Why you want to be the one who ends up with the check
Dating today, especially in the USA, is essentially The Hunger Games with table napkins. It’s no place for the timid, the slow, or the weak. This article will help you survive at least until it’s time to choose dessert, after which frankly you’re on your own.
For this article we’ll assume a traditional heterosexual male/female couple staring at one another steely-eyed across the table, muscles tensed and ready to strike at any moment. Perhaps things are potentially less deadly for other possible combinations of gender and orientation, but as I’m an ancient white male from the late Jurassic period I have to stick to what I (purportedly) know.
Just as in a game played by two chess Grandmasters, there are standard opening gambits and defensive moves. To run with the analogy we shall call our lovely female player White and our equally lovely male player Black. Should this seem accidentally arousing to some readers, feel free to substitute Magenta and Teal for a less tumescent experience.
White plays Queen’s Gambit by asking, as faux-casually as possible,
“So, what do you do?”
Black knows she’s likely already memorized his LinkedIn profile and estimated his annual income, so he plays Queen’s Gambit Declined and offers,
“I really enjoy writing poetry when I have free time.”
This is a risky move. White may simply lean forward, gaze deeply and sincerely into his eyes, and then slam her fork down into Black’s right hand that is fatally resting near his wine glass.
The tension in the air is electric.
Fortunately for Black’s future as an 80 wpm typist, White decides to transpose into the Catalan Opening by replying with,
“That’s so sweet! It must be great to be so financially secure you can afford to indulge in such a harmless little hobby!”
Now it’s up to Black to determine the next few moves. Tactically he withdraws his vulnerable hand before shifting topic.
“Have you been dating long? It’s all pretty new to me.”
White narrows her eyes. She’d been expecting this ploy. For an inexperienced player this could be a fatal trap: admit to being on the circuit for too long and he’ll assume she’s a slut; claim to be a beginner and he’ll assume she’s fresh out of a relationship and eager to sample new meat.
Skillfully she counters with QBd4, replying,
“Probably about as long as you, give or take. I like to be social but I’m also pretty choosy so….”
Recognizing his opponent as a skilled adversary, Black ponders his next move.
“Shall we order wine?”
This seemingly harmless positioning of QKe3 is actually a lure. Will she bite?
White smiles agreeably, far too seasoned a player to take the bait.
“That sounds nice. Do you know much about wine? I’m really just a novice.”
She wants him to know she’s toying with him.
Black inwardly smiles at the skillful counter-move. If he admits to being a wine connoisseur he’ll either come across as pretentious or as a potential alcoholic. If he feigns ignorance he’ll be in danger of seeming to be the kind of ignoramus who usually drinks American beer but defaults to Merlot when on a date.
“How about I suggest a couple of different options and then you choose?”
In her heart White scowls deeply. Black is a better player than she’d been expecting. Now he can seem both gallant and knowledgeable without also seeming pompous or desperate.
“What a lovely suggestion!”
Now she’s playing defense, not at all where she wanted to be this early in the proceedings. White needs to regain control of the board, reduce Black’s materiel and push him into a corner.
The next few moves are indecisive, with neither side gaining real advantage. A couple of pawns are exchanged as White chooses a salad as an appetizer and Black silently notes that she’s therefore watching her weight and then Black chooses duck confit so White registers that he’s probably got a little soft tire sitting around his belly.
As they select their main courses, White plays it safe by ordering scallops in lobster and white wine broth. Black’s Queen’s Bishop is briefly threatened when he orders Prime Rib but White is unable to press home her advantage because he supports this move by saying casually,
“It’s been years since I had Prime Rib. It used to be my father’s favorite dish.”
Black suggests two wines. As White is having fish and he’s having beef, selecting a suitable wine that will pair adequately with both dishes is a far from trivial task. He uses the opportunity to lure White into a false move.
“The Etude 2016 Pinot Noir, or a 2014 Antinori Chianti?”
White holds her poker face, giving nothing away. It’s a clever stratagem: both wines are an acceptable solution to the fish & meat problem but there’s only one correct answer.
“Oh, I know almost nothing about wine,” she smiles in what she hopes is a guilelessly convincing way. “Maybe the Pinot Noir?”
“Excellent choice,” Black answers. There’s a pause. They both know the next move could determine the outcome of the contest.
“Just luck,” White says nonchalantly, avoiding Black’s trap and moving safely out of danger.
By the time the main course arrives it’s clear neither is going to give ground easily. Tiny beads of sweat moisten both brows. White makes sure she’s not clenching her fingers around the silverware and Black keeps his breathing slow and deep, ready for any sign that White may consider using her cutlery on him. He knows he holds the advantage with his steak knife, a far sharper implement than the fish knife White foolishly forgot about when she made her selection as the waiter stood passively by the table taking their orders.
“It’s such a pleasure to meet a man who isn’t obsessed with sports,” White mentions between small careful mouthfuls of perfectly sautéd scallop. She feels pleased with this move, so apparently innocuous but laden with potential doom for the unwary.
“Oh, you know,” Black smiles. He’s heard this one before and has his counter-move down pat. “I’m not really interested in commercialized sports on television. I prefer to be out and about doing something myself.”
“How admirable,” White tells him, knowing she’s just lost her King’s Knight.
That insertion of “something” rather than specifying a particular activity was, she has to admit, a clever twist. Black has evaded the risk of sounding like a couch-potato while also evading the danger of his outdoor activity being either too tame or conversely too athletic and therefore boastful-seeming. By being non-specific Black has blunted White’s attack.
“How about you?” Black counters immediately, pressing his advantage. “You’re in such good shape I’m guessing you enjoy being physical pretty regularly.”
White smiles sweetly while calculating whether or not the distance between them is small enough for her right foot to be able to reach his crotch with a swift unexpected kick beneath the table-cloth. She decides against it for the time being, which means she has to counter the subtle suggestion of wantonness Black has just slipped into the conversation. In effect his King’s Bishop is now within a move or two of threatening Check, albeit with no hope of Mate at this point.
“Mens sana in corpore sano, and all that,” she smiles sweetly and then glances down as if embarrassed to have quoted a Latin tag not while knowing whether or not her opponent speaks the dead language.
Black, caught off guard, replies,
“All those men in the corporate sauna, makes you wonder what they’re doing in there.”
White looks at him blankly.
“A joke,” Black says lamely.
“Very nearly,” White says, and sweeps Black’s Rook from the board. Most definitely advantage White.
Black mulls his situation carefully. His tactical blunder has cost him big time and he knows he can’t afford another lapse of attention. What was he thinking?
They make their way through their main course, both sipping the wine appreciatively while ensuring that very little actual consumption occurs, for alcohol blunts the mind and they both need to remain sharp and focused in this struggle for dominance.
“Do you have children?” White asks. She knows this is potentially a double-edged ploy but she still doesn’t have a clear way to threaten his King so she’s looking to remove more high-value materiel. It’s time to take a few risks lest the game should end in stalemate.
Inwardly Black exults. He’s been practicing this precise gambit and its counter-moves since a catastrophic early date in which this same question resulted in checkmate in five.
“Two, both grown up and happily established in their own lives. Being a parent was the best thing that every happened to me. Gave me a chance to grow that I’d never otherwise have been granted.”
White inwardly slumps a little, knowing her move has backfired. Black has gained kudos for having raised children who are now capable of independent adult existence, which means he’s both financially off the hook and a caring parent who’s conscious of inner growth. Worse still, he dodged the proud father trap by using the neutral word parent. No chance of pinning classic male attitudes on him.
White closes her eyes for a second as her Queen’s Rook and King’s Bishop vanish from her ranks. It’s a bitter blow. She resolves to make him pay dearly for this temporary victory. Immediately, however, she needs to protect her King. She has to prevent Black asking her the same question. If she says no, she becomes a dry and probably neurotic spinster; if she answers in the affirmative she’s confessing to stretch marks and functional nipples.
The plates are cleared and now it’s time for the closing phase of the game. Everything depends on the next few moves.
White desperately wants to use the rest room but knows that any sign of weakness could be fatal. She resolves to remain in situ until the contest is decided. She peruses the dessert menu in an intentionally leisurely manner.
“See anything that excites you?” she asks.
Black feels himself stiffen.
White’s King’s Rook has come out of nowhere, an unexpected move that could put him in a tight corner. If he looks at her meaningfully and says something like, “I certainly do,” then he’s wide open to an accusation of crass chauvinism. If he feigns indifference then he’s potentially guilty of failing to appreciate her charms.
The seconds tick by. White begins to let herself savor the foretaste of victory.
“It’s certainly difficult to choose one thing alone among such a wealth of riches,” Black offers. He hopes this deflection using a cunning pawn will be sufficient to protect his King from checkmate.
“Indecision?” she asks lightly.
When one has a stiletto pressed against another’s heart it’s hardly necessary to push with any great force. All that’s needed is to slip it gently and discretely between the ribs.
Black inwardly curses. White is really very good indeed.
“Appreciation,” he counters. “I often find I get more enjoyment from imagining the various flavors of dessert than from actually choosing and consuming any single one of them. I think tonight I’ll be content to enjoy them all in this way. A decaf coffee will suffice.”
White smiles the kind of smile a cobra would smile at a mongoose just before it bites the snake’s head clean from its body: defiant, furious, full of false bravado, aware of its own impending doom.
“How original,” she says, knowing as the words tumble from her mouth that Black has taken control. Her back rank is exposed and she has insufficient materiel to cover her most important piece.
It is now, at the moment of assured victory, that Black plays his masterstroke.
“Let’s call it a draw,” he offers. “It’s been a delightful evening and…”
White stares at Black across the chequerboard tablecloth. Of all the ways the evening could end, she had never conceived of magnanimity. She realizes his gesture has stirred something deep within her, arousing more than simply her curiosity.
“I think I should concede,” she whispers, her cheeks aflame. “It seems only fair.”
Black smiles. He catches the waiter’s eye and nods slightly.
“In that case, I’ll take the check,” he says.
After White and Black leave the restaurant together, the waiter clears the remaining items and then pulls the cloth from the table. He feels content. He’s seen a great many first dates over the years and it’s pleasing to witness one that doesn’t end in bloodshed and recriminations.
His own daughter is approaching puberty. He wonders if perhaps he should use the money he’s saved from his tips to buy her a book on how to play chess…