

But the most essential thing that the old man taught me was that one day, tired of his traps, I confronted him.

I looked at him ragefully because he had misled me again and moved the chips. And I said to him, “If you didn’t cheat me, you would place the pieces because I would win.”

My grandfather laughed, and I insisted, “You don’t win; you cheat me. That’s why I always place the checkers on the board myself.”

Years I had spent summer after summer playing with him, and I had never beaten him.

And he was calm, despite my arrogance, and said, “I don’t cheat you, grandson. I teach you to beat life even when it cheats you.”

I thought he was teaching me a game and he was preparing me for life.

And today, I would give anything to have him come down from heaven to play with me. Today, I would give anything to hear his phrase upon winning, “”I win, you place the pieces.”

Today, I would give anything for him to teach me how to beat all the cheaters playing fair.

A virtual hug


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