SI Vault
Robert Goldberg
March 07, 1983
Down on the Deuce—New York's 42nd Street—three-card monte isn't the main event anymore. No, the hottest hustle involves one of the world's oldest pastimes—chess.
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March 07, 1983

In Times Square, The Sidewalk Pawn Shops Offer Quick Lessons In Chess

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Down on the Deuce—New York's 42nd Street—three-card monte isn't the main event anymore. No, the hottest hustle involves one of the world's oldest pastimes—chess.

On any given afternoon in fair weather, on the corner of Broadway and 42nd, the sidewalks are packed. Sandwiched among street vendors hawking incense and marquees that scream FISTS OF FURY! and MANHATTAN SEX FIENDS! are four chessboards. They sit side by side on a table made of wooden planks supported by sawhorses, and the action is full blast at each of the four. (Backgammon pros often operate on adjacent planks.) All around, spectators kibitz. And in the middle of this unlikely setting, the Knights of the Deuce, as the chess entrepreneurs might be called, square off over their rooks and pawns.

It started small, eight to 10 years ago, when a guy named Broadway Bobby D turned over a trash can at Broadway and 42nd, put a chessboard on top and announced that he was open for business. These days, although Bobby has moved on, several boards are running on his old corner, and now chess games are being played in other parts of the Times Square area, notably at Seventh Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets and at Broadway and 50th, and new stars pop up all the time.

They go by the names of Tag and Brito, Sweet Pea and Thomas. Almost all are black. They are back-street Bobby Fischers, curbstone Karpovs, and the game they play is blitz, or lightning chess. Each player has a total of five (sometimes 10) minutes in which to complete all his moves. Make a move, hit the clock. Make a move, hit the clock. You can be done in by checkmate—or just by thinking too long. It's the perfect street game. The scruffy-looking players set up the board, offering white to their opponents—usually passing tourists or businessmen. A two-or three-dollar bet, plus a 50� board fee, is put up. And wham, it's over.

Most of these bold and incisive Broadway players abandon well-known and time-honored opening tactics after only a few moves to leap into risky territory. For even the tournament player of middling ability, these moves are too unsettling to counter in the allotted time. Of course, if it were a typical four-hour tournament game or if the rival is a truly insightful or equally idiosyncratic player, the odds could well fall to the passerby-cum-opponent. But the way the game is played at the corner of Broadway and 42nd, Tag and his friends are hard to beat.

"The majority of these players are very strong," says Burt Hochberg, a former chess magazine editor. "They're almost master strength—they're tricky and they're good at psychology. They know that most players don't like to play defensively, and they manage to seize the initiative with a sacrifice or something and get a good attack going. You can't take them lightly."

The street hustlers have high winning percentages. Tag, who is 45, estimates they win nine of every 10 games. "There ain't no luck involved," he says. "We know how to capitalize on the mistakes of the other player." The opponent's small bet is, in effect, a fee for a lesson. "I have the knowledge," says Tag. "I give my opponent access to me at the corner of Broadway and 42nd."

Winning does pay, but chess is still none too profitable. "Nobody out here is making a million bucks," says Tag. "Forty dollars at the end of a day is exceptional. The average take is $28." What he fails to mention is that earnings are often deposited directly into the Off-Track Betting shop across the street.

While Tag and the others play for pay, money isn't everything. Tag, a self-styled philosopher, says he has "a craving" for chess. "You have to play," he says. "You're born a chess player. I started playing as soon as I picked up my baby bottle.

"Chess is the supreme game of the mind, of the imposition of the will. In life, in politics, on the world scene, only chess players are not deluded by the pitfalls that lie three, four, five moves ahead. But Americans are not chess players; they're footballers, baseballers. Most Americans play chess because of an interest in European culture, if they're white, or because they learned it in prison, if they're black."

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