By Ted Kleine
Twilight in Harper Court. Facing each other across a bench with a built-in chessboard are George David, a middle-aged attorney, and Salar Jahedi, a University of Chicago econ student half his age. They’re about to go one-on-one for mastery of the “A table,” site of the fastest chess in Hyde Park. All over the sunken courtyard–on benches, on concrete steps–serious-looking men are playing thoughtful, drawn-out games of chess. There’s a man puffing a pipe, a man wearing a suit jacket with a Rotary pin on the lapel, a Rastafarian wearing a hat that looks like an upturned wicker basket. But George and Salar are setting a digital clock for a round of blitz chess. In blitz, each player gets five minutes total to make all his moves. And if the clock runs down, his king is dead.
The rules of the A table are the same as the rules of playground basketball, or bid whist. Loser walks. Rise ‘n’ fly. Right now, the A table is George’s house. He’s been playing in Harper Court for 20 years, and he’s one of the top blitz players out here.
“I’ve held the table for as long as six hours,” he claims.
Salar, the new president of the U. of C. chess club, is a rookie, one of the few students who venture into this pit. But he’s beaten George before, and George wants to make sure this upstart doesn’t do any more damage to his rep.
“This is a grudge match,” says Kirby Ashley, one of the Harper Court regulars hovering over the board. “Utah versus Chicago. Malone versus Jordan.” He points at George. “I lost a girlfriend because of this SOB.”
“I lost two girlfriends,” boasts Noel Neufville, a huge Jamaican who plays here seven days a week. “They said, ‘It’s either me or chess.’ I said, ‘So long, good to know you.'”
“I got to playing with this guy when I was supposed to take her out,” says Kirby. “She left me a nasty message. She broke up with me, but we made up. She still doesn’t believe I’m out here playing chess.”
George brings out his first pawn. Once he’s made his move, he spanks a button on the chess clock and Salar’s time begins running down. For the first few moves of the game, the only sounds are the clack of pawns and knights on the tiles and the pop of the clock as the players slap it. But as Salar begins to back George’s army into a corner, the trash talk begins. It’s an important part of blitz chess, almost as important as an encyclopedic knowledge of openings and endgames. Winning players whistle or rattle off lines of mocking bullshit to unnerve their flailing opponents. But Salar’s a quiet kid, almost a mumbler. So Noel, who’s got the loudest mouth in Harper Court, jeers George for him.
“The move! The move!” Noel exults as Salar advances his blitzkrieg. “Oh, beauty! This is all beauty manifested. Don’t give up, Salar!”
Noel wants to see George lose just as badly as Salar wants to beat him. George is a master of braggadocio who styles himself “Permanent Supreme Grand Master and King, Master and Ruler of All I Survey, George Franklin David the Third.” When he beats a new victim, he hands him a mimeographed greeting card that reads, “Hey Patzer. Your game analysis is equal to a monkey examining a watch….Try tic tac toe for a challenge.”
George’s defense crumbles and Noel is filled with joy.
“Oh, Salar is playing according to Hoyle,” he shouts. “Oh, it doesn’t look good. Salar, you have shown your stuff today.”
George shifts his king to avoid Salar’s probing soldiers.
“Oh, George, no one should suffer like this,” Noel mocks gleefully. “George, you are finished!”
Checkmate. Salar speaks his first words of the game.
“Get up, George.”
“Get your ass up, George!” Kirby joins in. “It’s Utah, game six.”
If you’ve seen Searching for Bobby Fischer, a movie about the training of real-life chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, you’ve seen blitz chess. Several scenes take place in New York’s Washington Square Park, the world capital of blitz and a spot where Fischer himself played in the 1950s. But even though former world champion Anatoly Karpov is a member of the World Blitz Chess Association, some experts think blitz is to real chess what pocket pool is to billiards. Blitz is a game of action; tournament chess, in which players have up to three hours to complete their moves, is a game of contemplation.
“Park hustlers play tactics, not position,” says Ben Kingsley, playing chess coach Bruce Pandolfini in the movie. “They rely on wild, unpredictable moves to intimidate their opponents. Great in a speed game, but it’ll cost Josh dearly in real games.”
Laurence Fishburne, who plays a chess hustler named Vinnie, disagrees. “Play from the gut!” he urges Josh. “[Bruce] didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose….You’ve got to risk losing. You’ve got to risk everything. Go to the edge of defeat. That’s where you want to be, boy.”
George, who loved Searching for Bobby Fischer, agrees with Vinnie. Tournament chess, he says, is like pro basketball–two teams of roughly equal strength trying to outmaneuver each other with well-practiced plays. Blitz “is like alley ball”–a master-level player may end up across the table from a beginner. With time to think only a move or two ahead, players rely on instinct.
“You see a lot of moves your coach wouldn’t let you try,” he says.
Blitz brings chess down from the purely cerebral and turns it into a sport. It’s got its own moves. In one game when George was about to capture a rook, he held his queen above the doomed piece as though blotting out its sunlight, then slammed it down so the queen’s flat bottom slammed against the rook’s battlements. Like football, blitz has a clock that causes panic, desperation, and botched plays as it approaches zero. Blitz has its own slang, too. A patzer is a weak player. “Castling bitch side” is castling on the queen’s side of the board. A “fish” is a player who’s easy to hustle. “Incoming” signals a bold move. When an opponent is taking over your side of the board, he’s “all in a brother’s house, uninvited.” And when he wins he may blow you off with “Go back to Quebec!” Which means “Stand up and yield your seat.”
“A lot of people come out here for the banter,” says George, “because the banter is sometimes more entertaining than the chess.”
It’s all about aggression, dominance. Chess is, after all, a miniature version of war. When George finally got his rematch with Salar, he taunted him like Mike Tyson, who once promised to make an opponent “my bitch.”
“Get them panties off,” George demanded as his rooks and bishops overwhelmed Salar’s position. “I’m not playin’ with you, Salar. I want your panties off. I want them panties!”
One o’clock Saturday in Harper Court. A day so hot and brilliant that chess players can thrive only in the tree shadows seeping slowly across the courtyard. The local beat cop is winning on one of the less competitive boards, but the A table is ruled by Allen Hammond, a suave-looking young schoolteacher with bleached blond hair, a half-buttoned paisley shirt, and rings in both ears. Unlike George, Allen is silent as an assassin. There seems to be nothing on his mind but the pieces before him. Even when he shakes a Marlboro out of the pack and lights it, hands cupped around the flame, his eyes do not stray from the board. Not a single disparaging word passes from his lips.
“There’s no need for that,” he says of trash talking. “I let my game speak for itself. I think it’s petty. I’ve seen fights start out here because of that.”
Perhaps Allen takes such a Zen view of chess because he doesn’t see it as a game of conquest. To him it’s an art form, a combination of painting and martial arts. Beautiful, and at the same time fluid. Allen, who teaches religion at Hales Franciscan High School, uses koans to describe the game.
“There is definitely art on the board,” he says. “The game begins totally even. How then can we take two forces that are created equally and create a dynamism? How do we create an imbalance where there is balance?”
The arrangement of pieces on a chessboard is “something that has purpose,” he says. “We’re not just moving pawns for the sake of moving them. We’re making something that has form and meaning.”
Allen sits down at the A table before noon, and for the next four hours only his hands move. A faceless procession of opponents takes the seat across the bench, and every one is forced to rise and fly. He traps opponents into checkmate; he so befuddles them that their clocks run down; he creates such dominating positions that they tip over their kings in surrender.
Midafternoon, George arrives in the park outfitted for a full day of chess. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a drawing of a conductor leading an orchestra of queens, bishops, and pawns. He’s carrying his chess bag–a nylon case containing a foam rubber board, a clock, and a set of pieces. He’s got his thermos. He’s got his lunch sack. After waiting his turn in line with all the patzers, George sits down on the bench facing Allen. It’s a showdown of two of the strongest players in Harper Court, and a dozen people are watching. In deference to Allen, George plays without his typical bluster. He plays pure chess, no taunting. And checkmates Allen.
Even for a player of Allen’s dignity, rep is important, so he insists his loss was an aberration.
“I walked into check,” Allen explains. “He actually was busted that game. Usually I beat him about 70 percent of the time.”
And in a tournament game, a game that really counted, George’s odds would be worse, he says.
“George relies on aggression in a limited time frame. In a slow game, George is busted.”
No way, insists George. To prove that a good blitz player can triumph in a silent, ponderous match, he opens his chess bag and shows off a four-figure check he won at the Chicago Open last May. Blitz makes him a better tournament player, he says.
“You learn by repetition,” he says. “You can play more games of blitz so you get more practice. Many grand masters train–they go over their lines by playing blitz chess. You’re not gonna put the fast guy in a slow game and all of a sudden he’s stupid.” A winner is a winner and a patzer is a patzer. At any speed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Allen Hammond; Hammond and George David (3 photos) by Yvette Marie Dostatni.