Chess players are a lot like musicians, running the personality spectrum from absolutely insane to completely sane and everything in between. As a musician, I’ve played with other musicians who were absolutely out of their minds but brilliant artists, always making up for their lunacy with great playing. The world of music is filled with every type of personality as is the world of chess. Some of the craziest chess players I’ve met have been full time chess hustlers. These are the guys you see clustered around tables in big cities, offering to play you for a small fee. In New York, it’s Washington Square park and in San Francisco, it used to be Powell Street, until a real estate developer thought them a visual blight. Here’s what he did to get rid of them:
He tried calling the police to complain about a bunch of undesirables that were frightening his building’s tenants. According to him, those undesirables needed to be promptly removed. The police found the complaint unwarranted since the supposed undesirables were gathered across the street from the property rather than directly in front of it. He complained to the board of supervisors and the mayor’s office who were far to busy to deal with petty nuisance issues. He then upped his game by calling the police back and telling them there was illegal gambling and drug dealing taking place. That warranted police attention, even though he lied about the activities taking place.
I’d be lying if I suggested that the small group of chess hustlers wasn’t at least a bit eccentric and perhaps rough looking. However, marching to your own beat in life doesn’t make you a threat. Nor does wearing tattered clothing, after all, I made a minor career of such fashion during punk rock’s heyday. These guys love chess and either didn’t have a desire to play tournaments or had emotional issues that kept them away from competitive chess. The streets were where they fought their battles. Sure, some of those guys are a bit nutty but so am I for that matter. To take away the simple pleasure of playing chess for a few dollars, mostly won from unsuspecting tourists, seemed a petty action. While the police couldn’t substantiate the accusation of drug dealing, they did conclude that they were gambling. I beg to differ. Chess is not a game of chance which is what constitutes gambling. It’s a game of skill. A person can plop down five dollars to play one of these hustlers and if the hustler wins you can consider your money spent on a valuable life lesson, don’t play chess with guys who earn their living playing chess all day. If you win, you get an additional five dollars and bragging rights. While these guys don’t pay taxes, they’re far from wealthy. This was hardly a back room poker game in Chinatown (I know those places because I’ve gambled there).
The chess hustlers got the boot but we relocated them thanks to the efforts of many of game players (including some professional gamblers who hate city hall). We organized a large noisy protest one Saturday that got great media coverage. We managed to get a marching band to play loudly to make our point. I did a number of interviews in which I challenged the city’s mayor and the entire board of supervisors to a simultaneous chess match. If I lost or drew one game, the hustlers had to go away. If I won, they stayed put. Of course, our mayor and supervisors refused. However, we did get them located to an even better site downtown. They have actual chess tables and benches in a nice park. However, the clock is ticking in regards to their remaining at their new location. San Francisco is currently squashing the culture that’s left in the city, opting for a homogenized landscape of high-end consumer emptiness. The chess hustlers are not pleasant to look at in the eyes of the wealthy millennial generation. They don’t want to see shabbily dressed men play chess in their pristine parks. It breaks my heart to see a city I made my name in turn into a cultural void. Those chess hustlers added much needed character to the landscape.
These guys simply love the game and for whatever reason only want to play it on the streets. Sure, they trash talk and employ every opening trap in the book against their naive opponents, but it’s all in good fun. Some of those guys are pretty good teachers and it’s not uncommon to see a businessman taking in a lesson with one of them. The chess hustler is a species of player who is heading toward extinction. In city after city, with gentrification steam rolling across the once gritty urban landscape, guys like these are being pushed out. They may not be everyone’s idea of a model citizen but they add color and character to their environment.
Maybe, because I’m eccentric, I accept those chess scoundrels as brethren. There’s a beauty and brilliance to these characters. To them I say shine on you crazy diamond. Somewhere there’s a place for you but sadly, it’s not San Francisco. Fortunately, the game itself will never be lost because too many people from all walks of life love it. It’s a common bond we who play the game share on a global scale. However, should we be forced to play chess behind walls where no one can see us? Are we that offensive? What’s offensive is the idea that a person can be judged on appearance rather than their accomplishments. Some of those chess hustlers have advanced college degrees but fell through society’s cracks along their journey through life. So for my street chess playing friends, I will always drive through the neighborhoods of those that tried to silence you and play my car stereo really loud, just to remind those snobs that you can’t keep a chess hustler down. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.