Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Chess Player



It is a gloomy day in Manhattan, and it shows on Nashon’s face. Business is slow, and his throaty challenges to passers-by do not elicit  many opponents. There is a light drizzle, and any tourist willing to play this withered old hustler is either comfortably ensconced inside one of New York's many caf├ęs or busy lining up to scale the Empire State Building or another one of humankind’s unending attempts to defy gravity. I am watching him from a few tables across, smoking one of New York’s highly priced cigarettes in clear violation of the umpteen no-smoking signs that I have somehow missed.

Washington Square Park symbolizes the diversity and quirks of New York’s residents like no other place. One can find rich NYU students and bankers sipping lattes from Starbucks, clowns performing for mesmerized children, kippah-clad men reading mothballed texts, gamblers playing cards with money from yesterday’s crack sale, and of course the umpteen chess hustlers commandeering the chequered tables in the southwest corner.

Nashon is a wily old cat. He immediately sizes up his opponent, playing him rather than the board. He employs tactical anomalies that serious players would scoff at. And to make sure the mark gets full bang for his buck, he intersperses his game with trash talk, expert analysis and sometimes lessons on life as well. He charges extra for photos. His alert eye misses none; he beckons to me after relieving some poor sod from Canada of his ten dollars. “Come here man,” he says, “let’s play a game.” I demur, knowing full well what the outcome will be. “Sorry, I can barely play, man.” He is a veteran of persuasion. “Brother, you are from a land of warriors. Warriors of the mind and warriors of the body. Your ancestors invented this game!” His voice is hypnotic. His eyes are gleaming from behind his cello-taped glasses. “Haven’t you heard of Anand?” He is referring to the Indian chess legend Viswanathan Anand, gentlemanly conquistador of the sixty-four squares. “Yes, I have heard of him,” I find myself stammering. “But I can barely play,” I insist again. “Be a man, be a warrior!” he bellows. “Unless you dare to do battle, you will remain meek and submissive as you are now.”

His words have found their mark. My entire life flashes by me. Of the time the school bully had made off with my ping pong ball. Of the time the union president threatened me, being displeased with an article I wrote for the college paper. Of the unscrupulous professor who had appropriated my hard work. Of worse things – where I had shied away from confrontation. I had seen it all, and had never put up a fight. Nashon is right. I am meek and submissive. Submissive enough to play Nashon?

A petite young girl walks by, with a surprisingly large bosom. Nashon smiles at her, gesturing at me to wait.  She unzips her coat in front of my bewildered eyes. Out comes a little dove, specks of red blood dotting its immaculate white exterior. “Poor thing flew into a window pane,” she explains. Nashon takes charge. He is clearly the lord of Washington Square Park. He gives her detailed instructions on what kind of bandages and ointments to buy, how to prepare a sling for its broken leg and how to keep it warm and dry. I try to smile but manage only a feeble grin.

I wonder about Nashon. He could be anywhere between fifty and seventy years old. All his possessions seem to be with him; one large backpack, a chess set and a worn out timer that had probably been rewired to keep time in his favour. He also owns a rickety old bicycle. Where does he live? Probably in one of the low cost projects nearby if he wasn’t homeless. Has he fought in Vietnam? 

What if Nashon had not been Black? Would he be a suit in Wall Street? A professor of anthropology? Bobby Fischer? Maybe not. Nashon’s rapid Queen thrusts and tactical artifices qualify him as a patzer – a derogatory term used by chess experts for players like him.

“Hey Anand, give me one of your cigarettes man!” his command shatters my reverie. I part with sixty cents of my hard-earned money. “Let’s play for ten dollars. You win, I pay you. I win, you pay me.” I check my wallet. We sit down. A few tourists gather by. “This is so cool,” I hear a middle-aged lady tell her husband. She takes a photo, and then looks surprised when Nashon asks for his dollar. She pays up. I hand her my phone and ask for a photo. My picture is free. The crowd swells; it’s not often that one gets to see an Indian twenty-something play an old Black man. I play White.

I do not know any strategy. I cannot centre my pieces. I know nothing of point values, gambits, castling or defences. My moves are sloppy and unsure. Nashon, on the other hand, is a showman. He pretends to be flustered by my meaningless checks and foolhardy pawn sacrifices. An old man titters; I may have set myself up for a brutal decimation, but Nashon wants to play to the gallery. His moves grow bolder and bolder, as he picks up his pieces and lays them down with audible thumps. He flips the switch on his pocket radio, treating us to some good old jazz music. At one point I think I have his Queen; excitedly I take it with my Knight. The crowd jeers. I have not noticed that it is preventing his Rook from taking my King.

Concentration has always been my problem, making me a sitting duck for games of any kind. I would score a few points in ping pong before my smashes went all awry. After an eighty point bingo in Scrabble, I would inevitably settle for low-scoring three letter words. I would beat the batsman with a screamer of an outswinger before bowling three half volleys at his eager bat. In chess too, I would start off with a flourish and then give up my Queen in an oversight that I would immediately rue.

The sun begins to peek out of the clouds. The drizzle has stopped; I observe a cellist playing a beautiful melody somewhere in the distance. I have never seen a cello before, and the sight fascinates me. “Yo Anand, watch your clock!” I snap out of my daydream once more and see that I have two minutes left. I am down to my King, two Pawns and a Rook. Nashon has lost only two Pawns, and still has his Queen, both Rooks and a Bishop. He is close to promoting a Pawn. It’s a lost cause, but I soldier on. The crowd has mostly dispersed, disgusted with my utter ineptitude at the game of my forefathers. The inevitable happens. “Checkmate!” I verify his claim. He has a sad smile on his face as he reaches out for my money. The cellist reaches a crescendo.

“You are a promising player, Anand,” says Nashon. “But you made some crucial mistakes.” He proceeds to deconstruct the game move by move, pointing out the various times I had committed hara-kiri. I had moved too many pawns, made too many losing exchanges, been too greedy early on, and dropped my Queen as usual. I nod sheepishly. He offers to give me lessons for just forty dollars an hour. I tell him it’s my last day in the US. He nods his head ruefully. “I could have transformed you into a warrior fit to conquer the world, man.”

I slowly begin to walk away, when I hear him call out. “Hey Anand! How about one of them cigarettes man?”