I’ve avoided writing a story on the Washington Square chess hustlers because they are almost too obvious. Many of them are homeless, or borderline homeless. But they are the smartest homeless people in the world. A lot of them are drug addicts. They are all eccentric. When you walk by the chessboards, they call out to you, trying to convince you to “take a shot.” The starting wager is $2 a game. I’ve never played. But I imagine, like all hustlers, they let you win the $2 game. They probably even let you win the next $2 game. Then, reluctantly, they allow you to raise the wager to $20. That’s when they beat you in 90 seconds. “Chess is known as an a tergo game,” said Harry. He made a motion as if he was reaching around my back to stab me. “It means from the back.
I met Harry late last week. I had just finished my interview with Bala and was on my way out of the park. When I passed by the chess tables, the hustlers began calling to me. For some reason I stopped and sat down at one of the tables. “I don’t want to play,” I said. “I just want to talk.”
“Then you should talk to Harry,” one of the men said. “He’s a real deep thinker.” Harry was sitting alone at the end of one table. He wore a baseball cap. We had a short, friendly conversation. He told me some of his views on chess. He was quite eloquent. “I’m going to come back in a couple of days,” I told him. “And I’m going to interview you.” He seemed receptive to the idea.
When I came back two days later, Harry was on crack. I knew he was on crack. He couldn’t sit still. He was real aggressive with me. The first time I met him, he was calm and relaxed. Now he was aggressive. He kept trying to size me up, like druggies do. He wanted to see what he could get out of me. “People are out here making documentaries all the time,” he said,“Everything has a price.” While he was talking, he pulled a small bottle of liquor out of his pocket, sipped it quickly, and put it back. He repeated the process every thirty seconds. Then he removed any remaining doubt. He turned to the guy next to him, and said “I’ve got to get off this crack.” This is going nowhere, I thought. I’m wasting my time.
“Look,” I said, “I can maybe give you $5.” I wanted Harry to finish what he had begun to tell me two days before. If he could do that, while on crack, I had no problem paying him $5. So he can get some more crack. “But I don’t have it with me,” I told him. “I’ll have to run to the ATM.
“There’s a Bank of America right on the corner,” said Harry, sweating. “Go to the ATM and bring me back a ten.”
“You’re being aggressive with me,” I said, “I don’t like that.”
“Chess is an aggressive game,” he said.
I almost didn’t come back. First, I don’t like being hustled. Second, the supply of interesting people in this city is unlimited. Like I don’t have eight million other people to choose from. Fuck this guy. I’m going to pay him $5 dollars, he’s going to talk nonsense for a few minutes, then ask for more money. I almost didn’t go back. But I knew Harry had very interesting things to say. Two days earlier, he’d been quite eloquent. Though he probably hasn’t slept since then. So I did go back. But I got aggressive.
“Here’s how it’s going to work,” I said, sitting back down. “I’ll give you $2 now. If it’s a good interview, and you let me take photos, I’ll give you another $5.” The crack seemed to be wearing off a bit. He backed off from his aggressiveness.
“Some of these things, I’ll tell you for free,” he said. “I’ll tell you from my heart.” He was more tolerable now but the drugs still had a hold of him. He was rocking in his seat. Talking fast. Saying wild things. Religion. Theory. Chess. It almost made sense, but not quite. I leaned forward in my seat.
Listening to a person explain a complex philosophy can be like sitting in the cockpit of a plane as it circles over an unfamiliar territory. The first time the plane circles, very little makes sense. Nothing is recognizable. There’s too much to take in. The philosophy is too vast. But gradually, with each successive circle, the territory becomes familiar. It begins to make sense. But with Harry, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell if there was a common theme connecting his thoughts. Is he circling? Or is he flying in one direction, heading nowhere, on crack? Then, in the midst of his rambling, he said something quite poignant:
“Religion and science are like the two bottom corners of a pyramid.” He held two fingers apart, representing religion and science. He started bringing them upwards and together, like a pyramid. “Every day,” he said, ”they get closer together.” He’s coming through the crack. I began to arrange the pieces on the chessboard, as if preparing for a game.
“Tell me about chess,” I told him.
“Well chess,” he said, “is like life.” The circling had begun. The circles were very wide at first, because Harry had a lot of philosophies about a lot of things. And he was coming off crack. But every time the conversation veered off toward the universe, I tried to recenter it on the chess board in front of us: “Yeah,” I would say, “But how does that relate to chess?”
“There are three stages to every chess game,” he said. “There’s the beginning, the middle, and the end. Every man must face these three stages in life, as well.” Harry was very intense when he spoke. Might be the crack. He leaned forward: “The beginning stage is philosophy. You haven’t made any moves yet. All experience is ahead of you. Everything is potential. So you choose a philosophy to guide you.” Harry never lost eye contact. He made lots of hand movements.
“The second stage is mathematics,” he said. ”The game is underway now. You’ve made choices that cannot be unmade. Potential becomes experience, and there are fewer and fewer paths that you can take. So precision and calculation become more important.” He looked up, as if finished. “So philosophy, then mathematics.” he said.
“And the third stage?” I asked. He traced a pyramid again, bringing his fingers together at the peak.
“Science,” he said. “The endgame.” He looked down at the chessboard. He began to finger the pieces. “Everything you need to know about a person you can tell by watching them play chess. You can see how they live their life. You can see what’s important to them. Watch what pieces they protect, and which ones they sacrifice.” He put his hand on a rook.
“The rooks represent security,” he said. “They sit on the corners and anchor the entire board. Watch a woman play chess. Most women will trade a lot of pieces to protect their rooks. Just watch for it, you’ll see.” He moved down the board, picking up a knight next. “The knight represents how you travel. It’s the most mobile piece on the board. It’s the only piece that can jump over other pieces. Watch how a player protects his knights, and you’ll know how much he values mobility.” Harry stopped talking, and looked around. Then he lowered his voice. “Look over there,” he whispered. He flicked his eyes toward two Orthodox Jews sitting next to us. They were engrossed in a game.
“What am I looking at?” I whispered.
“The pieces. Look what pieces he’s given up.”
“I’ve known that man for several years,” Harry said. “He ain’t ever left the city.” He flicked his eyes again. He was still whispering. “Notice the pawns. He’s dropped two knights, but almost all his pawns are left. Your pawns represent your material assets. You get what I’m saying?” He smiled. I laughed.
“I get what you’re saying.”
“Good,” said Harry. His voice returned to normal. He returned his attention to the chessboard in front of us. He picked up a bishop, twirled it in his fingers, and held it out toward me.
“Beware the man who sacrifices his bishops early,” he said. “Your bishop represents your heart. It’s your closest friend.” He gripped the piece tightly. He spoke more intensely than ever. “If a man is careless with his bishops– if he trades them early in the game, you should fear that man. And I don’t mean in chess. I mean—fear that man. Don’t trust him.”
“And what about the queen?”
“The queen is your power. A boxer’s queen is his arms. A scientist’s queen is his mind. Most white men are aggressive with their queens. They play loose with their power. They move their queens way out into the open board. Black men are more protective of their queens. They hold their queens back. Watch a man play his queen, and you’ll see how he views his power. “
“And your king?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” said Harry. He looked at me as if I was missing the point. “The king is you.”