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
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
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 mustnt seem too eager.
After pausing a moment, he countered, 200
300 Baht, American. Thats 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 Marianis
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 wasnt enough to get Tony through
the end of the Vietnam War, he couldnt
imagine what would be.
Thailand became his home for the next year.
Lawan was Tonys 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
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 Tonys 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 Tonys 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 couldnt 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
Anger welled in Tonys gut. He was going to
have to buy back his property.
Where did it come from? he asked the
The teenager shrugged. I dont 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 hadnt noticed the fine detail of
I dont know. That could be from
Tony rubbed his forehead hard in frustration.
See the king. Hes wearing an ancient
tunic called a pao, and the pants are
called a ku.
The kids stare was blank. All I know
is that its three hundred dollars, man.
Maybe he could take advantage of the kids
ignorance and get a deal from this boy. Ill
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
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!