In Street Chess Games, a Pedigreed Pastime Becomes a Gritty Sideline

Published: September 17, 2007

September is a time of rebirth for chess. With schools back in session, students are returning to their chess clubs. And in Mexico City, eight of the world’s top grandmasters have been competing in a championship tournament.

Some of those students may be dreaming of vying for the title, now held by a Russian named Vladimir Kramnik.

More likely is that they will someday vie for a few dollars in Union Square Park in Lower Manhattan against the likes of a man known as Russian Paul.

One recent night, Paul was studying the board before him, not far from the subway entrance. With close-cropped gray hair, arms covered with tattoos, heavy bags under his eyes and a faded and slightly tattered green T-shirt covering his paunch, he seemed out of place playing a game with such an intellectual pedigree.

But after a few seconds, Paul made a move and touched his side of the chess clock. His opponent quickly replied, and soon their hands were flying across the board, knocking over pieces and slapping the clock’s buttons.

Finally, Paul gestured at his opponent’s side of the clock, which was flashing a set of dashes, meaning his time had expired. He had lost. Paul’s side of the clock showed only seconds remaining. The players reset the board and the clock, and repeated the scene over and over, with Paul usually winning, well into the night.

Paul is one of a small legion of chess players in places like Union Square Park, Washington Square Park and St. Nicholas Avenue and 141st Street who make a living, or at least some pocket money, from hustling. Like basketball, chess hustling is a city game — fast and gritty and played on street corners and in parks with the throb of street life as a backdrop.

At the top levels it is polished, with high stakes. While the World Chess Championship, which began on Thursday, has $1.3 million in prize money, on the street the bets are usually $5 a game, and the quality of the opposition is unknown.

Here is the full article.

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Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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