Street Fighting Men

by Richard Fireman

"Hey! You play chess?"

"Yeah, I play a little."

"How about a game? Three, five, or ten, 5-minute or any time you want."

"Well...I don't know..."

"Aw, c'mon, man..."

Thus begins the usual conversational gambit, eventually turning into an over-the-board one when the casual passerby gets drawn into playing. Where is this happening? In the heart of the craziest city in the world, naturally - New York's Times Square area. On any given day (except for winter and rainouts) one is likely to see a table set up on the sidewalk with four or five chess sets and clocks, each manned and ready for action, surrounded by a small crowd of spectators, gawking tourists who know nothing about the game, potential victims gauging their chances, and strong players waiting their chance to hustle the hustlers. Half-a-dozen or so players of varying strength are on hand at any given time; the lineup is in a continual flux from day to day and even during each day; more so than, say, a basketball team. Generally speaking, the guys are roughly A-level, though there are a number of Bs, unrateds, experts, masters, and even an occasional IM or grandmaster.

A now infamous, possibly apocryphal, story tells of how one day a couple of years ago a South American master, in town a few days before the start of an international tournament, was wandering down the street when he spotted a crowd at the corner. Curious, he approached, and discovered to his delight the spectacle of sidewalk chess, coffee-house chess without the coffeehouse. His meat-&-potatoes. Why not make a couple of extra bucks before the tournament?

These gringos didn't know him from Adam, though in his own country...ah, but that was far away. He smiled. This was going to be like shooting ducks in a barrel. His attention was especially drawn to one board, whose occupant was taking on all comers at 5-to-1 minute odds, and cleaning up. This was their head honcho, then. Fine. He sat down to play. Several games later and X number of dollars poorer, he got up, walked away, and was never seen in these here parts agin'. He had been so demoralized getting crushed by some "patzer" on the street that he went back home without even playing in the big tournament; he figured if this was what a woodpusher did to him, what would a REAL pro do?! God, these Americans were strong! Unbeknownst to him, he had chanced to fall prey to one of the rare appearances of Roman Dzindishashvilli, strong grandmaster and exceptionally strong speed chess player. Did he ever find this out? Is he still licking his wounds? Did he renounce chess forevermore? If not, perhaps he is out there, now, reading this article; if so, senor, now you know. May the truth set you free...

Now, THAT's hustling (though unintentionally). Is the rest hustling too? Well, yes and no. After all, you don't know the guy's strength, but he doesn't know yours, either. And you don't have to play, after all. You pays your money, you takes your chances...50 cents a game up front for use of the equipment, and then the wager's whatever you and your opponent agree on, generally $3, 5, or 10 per 5-minute game, though they'll play at other rates or without clocks altogether. Don't flash the money, though; since gambling is still technically illegal in New York, the cash is supposed to be inconspicuous, though in practice the cops look the other way and don't bother anybody, let alone bust them; chess, after all, is more respectable - especially to the all important tourist - than the 3-card-monte operations flourishing about town, and the intellectual character of chess can't help but tend to upgrade the dignity of blocks where X-rated movies are playing just a few feet away, quite a different kind of mating the chess hustling is, unofficially, allowed to continue, though its location shifts about a bit within a perimeter of a few blocks, usually centered at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway.

Unless you become familiar with the players - it's a good idea to hang out awhile first and study your prospective opponents in action, like Ali studying Frazier's fight-films - it's hard to tell their strength until you've played 'em a few times; but don't assume that if the guy opens with 1. h4 you're gonna eat him up; these guys are GOOD. And they use psychology, such as playing dubious moves (and, of course, lots of tactical traps) to get you overconfident. Just play your normal game, but fast, because they sure are. These guys are earning their living at this, remember! Of course, if you win consistently, you may find your opponent replaced by "the next fish in line," who might just be fresh from the lead in Jaws varies quite a bit; a 2000 player myself, I managed to win 5 games straight one day, but a few days later my grin was horizontalized by some master I'd neither seen nor heard of before (who was that masked man?). Remember the guy whose meat-&-potatoes turned out to be just so much wienerschnitzel for "Dzindzhy"...

So here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is, put your best pawn forward and your last dollar out, and partake in our free enterprise system to the fullest extent your talent and wallet allow. Just remember two old sayings: he who takes the queen knight pawn sleeps in the streets - including, presumably, 42nd; and, if you hang out in Times Square long enough you'll eventually run into everyone you ever knew. Cross fertilizing these two adages, it shouldn't be too long before we see Bobby on Broadway...

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