Members of the Board
When I was 14, I found myself playing chess for money in New York City’s Washington Square Park. I was old enough to be curious and naïve enough to follow my curiosity into deep waters. In my first match I was trounced by the character Laurence Fishburne should have been playing in Searching for Bobby Fischer – an emaciated, bearded, possibly homeless, and most definitely merciless, hustler. By the end of the game, he had two queens and by the end of the day, 20 of my aunt and uncle's dollars.
Because I was the kind of kid who practiced only 15 minutes before a recital and ached for scrimmages during practice, I never studied to make the transition from chess as recreation to chess as sport. Well, it’s been 10 years, but now that I live in a city with one of the strongest chess scenes in the country, it’s time to revisit the hobby. I’ve got my eye on the street games on Market Street near Mason, but my first stop is the epicenter of the S.F. chess scene: Mechanics' Institute, home of the nation's oldest chess club.
In the center of the tournament room, amidst a sea of ticking clocks and sweat from 60 focused foreheads, Jorge Lopez, the king of San Francisco's street games, is sitting in his wheelchair across from a talented teenager from Foster City. Jorge is the current leader in the cycle of Mechanics' weekly tournament, but this game is starting to turn on him. The tension draws in other players on their way to the water cooler or the bathroom, or to pace off the mental stress of pushing around pieces under the black-and-white framed snapshots of Kasparov and Spassky and Fischer. After what seems like an eternity of waiting for Jorge to make the move I imagine I’d make, or the move I would never see, he finally does; and it comes with a slow resignation that suggests he can already see his fate.
The mental strain from just watching is tremendous, and I feel a great relief when I leave to speak with John Donaldson, the Mechanics' Chess Club director. John has the endearing demeanor of a man who's far too smart for the world he was born into yet had the fortune to find something to cradle his oddly shaped intellect. His paying niche as an international master turned chess historian and club director is an anomaly. While some elite players sustain the lifestyle by giving lessons, for everyone else it is a labor of love, and a labor that can be all-consuming.
John takes me to watch some casual games, or skittles, in an adjoining room. In the corner, two 11-year-olds are schooling a man in his late 60s who just lost to one of the boys in the tournament. Age, like race and social status, means nothing here. Daniel Naroditsky, a 15-year-old junior world champion playing here tonight in a separate invitational for masters, became the youngest chess player in history to release a book earlier this year. In this game, it's only what happens on the board that matters.
That being said, females are still largely underrepresented. John explains how the club offers free lessons to women taught by a highly respected female player from Poland. The classes meet Sundays and I decide to drop in before I start pushing pieces around in front of anybody.
At a previous tournament, I met a variety of people from different walks of life, including a recovered alcoholic who DJs at the Condor and a 93-year-old Russian, but neither prepared me for the shock of Ewelina Krubnik. When John had described Ewelina as a Polish player who once ranked as the 86th woman in the world, I pictured my sterile, middle-aged middle-school librarian. Not quite. In her late 20s, dressed in tight white jeans, with a high forehead and bright eyes, Ewelina is probably the sexiest opponent ever on the tournament circuit. But, as she soon would demonstrate, her looks are secondary to the beauty with which she handles the game.
I'm the anomaly this time. In an odd chess-world role reversal, I'm sitting at a board among eight females between the ages of 5 and 60. Ewelina hands out chess problems and we work in pairs for the solution – checkmate in two moves, piece advantage for white in four. She finishes the lesson with a demonstration of how to checkmate a lone king with only a bishop and a horse, which involves a complicated 20-or-so-step process of moving the knight in a W-pattern. It ends up looking like one of those dotted-line drawings of how to do a dance from the ’50s.
Bolstered by the lesson and the confidence that chess is universal, I head to Market and Mason for a couple of real live games. But it only takes a few minutes – the sight of Jorge Lopez, back on his street throne, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, smashing the clock and thrashing some kid listening to an iPod – and my confidence is crushed. I wander around a bit, hop back on my bike and head home. It's going to take most of the night and the morning studying and preparing before I can even begin to feel confident of how to march to my certain slaughter.
Around 3 p.m. the next day I'm back at Market and Mason, prepared with
a standard chess opening for each color – the English Opening for white
and the French Defense for black. The games used to be at Fifth and
Market Streets, and Marvin, a longtime player, says he preferred that
previous location. The area was less seedy and the BART and trolley
cars meant more traffic, which meant more players, which meant more
money. Now, because of some altercations with the police and a city
plan to revamp the area, the tables have been pushed down closer to
Sixth Street. If you want to know the difference one block can make,
check out the 24 hours The Bold Italic spent at the intersection. I can
tell you, chess didn't figure high on the list of the most common
That being said, on this Monday afternoon, like every other – rain or shine – there's action. The guys out here are not quite as good on average as the Mechanics' players, but they are all above my level and eager to accept the three to five dollar bet as proof of that disparity. They also trash-talk. Inside Mechanics' you are playing the board. Out here you are playing the man.
There are watchers and players and those who can’t make up their mind between the two. I’m trying hard to move into the second category. I haven't been standing long, looking around for the game likely to bring the least embarrassment, when two shouting matches erupt in the middle of the 20-odd tables. The first one's about money. The next is about whose neighborhood this really is and who's not really wanted around here, and who can't really play chess anyway so why don't you just shut the fuck up. I discreetly take a seat at the opposite end of the tables and wait for an opening.
Most of the games are five minutes per side with a small bet, and they move with a clock-thumping speed that makes my eyeballs sweat and my heart palpitate like a meth addict. There are the occasional un-clocked games, although no one looks that excited at the proposition. People are making money here.
There is also eating, socializing, smoking, and killing time. A large man devours cookies between lightning-fast moves, a passing tourist snaps some photos, and Sergeant – a tall, white-bearded man in a red shirt who looks like a Santa who lost weight while serving time in Folsom (which the peddler claims to have done) – is selling AAA batteries, sunglasses, a car charger for a cell phone, and some story about a wheelchair. Powell, the organizer who controls the tables and charges the one-dollar fee, isn’t interested in no fucking wheelchair.
I've picked a good spot. A friendly regular, Sal, is just putting the finishing touches on his fifth straight win against Bruno, the college-bound chess kid who came with a friend to make a few bucks. The friend was summarily trounced by an elder Ukrainian who hadn’t even taken the time to sit down. So much for our summer plans, the one kid says. Time to get a job.
Sal has to leave to pick up his wife, so he turns the table over to me. At this point, I've accepted losing as the forgone conclusion, and in the first game it is exactly what the chess gods have in store. It only takes about 20 moves for me to start seeing how the end is going to come out. It's like walking down a long train tunnel, hearing the far-off whistle, the rattle of the tracks, and then seeing the light. Mediocre moves lead to bad structure, no options, lost pieces, and finally, to a resignation.
First game down, nerves settled, and even though I essentially watched myself march off a cliff, I sense Bruno and I are in the same league, somewhere on the long spectrum between knowing how to move the horsey and feeling comfortable with a couple of standard openings. Bruno tells me that when he sat down, Sal had told him, you know, white moves first.
Bruno's worn down from his five brutal endgames with Sal. He makes a grave error early on, which I fail to capitalize on because, well, even though there isn't a clock, I'm jumpy. I'm so fried after the hour (and still convinced I’ll lose) that I concede the game after what I believe to be a deciding mistake involving a pawn. It's an awkward moment because Bruno thinks I am declaring victory, which he can see I clearly have, but really I'm putting up the white flag. Afterward, he shows me how I could have played it out for a win. I give him the five bucks, if not for the lesson, then to help him recoup his losses to Sal and jump-start a college fund.
I walk the bike a few blocks to try and unwrap my head from several pawns and the 64 squares they are trapped in. It takes the good part of the afternoon for me to come down from the rush and come to peace with chances I let slip away in the second game. I’ll definitely be back on the street, but I’ll pop in for a few lessons at Mechanics' beforehand. I don’t mind contributing my dollars to chess players in need, but I’d like to at least put up a fight doing it.
If you are looking for a few casual and free games, check out the chess meet-up the Fog City Knights Chess Club organizes at Cafe Abir on Sunday afternoons. You don't have to sign up; there are a variety of skill levels and a supportive atmosphere. Mechanics' offers lessons on Saturdays and free lessons for women on Sundays. The players at Mason and Market play from the early afternoon late into the night.