A summer of chess in Bryant Park.
Victor Vasarely, The Chess Board, 1935. Oil on board. © Victor Vasarely.
There is a class of men—shadowy, unhappy, unreal-looking men—who gather in coffee-houses, and play with a desire that dieth not, and a fire that is not quenched. These gather in clubs and play Tournaments…[b]ut there are others who have the vice who live in country places, in remote situations—curates, schoolmasters, rate collectors—who go consumed from day to day and meet no fit companion, and who must needs find some artificial vent for their mental energy.
—H.G. Wells, “Concerning Chess”
The chess scene at Bryant Park can attract a threadbare sort, men in high-belted pants who carry around plastic bags filled with other plastic bags. Twitchy eccentrics and brooding loners. A gaunt Hasid everyone calls “The Rabbi” plays game after game of blitz—speed chess—and seems to subsist on Marlboros and two-liter bottles of Schweppes club soda. Paul, a massively overweight chauffeur, wears an Everlast headband to stanch the flow of sweat and flinches vampirically at the slightest glint of direct sunlight. Yusef, owlish and exhausted, stops by after the overnight shift at his family bodega in Midtown. All three are among the elites here, expert-level players whose artistry is, at times, breathtaking.
A chess match with a stranger in a public park involves a sudden and awkward intimacy. You sit across a small table, sometimes for up to an hour. You are usually silent and bent forward, concentrating together, antagonistically, on the same problem. You are conscious not only of your own position and ideas on the chessboard, but also of the stranger’s body, energy, breathing, where the eyes move on the board and what they speak of intent. It can be unsettling even in the calmest of games. I started playing regularly in Manhattan’s Bryant Park this spring. A leafy oasis planted squarely in the center of Midtown’s crisscrossing din, Bryant Park on weekdays draws a mix of lunching professionals and ambling tourists. The games section is orderly and comfortable, not the free-for-all of hustlers in downtown spots like Union Square or Washington Square Park.
I’d had little chance to play over the years. My preteen son quit the game soon after I stopped letting him win. I tried coaxing my girlfriend into playing but failed to negotiate anything more than a promise that on my birthday I would be allowed to talk to her about chess for a period not exceeding fifteen minutes. Competing online felt empty (and sometimes creepy). I was keen to see how I measured against real players. When I stumbled upon the games section at Bryant Park one day it felt like a wonderland.
As for my opponent today, I’m certain I’ve seen him panhandling on the subway, shuffling down the aisle of a crowded A train, slack-jawed and shabbily dressed, waving around a plastic cup full of coins. We are deep into a game of blitz and although I have staked out a solid position I can feel myself coming undone. Usually this occurs when I build an early lead and then become so terrified of squandering it that I panic and end up doing just that. Today, distraction has gotten the better of me. I can’t look away from the man’s face, reddened and hideously disfigured by elephantiasis. This would be, I presume, his calling card for soliciting money on the train.
But there is nothing forlorn about him right now. He neither looks nor smells homeless. His clothes are sharp and clean. He scoops up pieces and taps the clock with calm and elegant precision. We are down to a rook and pawn endgame and I have a pawn advantage with about forty seconds left. I should be able to force the advantage but my thoughts stray. Is there a discreet way to ask someone if they beg for money when they’re not busy playing chess? Would I give him any money if I were to see him on the subway again? I miss a crucial threat and soon my king is pinned against my rook in the back rank. It is useless to continue. I resign with a dismissive wave of my hand.
I suspect “chess rage” and “road rage” are neighboring neural impulses.
He was the stronger player but I should have won. My entire worldview blackens and I feel the urge to either smash something or slide under the table and disappear. What is it about chess that can make losing so annihilating and the reactions to it so acid? Robert Hübner, a German grandmaster and chess writer, once remarked that when he loses he has “the feeling that I have no right to exist, that everybody should despise me.” In the midst of a tournament, it is said, legendary grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch, upon realizing imminent defeat to an inferior opponent, leapt onto the table and roared: “Why must I lose to this IDIOT?” I suspect “chess rage” and “road rage” are neighboring neural impulses. I’ve seen tables upended, rants issued, grown men stomping away like toddlers sent for time-out. Part of it, I think, is the compression, the hundreds of critical snap decisions all made in a bubble of isolation. Once the bubble is punctured, the energy can escape with explosive force.
I am not a bad player in a relative sense. On my best day, I play at a rating of about 1600, which is slightly above average for an avid player. The baseline rating for masters is about 2300, but this cannot begin to describe the galactic distance between an experienced player and a true master. Martin Amis once wrote that “nowhere in sport, perhaps in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical…. My chances of a chess brilliancy are the ‘chances’ of a lab chimp with a typewriter producing King Lear.”
To a chess player, even an average one like me, a rating is as vital a vital sign as a pulse. In his 2011 book Counterplay, anthropologist and chess writer Robert Desjarlais suggests that a person’s rating can function like a stock price, an index of one’s self-worth. He cites a Philadelphia grandmaster, Greg Shahade, who commented, “All chess players feel that they’re horrible unless they’re among the top ten in the world,” but “The better you are the more you realize how many mistakes you make.” “Chess is painfully, deliciously hard,” writes Desjarlais, “…total mastery is always deferred, out of reach.”
I don’t aspire to total mastery, but I at least want to be good. Or, more precisely, I want a measure of respect. I want to not be ordinary.
Some days at Bryant Park are rife with indignity. Once I found myself across from a Tom Cruise look-alike who’d just landed from LA. He said he was out of practice, looking for a friendly game. Within minutes I was suffocating under the smoky ruin of my gutted position. It’s one thing to lose to a guy like Paul, with his sweaty headband and 400 pounds of flesh. It’s quite another to be steamrolled by someone who, in addition to wildly superior chess skills, has hair, teeth, pectorals, and biceps that are nicer than yours.
A young hedge-fund type sometimes makes a show of checking and responding to his emails during a three-minute match. Mind you, this is a game where each side only has three minutes total to dwell on all of his or her moves. Once he even answered his phone and kept on playing during what appeared to be a business conversation, and beat me. There is also an old Filipino man who takes a special interest in provoking me. He’s better, but not by much. What flusters me is the trash talk. “I make-a the magic happen now… You, you no have-a the magic today, you no have-a the magic ever, hahaha.”
The supercollider of egos and skill levels at the park can produce democratizing and humbling effects. The randomness is part of the draw but also provokes a fear. Is the shy twelve-year-old who can barely mumble the words to ask for a game about to brutally reorient my entire self-concept? I know the horror of assuming otherwise.
One spring morning, I have a day off and show up early. The Bryant Park games organizer, Gregory, is already there, hammering away at a blitz match with the Rabbi. Gregory is the better player and loves to trash talk. He has the Rabbi’s queen—the strongest piece on the board—trapped. “Come on, little girl,” Gregory beckons to the helpless queen, “let’s get in the car, I have some nice candy for you, let’s get in the car, little girl, come on…” Despite the pedophilic overtones of his talk, Gregory is a kind and brilliant teacher, one who has memorized “the book”—an open-source encyclopedia of opening sequences—and its hundreds of themes, variations, and vernacular. He will tell you why the Tarrasch variation of the French defense is best, warn you about traps in the Owen’s line.
Soon the Rabbi’s queen is stuffed away into Gregory’s car and the game is in its final throes. My attention drifts to a conspicuous-looking person at an adjacent table. She appears to be a transgender woman, lanky, with a trim bob of dyed fuchsia hair, floral knit sweater, and rumpled vintage skirt. There are several other games happening but she is seated alone and has been for a while, arms folded, staring straight down at the board. There is aggression in her stillness and a formality to her posture that feels out of place, like she’s sitting for a John Singer Sargent portrait. Something draws me to her, a curiosity but also perhaps a misplaced sense of pity. I offer—not without a trace of condescension—to play a game. Maybe she is a beginner or a tourist having a hard time asking for a game, my thinking goes. Having read Stefan Zweig, who wrote about both chess and the dangers of pity, I should have known better.
I have never before or since seen a gaze as piercing as Julia’s. She offers me a business card for her graphic-design company, an odd gesture that seems to contravene the unwritten rules of impersonality in park chess. Only a few regulars are on friendly terms. It frustrates me that I haven’t made any friends over the course of my time at the park, but it shouldn’t surprise me since most of each game is spent in monastically silent contemplation. Plus, afterwards, someone is usually a bit sore over the outcome and not given to chatting. Julia starts the clock and we each make a quick series of moves.
There are three phases to a chess game: the opening, middle game, and endgame. I excel at the opening, a safe harbor governed by time-tested move sequences intended to develop pieces and establish control of the center of the board. I rarely run aground there, even against better players. The middle game is when you sail out into open waters, navigating clear of danger but also hunting for winning tactical combinations. While the middle game is dynamic and full of possibility for creative leaps, the endgame, the point at which most of both players’ pieces have been eliminated, is, for me, like being cast away on a bamboo raft. There is too much space, too few resources, too little opportunity to “make-a the magic happen.” I bought a 900-page book on endgame strategy once. It sat on my coffee table for a few weeks, bursting with promise. Then it gathered dust. Then I used it one night to crush a cockroach. Now it blocks the gap between my AC and the window frame, stoutly guarding against squirrels that at times foray into my kitchen. My endgame strategy, if it gets that far, is to hope my opponent gets bored and offers a draw.
Despite its intellectual veneer, chess is a game of violence and aggression.
As for my opening against Julia, I have chosen one I know well, the “Smith-Morra Gambit.” Desjarlais argues that chess openings are “metaphors of selfhood, in that a player’s choice of opening systems are taken to be indicative of the person’s way of acting, thinking, and yearning.” The intent of the Smith-Morra Gambit, which sacrifices a pawn in order to gain an eventual spatial advantage, is to surprise and disarm and perhaps employ a bit of subterfuge, since many aren’t familiar with it. I suppose what this says about my selfhood is that I am reluctant to meet you eye to eye but prefer an oblique approach, to underwhelm you at first, then catch you off guard once you’ve exposed your own vulnerabilities. It’s also the ideal opening for late bloomers.
In any case, Julia is having none of the Smith-Morra. She hovers and darts over the chessboard with the fitful havoc of an orchestra conductor. She flicks a pawn to open up a diagonal line, thrusts a bishop down to a key square, slides a rook behind her queen to create a column. A deadly howitzer pointing directly at my chest.
Paul, the chauffeur, pulls up a chair to watch. “I used to be the number-one-rated blitz player in the country,” Julia tells him, without being asked. If her aim is to intimidate me it isn’t necessary; the carnage is already well under way. A predatory scowl sharpens her features. Her pieces constrict the center and tighten like a noose. There seems a fathomless, unreachable depth to her logic and calculations. It is over for me in fewer than twenty moves. The back of my neck burns with the shame of both the stupidity of my play and my foolish arrogance at discounting her. Why did I assume since no one else wanted to play her that she mustn’t be very good? Despite its intellectual veneer, chess is a game of violence and aggression. And, as Julian Barnes once remarked about chess, “aggression involves contempt.” It is perhaps a natural part of one’s ego to assume supremacy, and all the more natural to feel like an idiot when such an assumption is shattered. I went home that night and Googled Julia Sloan. I found her official chess rating, 2350 for blitz play and a master title. She may well have been telling the truth about her former number-one national status.
It turns out I was the lab chimp in Amis’s analogy that day, and I don’t see myself ever turning out the chess equivalent of King Lear. For one thing, I lack the ability to visualize, beyond a few moves, how the board might look many turns down the road. Freakish visualization prowess is a sure skill in any master-level player. In 2013, Uzbeki-born American grandmaster Timur Gareev conducted a thirty-three-game simultaneous “blindfold chess” exhibition, which is exactly what it sounds like: while blindfolded, one must play thirty-three simultaneous matches and memorize and figure all of the various positions and possibilities therein. Gareev won twenty-nine of those matches and tied four.
Another way to distinguish a great chess player from an average one is to gauge how comfortable he or she is with tension. After the opening flurry of moves it is inevitable that a tension accrue somewhere on the board—a cluster of opposing pieces all vying for control of a vital square. The temptation for most is to resolve that tension by trading off pieces and simplifying the position. Experts let it build and build, and pounce only when they identify a clear way to gain an advantage. Everything you’d want to know about a person psychologically is there to see on the chessboard. My mind reacts to tension like an allergy, wanting to be rid of it completely. I tend to overestimate opportunity and underestimate threat. I prefer game positions that are closed and quiet, as opposed to the more swashbuckling tactics favored by others. I have formed (completely unscientific) judgments about male players who attack with their queens too early in the game and what it suggests about their unresolved Oedipal issues. I do wonder why I didn’t find chess before investing in psychotherapy.
The potential number of distinct forty-move games is said to be greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.
One shouldn’t assume, of course, that chess geniuses are somehow better adjusted psychologically. Bobby Fischer died a sad, raving anti-Semite. Paul Morphy, a nineteenth-century American grandmaster, was said to bathe in a candlelit tub surrounded by women’s shoes. Mexican grandmaster Carlos Torre was once arrested running completely naked down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In Mavis Gallant’s eerie characterization of a genius as “growing gaunt and haunted, losing its hair, marrying the wrong person, dying in its sleep,” it is easy to imagine a chessboard somewhere in the scene.
Marcel Duchamp, himself an amateur player, withdrew from painting late in life to nourish his manic devotion to chess. By some accounts Duchamp played at a master level, even competing for France in the 1933 Chess Olympiad alongside then–world champion Alexander Alekhine. During his honeymoon he spent so much time studying chess puzzles that his frustrated wife eventually glued the pieces to the board while he was asleep. They divorced not long after. Why do so many find the game irresistible to an almost irrational degree? Wells’s idea of “an artificial vent for…mental energy” is one reason, but I think the game’s boundless possibilities for creativity may hold a deeper answer. After each player has moved four times in a game there are 288 billion possible board positions. The potential number of distinct forty-move games is said to be greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe. For me, a chessboard is like an immersion tank, a place I slide into to escape ordinary chaos for a structured, meditative calm. Sometimes it’s satisfying to just stop and admire the beauty of a chess position: how a chain of linked pawns might resemble a cantilevered sculpture, the way a bishop commanding a long, empty diagonal suggests a torqued arrow pointed straight at the enemy’s heart, or the sympathy I feel for an exposed king, its vulnerability somehow touching. “I am still a victim of chess,” Duchamp once remarked. “It has all the beauty of art—and much more…. I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
Stefan Zweig once described the contradiction between the labor of chess and its lack of tangible product as “a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork.” Plenty of Duchamp’s work outlives him in museums. What remains of his other passion, chess, is nothing. I think all players feel, at some point, a desire for permanence, to hold what they’ve created in their hands, to see it and have others see it, too. But chess can stubbornly shroud its beauty. One day I saw Paul leap from his chair after an audacious queen sacrifice won him a game and shout, “Look at that! A Queen Sac! Look!” But the crowd of onlookers soon scattered, oblivious or indifferent to his creation.
It’s fun to imagine where someone like Duchamp would fit in Bryant Park. Like any competitive social setting, strict hierarchies set in over the course of an afternoon to govern who plays whom and where. I tend to end up at the “kids table” with other average players. An elite table usually takes shape nearby, where the Rabbi holds court with other strong players. There is a finely dressed finance type named Misha who has the regal gaze and crown of hair of a Russian oligarch. Yusef, the bodega worker, holds his own there, too. I almost beat Yusef once, albeit after one of his marathon bodega shifts; I captured his queen early and then succumbed to my usual spasm of panic at wasting a won game. “You’re a smart player sometimes,” he told me. “You just need to think more.” That is such a clarion distillation of my life’s talents and limitations I may have it etched on my tombstone.
With me at the kids table is usually Ozzy, who always sports a do-rag and sweats. He wears the kind of t-shirts I imagine are given out as promotional swag on booze cruises: “Kick Start Your Night with Mountain Dew” or “Help the Economy, Buy Me a Beer.”
“All your clothes are about drinking,” I joke one day.
“I used to go and party hard, man,” he says. “I mean I used to hang out.”
Desjarlais writes that chess, especially blitz chess, with its chaotic time pressures, “release[s] dopamine into the brain, giving the habitués a high not unlike the plateaus of pleasure and arousal tripped by cocaine or morphine. In time, the efforts can derange the brain reward circuits, making it difficult for a person to stop.” Perhaps Ozzy has traded one addiction for another.
I know that high. On a late Friday afternoon, I was playing at the kids table with Ozzy and a few others. A crowd was watching, waiting for Bryant Park’s free summer movie night to begin. My blitz partner was Aldo, a jovial Dominican whose nostrils flare dramatically when he’s concentrating. I was on a winning roll, seeing the board clearly, attacking, controlling, even smacking the clock like you see in movies sometimes. Then I heard a twenty-something kid nearby sneer to his friend, “These guys aren’t any good.” He pointed to the elites. “We should try for a game over there, where we can learn something.”
Everyone heard him. Soon I had beaten Aldo. The dozen or so players and watchers gestured at the kid to cut the line and sit across from me, and see if he could still “learn something” from a scrub at the kids table. I understood our collective pride was at stake. I thought back to my game with Julia—when I was the one guilty of underestimation—and for some reason I tried the same gambit that she had tied into a knot and beaten me over the head with. The kid countered well but soon discovered he had no safe place for his queen. He lowered his head, looked at his clock, looked at his queen again. I felt a desperate tug to win early and not let it drag into an endgame. A chess player without an endgame (like me) is like a boxer without stamina. He needs an early knockout blow or he’s finished in the late rounds. Soon the spatial advantage that the Smith-Morra offers opened before me like a gulf. The kid knew there was trouble but couldn’t identify where. I glanced up from the board at the crowd of players, some of whom I could tell knew exactly where the trouble was, and soon I did, too. If I sacrificed one of my knights I could follow it up by sacrificing my queen and then deliver a checkmate with the rook behind it, which I promptly did, and not without a dismissive flourish. Bobby Fischer once said that his favorite part of chess was the moment when he broke another man’s ego. I can’t say I feel quite the same way, but, in the spirit of Desjarlais, I can say that I wanted to grind that game into a fine powder and snort it right up my nose.
The Thursday before Labor Day a twenty-five-foot tree came crashing down in Bryant Park just feet away from the chess tables. I wasn’t there, but when I returned the following Tuesday at lunch, it didn’t surprise me to hear that the regulars barely flinched, and most didn’t discontinue their games in the ensuing mayhem. A few people were seriously injured and needed to be taken away on stretchers. A battalion of police and fire personnel cordoned off the area and Gregory had to collect all the game boards, pieces, and clocks. Those who bring their own boards and pieces took them out and simply started new games.
Serious chess players want to play chess and not much else, which is harmless enough until you consider the story of British Army Colonel Johann Rall, who commanded a troop garrisoned by the Delaware River in New Jersey in 1776. A spy passed the colonel a note meant to inform him of General Washington’s plan to cross the Delaware and attack. Not wanting to be interrupted during his chess game, it’s said, Rall took the note and put it in his pocket, where it was found, unopened, after he was killed by Washington’s army in the Battle of Trenton.
I like to think I have more restraint than Colonel Rall, but I played way too much this summer. I avoided lunches with friends, read fewer books, wrote nothing (except this essay about chess), and attained the body one might expect from such a sedentary hobby. It wouldn’t be so bad, I thought at summer’s end, to turn for a while to smaller masteries closer at hand.
I went back to the park one more time, though. I’d slept poorly the night before, but won three crisp games in a row. I was about to leave the season on a high note. Before I could stand up, a young man in stylish steel-rimmed glasses and a bright-red tie sat down and asked if he could have a quick game.
“Ruben,” he said with genuine cheer. “I work in leveraged finance, what about you?”
“Book publishing,” I mumbled, and the incongruity seemed to weigh against my chances. Before long his pieces swarmed over mine with such fury that I felt the impulse to wave my hands around as though fending off bees.
I found Gregory alone at a table and sat down to commiserate.
“I wanted to go out on a winning note,” I said glumly.
“Ruben’s a terror, man.”
I told him I was working on an essay about my time in the park over the summer and that I wanted to ask a question that had been nagging at me the whole time. “There’s a guy that comes here sometimes,” I said. “There’s something wrong with his face. You know who I mean?”
“Yeah, he’s a good player.”
“Yeah, he is, anyway, I swear I’ve seen him on the subway before asking for money. Do you know if he does?”
“Oh, yeah, he does,” Gregory answered. “He asks for money here, too, in the park.” He leaned back in his chair and looked around at the tables. “Some of these guys, man, when this joint shuts down, they just wander.”
“Meaning they’re homeless.”
“Yeah…there’s a guy here sometimes, Curtis, he used to play here during the day, great player, and then go and sleep behind the ’wichcraft shop at night. He was one of those guys they show on the TV news in a sleeping bag when it gets down to zero degrees in the winter. Cleaned himself up finally.”
Gregory got quiet and started fiddling with a few pieces on the board. “You see, here’s you in the middle sometimes.” He placed a pawn in the middle of the board, as if he was about to conduct a lesson. “And then you’ve got all these other things and they start to surround you.” He put down a rook. “Maybe here’s the police.” He put down another rook. “Maybe over here is your kid’s mom.” Down went a bishop. “Maybe this over here is some other stuff you’re into.” And then he snatched the pawn up from the board. “That’s when you need a time out. A time out from life.”
“Have you ever been homeless?” I asked.
“I was for nine months. My choice.” And that’s all he wanted to say about it.
The prospect of losing scares me because in a loss I see something ugly reflected back: carelessness, folly, apprehension, weakness.
“Now I have this. Steady work, nice weather, and when the chess stops I do sanitation here in the park, empty the trash, chip away the ice in winter. You know those giant metal chiselers?” He started gesturing with his arms like he was using one and we burst out laughing. It’s absurd, somehow, to imagine him chipping ice, the same way it’s hard to imagine him sleeping on a sidewalk. It felt indelicate to ask what role, if any, chess had had in sorting out his life. For those of us with roofs over our heads maybe the pull of chess is just the competitive thrill, or the creative expression, or, as Wells put it, a vent for our mental energies. For those without, maybe it is all of those things, too, but also a safe, clean place to go and sit down—a certain structure, a sense of control, the ability, at least over the course of a game, to make the forces in your life behave the way you want them to.
At some point over the summer I realized that chess gives me slightly less pleasure than anxiety and probably always will. It will always feel more like playing at life than playing a game. The prospect of losing scares me because in a loss I see something ugly reflected back: carelessness, folly, apprehension, weakness. This is an unexpected gift. If my chess hasn’t improved very much, at least my self-awareness has.
Peter Stromberg writes in Psychology Today that chess “is like a highly simplified version of everyday life…. In both chess and life, our possible paths are in practice infinite. However, in chess it will become obvious relatively quickly whether you made the right choices…. In this, chess is like a story: there is an ending that makes it clear what it all meant. In life, there is an ending, but we don’t get to know what it is, because we are dead.”
But sometimes in chess I can sense its outline. I remember one of my first games this spring, against the Rabbi. A loss, but I’d fought until the clock flashed zeroes. “You had interesting ideas,” he’d said, “but they needed more time.”
Tom Russell is a writer and book publishing professional. He lives with his son in New York City.