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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!





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.”