Tag Archive for 'chess'


Igor Yopsvoyomatsky, editor-in-chief of Paranoiaisfact.com,
answers readers’ questions.

Dear Igor,

I’m scared. First a computer  named Deep Blue beats the world champion of chess. Then another one called Watson beats the biggest winners of Jeopardy.  Rajiv, the IT guy at the office, says this is a positive: The thinking power of these machines will be harnessed to cure the ills of mankind, to improve our quality of life. But what hope is there for the Average Joe like me if the very best of our species can’t compete? I can’t sleep. I’m haunted by feelings of inadequacy. I ‘m convinced my worst scifi nightmare is  coming true. Machines are taking over. They’re going to turn us all into  fat, shuffling, overmedicated drones, servicing the giant , blinking Queen Bee computer. Is this paranoia or fact?
Al Angster
Cataract Falls, Pa.

Dear Mr. Angster,

This is fact. There is no hope for the Average Joe. But don’t blame the machine. Until there is a perpetual motion computer  that can reproduce itself the culprit will be the human holding the plug—the engineer.

Computer engineers  use the accretion of data to produce the illusion that a machine is actually thinking. But like the Wizard of Oz they are behind the curtain, pushing the buttons, doing their best to convince you that your mind is too slow and distracted to flourish in the high-speed world. It’s all about deception. The highest achievement in Artificial Intelligence will be to produce a “chatbot,” a computer that tricks a human into believing he/she is talking to another human. 

All human vs. machine contests are designed to show the superiority of the humans who run them. Computer engineers, the Average Joes of the science world, want to prove that middle-of-the-pack knowledge workers can dominate the smarter and more highly skilled. They want to wrest the zeitgeist away from the poets and give it to the Sudoku solvers. Whatever the task, they say, a machine (meaning us, its human masters)  will ultimately do it better.  

IBM is willing to invest millions of dollars to prove this point. Deep Blue creator, Feng-hisung Hsu, began to develop his chess-playing computer in 1985. He worked for 10 years with an elite team, including an international grandmaster, toward one goal—to defeat World Champion Gary Kasparov. When they lost in Philadelphia in 1996 they went back to the drawing board. In 1997 they returned with a new improved Deep Blue Two. “Going into the match I had some apprehension,” Hsu said…”but… we made history and knew we could compete.” 

Deep Blue might be an impersonal machine, but its creators sounded all too human. “After just an hour Kasparov realized how hopeless his position had become,” IBM flacks gloated.” We did not have to wait long for the killer blow from Deep Blow that ended the match…” 

Now Hsu could claim that “brute-force computation has eclipsed humans in chess.” 

But the victory was muddled by controversy. After losing a game the engineers discovered a programming glitch that allowed Kasparov to maneuver the computer into a trap. So they changed the rules to allow them to make a correction between games. To effectively coach the machine.

Kasparov cried foul, alleging Deep Blue had been given “human” guidance in violation of the ground rules. Program director C.J. Tan  spinned his defense in computer-speak.  “we developed a program to change the parameters in between each game…”

Kasparov demanded a rematch. IBM refused and dismantled Deep Blue. The episode ended inconclusively. Feng-hisung Hseu left IBM when he realized they were “not doing anything with the Deep Blue chess chip.” He tried to market it elsewhere, but couldn’t find a commercial application. So much for curing the ills of mankind and improving our quality of life.

Seeking a clear-cut victory IBM turned its attention to another form of competitive data accretion–the quiz show. It discarded the game-playing model and developed a “question-answering” program, which the corporate grovelers  named Watson, after IBM’s founder.  It spent millions on super computers  that  could “process the equivalent of 1 million books of information per second.” IBM challenged Jeopardy’s biggest winners,  Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. A reporter claimed the stage was set for “humankind to either claim victory over machines or encounter a sobering wake-up call.” 

It’s been a PR bonanza. IBM is back in the headlines. Jeopardy’s ratings are the highest in years. Watson’s program director David Ferruci has become a media celebrity. Tweedy and tieless with a comfy salt and pepper goatee he is the perfect non-threatening representative for a system that IBM hopes will make billions. 

For IBM everything is a sales tool.  If Watson can get the right answers in Jeopardy  it can also pick stocks, diagnose disease, repair complex systems—since most of life is a question-answering process the possibilities are endless. The research center is already at work developing applications. 

Ferruci is calm and genial, but inside he must be churning. It is reported that he is in his office day and night and has to wear a retainer to keep from grinding his gums during the contest. He knows if Watson loses he will join Feng-hsiung Hsu on the IBM dead wood pile.

And again, the engineers behind the curtain are trying to deceive the public. It is not Watson’s knowledge that is carrying the day, but its speed. According to Richard Perez-Pena of  the NY Times success in Jeopardy is “all about timing, and the inherent advantage that chips and wires have over flesh.”  Factor in the nervousness of the human contestants who are in a death struggle against a machine that threatens to render the human species obsolete. “Well,” says Perez-Pena, “it should be obvious… that the computer’s timing edge would make a mockery of the contest.”

Win or lose Watson will not succeed in replicating human ability. Its high speed trading machines will cause markets to crater, power grids to crash, planes to collide. It will assuredly tell someone with lung cancer he has athlete’s foot.  And won’t even have  the good grace to send a wreath. Worst of all, it will put more of our daily activities at the mercy of some nose-picking, chain-smoking, Red Bull-swilling hacker in Guanduong Province, who can alter its questions and answers to sabotage our systems.

Yes, Mr. Angster, you will soon be a fat, shuffling, overmedicated drone.
Best wishes,


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.”





It’s 1961. I’m 18 and I’ve peaked. Playing on the freshman basketball team I try everything to increase my vertical leap. Deep knee bends, stairway sprints, hops and skips, leg presses–nothing works. I still can’t get more than three fingers over the rim from a standing jump.

We fool around in bio lab, flicking the organs of a dissected fetal pig at the girls, who squeal obligingly. This enrages the professor. “Laugh while you can, boys,” he says, “because after the age of seventeen the male goes into rapid sexual decline. In her early thirties when the female has reached the height of her estral excitability you will be unable to satisfy her. You will be like the impotent chimps banished into the jungle by the younger males.” I bluster out of class, but am secretly haunted by the vision of females poised on their haunches while I scuttle, hunched, hairy and flaccid into Prospect Park, pursued by screeching studs.

And there is now a new frustration in my life: I cannot get better at chess. After a few months of rapid improvement I’ve hit the wall. Every night I challenge the players one or two levels above me and am humiliated.

Chess players browbeat and insult their opponents. It’s part of the game and anything goes. “You’re not even mediocre,” a bald DA named Jack shouts at me, slamming down the winning move.

An intern named Serge who comes up from Beekman Hospital in surgical blues screams in mock pain: “You are torturing me with your ignorance.” And traps my Queen.

Joe the Russian sticks a stubby yellowed finger in my face. “Don’t you see the train speeding down on you, patzer? You have no hope…”

I can think of nothing but chess. I buy more books, study more games. Each of my opponents has a favorite opening and defense. I spend hours preparing all possible responses. But still I lose.

In those pre steroid days I try caffeine and nicotine. A beatnik bongo player sells me a benzedrine inhaler for a dollar. He breaks it open and rolls the drug-soaked paper into a ball. “Eat it, man, you’ll rule the world.”

I sit at the table, a subway roaring in my brain. The drug fractures my focus. I hear every conversation around me. I look into the faces in the crowd and sense their contempt. Going home at dawn I replay the games I lost and cringe at the blunders I made. I’m so crazed I go four stations past my stop.

I am losing eight to ten dollars a night. With a net of $72 a week after taxes I’ll have to hit my secret stash. I’ve been saving that money to make my escape to Paris and literary eminence. I should stop now. Give up…But I can’t.

One night I am playing Ronald, a fat, smelly teenager who eats gooey baloney sandwiches, belches root beer and grabs the pieces with mayo-slicked fingers. Ronald is an Asberger’s hustler; I see him playing scrabble with the NYU kids at Washington Square fountain and Go with the old Asian guys from the restaurants. In a hurry to take my two dollars he plays the Queens Gambit, an opening which confounds weaker players. He moves quickly, egging me on. “C’mon, don’t prolong the misery…” After the opening moves he attacks my center. I panic. I’ve seen this variation in Alekhine vs. Capobianco, but I can’t remember the response. I decide to retreat. As I touch my Knight someone sneezes. A lanky guy with greasy shoulder length hair is standing behind Ronald. He’s a serious player. I’ve seen him at the big tables, leaning back to blow smoke rings while his opponent agonizes over a move. I’ve passed him looking away with a distracted air as an astonishing blonde in a cashmere coat clutches his sleeve, whispering urgently. He covers his mouth and shakes his head slightly.

Is it a signal? I touch another piece. He purses his lips and blinks , which I take for a “no.” There are a few more possible moves. I touch the pieces until he lowers his head, which I read as “yes.” I make the move.

Ronald jerks and scowls. I’ve stymied his plan. People mutter in admiration, a new sound to me. He makes a move. I touch a piece. My benefactor brushes his hair away from his face, which I take for a “what else?” I make the move and initiate a furious exchange which results in an even position.

Ronald does a quick calculation. It will take him another half hour to beat me,if he can, and that will cost him money. He wants to trap the other fish before they wander away.

“Okay, you got lucky,” he says. “It’s a draw…”

“That’ll be two dollars,” I say.

“It’s a push,” he says.

“A push is no gain, but a draw is a half point,” I say. The spectators, happy to take Ronald down a peg, back me up. “C’mon, a draw wins…” “Pay the man…”

There’s nothing a hustler hates more than to lose money. Ronald digs into his pocket and comes out with a crumpled dollar bill, which he throws at me. “Here’s a buck. That’s all you get.” And sneers up at the crowd of eager losers. “Next fish…”

I step away from the table. The guy turns away, which I take for a “don’t talk to me.”

At dawn he is sitting on a rail as I leave the park. He’s skinny. Blue veins run up his wrists to his shoulders. Sniffly with a big nose and bulging bloodshot eyes. He points to the book I’m carrying. “Myth of Sisyphus,” he says. “Is that for reading or impressing girls?”

“A little of both, “I say.

“How come you wear black?”

“I work at a funeral parlor in Brooklyn.”

“Only the dead know Brooklyn,” he says.

I have a feeling he’s testing me.

“Thomas Wolfe,” I say.

“I hate a hustler who can’t play,” he says. “Ronald picks on weak players. Next time we’ll clean him out.”

“Next time?”

He turns quickly down the block. “Let’s go, I don’t want anyone to see us.” As we walk he explains: “Look, you’re a B player. You’ll never get better…”

“Why not?”

“Chess is a prodigy’s game,” he says. “By the time I was five I was beating grown ups. Were you? From twenty to death there are no big jumps in skill. You just try to conserve…”

“If I’m just a B player why do you want me?” I ask.

“A B is better than 90% of the population.” He offers me a Gauloise, a noisome French cigarette that Belmondo smoked in Breathless. ” Nobody here will play me anymore so I’ll play through you. You’re good enough to win an occasional game without causing suspicion. I can get action on you in the crowd. We’ll split fifty fifty…”

“How do you know I’ll win?” I ask.

“Signals,” he says. “It’s a simple system. You can learn it in ten minutes…”

“You mean cheating?”

“What are you, a naive moralist?” he says.” Every competitive athlete, game player, politician is looking for an edge…”

“Within the rules,” I say.

“Nobody obeys the rules willingly. That’s why there are referees. Part of the skill in winning is hiding your edge.”

“I want to beat these guys on my ability,” I say.

“You’re not good enough,” he says. “At least you can get the money and the prestige…”

He senses me faltering. “Look, what if God sent an invisible angel that only you could see to stand over your shoulder and give you the moves? That would be okay wouldn’t it?”

It’s like a forced move in chess. There’s only one answer.

“I guess so.”

“Well he sent me” he says. “I am your invisible angel.”





It’s 1961 and Brooklyn is a living, breathing Antiques Road Show. We’re sitting on trillions and don’t know it. Everything in my parents’ house–from the fiesta ware, the Heywood Wakefield furniture, oriental figurines, candy dishes, Nelson clocks, Danish lamps, silver serving spoons from the “old country”–will be a classic collectible in the future. My tipsy uncle careens around our cluttered living room. “Better not break anything, Sammy…” my mother warns. “Why don’t you get rid of this junk?” he yells back.

The streets are lined with cars that in thirty years will be bid up to a half a million by Saudi sheiks. Now they’re just “lemons” with lousy brakes that won’t start in cold weather.

I give an elderly neighbor $350 for his 1957 Chevy Bel Air, I hate its mint green color so I pay Earl Sheib $39.95 to paint it black. I hate driving its “three on the shaft,” and burn out the clutch. I park it with the doors and windows open on a dark street alongside Prospect Park, notorious haunt of thieves and muggers. In a year, a vandal– or anonymous ill-wisher– will flip a lit cigarette through the back window and turn the car into a fireball.

Today, a ’57 Bel Air is worth between $55,000 and 100,000.00

My grandfather leaves me a battered leather box full of silver dollar and half dollar pieces that he had been collecting since 1928. I use them to buy gas and cigarettes when I’m short of cash. In a year I’m down to one silver dollar, which I save for good luck.

Estimated value: $100K.

I have been an obsessive game player since childhood. At the age of eight I was flipping baseball cards with my friends. Closest to the wall won. “Topping” or landing on top of another card won two cards. A “leaner,” or leaning a card against the wall brought in three. Between flipping and trading I amassed a complete set of Topps cards. Plus I had the lineups of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants right down to the coaches. I would lay them on my bed and replay the games for hours.

At the age of ten I took up marbles. We dug holes in the dirt called “pots.” You had to roll into the pot first and then roll out to hit and win the opponent’s marble. I wore bald spots into the knees of my corduroy pants, but won over two hundred “pee wees, immies and puries” –classic marbles which have avid collectors all over the world.

In 1963 when I move in with a woman eight years older than me my mother goes on a ritual rampage to erase my presence. She boils my sheets, gives my clothes, books and records away and chucks everything else she finds in my room, including a shoebox full of the Topps baseball cards, a bowling bag where I keep hundreds of marbles and my collection of 150 Classic Comics, which had been gathering dust under my bed.

Estimated value 75 to 100 grand.

My new obsession is chess. It entered me like a virus at the same time I got my draft card and realized I would have to stay in college forever to avoid the military. My every waking thought is devoted to openings and variations. I dream games in which the perfect move appears to me and the onlookers applaud. I study books on strategy, memorize the famous games and read about the great eccentric champions–Alekhine, Capobianco, Bobby Fisher, the Brooklyn wunderkind .The sight of a checker board tile floor sends me into a trance in which I stare at the squares visualizing moves.

My life is now about marking time until I can play chess. In the morning I doze through my classes at Brooklyn College. In the afternoon I move bodies and direct mourners at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. At ten in the evening my day begins. Still in my undertaker’s black suit I drive across the Brooklyn Bridge to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I pull into the first open spot, knowing I will return to find one or two parking tickets, flapping like trapped pigeons on my windshield. Under the street lamps in the southwestern part of the park, a crowd has gathered to watch the chess players. From early spring to late fall, the games are on, 24-7. There are about thirty stone tables, the boards etched into their tops, each manned by a “strong” player. By tacit consent the best ones have the tables closest to the street lights. The weaker players, derisively known as “patzers,” are consigned to tables in semi darkness on the outskirts.

The dominant players act with more privileged disdain than any movie star or billionaire I will ever meet. There is Duval, an elderly Haitian in dark suit, streetlight gleaming off his smooth brown pate, who sets up ornate ivory pieces and a chess clock and dispatches all comers at a dollar a twenty minute game. “Fish!” he cries, slapping down the pieces. “You lose!” Next to him is Jimmy, hunched and intense with prematurely gray Toscanini hair. Five dollars for unlimited time, but when the loser makes a bad move he mutters “blunder,” and forces him to resign. There is Joe “the Russian.” Bald with a drooping gray mustache, he puffs furiously on Parliament cigarettes as he bullies his opponents. “Stupid move, patzer .Don’t insult my intelligence…” And Fritz, a massive black dude with a full beard, who analyzes every move. “You think I’m gonna do this so you can do that, but I’m gonna do this and you can’t do nothin’ about it…”

Every other game has an element of the miraculous. You can throw up a buzzer beater that bounces off the rim and drops in. Hit a ball off the handle that just clears the infield to score the winning run. You can make a crazy shot and sink the nine ball. Or draw a Royal Flush and beat a lock poker player. But chess is unforgiving. There are no lucky moves. The better player wins every time. The hustlers in the park know this so they can afford to be arrogant. When a player sits down and says “I’ve been watching you. I know your weaknesses,” they can roar back “I have no weaknesses!” And trounce him in twenty moves.

I am determined to get better. For months I neglect my school work, stop seeing my friends and don’t open letters from Selective Service, probably scheduling my Army physical. I immerse myself in chess, studying during the day and playing all night. A girl I know comes and sits next to me, joining the girlfriends of some of the other players in what is at that point an all-male obsession. One night I realize she hasn’t been around for awhile. But I don’t care. I’ve made a breakthrough. Suddenly, I can see four, sometimes five moves ahead. I am beating players who used to beat me. It all amounts to a few dollars a night, enough for four gallons of gas (24 cents a gallon) and a hot roast beef sandwich at the Cube Steak Diner on Sixth Ave with a little profit left over. But the prestige is enormous. I still haven’t traveled the light years to the main tables, but I’ve moved up to one that had enough spill to illuminate half the board. I am greeted as I walk into the park. I see the weaker players talking about me.