Monthly Archive for March, 2010


Part Four

The next night I am awarded the ultimate recognition– a nickname. Jimmy, the mounted cop, who patrols the park, kicking winos off the benches, trots by.

“Hey undertaker, how’s business?”

“Dead,” I answer. He laughs and clip clops away.

I make a frantic tour of the park. Getty is nowhere to be found. I walk all the way to the fountain. Passersby giggle. I check my fly.

A mocking voice blows a gust of Gauloise in my ear.

“Looking for me?”

Getty and his girlfriend have been trailing along behind me, letting the whole park in on their prank. It looks like they’ve been up for days. His pupils are pinned and he smells like a wet ashtray. She is slouched and hollow-eyed in jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt.

“Can’t play without me, can you?” he says. “You need your secret sharer to protect your lie.”

He’s testing me again, trying to show me up in front of his girlfriend.

“Joseph Conrad,” I say. “And you need your liar to protect your secret share.”

It’s a nice little Shakespearean reversal. The blonde raises an eyebrow. Getty scowls. He’s lost that exchange.

“Joe the Russian is the fish du jour,” he says. “Russians think they’re all masters, but he’s just a one-eyed man in the country of the blind.”

Another test. “H.G. Wells,” I say.

He sniffs. “George Herbert coined it, actually… Joe will play Queens Pawn, you’ll play the Sicilian. We’ll get him away from the standard variations in the first ten moves and he’ll be lost…” He drapes his arm around the blonde in a modified choke hold. “Come in off the street so they don’t see us together.”

Joe the Russian, shaven head, walrus mustache–the Gurdjieff look–is holding court at the main table.

“The undertaker has arrived in time for his funeral,” he booms. “Do you have twenty dollars?”

Twenty dollars is a huge bet for the park. It’s also all the money I have on me. In the crowd, Getty is in intense conversation with familiar faces, serious chess people. He’s flashing bills as if to cover an even bigger bet.

“OK, twenty,” I say.

Joe opens with the Queen’s Pawn. I make the standard responses. But then Getty puts his finger to his nose, signaling a departure. He begins to exchange, taking pieces off the board, building to an end game, pawn against pawn. I understand the strategy. He’s taking Joe out of his comfort zone.

But Joe is not discomfited. With every move he is becoming more confident.

“You can’t play scorched earth with a Russian,” he says to me. “Remember what we did to Napoleon, not to mention Hitler.”

I’t's like a scene from a horror movie—the puppet struggling with his master. I feel as if Getty is twisting my arm, forcing me to pick up the pieces and move them where I don’t think they should go.

Soon, only kings and pawns are left on the board. It’s a race to see which pawn can reach the last rank and get a queen. Getty wanders off, leaving me to finish the game. But I miscalculate an exchange. Now Joe is a square ahead of me. I waste a move and he laughs.

“Don’t expect me to make a mistake, patzer.”

Chess etiquette dictates that you resign a losing position. I knock over my king in the classic concession gesture and give Joe a crumpled twenty.

He is pontifical in victory.

“This was a good idea to force an end game with a superior player,” he says. “But after inspiration must come execution…”

Getty has disappeared, probably afraid to face me. I’m broke. I’ll have to jump the subway turnstile to get home.

I wander around the Village for a while. The coffee houses are packed and festive. No solitary readers. Nobody is alone but me.

As I turn onto Sixth. Ave. I see Getty and the blonde walking into the West 4th. Street station.


Getty flinches as I run up. The blonde steps in front of him.

“What happened to you?” I demand.

He shrugs. “I thought you had it won.”

“Why? The position was equal. I didn’t have the advantage.”

” I thought you did.”

“Then, why didn’t you come back and get your share?” I ask.

He blinks, the liar’s reflex and starts the sentence with “well,” another giveaway. “Well, I heard you had lost…”

The blonde can’t stand it anymore.

“For God’s sake, at least give him back his twenty dollars,” she says.

“You bitch!” Getty says.

“He bet on Joe the Russian,” the blonde says to me. “He got odds from those guys because they had seen you play the other night and thought you were so much better…”

“You traitorous bitch!”

“He was bragging about it,” the blonde says. “How they thought you were so good because you were playing his game. How he could make this game look close enough. How he could manipulate the universe.” She turns on him. “Didn’t you say that? Manipulate the universe?”

Getty’s eyes widen in fear as I move in on him. He takes out a bill. “Here, here’s your twenty back..”

But I want to fight. I want to put my fist through his bony skull. “Nah,” I say. “Gimme half of what you made…”My voice sounds coarse and thuggish in my own ears.

“Why?” Getty says. “You had nothing to do with it…”

“You couldn’t have done it without me,” I say. “I want my share.”

He steps behind the blonde with a spiteful sneer. “You got paid with phony prestige,” he says. “You’re a dilettante. You didn’t care about the money at all. You would have played for nothing, you would have paid me just so you could be the big frog in this little puddle…”

He’s right, of course. Greed and larceny are pure, but my desire to steal honor shames me and I have to act like a thief to save face.

“Gimme my fuckin’ money, you lyin’ rat bastard,” I say.

The blonde touches my arm. “Leave him alone,” she says. “Here…” She puts a bill in my hand. “He’s pathetic…”

She’s afraid. She thinks I’m some kind of Caliban from the outer boroughs. I take the bill.

“Yeah,” I say. “He’s pathetic.”

I go back to the park. My brief moment of glory is forgotten and I play at my level. But the nickname sticks and I’m greeted by the same dumb jokes.—”Business still dead?”— even after I change jobs.

I never see Getty again. Once I think I see his blonde girlfriend striding down Madison Ave on a stormy night, snow sparkling in her hair, her coat open against the sleeting wind. But it can’t be her because it’s thirty years later.

Part 1-3 of “I GET AN EDGE” are listed on blog page. Just click on blog in the Main Menu above. Enjoy!





My new partner in crime chain-smokes Gauloises and scratches his forehead until it bleeds. He’s sparse with the bio, doesn’t even introduce himself.

But when I ask about his chess ranking is he can’t help bragging.

“I’m a Master, 2200 rating.”

I flash him a dubious look.

“If you don’t believe it, look me up, ” he says.

I have him on the defensive. “You have to tell me your name.”

He realizes he’s been trapped into a forced move, so he tells all.

“Getty B….m. I played for Harvard.”

“What did you major in?”

Somehow my use of the word “major” tars me as a provincial. He regains the advantage with patrician sniff. “I guess you could say I majored in chess and mescaline,” he says. “Anyway, once I destroyed Yale for them they had no further use for me.”

His system uses the standard system of chess notation, dividing the board into numbers. He flashes the numbers by touching his nose with his fingers. When he rubs his eyes it means the number is greater than five. First signal indicates the piece to be moved. Second signal the designated square. As the game develops and most of the pieces are deployed he signals the square, depending upon my knowledge of the position to know which piece he is indicating. If I have a question I touch my king and he gives the original position of the piece. For example if he wants me to move a knight , he touches his nose again with two fingers, indicating the knight’s opening position

He knows I can play the first seven to ten moves of any opening or defense so he wanders around kibitzing other games until I signal him by lighting a Marlboro. Then, he saunters over, takes in the board in a split second and flashes his signal. He stays long enough to maneuver me into a winning position, then saunters away and leaves me to finish the game.

“We’ll beat these guys with their own vanity,” he says. “They all think you’re an easy mark. They’ll go nuts and double up when you beat them…”

We start with Ronald. He plays a simple Ruy Lopez opening and I hang with him for eleven moves before I need help. Getty strolls over as if he’s making a tour of the tables. He flashes me a signal and then moves away. I realize he has backed Ronald into a forced position where only one move is possible. He doesn’t even have to watch the game. He flashes the signals from another table. I follow his instructions and marvel at the elegant inevitability of his strategy. Ronald stares at me in disbelief and knocks over his king in the universal gesture of resignation.

“Again,” he says.

“For five bucks?” I say.

“Make it ten,” he says. “Lightning never strikes twice…”

“This time I play white,” I say.

White pieces make the first move and allow the player to determine the opening. Getty makes me play the Guioco Piano, a simple opening played by most beginners. It lulls Ronald into a false sense of confidence. He plays carelessly. Getty stands behind him and signals my next move. I am a puppet amazed at my master’s brilliance. I watch in astonishment as he maneuvers Ronald into a steel trap and begins to shut its jaws. Ronald tears his hair. He flicks bloody boogers. After two more games his spirit is broken. And we’re thirty two dollars ahead.

Next night I meet Getty outside the West 4th. Street subway stop.

“Ronald won’t play you anymore,” he says. “We’ll go to Fritz. He’s a jailhouse player. A lot of natural ability, but no theory. He’ll try to trick you with the King’s Bishop, but it’s the kind of opening where the attacker loses his advantage if the defender plays correctly. His friends will be watching so I’ll give you the first eight moves now.”

“You know what he’s going to play?” I ask, amazed.

“He plays the same opening every night,” Getty says. “He wins ninety-five per cent of the time. Now let’s split up. Remember, people are watching. Don’t even look around like you’re waiting for me to show. I’ll be there when I have to be.”

I take a few steps up Sixth Ave. When I turn, Getty has vanished./

Heads turn as I enter the park. I get a few grudging nods from the weaker players. They know I’ve jumped a level. I try not to swagger.

Ronald waves me away, just as Getty predicted. “Oh no, not you…”

I see Getty talking to Fritz’s entourage of tough black dudes. Is he making bets? When a loser gets up I slide in.

“Five dollars,” Fritz says. Getty wanders away as the game begins. Sure enough Fritz plays the King’s Bishop opening.

“You’re gonna do this,” he says after making what he thinks is a crushing move.

Armed with Getty’s sure thing I can’t resist a little kibitz. “No, I’m gonna do this,” I say and make the move that blunts his attack. A few moves later he resigns. “Beginner’s luck” he says. He pays the five and sets up the pieces. This time I take white and play the same opening he did. “You can’t beat me at my own game, boy,” he says.

I can’t, but Getty can. Thirteen moves later Fritz resigns to avert disaster. I offer a rematch, but his backers mutter uneasily and he waves me off. “Back of the line…”

By the end of the night I’ve taken Jack, the DA for twenty and Serge, the intern for ten. With Fritz’s money it adds up to a forty-five dollar night.

At dawn I follow Getty and his classy blonde girlfriend into the West Fourth Street station. He doesn’t introduce us.

“You owe me twenty-two fifty,” he says.

“What did you collect from Fritz’s boys?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” he says. “Twenty from them…” He gives me ten crumpled ones. “It was a good night.”

“Amazing,” I say.

He doesn’t want to talk.” We shouldn’t be seen together,” he says.

“I feel like I’m learning so much,” I say.

“Your game might come up a notch,” he begrudges. He walks to the uptown train. The blonde hesitates as if she wants to tell me something, but then turns and follows him.

“I feel could take over the game after you make that one brilliant move,” I say.” I wouldn’t need you anymore.”

“Maybe,” he says over his shoulder. “But that brilliant move is the one you’ll never make.”