Knight Moves in Zuccotti Park
Two Occupy Wall Street protesters play chess in Zuccotti Park.
Zugzwang is a chess term for a position in which every move you have is a bad one. Once you’re in zugzwang, things like having more pieces than your opponent don’t matter anymore. Often players who find themselves in zugzwang simply resign.
It’s 6:00 a.m. in Zuccotti Park. Quiet hours started at 11:00, but that isn’t stopping the kid behind me from playing Bob Dylan’s greatest hits on his guitar. I politely tolerate it until he starts “Rainy Day Women.” That cinches it.
“Knock it off, it’s quiet hours.”
He scowls at me as he puts his guitar back in its case.
I’m usually more patient than this. Maybe I’m feeling punchy because in one hour the police are supposed to show up and arrest us all. More likely it has to do with the fact that I’m down two pawns going into the endgame.
I got here around 3:00, right after the rainstorm quit, after getting several emails and texts that the cops were planning to storm the park at 7:00. I packed my bag with clothes and comic books, wrote the National Lawyers Guild phone number on my arm, kissed my wife on the forehead, and told her I was going to go get arrested. She mumbled “good luck” and rolled back over to sleep.
When I arrived, people were trying to settle in and get some rest. It had been a rainy night that likely kept a lot of Occupy Wall Street protesters away. There were only a couple hundred people here.
I walked over to the chess table. Bystanders held their cell phones up to offer the players some light. An Eastern European student was playing chess with a young Middle Eastern man in a baseball cap. One glance at their position told me these guys were patzers. I asked them how much they were playing for.
“We aren’t gambling.”
I asked who had next; the onlookers all shook their heads. I sat down and played the Middle Eastern kid and ended up holding the table for the next couple of hours. I’m no chess master, but tonight I was king of Zuccotti Park. It isn’t saying much. This is no Washington Square Park. Then James showed up.
A young Puerto Rican guy from the Bronx, James was polite and pleasant. Like me, he had a wife and baby at home. He kept texting his wife to let her know he was still OK and not in jail. He told me he was “a little rusty.” I beat him pretty easily in our first game. I even let him take back a few moves. I felt like a grand master. Then he brought me back down to earth with one question.
“You want to play for money?”
“So you’re a hustler?”
We’re sitting around a poker table at the old Play Station, the last of the great underground New York City cardrooms. Everyone is quizzing Poe about chess.
“No, I ain’t no hustler!”
Poe was a fixture in illegal New York casinos. He was always the loudest in any room. He wore bright-colored suits and ascots. He told tall tales about his sexual exploits. Tonight, however, all we want to talk to him about is chess. In addition to poker, Poe is also a skilled chess player and a frequent player in Washington Square Park.
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