It is a gloomy day in Manhattan, and it shows on Nashon’s face. Business is slow, and his throaty challenges to passers-by do not elicit too many opponents. There is a light drizzle, and any tourist willing to play this withered old hustler is either comfortably ensconced inside a café near Washington Square Park, or busy lining up to scale the Empire State Building or some other tribute to humankind’s unending attempts to defy gravity. I watch him from a few tables across, smoking one of New York’s highly priced Marlboro Lights, in clear violation of the umpteen no-smoking signs that I have somehow missed.
A city’s green spaces are symptomatic of life in it. Mumbai’s Jogger’s Park is a tiny oasis surrounded by the villas of old money on one side and the shanties of fishermen, its original inhabitants, on the other. The residents of Bangkok gather every morning in the lush Lumphini Park in an attempt to forget the shenanigans of its politicians and the inescapable sleaze of the nearby Patpong district. In Barcelona, Park Güell is a gaudy shrine to the megalomania of its architect – Antoni Gaudi. In Paris, the couples in various stages of affection at Le Parc Buttes Chaumont or Le Jardin du Luxembourg only reinforce its reputation as the City of Love.
Washington Square Park is no different – it symbolises the diversity and quirks of New York’s residents like no other place. One can find bankers sipping lattes from Starbucks, clowns performing for mesmerised children, kippah-clad men reading mothballed texts from the nearby New York University, gamblers playing cards with money from yesterday’s crack sale, and of course, the chess hustlers commandeering the chequered tables in the southwest corner.
Nashon is a wily old cat. Like most chess hustlers, he sizes up his opponent, playing him rather than the board. He employs tactical anomalies that serious players would scoff at. To make sure the mark gets full bang for his buck, he intersperses his game with trash talk, expert analysis and sometimes lessons on life as well. He charges extra for photos. His alert eye misses none; he beckons to me after relieving some poor sod from Canada of his $10.
“Come here man,” he says, “let’s play a game.” I demur, knowing full well what the outcome will be. “Sorry, I can barely play, man.” He is a veteran of persuasion. “Brother, you are from a land of warriors. Warriors of the mind and warriors of the body. Your ancestors invented this game!” His voice is hypnotic. His eyes are gleaming from behind his cello-taped glasses. “Haven’t you heard of Anand?” He is referring to the Indian chess legend Viswanathan Anand, gentlemanly conquistador of the 64 squares. “Yes, I have heard of him,” I find myself stammering. “But I can barely play,” I insist again. “Be a man, be a warrior!” he bellows. “Unless you dare to do battle, you will remain meek and submissive as you are now.”
His words have found their mark. My entire life flashes by me. Of the time the school bully had made off with my ping pong ball. Of the time the union president threatened me, being displeased with an article I wrote for the college paper. Of the unscrupulous professor who had appropriated my hard work. Of even worse things – where I had demurred from confrontation. I had seen it all, and had never put up a fight. Nashon is right. I am meek and submissive. Submissive enough to play Nashon?
A petite young girl walks by, with a surprisingly large bosom. Nashon smiles at her, gesturing at me to wait. She unzips her coat in front of my bewildered eyes. Out comes a little dove, specks of red blood dotting its immaculate white exterior. “Poor thing flew into a window pane,” she explains. Nashon takes charge. He is the lord of Washington Square Park. He gives her detailed instructions on what kind of bandages and ointments to buy, how to prepare a sling for its broken leg and how to keep it warm and dry before it can soar through the cruel skyline of New York once more. I try to smile, but in bewilderment.
I wonder about Nashon. He could be anywhere between 50 and 70 years old. He seemed to be a bright man who lived in his own bubble. All his possessions were with him; one large backpack, a chess set and a worn out timer that had probably been rewired to keep time in his favour. He also owned a rickety old bicycle. Where did he live? Probably in one of the low cost projects nearby if he wasn’t homeless. Had he fought in Vietnam?
What if Nashon had not been Black? Would he be a suit in Wall Street? A professor of anthropology? Bobby Fischer? Maybe not. Nashon’s rapid Queen thrusts and tactical artifices qualify him as a patzer – a derogatory term used by chess experts for amateurs.
“Hey Anand, give me one of your cigarettes man!” his command shatters my reverie. I part with 60 cents of my hard-earned money. “Let’s play for 10 dollars. You win, I pay you. I win, you pay me.” I check my wallet. We sit down. A few tourists gather by. “This is so cool,” I hear a middle-aged lady tell her husband. She takes a photo, and then looks surprised when Nashon asks for his dollar. She pays up. I hand her my phone and ask for a photo too. My picture is free. The crowd swells. It’s not often that one gets to see an Indian 20-something play an old Black man. I play White.
I do not know any chess strategy. I cannot centre my pieces. I know nothing of point values, gambits, castling or defenses. My moves are sloppy and unsure. Nashon, on the other hand, is a showman. He pretends to be flustered by my meaningless checks and bold pawn sacrifices. An old man titters; I may have set myself up for a brutal decimation, but Nashon plays to the gallery. His moves grow bolder and bolder; he picks up his pieces and lays them down with a thump. He flips the switch on his pocket radio, treating us to some good old jazz music. At one point I think I have his Queen. Excitedly I take it with my Knight. The crowd jeers. I have not noticed that it is preventing his Rook from taking my King.
I get into flashback mode once more. Concentration has always been my problem, making me a sitting duck for games of any kind. I would score a few points in ping pong, before my smashes went all awry. After an 80-point bingo in Scrabble, I would inevitably settle for low-scoring three letter words. In cricket, I would beat the batter with a screamer of an outswinger before bowling three half volleys at his eager blade. In chess too, I would start off with a flourish and then give up my Queen in an oversight that I would immediately rue.
The sun begins to peek out of the clouds. The drizzle has stopped, and I observe a cellist playing a beautiful melody somewhere in the distance. I have never seen a cello before, and the sight fascinates me. “Yo Anand, watch your clock!” I snap out of my daydream once more and see that I have two minutes left. I am down to my King, two Pawns and a Rook. Nashon has lost only two Pawns, and still has his Queen, both Rooks and a Bishop. He is close to promoting a Pawn. It’s a lost cause, but I soldier on. The crowd has mostly dispersed, disgusted with my utter ineptitude at the game of my forefathers. The inevitable happens. “Checkmate!” I verify his claim. He has a sad smile on his face as he reaches out for my money. The cellist reaches a crescendo.
“You are a promising player, Anand,” says Nashon. “But you made some crucial mistakes.” He proceeds to deconstruct the game move by move, pointing out the various times I had committed hara-kiri. I listen on. I had moved too many pawns, made too many losing exchanges, been too greedy early on, and dropped my Queen as usual. I nod sheepishly. He offers to give me lessons for just $40 an hour. I tell him it’s my last day in the US. He nods his head ruefully. “I could have transformed you into a warrior fit to conquer the world, man.” He speaks like an ancient Sensei.
I slowly walk away, when I hear him call out. “Hey Anand!” I turn back. “How about one of them cigarettes man?”
Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Amrut Mody School of Management, Ahmedabad University. Views expressed here are personal, and do not reflect those of his employer.