The chess player

I saw him was by casualty. He was reclining on one of the granite benches near the TKTS booths. It was Monday’s night at the beginning of September, and the Square was full of people, but next to him was a free spot. I went there and I sat at his side. I did not talk with him, and I am pretty sure that he was not aware of my presence. He was busy, looking around for something. His outfit was the first thing that caught my eye. He was wearing a bowler hat, a white t-shirt, an opened white-blue squared shirt, black pants, and impeccable white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. A yellow bag on the ground, from M&M’s World, store located two blocks far from us, was completing the whole attire. 

That was all. Nothing else I found interesting on this man. In the end, he was just another person in the crowded Times Square. In places like this, one can get easily distracted due to the number of people and situations happening at the same time, but in the end, after a certain time there, everything becomes landscape. For some minutes I forgot him and I focused on nothing in particular; but he, that was still looking for something, finally found that thing that was needing so much: an empty circular red table.

Those tables are part of the free-public-furniture available for tourists and locals after the renovation of the Square, started in 2009, when the segment of Broadway Avenue, between W. 42nd and W. 47th streets, was pedestrianized by the Bloomberg administration. Normally, those tables are accompanied with two red chairs, but one can add more chairs, subtracting them from other tables, depending on the necessities one has, and of course, of the availability of them. The table he got, only had one chair. 

He took a seat, and from his yellow bag, he grabbed on a plastic chess board. white and green squares. He extended it on the table, and immediately, beside the board, he put a wooden box that opened immediately and that contains the black and white pieces. He came back to the board for flatting it more, especially on the corners. Then, he took on from his bag two black clocks and he put them to another side of the board. Everything seemed like was happening in slow motion. Definitely, he had not rushed at all. He found a chair, a second one, and e put it in front of him. 

According to the best four public places for playing chess in the city are Bryant Park; Washington Square Park; Central Park and Union Square. In this last one, a morning Thursday around 10 am, and during 25 minutes, I saw the most interesting chess match I’ve seen so far. A rastaman was playing against an ultra-orthodox Jew. It looks like the game was divided by the color of the clothes of each player. The rastaman, who was playing with the white pieces was wearing a big white t-shirt, and the ultra-orthodox, wearing black attire, was holding the black ones. Times Square, nevertheless, was not included into this list.

One by one, he positioned the chess pieces. First, he started by organizing the adversary army, the black pieces. Then, he took a pause, a long one. Then, the whites were put on the board. The game was ready for being played. Board, done; pieces, positioned; clocks, settled. Just that nobody was there for playing with him. He got up from the chair, for organizing his white t-shirt into his pants. During that action, he never took a look at what he was doing. Instead of that, he was looking at everybody and at nobody at the same time. His glance was lost on the Square.

The waiting time

He took a seat again. His head was down and for a couple of minutes, he was playing with his hands, and then, up again. This time he started to organize the whole set. He moved the table a little bit, like aligning it with the paths on the ground. Having more the intention of being watched than of watching, he continued looking around the corner, with the same emptiness sensation on his eyes, like he was not able of looking at something particular. Nothing, nobody came. The image was turning sad, and I was just observing him and taking some pictures of the situation. Times Square was full of people, but it looks like also nobody can see him.

Street chess is a pretty common activity in New York City. There are dozens of people always ready for playing either a $3 or a $5 match —the amount is sometimes negotiable—, in each one of the public places mentioned above. But also in Times Square, this is possible too. Okay, there are not so many players as in other parts, but it is possible to fin two, three or even four people around the pedestrian area, that like the man with the yellow bag decided to got some extra money playing wars with strangers on a squared table. “Like basketball, chess hustling is a city game — fast and gritty and played on street corners and in parks with the throb of street life as a backdrop.” (McClain, 2007, September 17). 

A few minutes later, everything was the same, he still alone with an empty chair in from of him, waiting for someone for playing chess. Suddenly, he decided to get up again. He went to the next table and he took the other two chairs. Now his table was full of chairs, four, three for guests, but the situation did not change at all. He was alone, watching nothing, waiting. His face had the same expression all night. It was a mix of serenity with melancholy. Not a smile, not a loud word for himself, not an invitation to a random person for playing, no even a curse. 

Finally, and I won’t say it was just some time later, because it was around 16 minutes after he got the new chairs, three women went to his table: mother, daughter and grandmother. The younger one took a seat in front of him and the game started. I took a last pic and I leave my spot. I continued walking around the Square and watching things. One hour later, more or less, when I was about of going out of the Square, I saw him again. He was still playing. This time against a man that was being supported by his family of six. Also, some curious people were around the table watching the moves on the board. At the end, regardless  the outcome of the games, it was not a lost night.