By Tatyana Turner
In mid-September, I had elected to write a piece for my narrative non-fiction class about the chess scene in New York City. Although I don’t play the sport, I had always been fascinated when I’d pass through Union Square or Washington Square Park. Players would be hunched over the chess table, fingers would be clenched into their palm, eyes would be fixed on the board and lips would be pressed together.
And then, “Checkmate!”
I wanted to know what it was about chess that captivated people.
In October, I visited a shop in Greenwich Village called Chess Forum. It looked old but timeless. The off-white walls were aged and the black wooden floors were scratched. The leather burgundy chair where the owner, Imad sat was peeled and the wall was cluttered.
” How may I help you?” asked Imad. He was a slightly stout man with friendly brown eyes.
” I’m here for a project,” I said. “I’m looking to speak with a chess player who can talk to me about the game and explain why they play it.”
“Hey Mike!” he yelled. ” I’m sending a young lady to the back to speak with you.”
Towards “the back”, there were seven chess tables where a few men, all who appeared to be over the age of 50, waited for a challenger to play. It looked as if these fellows were in uniform. Three of them wore a solid colored sweater with a popped collar. Mike was different; he a wore a buttoned-down plaid shirt.
His grey hair was swooped to the left.
I introduced myself as Tatyana, a Columbia Journalism School student and the host/producer of BXTRA, a show that highlights people in the borough of the Bronx.
” Tatyana is a Russian name, right?” he asked.
He was right, it is.
His blue eyes sparkled and his thin lips curled into a smile.
“You’re a die heart Bronxite, aren’t you?”
He was right again, I am.
And after thanking him for taking the time to sit with me, our talk about chess began.
” Chess is exciting, it’s never dull,” he said. ” It becomes like a narcotic.”
I started typing the notes on my phone quickly.
” It’s addictive because it brings out the best in you…or it should,” he said. “Your brain has to go into what they call overdrive…do you know what that means?”
“Like Star Trek,” he giggled. His plump cheeks turned red and I noticed that he had a dark bruise on one of them.
” We don’t have many women who come here to play chess,” he said.
” Do you play?” he asked.
I don’t. My brother-in-law gave me a quick lesson prior to working on the piece, but other than that, no.
His tone reminded me of my communications professor in college. He’d ask a drawn-out “whyyy” to evoke well thought out, sophisticated answers from his students.
But that was a good question and my answer was simple: I don’t know.
It made me squirm in my seat a little. I became frustrated. This interview was supposed to be about him, not me.
” What is it about chess that makes you want to play?” I asked.
He tweaked the question and threw it back at me.
” What are the things that stay with you in your life that you never get tired of?” he asked. ” And for what reasons?”
Ever since I was a little girl, I carried a notebook with me everywhere I went. Sometimes it felt like the best way for me to communicate. If no one else understood me or my eccentric ideas, my notebook would. So, “writing” was my answer. And “because it’s a part of me,” was my follow up.
” Oh really, what kind of writing do you do?” he asked.
I started shifting in my seat again. ” Does a personal journal count?” I thought to myself.
Mainly, I produce news pieces. Other than that, I write about people on my blog.
“Chess is no different than any other passion, endeavor or hobby,” he said.
I had a sinking feeling that my conversation with Mike was no longer going to be about chess. My fingers stopped typing notes and I placed my phone on the wooden table in front of us.
” What passions have you developed in your life to this date?” he asked.
“Please tell me this is a rhetorical question,” I thought.
” Now some people would say knitting. Other people would say writing, some people [would] say reading, others would say crossword puzzles,” he said.
“Like my mother,” he continued. ” She would do crossword puzzles every day, every day, and not the easy ones either. You know, the New York Times ones, that’s nothing to laugh about.”
Classical music started playing in the shop. It reminded me of a ballerina music box.
” In college, one of the questions that was always asked was: besides academics, what do you want to engage in because maybe you won’t get that chance again,” he said.
This talk was becoming uncomfortable. It was almost too relatable.
“Some people would say academics is too time-consuming and they enjoy academics.”
I was “some people”. Many of my classes at Temple University were extremely interesting and I didn’t make too much time for anything else. I became almost obsessed with my grades.
Mike looked at me as if he already knew this information.
” I say to them, that’s fine, but you’re missing out on discovering skills that could stay with you for the rest of your life,” he said. ” If you don’t give it a chance now, you may never develop them.”
I briefly thought about how I was going to write a piece about chess if we’re having this enlightening conversation. But I decided to figure it out later and returned my focus to Mike.
” When I was in college, I threw myself into a lot of things, including the school magazine, I did a lot of poetry for them,” he said. ” I’m sure you’ve done things in your life that you’ve spent less and less time with or left behind completely.”
The music stopped and I started answering his rhetorical question in my mind.
” I’ve written for the Temple News,” I thought. But that was not different from what I’m doing today.
“I was a student ambassador for the School of Media and Communications.” But that was was part of my student job, not a hobby.
“There was that time when I went to see plays all the time,” I thought. But that was because of a theater class I was in. I had to see those plays or else I would have failed the class. My curiosity was tied to a syllabus.
Mike continued to speak as I continued to recall my college memories.
” Have you ever performed for an audience?”
I did. Back in high school, I was an extra in the musical Hairspray. And I also played Aphrodite in “Echo and Narcissus-Aphrodite’s Revenge.” It was a three-minute skit.
He didn’t have to know the embarrassing particulars, so I just nodded my head yes.
” You know what my professors taught me in college?” the Binghamton alum asked. ” I went to a very progressive school. ” “They told me: you get out of college what you put in, not just what’s given, it’s up to you to challenge yourself.”
“Even things like dance, I didn’t major in dance, but I grew a passion for it,” he said. Mike went on to explain that it led him to teach and perform his own choreography.
“Did you work this hard and get good scores just to have a lassiez-faire philosophy?” he asked. ” Doing the minimum?”
These were also rhetorical questions, but he addressed his next and final one to me.
” Do you know Robert Frost, the road less traveled?”
He was referring to ” The Road Not Taken.” And yes, I was familiar. It’s my favorite poem of all time.
Mike became still, his blue eyes met mine and he smiled.
” Don’t take the easy route.”