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The Chess Table
by Jerry Guarino

U-Tapao, Thailand (1972)

Soon after his arrival, Tony found it in a shop outside his Air Force base on the Gulf of Siam. It was a two-foot chess table made of teak wood-stained with light and dark squares- with two drawers for pieces and sitting on five-inch legs. This simple set reminded him of games with his father back in Boston.

He smiled at the short, old man wearing a brown and yellow shirt. “Hmm. How much for this?”

“500 Baht,” said the proprietor after holding the table up and showing the dovetail joints. “Fine craftsmanship. See how the pieces are dressed.”

Tony wiped his palms on the seat of his pants. “50 Baht,” he said, trying to hide his enthusiasm.

The old man shook his head. “This is a lucky table. Will bring good fortune to owner. 400 Baht.”

Tony rubbed his chin. The set would look great in his hut, but he mustn’t seem too eager. After pausing a moment, he countered, “200 Baht.”

“300 Baht, American. That’s it.” The shop owner said with a wave of his hand.

Tony reached into his pocket slowly and handed the old man fifteen dollars. The set was a bargain at twice the price. In the states it would cost over one hundred dollars. “Okay.”

The old man was right; the chess table may have indeed been lucky because Sergeant Tony Mariani’s life took a turn toward prosperity.

As an E-4 airman, he could afford the good life in Thailand. Two hundred and ninety dollars a month got a hut in a nearby village, food, clothing and even a woman.

Many women lived with GIs- cooking and cleaning- in order to earn money for the rest of their family. Some dreamed of marrying an American and moving to the states, not an uncommon practice in wartime. If a loving, beautiful Asian girl in her late teens wasn’t enough to get Tony through the end of the Vietnam War, he couldn’t imagine what would be.

Thailand became his home for the next year.

Lawan was Tony’s girl. She had long, straight black hair - like most Thai women-clear skin the color a California beach bunny would die for and a warm, innocent face. She often wore a colorful sundress, flip-flops, a pearl necklace and a fresh hibiscus flower in her hair.

Back in Boston, Tony would have been the envy of his pals. In fact he sent pictures of Lawan back to them and several friends wrote back about enlisting.

Tony taught Lawan English and learned to speak Thai. After a traditional dinner of noodle soup, fried rice and grilled yak or pork, they would play chess. Lawan learned Tony’s playing style and soon she could give Tony a good game, even beating him every so often. They both enjoyed it more when Lawan won, though Tony never intentionally let her. This simple game bonded them, much like their lovemaking.

After such a game, Tony would play the iconic music of his generation: Led Zeppelin, The Who, John Lennon, Santana and Three Dog Night- reminding him of home even while reveling in the hot, humid and exotic jungle of Southeast Asia. The contrast between his surroundings and American rock music was intoxicating.

Time passed quickly, as it will when one is in love. Before he wanted to leave Lawan, his yearlong tour in Thailand came to an end.

Since the military picked up the shipping cost, GIs sent a lot of furniture and electronics home. As Tony’s tour in Thailand neared its end, the chess table was packed up and sent back too.


During his last week in Thailand, a number of misfortunes fell upon Tony. On the flight line, one of the bomb loaders ran over his foot, severely spraining it. He got food poisoning from something he ate in the base mess. He even had a fight with Lawan, which had never happened before. Their parting was sad and emotionally draining.

His military transport home had a six-hour layover on Wake Island. The eternity of waiting gave Tony time to think about the man who sold him the chess table; maybe he had shipped his good fortune back to the states. Now he was anxious to get home.

As soon as he arrived back in Boston, he borrowed a truck from one of his friends to pick up his belongings. He checked off each item on his list. Papa-san chair. Stereo components. “Ah, there it is.” He grabbed the chess table with both hands, held it to his chest and sighed. “Good to see you again, old friend.”

Before going into the service, Tony had thought about being a hospital technician, so he started taking extension classes and worked at one of the hospitals as an orderly.

Settling back into civilian life was going well, until one day when he returned to his room in Cambridge near Union Square.

The house had been burglarized- everyone living there lost valuables. Tony ran to his room and discovered his chess table had been stolen. It felt like the day he had to leave Lawan, as if part of him would never be right again.

Almost immediately, his life started to go badly. He lost his job to someone with more experience and did poorly on his exams.

Tony knew what he had to do. He started to canvas the pawnshops and game stores to see if he could find his table. In a shop called Games People Play, he saw his prize in the window.

It must be his.

He couldn’t call the police, since he really never had proof of ownership. He decided he must use another tactic to get it back. “How much for the chess table?”

The teenager took the table out of the display window and looked at the price sticker. “Three hundred dollars.”

Anger welled in Tony’s gut. He was going to have to buy back his property.

“Where did it come from?” he asked the clerk.

The teenager shrugged. “I don’t know. The Middle East maybe?”

Tony winced. This boy is either uninformed or a con man. “Look at the Asian craftsmanship. Look at the pieces.” The teenager hadn’t noticed the fine detail of Hanfu clothing.

“I don’t know. That could be from anywhere.”

Tony rubbed his forehead hard in frustration. “See the king. He’s wearing an ancient tunic called a pao, and the pants are called a ku.”

The kid’s stare was blank. “All I know is that it’s three hundred dollars, man.”

Maybe he could take advantage of the kid’s ignorance and get a deal from this boy. “I’ll give you a hundred.”

The teenager looked askew. “Man, this chess table shows fine details of Hanfu clothing. Look at how the king is dressed with the pao tunic and ku pants.”

Tony realized he had undermined his bargaining position. Bargaining in the states was far different than bargaining in Thailand. His face flushed. “All right, all right,” he said and handed the kid a credit card.

With the chess table under his arm, Tony stepped onto Brattle Street and walked to the Red Line T-station. As he rode the escalator down to the tracks, he saw the Dunkin Donuts kiosk, a woman selling flowers and college kids from Harvard waiting for their ride into Boston. Then he saw a dark haired woman with a colorful sundress, a pearl necklace and flip-flops waiting for the outbound train.

His pulse quickened. Was this Lawan?

He bought a flower from the vendor and walked up to the Asian beauty. “Here,” he said and handed her the flower.

She turned to reveal a pretty face and smile. “Oh, thank you. What a lovely chess table. Where did you get it?” As he told the story, Tony realized his good fortune had followed him home from the war.

Life was good again. Checkmate!