Sunday was chess day, as has become my custom this summer.
For the past two weeks, the small group with whom I play gathered at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. We had been playing in Washington Square in Greenwich Village, but we grew tired of the constant come-ons of the drug dealers, the keen competition for tables in the shade and the non-stop din of latter-day flower children with their drum circles and sing-alongs.
Bryant Park is more quiet and civilized.
I saw a few familiar faces from Washington Square and met a new cast of characters who have turned Bryant Park into a chess haven.
It seems that few of the players go by their given names. They all have nicknames.
There's Elementary, a master player so dubbed because his moves are textbook-perfect as he dismembers you.
There's Doc -- yes, a medical doctor -- who says he has a strong aversion to knights because he was forced to eat horse meat during World War II. It doesn't make a difference, though, because Doc (one of the best amateur players around) could spot you both knights and both bishops and still beat you handily.
There's Van, whose nickname origin is lost in the mists of time.
And Sunday, I met Cornbread, a lanky, laconic man whose soft drawl and thousand-yard stare give one the impression that he's a little spaced out and detached. But the gears of that beautiful mind are always in motion, and I watched him whip a strong player and still fit in a two-minute nap between moves.
I also saw Dave, a clever and resourceful player who had beaten me quickly and soundly in Washington Square a few weeks ago.
Watching the several games going on simultaneously was an older, slightly disheveled fellow in a sky blue silk shirt and fedora. He looked like he stepped right out of 1950s Little Italy.
Leaning forward in his chair, he would intently check out the game in front of him for half a minute, then shift his gaze to the other games being played nearby.
Dave defeated his opponent, and it was my turn to play him. We played two games. Dave easily defeated me both times. I turned to the fellow in the fedora and asked him if he wanted to play Dave.
"Ah, no, he's too strong for me," Dave said. At first, I thought he was being sarcastic. "If he spots me two minutes, I'll play."
We play timed games, either five minutes or seven minutes long, depending on the ability level of the players.
The clock was adjusted so that Dave had five minutes to complete his moves, and Hank, the fellow in the fedora, had three.
Within a minute, Dave found himself in a world of trouble. Within two minutes, his situation was hopeless. A second game was played with much the same result, and Dave quickly got up and moved to one of the other tables and was quiet for the rest of the afternoon.
Hank, it turns out, is a master player, a former member of the oldest and most prestigious chess club in New York City. He knew Bobby Fisher when the onetime world champion was just a teen (and a world-class player even then). Hank has played with some of America's finest.
And here he was playing me, game after game.
Of course, he crushed me. We'd get maybe five or six moves into a game and the stage would already have been set for a lopsided victory. He would tell me where I went wrong, we would set up a new game, he would be on the verge of annihilating me and then would explain how I had walked into the trap.
It turns out that Hank is a chess teacher in his spare time. I asked him how much he charges for lessons. "Do you think you can manage 10 bucks a lesson?" he asked.
I became his student today.