Knight Moves in Zuccotti Park

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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.

“I think it’s a shame that everyone calls you guys hustlers,” I say. “It isn’t fair to you and it isn’t fair to real hustlers.”

“What do you mean, real hustlers?” the guy on my right pipes up.

“I mean these guys just play for money. It isn’t like it’s a secret that they’re good. A hustler hides his skill. He makes you feel confident that you can beat him. He preys on your greed by pretending to be a mark. These guys set up their boards and basically dare you to play them. Seems fair to me.”

“I’ll tell you how they’re chess hustlers,” my friend Josh says. “I’ve won exactly three games against the hustlers in Washington Square. The first time I won, the guy told me that I owed him three dollars. I told him he owed me three dollars and he said I misunderstood, that it was three dollars to play, not a three-dollar bet. I argued and he pointed at the NO GAMBLING sign. I paid him and left.

“The next time I made sure to ask if we were betting or if I was paying him to play. He assured me we were betting. Then as soon as I had a winning position he called ‘touch move’ on me. I said I thought we had been playing ‘clock move.’ He said nope, ‘touch move.’ I just resigned.

“The last time I asked if we were gambling and if we were playing clock move. Once we had the rules straightened out, we played a five-minute game and I won. I asked him for the money and he told me, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ I said, ‘But you lost! If I lost I’d have paid you!’ He stood up and held the rook over his head like he was going to hit me with it. He said, ‘I’m not gonna tell you twice,’ and he didn’t have to.”

Everyone laughs at Josh’s misfortune. “That sucks, man. But that’s not hustling,” I say.

“Yeah, it’s straight-up cheating,” says the guy on my right. “If it was me he’d have had to hit me with that rook. I wouldn’t have left without my money.”

“You wouldn’t do shit,” says Poe, visibly angry. “That man was probably homeless. Look at you! You rich! You want three dollars from a homeless man?”

“It’s the principle of it . . .” the knucklehead on my right begins. Poe cuts him off.

“Principle? Don’t nobody give a goddamn about no principle! There’s games and then there’s life. They ain’t the same thing.”

Despite my hustle alert level being on high, I agreed to play James for five dollars. I wasn’t in any mood to quit playing, especially if it meant I had to join the debate between some “end the Fed” guys and a couple of Bard students over whether or not Obama was to blame for the economic crisis.

We played a fairly even game and ended in a draw. One of the Bard students asked if we were done and if he could get next.

“We’re playing best-of-three.” James looked at me and winked.

Now my hustle alert level was at severe. I figured James just got me for ten dollars. I contemplated paying him the money right then and there, I was so sure I didn’t stand a chance. But we set up the pieces and played on. The Bard student returned to the debate against the Ron Paul guys.

There are all kinds of divergent viewpoints among the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park waiting to be arrested: libertarians and socialists; 9/11 “truthers” and first responders; Democrats and Republicans; anarchists and public sector unionists. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t like in a couple of hours when the cops come through here they’re going to ask us who we voted for before they arrest us.

Incredibly, James and I managed to split the first two games. If he was a hustler then he’s got some serious salt in his game because he needed to run the table to make ten dollars. At this point we were down to a single five-dollar game, a game I intended to win–not because I wanted James’ five bucks, but because I wanted to prove to myself that I was right not to take losing as a foregone conclusion. But the current position didn’t look good for me. I was ahead in material, but all of my pieces were committed to defending my king. I was in zugzwang.

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.

A growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang. For some of them, their whole life has been one long zugzwang; they can’t remember ever having any good options. Without catching a lucky break, a lifetime of hard work results in just that–a lifetime of hard work. Others once thought they had it all: a good job with a pension, a nice house with a payment they could afford, set for life. Then in an instant it disappeared. House is under­water, ARM is popping on the loan, pension fund bought a bunch of mortgage-backed securities. All that’s left is utter, hopeless zugzwang.

This is what unites us. This unease. This feeling that every option we have is a bad one. And this resentment at being told there are no other options because these are the rules of the game. But like Poe said, “There’s games and then there’s life. They ain’t the same thing.”

In chess, you don’t have to resign in zugzwang. You can always sacrifice. A sacrifice is when you intentionally give up some material to your opponent. A sham sacrifice is basically a kind of hustle. Your opponent gives up material to you, but it’s a trap. If you get greedy and take the piece, you lose. The other type of sacrifice, a straight sacrifice, is when you accept a disadvantage in order to break the current position. The only way out of zugzwang is to create a new position in which you (and your opponent) have a different set of options, even if it means you play from less strength.

I could sacrifice my rook. If I played well, I could probably force a draw. I looked up at James.

“You want to just call it a draw?”

James looked around. A smile grew across his face. I looked around, too, and I was taken aback. It was nearly 6:30 and Zuccotti Park was filled with thousands of people, packed in tightly all around us, everywhere I looked. A woman was addressing the crowd, reading something off her phone. The crowd repeated after her line-by-line in waves. We realized she was announcing that the cops had decided to retreat. The city was backing down from its threat to clear the park. The crowd roared with excitement, as if the Yankees had just won the pennant.

James texted his wife the news. I did the same. He looked up at me, still grinning.

“Still want a draw?”

I looked back at the board. I didn’t see any better outcome for me. The more likely outcome was that I would lose. I reached over and moved the rook, hanging it.

“Your move.”

David Hill is an organizer and writer in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for Grantland. Excerpted from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (November 17, 2011), a daily humor website.

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