Sunday, 3 November 2019

Washington Square Revisited - The Only Thing Worse Than Taking the Money

I knew I had already left it too late really. It was starting to get dark, and the barriers were already being erected down sixth avenue in readiness for that evening's Halloween parade. Still, there it was. We had spent most of the day at the Metropolitan Museum and the children were tired and in need of a rest. They had headed back to the hotel with Katharine, which meant I had a couple of unscheduled hours at my disposal. What better way to use them than with some chess in the park and at the chess forum across the way?

Some of you might have seen my piece earlier in the year for Chess magazine. Then in glorious sunshine I taken in Washington Square, The Chess Forum and the Marshall club. I had played the hustlers and rubbed shoulders with the stars, including the US number 2 ranked female player, Irina Krush. This return was always going to be a much more fleeting visit. A shorter and more transient chess fix in a week that had consisted of museum visits, a trip up the Empire State Building and the more general back and forth of family life with teenagers.

The Washington Square tables were nearly empty as dusk drew in, but I spotted a familiar face through the gloaming. Leroy Mack. As affable as ever, with plans for work and plenty of chess in the park over the winter. A true warrior and a gentleman. We played and talked. I would love to say he remembered me from our previous games, but he didn't. He must have played thousands of people at his marble table since our last encounter. Not that it mattered. We gossiped like old friends. Our chess a common language that bridged our most likely quite different lives. We had an enjoyable game. We both said at the end that we knew we would play each other again one day, and really meant it.

I was then challenged by the self-styled strongest player in the park that day. He told me that what I'd done against Leroy "don't mean nothing." That he didn't want a donation. That we would play a straight bet for five dollars. I had white and soon my position was overwhelming. All you can give anyone is your strongest game and I knew from very early on how this one was going to end. Finally he resigned and handed me a five dollar bill I did not want, but was not brave enough to refuse.
"That's all I got, man," he said. Referring to his chess game rather than the money. We shook hands respectfully and I left the park for the Forum, somehow feeling as if I had stolen something.

The Chess Forum is on Thompson Street, a couple of blocks from Washington Square. They serve no refreshments, but it is only a few dollars an hour to play there. I started off against Kyle, who comes in every day, but normally plays the same person. "I know his style as well as I know anything in life," he told me. "Your style is a little different," he said with a smile. I then played his friend and then a few games with an "inconsistent expert," called David, who used to live in New York, but was now just a visitor. "My wife wanted to go to her dancing class, so where the hell else would I head?" he asked me. He had a curious style, tending to open with moves like e3, but he was considerably stronger than my previous opponents. In the end, I won 3-1, but it was more about the bonding than the chess.

What other game gives you a passport to any city? A way of walking in off the street and bonding with strangers? I knew why David would come here when his wife was dancing, just as he knew why I would hole up at the Forum while my family rested. We were both of us drawn to these few wooden tables and the black and white chess men that sat between us, keen to travel together to that place where briefly nothing else matters, save the game unfolding in front of you.

Finally, I left the Forum and walked back through Washington Square, the chess tables now all empty. The whole of sixth avenue was lined with those waiting for the Halloween parade. The sidewalks smelt as much of marijuana as Washington Square had itself. Heavy rain was forecast, but it did not come. Even so, this was one of those moments when you notice that summer has well and truly fallen away and even the autumn is beginning to bleed into winter.

As I walked back to the hotel and my family, I reflected on a couple of hours of affirmation, playing chess in New York. Even if I could not share the unusual feeling of having won a game I would prefer to have lost. The five dollar bill I did not want, burning a metaphorical hole in my pocket.

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