By Laurent Berstecher
Barely a minute had gone by, and the two armies had already slaughtered each other. Leading the skirmish, a white horse jumped over the last line of defense, galloping at full speed toward its target. Having long given up any concern for their own lives, the royal guards got into formation in a desperate attempt to protect their sovereign. Overwhelmed by the enemy’s tactical advantage, they soon found themselves outnumbered and completely surrounded. Then, just as the proud black king looked ready to abdicate, everything froze. Time had run out. The battle was over. Two gigantic hands slowly descended from the heavens, and shook each other firmly. “I almost had you there. Good game,” said the challenger, as his other hand skillfully slipped a piece of green paper across the chess mat.
Looking for a place to talk chess, play a game or two and potentially lose all of your money? If so, New York City’s Village Chess Shop, located at 230 Thompson St., is a must-visit. More than a simple chess-supply store, the shop is also a local hangout for chess aficionados, boasting a dozen tables where people can play to their hearts’—or to their wallets’—content. But mostly, this is a place where the eccentric and the wise meet, a place where reason and folly merge to become the single yet contradictory entity that is the Chess Hustler.
At first glance, the Shop doesn’t look like it has gone through any major renovations since it first opened in 1974. In fact, it could probably be mistaken for an old bookstore, were it not for the word “Chess” being featured on every single window. Inside, unstable wooden shelves are packed with dusty volumes and chessboards, and one can barely make out the walls underneath a thick layer of posters featuring chess legends and tournaments. How they managed to fit over 10 tables in such a crammed space remains a mystery, and there is barely enough room to move around. Yet, in the midst of this quasi-oppressive atmosphere, one thing stands to remind you that this is no library: People are not quiet.
When I first set foot in the shop, I was simply hoping to watch some games and refresh my memory. I then noticed about three or four people sitting at empty tables, as if awaiting opponents. They were all busily chatting with each other, yet none of them was actually playing chess. To my right was an elderly African-American man with barely six teeth in his gums, whistling a melody and nervously tapping his foot. Feeling bold, I challenged him to a friendly game. He refused. Not that he didn’t want to play, or didn’t know how. He simply told me, “I don’t play for fun.”
At the table next to him, another man in his fifties, with a pair of piercing blue eyes and also an apparent dental problem. As I approached him for a game, I got the same reaction: “Five bucks a game, on the clock.” I told him I didn’t play on the clock because I needed time to think of my moves. He shrugged. “Ten bucks without the clock.”
Wary that I was going to get hustled by an undercover Grand Master, I tried to explain that I was up to my neck in student debt and was currently eating half a sandwich a day. The spark in his eyes died out as if he suddenly lost all interest in me. He apathetically pointed to the third man who was sitting in the corner of the shop: “He’ll play you for fun.”
Increasingly feeling like a nuisance, I cautiously approached the mystery man and asked, almost apologetically, “Want to play a game?” He looked at me, sighed and gestured for me to sit down, mumbling a barely audible “Sure, why not.” He had a large grease stain on his shirt, but out of the three, he was certainly the one with the most teeth.
During the game, Mike, the charitable soul who had accepted my challenge, kept throwing glances at his watch and sighing heavily. He was obviously making an exception, playing with no clock and no money on the table, and did not seem too interested when I took his bishop and threatened to checkmate. Mechanically, he put his king down and accepted defeat. Then, he offered to play me again, for $5 this time. I politely declined. This was the first and only game I would ever win in the Village Chess Shop.
As it turns out, Mike really was the exception. On most days, playing chess in New York is a costly activity. The game’s popularity exploded in the 1970s, partly as a side effect of Bobby Fischer’s growing legend. Fischer, who started playing chess in Brooklyn, quickly became an emblematic figure in Washington Square, and subsequently became World Champion in 1972. Chess club attendance reached new peaks, and games of street chess began multiplying in the city’s parks. So much in fact, that chess hustling in the Big Apple has become somewhat of a cultural tradition. In summer, “chess tourists” now flock to the parks to watch and challenge dozens of hustlers, often at their own expense.
Although some retreat to the Chess Shop in the winter, most hustlers usually play outdoors. If the weather allows, Washington Square Park’s northwestern corner is almost always busy with dozens of players. Some of them sit there all day with their chess mats, singing, smoking cigarettes (though it’s now banned) and playfully challenging passersby to take their chance. Of course, most of these guys never lose.
While a few hustlers only wage money for the thrill, most make a living playing chess. Some are “hungrier” than others, carrying about that air, that deeply rooted conviction that nothing in life comes for free. When asked to play for fun, or simply have a friendly chat, they will give you a look that says, “What’s in it for me?”
In the shop, a man named Rahim once challenged me to a $5 game. Seeing his raggedy clothes and unshaven beard, I figured he could use the money. I also really wanted to play, so I accepted without much hesitation. My determination surprised him. He suddenly backed out, telling me he did not play against Grand Masters. I could tell that he was good, and that he was trying to lure me into something.
Disappointed, I decided to sit down and wait for another opponent.
I could feel Rahim looking at me, studying me, as if he could determine my real chess ability from my sitting posture. His gauging was briefly interrupted by a loud and round gentleman, who greeted him in a peculiar way: “Rahim! You showered today!”
The two of them casually chatted for a few minutes. Then, Rahim came up to me again and said “Ok, let’s play.” It was my turn to back out, as I was getting hungry and starting to seriously contemplate spending my $5 on a burger instead. I was also beginning to wonder whether I had any chance of winning this game at all. Rahim insisted a little but eventually gave up when I suggested we play for sport again.
I went back to the shop the next day. I was surprised to see Rahim, who had been so eager to get his hands on my money, patiently playing a game with a 5-year-old. The child, whose mother was encouragingly watching and taking pictures, seemed to really enjoy himself. So did Rahim. He even lost the game on purpose, the child triumphantly boasting: “Look mom, I beat him and he’s 54 years old!”
Rahim later told me that he had been teaching kids for over 10 years. He also confessed to having played chess till 6 a.m. the day before. And yet, there he was. So there was something, I thought, a real passion about the game, and a desire to transmit it. To Rahim, this was more than just a hustle.
A few days later, I ran into Rahim again, this time in Washington Square Park. Once more, he refused my friendly challenge. When I pointed out that I had seen him play for fun before, he replied, “Only with kids.” Our conversation abruptly ended as Rahim called out to a passerby, “Hey, want to try your luck?”
Rahim is, like many hustlers, an evasive and quiet man. He seems to only speak with caution, after having carefully evaluated the words he will use. When asked about his past, his eyes darken for a second. He looks away, marks a brief pause, and, like most of his colleagues, playfully changes the subject.
Although considered a form of gambling and technically illegal, chess hustling has become an accepted practice in New York, and games are rarely ever disturbed by the authorities. Still, most hustlers are reluctant to openly use the term, and money often changes hands very discreetly, or sometimes only figuratively, as players place their wagers under the chess mat before the game starts.
Mustafa, a Washington Square regular of Algerian origins, refuses to call himself a hustler. He prefers to see himself as giving expensive chess lessons. After beating me in a close game, he told me that he had only been playing for two years. Intrigued, I asked him if he ever lost money when challenged by better players. Mustafa smiled, and pointed at the clock sitting next to him. Although we hadn’t used it in our game, I understood that he, like many others, usually played blitz, those three-to-five-minute games where speed is a more valued attribute than tactical skill.
As I watched him play the next game, my suspicions were confirmed. Mustafa was getting cornered and seemed destined to lose, but when his opponent’s turn to make the final move came, the clock ran out. Mustafa had won by 14 seconds. The challenger humbly accepted defeat, and shook Mustafa’s hand while slipping him a bill. “Thank you, Mustafa. See you tomorrow!” he said before picking up his jacket and taking off.
“He is a regular” Mustafa told me. “He comes almost every day, and we play. He never wins, but he learns something. He’s getting quicker too, I think he will beat me next time.”
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