Pawns of the Game

Love, obsession, madness, and other matters of chess

Omar Cartagena favors the Ruy Lopez. He admires the clean simplicity of the opening line, allowing him to ponder the various offshoots he could take, the alternative paths toward total domination. In top form, Omar figures he can imagine about a hundred different moves simultaneously, so he's ready for his opponent's every response. There's a reason he's the highest-ranked chess player in S.F.

Sometimes, though, Omar looks up from his board and wonders what the hell he's doing, sitting out in the rain on Market Street, sharing space with a few dozen nobodies, hustling games for $5 a pop. These are the occasions when the line isn't so simple, when life keeps coming up with unexpected countermoves. It all seemed so much clearer back when he was a proud member of the Philippine national team, back when the government paid his way so he could compete in the prestigious U.S. Open in the summer of 1995. Omar placed sixth in the tournament. He met a woman. He never returned to his Cebu home.

Now he calls S.F. home. Aside from being the city's best player, Omar also is apparently the only person who makes a full-time living from playing chess. Ask around at the Chess Club in the downtown Mechanics Institute, or among the studious enthusiasts at the Horse Shoe Coffee House in the Lower Haight, and they'll be at a loss to name another player who doesn't hold down a day job, or have some gig on the side that helps pay the bills. Omar, it seems, is the only one.

But it isn't easy. Because of his ranking, Omar is flown by organizers to tournaments around the country, and he often wins. This brings in a few thousand dollars a year. He gives lessons every now and then. This brings in a few hundred. But it's the hustling on Market Street that's Omar's bread and butter. This is blitz chess, with both players blazing through their moves in just five minutes, stopping and restarting the clock every few seconds. On a good day, Omar can squeeze in about 40 games -- and if he swings $5 wagers on a quarter of them, he can pocket a cool 50 bucks.

They all know Omar on the street. They know he can beat the pants off any one of them any time he pleases. So Omar handicaps himself by giving himself only one minute in which to make all his moves. He still usually wins.

"If he had the resources to play in more tournaments, instead of wasting his talents down there, he could be a top-flight player," says Max Wilkerson, who stepped down last November after 16 years as head of the San Francisco Chess Club. "He's too poor to devote himself to high-class chess." Nevertheless, Wilkerson readily concedes that Omar is the city's strongest player.

"He's an excellent player," agrees Walter Shipman, an international master who relocated to S.F. after decades as a leading figure in New York's chess community. "Cartagena is a very determined, aggressive player."

Berkeley grandmaster Walter Browne, six-time U.S. champion and the player in the Bay Area rated highest by the U.S. Chess Federation, admits that Omar is "pretty talented" and "a very good tactician." But Browne is reserved in his praise for Omar's abilities, in part because they haven't played many games, and in part, possibly, because Omar whipped Browne in a recent tournament.

As for the criticism of his street play, Omar, a stocky fireplug of a fellow, is unfazed. "If you play only for money, you are not really playing," he says in halting English. "You should play because you love chess."

It would be better, of course, if his wife, Josie, a Filipina who is now a U.S. citizen, agreed. But Josie doesn't see chess brilliance as a sufficiently good excuse for not holding a real job, not when they've got two daughters at home from her first marriage, and not when her mother also shares the apartment. Omar, 32, tries as best he can. He puts off his chess studies until after Josie goes to bed at night. He tries to be home to look after the girls if Josie is going out. But it's hard. "It's difficult to support a family," Omar confides.

By comparison, the Ruy Lopez is a snap.

What is it about chess? People don't forsake friends and family for a good game of Scrabble. No one has been famously driven to the brink of insanity by Monopoly or Clue. But chess -- well, ask serious players and they'll insist that it's not just a game. It's a sport. It's an art. It's life itself. And to be very, very good at this whatever-it-is, a person has to make sacrifices.

It's no exaggeration to say that the world of the serious chess player is one of such narrow focus as to butt right up against obsession. Chess requires study, it requires patience. It requires a single-mindedness that leaves little room for much else.

At the beginning of the century, a young American named Harry Pillsbury earned a meager living by playing simultaneous games of chess -- his record was 22 -- without looking at any of the boards. To make the feat all the more interesting to onlookers, he would at the same time play a hand of whist and memorize lists of words shown by the audience. When Pillsbury died in 1906, the New York Times attributed his demise to "an illness contracted through over-exertion of his memory cells."

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