The Malaysian and I played two more games of chess. I eked out a thin win in the second game after he sacrificed his queen in a risky gambit that never paid off, and we played an onerous game of pawns-and-king for the third that should have gone to a stalemate, but ended with an unforced error on my part that allowed him to back me into a corner and checkmate me.
Although the Malaysian took the series 2-1, I felt I had represented myself well, especially considering I hadn’t played serious chess in a year or more.
While we were playing, a small group of spectators had gathered around us. Some of this group were patrons of the cafe, perusing menus and asking questions of the hostess, while others were clearly here just for the chess.
A pair of Nepali men were the most interested, watching over my shoulder and clucking now and then. They would suggest moves and point out strategies whenever I was on the verge of making a particularly egregious mistake, but mostly they watched in respectful silence. One of these men was the owner of the cafe, it turned out, while his friend ran a fishing shop across the street. Bored with slow business, the fisherman often came over here to watch the chess, although he admitted he wasn’t much of a player, himself.
The cafe owner was an enthusiastic player, and he rotated in against the Malaysian after me, rubbing his hands with the eager air of a man with a score to settle against a trusty foe. I stepped back from the board and pulled up a chair.
A chill had settled into the air; a portent of coming rain. When I left my guest house, it had been a blazing, beautiful, clear morning, and I had not thought to bring a jacket. I ordered a pot of hot tea.
As with many things in Nepal, the tea took its sweet time getting to me. The slow service was no doubt related to the fact that the boss was out front, studiously staring at the chess board.
I didn’t mind much; the Malaysian and the owner had an established repartee, and watching them trade barbs and jokes kept me warm and entertained. I’d been missing this element of human contact in Kathmandu, and it was remarkably relieving to remember what it felt like.
The Malaysian was a better player than the cafe owner, handily dispatching him while crocheting in between turns.
“You see?! You see him?” The owner said to me, half-serious. “He moves so fast, like he does not think, and the he crochets between turns! He does it to throw you off,” he complained.
I had to admit, the Malaysian’s supremely unconcerned manner was unnerving; especially coupled with the high level of play he demonstrated.
“I look at the board and I think of my moves ahead of time,” the Malaysian responded simply. “So when it is my turn, I do not need to waste time. I simply play, and I wait. If YOU played faster, I would not have to crochet!” he said with a good-natured laugh.
The Nepali threw up his hands with a “tching” noise and ceded his chair to me with a smile. He went off to look into the matter of my tea.
The Malaysian took a small pouch out of his backpack.
“Do you smoke hash?” he asked me. “I cannot play chess without smoking hash.”
“Sure,” I said with a smile. “But I can’t say it’ll improve my play.”
“It is the only way I can focus,” he said to me, rolling a spliff as he spoke. “I only ever play chess when I am stoned, that is why I crochet, to give me something to do with my hands.”
An older couple was sitting next to us, and they had been listening to the Malaysian speak with great interest. The man leaned over into our conversation and asked: “Do you have a dealer here? My guy from last year doesn’t seem to be around.”
The two exchanged a few words about the logistics of obtaining drugs in Pokhara. From the conversation, two things became clear: both the Malaysian and the couple came here every year for an extended stay, and the question of finding drugs seemed to be a trivial matter. Everyone seemed to agree “the Russian” was the person to talk to. The couple turned back to their pastries, and the Malaysian turned back to his spliff.
He twisted off the end and handed it to me.
I offered it back to him to start – an act of stoner etiquette – but he steadfastly refused.
“I insist.” He said.
I shrugged my shoulders and sparked it up.
The hash was weak and laced with the taste of tobacco, but I didn’t mind. In a foreign country, with unfamiliar people, it would be good to keep some of my wits about me. I took a few long drags and handed it back across the board, where the Malaysian smoked it with obvious relish. We went back and forth for a minute or so, smoking the spliff into nothingness. When we were done, the Malaysian tossed the roach into the little glass ashtray on the table, where it smoldered alongside several older, colder roaches. I wondered how long the Malaysian had been here.
He clapped his hands together, let out a big “ahhhhhh,” and said, “Back to the game!”
Either his play had improved or mine had deteriorated, as he quickly dismantled my opening.
“Ah, are you sure you want to do that?” he would say. “See, you have left my castle open to attack.”
He was a much better player than I.
I sat and sipped my tea and took my lesson.
Normally a very competitive person, it was the damnedest thing— I didn’t care about losing at all.
Sitting in a cafe in Pokhara, smoking hash, sipping tea and playing chess, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.