You’ve likely seen him on the square, sitting at one of the small metal tables, smoking Pall Mall menthol cigarettes and waiting. His chess board on the table before him, he doesn’t try to make eye contact with passersby, doesn’t call out to anyone in particular. He simply looks straight ahead and waits.
He doesn’t generally have to wait long before someone approaches, maybe initiates a conversation about the game and soon sits across from him, intently studying the board, scrutinizing the most recent move by the chain-smoking chess man. Soon, handshakes are exchanged as another defeated player walks away and another cigarette begins to burn.
It was inevitable that I approached him. I love chess and, though it has been several decades since I’ve improved substantially, I’m not a bad player. When I offered a game, he suggested we wager two dollars. I’d seen chess hustlers haul in money by the hat full in New Orleans. I’ve seen the speed chess players in New York City. He didn’t seem like a hustler and he doesn’t play with a clock. I bet two dollars.
I learned that Richard and I have a state of origin in common: He’s from Selma, Alabama, me from a bit further south. He moved to Knoxville at an early age and said there were thirty children in his neighborhood. Many of them excelled at sports of one kind or another and he had a hard time being the best at anything. But he was good with board games and he’d heard that chess was the best game. He learned it and none of the neighborhood children ever beat him.
Like me, he had years in which finding a suitable opponent felt nearly impossible. We each saw the internet as an invention for playing chess anytime we want. We each passed through Pogo.com and Yahoo Chess before finding Chess.com. Still, here he sat in front of me, not at home in front of a computer. He said he prefers people he can see and talk to, prefers the interest of the square to sitting at home.
I asked if he’d played in tournaments and he said he played in a couple, but found them expensive and too regimented. He didn’t like sitting in rows listening to clocks being struck in every direction, the slowness of the pace and taking all weekend to finish a tournament.
I asked him what kind of winning percentage he enjoys on the square and he said it was over 99%. While he wins nearly every game, there was one game that came to his mind immediately, as if the wound was still fresh. A gentleman sat down and they each worked their way through the beginning game. Somewhere during the middle, when he thought his position was good, he was taken apart by his opponent who had considered moves much farther down the sequence. His position destroyed, he asked the man about his background and found that he was a Ph.D. physicist from an Ivy League school and he was rated at the Master level.
It’s not a great surprise when a chess player becomes philosophical, and Richard did not disappoint. Noting the great lessons chess can teach young people such as thoughtful consideration, consequences of action, organization, establishing a plan, patience, and more, he pointed out how ironic it is that we take young boys, particularly, who are often impulsive and prone toward using force more quickly than we might like and we put them in a football uniform where we emphasize “react and destroy.” He has taught chess to children and he feels it serves a need greater than the game itself. He still teaches lessons for $20.
So, if you are so inclined, stop and say, “hello” to Richard and maybe watch a game or two. If you’ve got a couple of dollars, you might sit down to your own game. He told me he doesn’t always suggest a wager, though he’s likely to if the person seems undesirable as an opponent. He points out that many ex-cons play because they learn in prison. I pointed out that he took my two dollars and asked if I seemed sketchy, some how. He said, “No. Sometimes I do it just to make people concentrate a little more. Besides, it helps pay for my cigarettes.”
It’s another of those quiet, uniquely urban experiences. When we think of an urban experience we tend to think of big things like the opera, theatre or the symphony. We think of museums, bustling streets and a wide array of dining options. But you’d never find someone sitting at the end of a suburban cul de sac with a chess board, waiting for someone to emerge from their garage to stop and play a game. It’s not likely in a mall.
Oh, my game? He beat me, but I felt like I might take him some day. I’m saving up my two dollars and finally opening up that chess book I’ve had around the house for years.