Pawns of the Game

Love, obsession, madness, and other matters of chess

Jay won his first two games. They weren't pretty wins; he had to use his instincts and experience to overcome stupid blunders. Then, in his third game, he got whipped. "I felt totally confused and depressed," he says, his face darkening. "I still do."

Somewhere deep within, one of Jay's demons has removed another piece from the board.

"My brother was exaggerating," Paul Whitehead says over coffee at an Irving Street cafe. "I've seen him play in lots of tournaments, and I never saw him act humiliated." Later in our conversation, though, he says Jay may have been telling the truth about the intensity of his emotions. "If you're a competitor in any sense of the word," Paul decides, "you must feel all those feelings."

Paul is such a competitor -- and he isn't. Like his brother, Paul was a powerful chess player as a teen-ager. He tied for first place in the under-21 U.S. chess championship in 1978, and won the American Open tournament the same year. He was, by his own estimate, among the top five players his age in the country. Then, at the age of 18, it all changed.

"I woke up one morning, and I just wasn't that interested in the game anymore," Paul says. "To go farther would have limited myself in other ways. I saw the involvement that people needed to get to the top."

I observe that Jay said almost the exact same thing -- that he was unwilling to make the effort necessary for advancement at the top levels. Paul cups his chin in his hands and considers momentarily.

"It's not that," he replies. "It was more that I didn't really like a lot of the other players. I didn't like the rampant egotism in terms of how strong you were as a chess player."

Paul gives an example. He recalls the time he beat a friend at a Berkeley cafe, and how a prominent grandmaster joined them afterward as they analyzed the game. "The grandmaster then says to my opponent, 'Why do you play games with these weak players?' like I'm not even there." Not long after, Paul had the satisfaction of trouncing the grandmaster at a major tournament. And, Paul admits, the win was very sweet indeed.

"The whole thing of intimidation, one-upmanship, underhanded dealing -- it's all really common to stronger players," he says. "There's winning and losing -- nothing else. The most important thing is checkmating your opponent."

Paul seems to have come to terms with whatever inner demons reached out for him from the chessboard. He's been married for several years now and has two kids. He works as a free-lance photographer, and makes an engaging impression with his playful smile and wavy, Kenny G-ish hair. He says he's always been well-adjusted socially, with none of the alienation and loneliness frequently associated with being a chess prodigy. "I had friends," he says simply enough.

(Jay, by contrast, says he was "basically confused" as a child, especially in his dealings with girls, which he found lacked the "purity of logic" of a good game of chess. "I didn't have any friends," he says. "All my friends were older chess players.")

For Paul, chess was a stepping stone in his life, nothing more. Although he was one of the best young players in the country, when he saw that chess was taking up too large a space, he pulled back. "I still play," he says. "I also still play basketball, and Go. And these days, the game I play most around the house is Candy-land."

Paul believes he has the will to win as a photographer that eluded him as a chess master. This time, he insists, he's committed to succeeding. "I'm a much better photographer than I was a chess player," he says. "I have more of an interest in it. I apply myself to it.

"But," he adds, "one day I may wake up and decide I've lost all interest in photography."

To the unknowing, Omar appears perfectly ordinary in a gray baseball cap and blue sweat shirt. We're standing on Market Street watching a couple of games in progress. The regulars know better, and treat Omar with the deference of royalty. They nod to him and hope for a sign of recognition in return. Omar stands with his arms crossed, master of the universe.

The better street players aren't the ones gathered near the Powell Street cable car terminus. Those are the hacks. The better players are down the street on the next block. For the most part, they're Asians and Russians, and they turn out rain or shine to match wits and maybe score a few bucks.

Omar says he hangs mostly with the good players, but goes slumming among the others when in search of fresh prey. There are always a few around cocky enough to take up his five-minutes-to-one challenge. They always lose.

"I want to be a grandmaster one day," Omar says. "As a grandmaster, I would be invited to all the important tournaments and receive appearance money for participating. If I was a grandmaster, I would not play on the street."

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