About a dozen men stand shoulder to shoulder against a long, bubble-gum pink table at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard on a hot Wednesday afternoon. The table is decorated with strings of multicolored pennants and bright, hand-painted signs, luring passersby on their way to Taste of Chicago a block to the east. As “Sweet Home Alabama” pours from homemade speakers suspended on metal rods decorated with red and yellow plastic pinwheels, 48-year-old Cecil Locke, the table’s creator and proprietor, goes head-to-head against a man half his age in a serious game of chess.
Stocky and a bit unkempt, Locke is wearing a yellow safety vest over a grubby white T-shirt and cutoffs. His salt-and-pepper hair frames a high forehead and a bushy black mustache. Between moves, he collects money from people stepping up to play. In his left hand he holds a small bag of Cheetos, which he dips into whenever he gets a chance. His fingers are dusted bright orange, as are many of his white pieces.
A veteran sign painter from the south side, Locke has been setting up his table near Millennium and Grant parks for the past three years. Large signs on the sides of the table announce his business, the Touch & Go Chess Party. Thirteen smaller signs, one in Spanish, explain how it works: “$2 Donation to Play Chess all Day, $1 to Play Checkers all Day.” Locke calls it a donation because of his street performer’s permit, but if you refuse to pay he’ll discourage other customers from playing you. The three checkers sets are mostly ignored.
Many of the regulars scream, moan, and trash-talk incessantly. Locke is the most reserved player at the table, but he plays along to keep things lively.
“Should I let ’em know, Cecil?” calls a regular named Melvin, who’s in the middle of a game a few mats down. “Should I yell it out?”
“And what’s that?” Locke replies.
“Dead man walkin’!” Melvin declares and glides a rook across the board, trapping his opponent.
Locke chuckles and moves a piece of his own: “Check-arooski.”
Locke opens around noon every day and closes whenever the evening crowd begins to thin (usually around eight). Mondays he takes off, and he doesn’t come out when the temperature’s below 55. He tries to avoid rainy days, but if he’s feeling strapped for cash he might tempt fate. If the weather’s fine and you can’t find him, he might have set up at a festival.
John King, a former hospital worker who moves between the homes of relatives and a homeless shelter, helps Locke keep order and collect money. Bills go into two slots in the table, which lead to collection boxes screwed underneath. Paddles attached with key-chain coils are used to mash the bills in.
Locke says he planned every detail of his table. The wood he painted pink because “it’s a color that stimulates your creativity.” The homemade speakers, housed in black-painted wood, attach to a small tabletop radio attached to an amplifier attached to a car battery screwed to the table’s metal legs. Look closely and you’ll notice little things like the plastic cat face, a relic from a craft store, at the center of one of the pinwheels.
It took Locke three weeks to build the whole contraption, working on it between sign-painting jobs. He used wood, electrical piping, wires, duct tape, staples, dissected plastic shelves from a dollar store, hinges, and nuts and bolts. It’s hopelessly complicated. “Nobody can figure this thing out,” Locke boasts. “People ask me where’s the truck [to transport it]. There is no truck. Just a lot of wing nuts.”
The table folds up to the size of a large laundry cart, four feet high and weighing roughly 50 pounds; it rolls on wheels pried from a shopping cart. It takes Locke and King 40 minutes to set it up and take it down. Nuts and bolts, or other pieces, sometimes go missing, which is why Locke always carries plenty of spare parts.
Locke uses the el to transport the table to and from his home in Englewood. “I take it to the last car of the train and lean it against the door,” explains Locke. “Everybody thinks I’m just a junk collector.”
One of 11 children, Locke was born in East Chicago Heights in 1959. His father worked at a cookie factory and did odd jobs around the neighborhood; his mother was a portrait painter. “She taught us how to be creative,” he says, and from her he developed his maxim: “Artwork is not just pretty pictures–it’s a way of life.”
Locke studied fine art at Kennedy-King Community College and now specializes in bright, cartoony signs, often for restaurants or food stands: glistening yellow french fries, fat fried shrimp reflecting the light, their solid black outlines making them jump from the surface. He owned a sign-making business for a few years, at 79th Street and Aberdeen Avenue, but had to close in the late 90s when the building was condemned. Now he works out of a neighbor’s garage–except in the summer, when he’s “too busy with this chess thing.”
Locke took up chess in grade school and became a regular on the street scene when he got older. In the fall of 1998 he brought a couple of sets to Grant Park during Jazz Fest, setting them up on an abandoned vendor’s table; if somebody beat him on one, he figured he’d move to the other. Locke didn’t charge anything to play. “Soon enough,” he says, “there were 30 to 40 people crowded around that little table. I couldn’t believe the response.”
That night he dreamed of a portable chess table surrounded by crowds of players. The next night he envisioned the table’s design. “I was meant to build it,” he says, with a laugh. He began work on the contraption the day after that.
Locke unveiled his creation–a smaller version of the one he uses today–later that year at Harper Court in Hyde Park. The small shopping center had four chess benches and had been known citywide as a chess meeting ground since its construction in 1965. Locke had no trouble finding players willing to pay $2 for a spot at his table. He started showing up a few days a week and eventually named his business Touch & Go after Harper Court slang for the rule forcing players to move if they touch a piece. “There was always fights over the touch-and-go rule,” Locke recalls.
In the spring of 2002, during Locke’s fourth year there, Harper Court management got the chess players booted. “They are rude, they are irritating, and they are non-customers,” Rich Padnos, owner of the Wheels & Things bicycle shop, told the Chicago Tribune. Undaunted, Locke went to work building a bigger, better table and planning his next move.
He debuted the current Chess Party when Millennium Park opened in 2004, just steps away from the spitting faces of Crown Fountain. He had hinged flaps onto his old table to stretch it to 30 feet, lowered the leaves at each end for wheelchair accessibility, and added a few sets of checkers “for romantic people on a date”; a free Connect Four set he included for children didn’t last long because “the kids were throwing the pieces around.” Locke also acquired a street performer’s license, renewable at $100 a year.
Locke has attracted a broader crowd at his new location. Tourists are drawn by the bright decor and music–the radio’s usually tuned to a classic rock station; the table has even become a stop for Segway tours. And while most street chess hot spots are dominated by experienced players, an amateur can always find a game at the Chess Party. Locke suspects a few players carry out secret wagers, but he prohibits gambling to protect his permit–and to keep things friendly.
Some players stay for one game, others for 30 games or more. Lawyers in business suits go up against homeless men. Twelve-year-old children square off against grizzled eastern European immigrants. Rastafarians take on policemen in uniform. If there’s an odd number of players, Locke or his assistant King will step in. “You meet a lot of interesting people playing chess here,” says Jamie Sypulski, an attorney from a nearby office who’s among the lunch-hour regulars.
Locke nets anywhere from $100 on a slow day to $200 on a busy day at a festival. He says festival organizers like his table and don’t charge him to set up. “I don’t pay a penny!” he boasts. Locke pays King $25 to $35 per day to help him out. “There’s no jobs out here sometimes,” says Locke. “I made a job out of this, for me and him.”
Locke and King moved to their current spot at the northwest border of Grant Park after the City Council clamped down on street performers on Michigan Avenue and in Millennium Park last winter. Locke was peeved but says his business hasn’t suffered. In fact he plans to build another cart next spring, so next summer he and King can work the park and festivals at the same time. If that works out, he’d consider building another table to rent out to others or to be managed by his 15-year-old son, Antwan.
“He ain’t got the patience to stay here all day yet,” says Locke. “But maybe in a couple of years, he’ll want a job.”