Monday, July 24, 2006

Battle in the park

Chalk artist creating a masterpiece Sunday on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks north of Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to war.
Armed with chess set and clock to time the games, I set out for Washington Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
This park is one of a couple of chess hot spots in Manhattan where casual players, serious students and $3-a-game hustlers gather on fine weekend days like ants at a cookout.

To get to the battlefield -- picnic tables set up at intervals along the park's perimeter -- I first had to make it through no-man's land. For decades, Washington Square has had a well-deserved reputation as an open-air drug market. If you're walking by yourself, you're almost guaranteed to be offered an illicit pharmacopia by a legion of shady characters (some of them undoubtedly undercover cops) who call the park their office.

I soon found a game in progress at a table beneath some trees. I asked the lone spectator if he wanted to play, and within two minutes we were locked in combat.
My opponent, Dan, a spry retiree, played at about the same level as I. I won a game and lost two closely contested ones before Dan had to take off.
A University of Virginia student, also named Dan, had been kibbitzing and asked to take his place.
I lost to Dan II but not without a good fight. On two occasions I was within one move of pouncing upon him for checkmate and could practically taste victory before he exploited a weakness in my strategy and put me on the defensive.

Dan II had to leave and Dave, an impish, elderly Hasidic man who had watched our game, asked if he could sit in. Dave asked if I wanted to play blitz chess -- each player has five minutes and whoever runs out of time first loses, provided there isn't a checkmate beforehand.
Dave won the first game when I ran out of time, but otherwise it was a close contest.
The second game, he dismembered me. I knew I was making blunders even as my hands went to move the pieces, but Dave's skill and control of the board were such that he was forcing me to make precisely the moves I knew I shouldn't make.
I felt like a marionette.
Our game attracted a single spectator who promptly left after Dave capitalized on one of my errors with devastating effect.

After this win, Dave opened his wallet and pulled out a wad of chess puzzles he had clipped from a newspaper. He asked if he could work some of them out using my set and proceeded to solve them with legerdemain the likes of which I couldn't follow.
It was like watching a computer in action. Or like watching Mr. Spock from "Star Trek."

He asked if I wanted to play one last game. Seven moves and less than two minues later it was over. "OK," he said, "time for me to go to the bathroom."
Yeah, probably to wipe the stink of such lousy competition off his hands.

As he was leaving, he said over his shoulder in a prophetic tone, "You'll make it."

And thus is the difference between the game of chess and the art of chess.


Matt Kohai said...

Sounds like a damn fine way to spend a Sunday to me. And the difference between the game and the art... That's the difference between living a life and enjoying one.

Michael said...