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Slayer plays the mall

| March 26, 2023 12:00 AM

He looks too young and innocent to be ruthless.

"How long have you been playing?" I ask Elrik.

"Seven years," he says.

"How old are you?"

"Seven."

It's my second time here — same as for Elrik and his family.

The first time I ventured to the community chess club in the Kalispell Center Mall, the adults outnumbered the kids and just a game or two was under way.

Organizer Gary (who, like the other adult quoted in this column, declined to give his last name) gave a shout-out to mall manager Eric Peterson for allowing this free all-weather activity during that limbo spot for “kids after school and before getting home.”

Thus a lively but ponderous scene brews from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays at the west end of the mall.

Gary said all ages and skill levels are welcome — “we just provide the occasional lesson and good humor.”

Fast-forward some weeks to late February, and the mall still feels a bit apocalyptic but the turnout (11 people) outnumbers the customers at Foxy Nails, the busiest business in the mall at this fading-toward-dinnertime hour.

Teens cluster around one board; next to them a man and woman huddle over a handsome stained-wood chess set. Behind them two adult players go mano o mano. The air grows thick between them as they slow-motion seesaw between turns.

I gravitate to two kids, Elrik playing an older boy. Elrik, too short to sit while playing, jostles on his feet at his side of the board. Under a mop of brown hair, his eyes make quick study of the board. He captures pieces with a bit of a knock each time.

“I did not see that,” his opponent says flatly as he loses his queen.

The game ends quickly. With a handshake, the older boy goes off to play Tobias, Elrik’s 5-year-old brother.

As those two set up on a board behind us, Elrik looks me over. As does his dad, Thomas, fresh off a game with Tobias.

“Do you play?” they ask.

I always enjoyed chess growing up but I still don’t know all the rules. I rarely beat my teenager.

“It’s been a long time,” I said. ”I’m not good at all.”

Elrik shrugs. His dad gives him a sidelong smile, and says, “She could be hustling you.”

“We appreciate the face-to-face version because so much is online,” Thomas says, adding that a “critical component is the respect you give each other as players. The player gives you their time. Online, if a game is not going well it’s too easy to just get up and leave.”

The teenagers next to us finish their game and amble off.

What did I have to lose? I push aside my vanity and notebook and move to the board, gesturing to Elrik.

I was as bad as promised. But my opponent was patient. He explained a few rules. Half of my pieces remained intact, unmoved.

As I marvel at my loss, Thomas assures me about Elrik: “Even if you’re good, you can be your own worst enemy. You can get sloppy, make mistakes.”

In other words, there’s still hope for me, the next time I go play chess at the mall.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com