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Playing the Game MAG
His hands danced. They danced with such agility and swiftness that they floated. The dark amber danced in time with the click of the clock – the rhythmic tick, like some odd metronome – and the hands tangoed and traversed the board. They played the game. It was the cracked and aged hands that attacked. They shot out, grabbing at a weakness and exploiting it, making you feel the power of the mind. The hand and mind were together, almost one. The hands, the dark amber hands, they would strike you down. They would dance. And they played the game.
The Square was like most of Manhattan. It was dirty, crowded and had a peculiar smell, like some putrid aura. Washington Square had seen worse times though. The walkways used to be lined with crack vials, drug dealers with macho vendettas played out and begging hobos and rampant whores crowding the entrances. Now that Giuliani was here, things were different. The threat of cameras, policemen and wide-eyed tourists was enough to keep away most of the crime. But ever since Bobby Fischer, Washington Square Park has been known for the game, the personalities and the masters who play you.
I had always felt intimidated about playing in the Park. It seemed to be something that was above me. But, actually, anyone could play in the Park. I saw little kids, burned-out hobos and a retarded man sit down and challenge Dwight and the others. Anyone who had two dollars was invited to play; it didn’t matter who you were or weren’t. I thought I was degrading the game by playing there, taking it to a new low. You have to understand the atmosphere. It wasn’t like those chess stores, with the nice tables and Mozart playing in the background. It was real. It was life. People were always yelling, smoking cigars or dope, sending pieces flying.
Dwight was beyond it, though. He was the one in the corner smiling and chatting with his opponent. I gravitated toward the corner, awed by the furious slapping of the clock and the laughter. I sat down. Sat and gawked at my opponent, Dwight, another human being. I gaped, stared, took in his presence and wanted to run. His nimble hands flashed around the table and set the board. He gave me the white pieces, the advantage. As we played the first game it was like a courting game; we were introducing ourselves to each other. My pawn first shyly took position. With a bold strike he met my pawn. My knight leaped and landed, fell over as I reached for the clock and I could feel my cheeks burn. He was cool and collected and his bishop flew to the opposite side. I looked ravenously for a move, something to impress him and impress the tourist who stood behind me. I moved a pawn and waited for his next move. Queen out; he eyed me and smiled. I eyed the board and attacked with the bishop. Queen took pawn. Checkmate. I was stunned. I didn’t feel it hit me until he chuckled and reached out his hand to shake mine. It was over. Scholar’s mate, the most degrading of all. I sat in front of this man and smiled meekly.
He told me it was fine and I looked up. The shame of my defeat slowly lifted and I set the pieces. I reached in my pocket for another few dollars and handed him two wrinkled bills. I was ready. We played together throughout that day, but the second game was my game. I felt the stare of the tourists on my back as I recuperated from my previous defeat. His hands danced the board and punished me with each move. But I answered back, no longer dreading the consequences. He wore such a smile as he hit the clock. “You better get and go, boy. I’m not giving you a game.”
Before I could think it was out of my mouth: “You better get your knight out of my backyard.”
I flinched, not even hearing myself but more echoing the cries I had heard from other players. He didn’t even look up and I thought about how ridiculous I must have sounded. A white suburbanite from a nice home, well-educated and talking like a punk off the street.
“Yeah, well, I suggest you get out of my way, because I’m here to do some business.”
We laughed and the tourists talked about how it was just like the movies. We talked trash and laughed like school buddies, friends from long ago and the other people around just made me smile. Catcalls from all around the park rang out and Dwight’s followers who gathered around his table made jokes and called each other names.
“Best move that bishop before someone gets hurt.”
“That boy got some intentions on you, my man.”
“Oh yeah, and I got an insurance policy on that, right here.”
With a final sweep of his hands he took my pawn. He slapped my king with the back of his hand, sending it off the board. Checkmate. But this time I was refreshed and overjoyed. I had another two dollars and a good friend to play the game with. I lost. I lost the game.
But the Park still chattered and reeked of dope. Tourists still flashed cameras and gobs of money. But now, I felt above them. I knew the game and appreciated it. I wasn’t there for the thrill anymore. The tourists made me sick and the analogy that comes to mind is pigeons. The tourists were like the pigeons, the sky rats, the gutter birds. They had no respect to crowd this graceful and humble genius. They didn’t deserve his presence.
Dwight was always nice to me. He took me under his wing and showed me the true meaning of the game. I’ve been back to meet Dwight and I’m now a part of the game there. My wins and losses in the Park are common lore with Dwight, as we are now good friends. As I look back on that first time, the courting period, I think of his hands. Those nimble, amber hands were my teachers and my tormentors, but never my opponent.