Updated: November 2, 2020
It was a boring, uneventful Sunday afternoon. I just came from a friend’s house in Cubao, Quezon City, and was on my way home. Walking toward the Cubao MRT station, I saw people gathered in a corner. They were staring at something, obviously lost in deep thought. Curious, I squeezed my way to the center and found out what was causing it all: a chess puzzle.
“This one is easy,” an old man in a blue shirt and tattered jeans was telling everyone around. “Just three moves by white and the black king will be defeated. Go ahead and try it. You’ll earn twice your bet. No trial. All moves are final.” The man was sitting on one side of the chessboard, clutching several P100 bills. He was obviously the one running the game. He wore a suspicious grin.
Was he a con artist, giving chess puzzles with no solutions? Was he providing a distraction so that his “colleagues” could pick the pockets of unsuspecting bystanders? Or was he a retired national chess master going incognito and trying to make a living on the streets? It must have been all the booze from the previous night’s party that caused me to make some doubtful decisions. In a moment, I had moved closer to the board, all eager to accept the challenge.
My father had taught me how to play chess, and he taught me well. I had a few medals I won from chess competitions during my younger years to show for it. This is going to be a piece of cake, I thought. I will be a few bucks richer in no time at all.
So there I was, at four in the afternoon, on a sidewalk in Cubao, trying to solve a chess puzzle. There were only four pieces on the board: the two kings, the white queen, and the white bishop. The black king would be easy to trap, especially with the powerful white queen still on the board. The key to the puzzle must be forced moves. I would have to give the black king only one square to move into so as to keep the game under white’s control – until the third and final move which will be the winning checkmate.
Several bystanders had tried and failed. Some resigned and left, while new faces appeared to witness the game. I was staring hopelessly at the board, ready to give up. Then it dawned on me: white’s three moves. I took P50 out of my wallet, placed it on the board, and prepared to savor certain victory.
But before I could move a muscle, the old man spoke, “That’s not enough young man. The minimum bet is P200. You look smart, why not make it P300 so you could win P600.” Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I felt that there was no way I could back out and save my face. So out of my pocket went an additional P150.
I made my first move. The man moved the black king to an adjacent square. I made my second move, and it happened. The man moved the black king to where it was before – a move I had overlooked. I swear I heard a toilet flushing with my P200 going down the sewers. I finished my third move and the black king moved to safety.
“I though I was going to lose,” the old man said, obviously trying to entice others to give it a try. “How about the others? Are you as brave as this young man?”
My feet wanted to walk away but in my mind, I wanted revenge. All I could think of at that moment was really how to get my money back. I couldn’t back out now, I was too involved. I needed to solve this one or else it would eat me up on my way home. I looked at my wallet. I had P110 left. Not enough to play again.
“Bet your watch, I’ll give you P1,000 if you win,” the old man suggested.
“I may be naive, but am not that stupid.” I said under my breath.
“I’m going in 30 minutes,” the old man said. “So you guys better hurry up.”
Time was running out. I had to think fast if I wanted to get my money back. I looked around to check if there were any ATMs nearby, but there was none. So I summoned the courage to talk to this guy beside me, who, by the look on his face, didn’t know a thing about chess. “Sir, are you willing to bet with me? We’ll put out a hundred each and we’ll split the winnings. Is that okay?”
Perhaps he saw that I was desperate and acted out of pity. He took out a crisp P100 bill and gave it to me. “Do well,” he said encouragingly.
I must not make a mistake this time, I told myself. I am now risking a stranger’s money. I took a deep breath and moved around the board and settled on the other side to give myself a different view of this brainteaser.
“Last 5 minutes! Don’t worry, I’ll come back tomorrow with a new puzzle,” the old man announced.
The guy who gave me P100 prodded: “Go ahead, solve it now. I also need to go soon. It’s okay if you make a mistake.”
So I placed our bet on the board, thought for a moment, took a deep breath and made an unorthodox move with the queen. I retreated the piece away from the black king, seemingly reducing the pressure from the corner of action, but really preparing for an attack. The man moved the black king. I repositioned the white queen near the white king, establishing, forcing the black king to retreat.
The man thought for a while. He shook his head and said, “I was right. You’re smart.”
He took the black king and tipped it, conceding the game. Several guys in the crowd started analyzing my moves. All of them agreed that it would indeed lead to a checkmate. The man shook my hands and gave me my P400. “Don’t come back here again,” he teased. He started to pack his old and chipped wooden chessboard. The crowd started to disperse. And I gave my business partner his P200.
It was getting dark. I can’t believe I just spent the last two hours on a sidewalk in Cubao. I started my walk towards the MRT station. I looked back at the chess master before turning toward the flight of stairs that would take me to the booths. I saw him, quietly sitting on the sidewalk, counting his earnings for the day, obviously happy despite his loss in the last game.
Looking back, I realized that I learned several things that afternoon. First is to know everything before you invest. Had I known that the minimum bet was P200, I wouldn’t have played at all.
Next is not to let overconfidence affect our decisions specially when taking risks on our finances. If I had given the puzzle more careful thought, then I wouldn’t have lost the first attempt.
Lastly, I discovered the power of OPM or Other People’s Money. In personal finance, it usually takes the time to accumulate wealth. This is because people tend to view the resources that they have to invest as limited to what they are able to earn and save.
However, the truth is that you are not limited by your own financial capabilities. You can use OPM and leverage it to achieve financial gains.
This post is an adaptation of my article that was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer under the Youngblood column last September 21, 2000.
The original version of the story, which contains more details on what happened that afternoon can be read in the book, Youngblood 3 by Anvil Publishing.