Thirty-two hand crafted granite chess pieces filled the board, each possessing a complex set of potential attacks against the other. It was my move, and I took mental stock of my little beige pieces, constructing in my mind a set of paths that I could use to secure a victory.
I moved my bishop diagonally two black spaces.
In one tenth of the time that it took me to finally make my move, my opponent Steve attacked my queen with his knight. I hadn’t anticipated the move, but in his mind, he had known he would make that move three steps prior. My mouth stood agape, and my eyes darted up and down the board, trying to figure out exactly what had led up to the capture of my fourth piece.
“You fell for it again!” He exclaimed. “The queen’s gambit is always a bit tricky”
Around us, ten other concrete tables portrayed a similar scene. On opposite sides of the table, young and old players challenged each other in one of the world’s oldest games.
Washington Square Park was notorious for its chess games. Here, race, class and gender were of no matter. The only thing that mattered was the content of your mind, and if you could capture your opponents king before they got yours. Some of the best players in the world frequented these very tables to sharpen their skills against a variety of playing styles.
I moved a pawn forward two spaces, landing on a black square right next to Steve’s black bishop.
My opponent made his move so swiftly that I hardly saw what it was. “How long have you been playing?” I finally asked?
He began on one of his dialogues, the ones he usually gave when he was explaining the logic behind a certain move he made that had cost me the game.
“When my father first came to Manhattan 50 years ago to perform jazz, he only had a five dollars…”
I made a move while he was talking.
“For a year, he was homeless. And moved from alleyway to alleyway, he slept right up there on Waverly for two months in the winter.” He motioned with his right hand.
As he spoke, a young, blond man sat on a plastic crate, playing a piano passionately. A group of people stood in awe as he played from memory a piece by Rachmaninoff.
“But, every single day after playing at the jazz club, he would come to the park to play chess. He played homeless men, and business men, and he watched as the homeless men beat the business men who had designer suits, thick rolodexes, and six figure salaries.”
He moved his knight again in an L shaped formation, getting closer than he already was to my king.
“While he was homeless, Chess was the only thing that he had on anybody. He smelled, he had no money, he hadn’t met my mom yet, and he hardly had any idea where he was going to sleep that evening.”
I looked to the side of the board and noticed that he had steadily amassed a handsome collection of my own pieces. A rook, a bishop, two pawns….
Steve looked at the board a while, and made an L shape with his left hand, which I came to understand in his language meant that I could make an offensive move with one of my knights. I advanced, and took a pawn of his.
All of the other matches at the tables around us were steeped in the same intensity. Just across from us, obscured by a tall oak tree that stood in the middle of the park, I saw a bald black man with a fat belly and a shirt with rips proudly announce “check mate”. He collected a crisp five-dollar bill from a man in a top hat, who rapidly walked away.
“He always told me that chess was the greatest metaphor for life.” Steve continued. “No matter what you’re lacking in, no one will ever be able to take your passion or your intelligence from you.”
I was so interested in the story that after he made his next move, I ignored the fact that it was my turn, and focused only on Steve’s story, which now had a firm grip on my attention.
“One day, he played against a tall and lanky man, with dark hair that covered the marjority of his forehead. My father had his saxophone with him that day, and had been playing in the metro station, but couldn’t make a single cent. People were selfish that day. The man saw it, and invited him to play up with him at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Thereafter, he got to record and tour with damn near every single big name jazz pioneer who came through the city in those days.”
I took a look at Steve. Observing him, I would have never known that his life was born from such magnificent fortune. I began to understand Steve a bit better. Each time we sat down for a game, he would ask me “Who are the big jazz names today?” “Does your generation still listen to the old standards?” “Do you even know who Cab Calloway was?”
When he finished, he moved his pawn up one space, landing diagonally from my king. Good game.” He declared. “Never underestimate a pawn…”