A Game of Thrones
Written by Bwog Staff
In which Bwog correspondent CML alights from the stygian sauna that is Woodbridge Residence Hall to nestle himself between the facade of Cardomat and the awning of Oren’s Daily Roast, to document a picaresque evening of rare chess camaraderie.
When you think of chess, you think of bearded Slavs with vodka on their breath, sterile cafeterias filled with five year-olds waiting to go home and play Super Smash Bros., and Garry Kasparov, the Mike Gravel of Russia. And when you think of chess in New York, what probably comes to mind are a few sepia-toned tableaux from ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ – bums in Washington Square, tyrannical tutors, kids developing scoliosis from hunching over a board for hours a day, and so on.
But chess in Morningside Heights?
Early last night, at five PM, a small group of community residents descended on the sidewalk at 112th and Broadway to participate in an impromptu chess tournament. The organizer, Russ Mackofsky, explained his goals as follows: “I’m just trying to organize a community. You know, New York City has a strong chess culture …” – he gestured towards some merchandising, t-shirts with chess-pieces interspersed against the Manhattan skyline, a king and queen in place of the Twin Towers. “This is our third event … we plan to have five more by the end of the year … the next should be a simul…”
“Aren’t the downtown chess clubs, the Marshall and the Manhattan, in decline these days?”
“Yeah, but chess is really taking off these days … we have Chess in the Schools … we have all the infrastructure here to really popularize chess.”
I was reminded of the time Sunil Gulati told me that soccer in the U.S. was really going to take off. In terms of generating talent at a grassroots level, both seem to be doing very well for themselves – check out the Murrow chess team – but both are hampered because the best players in the world play elsewhere. Mackofsky gave me his contact information (www.chessnyc.com, they’re looking for a web designer), a few more stragglers slouched in, and the festivities began.
A gentleman in Chelsea motley and a moustache straight out of the sixties strummed on a guitar and yodelled Beatles standards in a Dylan timbre. The masses seemed to have deserted Campo on account of the all-too-appropriate price increase for its unlimited mimosa brunch. Plus, they carded me last time. I repeat, ladies and gentlemen: Campo is no longer offering an unlimited mimosa brunch for $14.90.
“It’s a round robin, seven rounds,” said Russ, and I found myself with the white pieces against a gentleman named Ahmad, all swarthiness, suit, and beard.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“You mean, playing chess, organizing, out on the streets? About ten years.”
Then the game began, with only seven minutes a side allotted to complete all the moves. Tournament standard back in high school was ninety (I should probably mention that it was Yasser Seirawan, greatest American chess player ever, who was the captain of Garfield High School’s team during its apex, and me who was the captain during its nadir). I was as poorly equipped to deal with his style of chess as a mediocre suburban point guard would be to combat a streetballer. After overextending against a comically passive opening I impaled myself on his defenses.
“I won!” he said. A little kid wandered up to our board. “Want to play?”
I took black against the kid, who hammered out five moves of theory in as many seconds.
“Don’t overrate him,” said someone in the peanut gallery, obviously talking about me.
“Don’t let him intimidate you.”
The kid said nothing and hammered out another five moves.
“The next round’s beginning,” said Russ. The mother shepherded her kid elsewhere. A woman perched on the other side of my table.
“Hi, I’m Chris,” I said.
“Hi,” she responded – chess players are infamously laconic. I lost again.
“Round three, we have Chris versus Russ,” said Russ.
I defended a difficult position and queened a pawn. My material advantage swelled with my confidence until it all fell out when I rose to new levels of mortification by idiotically stalemating his king, forfeiting half a point. From the peanut gallery came:
“That was intense.”
“Round four, we have Chris versus Armin,” intoned Russ.
Armin Rosen was checkmated in twenty-five moves.
“So I lost my game, does that mean I go to the losers’ bracket?”
“This entire thing is the losers’ bracket.”
“Round five,” said Russ, “we have Chris versus Luis.”
In front of me was a man in a tam-o-shanter and beard, a spitting image of Sam Jackson in his dress. He lit a cigarette, swilled some coffee, and dropped a piece. Then I dropped a rook. Then he dropped his queen. It was the grandmaster Savielly Tartakower who once said something like, “it is he who makes the penultimate blunder who wins,” and, with my time dwindling to nil, it was Luis who made the penultimate blunder. Defeat crept up on me.
“Want a draw?” I asked, trying a cheapo from those days in the sterile cafeterias.
“Draw?” he guffawed. “I’ll draw some blood!” And he did.
“Round seven.” A gentleman in a flannel shirt and straw hat entered my domain.
“What brings you to this terrible part of New York?” I asked, by way of cordial introduction.
“I live here.”
“That makes two of us.”
But, I thought to myself for the first time since two hours into orientation, maybe Morningside Heights isn’t so terrible after all. As the sun set in the west above the foliage that graciously concealed New Jersey, I had not only won my last match but played a remarkable game of chess.