Life Advice From NYC Chess Hustlers
Plus: A Rubber Tree Plant Adventure!
Welcome to Issue #21 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Reader Maria R. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn wrote recently with a suggestion. Or perhaps it was a demand: “As a paid subscriber to CAFÉ ANNE, I have a story request,” she said. “Could you interview one of the guys who plays chess for money in Washington Square Park?
One of the perks of becoming a paying CAFÉ ANNE subscriber, of course, is that I will write about pretty much anything you want. Last week, I took the train into Manhattan and spent a few hours chatting with the guys commandeering the chess tables in the park’s southwest corner. I had so much fun! Please enjoy the resulting feature, “Life Advice From NYC Chess Hustlers,” below.
In other news, I was so happy to hear last week from the folks at Bryant Park. The CAFÉ ANNE folding chair I ordered after researching deals on memorial park benches for a feature in issue #11 has arrived. They even sent a photo of the brass plaque affixed to the back of the chair:
I’ll be in the park next week to fetch the chair from the facilities building. They’ll let me place it anywhere in the park I want—a great way to celebrate the six-month anniversary of the launch of CAFÉ ANNE. I’m thinking somewhere near the coffee kiosk. Care to join me? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE
• My Wild Brooklyn Life: A Plantventure
• Items of Interest
• Feature: NYC Chess Hustlers
MY WILD BROOKLYN LIFE
In Which I Ask a Stranger to Adopt My Rubber Tree Plant
I love NextDoor, the social media app for neighborhoods. It provides so many opportunities to love—and laugh at—your neighbors. My sector of the NextDoor universe, for example, recently featured several of my Brooklyn Heights neighbors pooling funds to buy an iPad for the homeless guy camping out by the Hotel Bossert. I couldn’t help wonder—where is he going to plug it in?
I posted on NextDoor myself last week, looking for someone to adopt my rubber tree plant. I’ve had it since 2020 when my buddy Caitlin moved to LA and asked me to care for it. Instead, I nearly killed it. The once-lush plant was down to its last ten leaves.
I posted a photo on NextDoor with the following notice:
Free not-quite-dead rubber tree plant
I have almost killed this poor three-foot rubber tree plant, but I think he can be saved. Hoping some nice person in the hood who is good with plants can come pick him up and give him a new home. Thank you!
I got a near-immediate response from a lady nearby: “Please may I have a try at resuscitating your rubber plant?” she wrote. “I live on Henry and can bring a trolly to transport if it’s still available. Thank you.”
Ann, a tiny older lady with a thick accent, curly black hair a tan trench coat, came by the next day with her trolly tote. The plant was too big to fit in the bag so I offered to carry it back to her apartment. I got to hear her life story on the way.
She was born and raised in Sri Lanka. When her executive husband got a job in Kentucky, she moved there with him. Her daughter was a toddler and her son just six days old when her husband died of cancer. Imagine! She raised her kids on her own, in Kentucky. “And I was happy, I had lots and lots of friends,” she said.
When her children grew up, they moved to New York City, as kids will do. Three years ago, they talked her into joining them in Brooklyn.
“They were nagging and nagging,” she said. “They kept saying the two of them were worried, blah, blah, blah. In a moment of weakness, I said ‘Alright. Get me a place and I’ll come.’ In nine weeks, my house was sold, they bought me an apartment here and I was on a flight to come to New York!”
“I gave away all my plants when I moved,” she added.
She’s enjoying the time with her kids and grandkids, of course. And while she’s found it hard to make new friends, “I’m so happy here, happy and very contented,” she said.
I set the plant down in her living room. It looked a little relieved to be escaping my clutches:
Ann gave the stems a pinch and said the plant is salvageable. Then she showed me photos of everyone in her family.
“Are you married?” She asked. “No? Oh dear. Well, I hope you have a nice young man.”
Ann said she’d read up on rubber trees and keep the plant in her bedroom to catch the morning sun. She offered to keep me posted on the plant’s progress. “I’ll send you a monthly report,” she promised.
“I’ll keep my newsletter readers updated too,” I said. “I think they’ll be rooting for you both.”
ITEMS OF INTEREST
Life Advice from NYC Chess Hustlers
The chess tables in Washington Square Park southwest corner have been occupied by a revolving cast of game hustlers for more than 80 years. When a CAFÉ ANNE reader suggested I interview these guys for a feature, I asked what she wanted to know. Boy, did she have questions! “How often do people win? How on earth did this become the chess corner? Do they compete against each other? What were they doing before this? Or is this like a side hustle!? I mean seriously WHAT IS THEIR DEAL!?!?!?!?”
Personally, I was curious if these fellows had any life advice. After all, you can’t be hustling chess in a public park for decades without forming some conclusions about what makes people tick.
These interviews have been edited and condensed. Please enjoy!
I learned to play chess back in Baltimore, in 1977. I'm living in New York now maybe 35 years. When I get between jobs, I come out here and make my income. The highest I’ve made in a day was $1700. The lowest I’ve made I think was $125.
Not bad. Why would you get a real job?
Exactly! That’s what I’m saying. Even if I’m just making $600, $700 a week, that’s tax-free money. When I was working as a drug counselor, I'd make the same amount of money but I make more doing this, because of taxes and this and that.
What's more fun?
This! I’m a chess player. And I love to teach. I’ll teach you real quick!
When I was young, I used to hustle chess. That was cool. It was all about the money, and we played on the clock. I’m playing super, super, super, super, super fast. And people bet serious money, like $200, $300. They think they can beat me. And they were good players. But my thing, I like to play three-minute games. So we played on the clock. Three minutes. They’re really good. But when they get on the clock, they get nervous. Some people crumble under pressure. I was born under pressure!
But chess hustling’s not really good. Because not everyone wants to bet a lot of money. And as you play more hustlers, the level of competition goes up. You're playing stronger players. And next thing you know, you might be the one who's getting hustled.
It must be hard to resist that temptation.
This game also cost me a couple of relationships. My girlfriend said, ‘It’s either me or the chess pieces, Marcel.’ Because I was playing chess a lot. So I looked at her, I looked at my chess pieces, I looked at her again. And the more I'm looking at her, the more I can see how toxic she is. The more I look at my chess pieces, I can see lots of solitude. I say, “You know what? I'll talk to you later.” I picked up my pieces, I left. I’m done, bro.
And there was another one like that?
Well, the one here in New York. She complained about me playing chess all the time. Which relieved me of my peace of mind, you understand? Because I’m a drug counselor. I sit and listen to those stories for eight hours, bro. It does something to you. So I would let out a lot of frustration on the chessboard.
When I was going to work, I felt like a clown, almost. Not because I felt I was stupid. I was like a clown who has to put on makeup. When I was at work, I had to put on a face. I had to be—I don't want to say I had to be mean or nasty—but I had to be firm with everyone. It was kind of messed up. It was a part of the job, but I didn't like it. I love this right here.
Why do you love chess?
Because it’s like life. When it comes to chess, it's got three parts. Just like your life has three parts. The opening, the middle and the end. The opening part of your life goes from the time you were born until you’re 26. In the opening part of your life you want to develop as much as possible. You want to go to school, start a career.
Then you go from the opening to the middle game. In the middle game, the middle part of your life, you want to work in your career maybe 20-30 years or something like that, get married, you have kids, maybe grandkids.
And then the end game is from age 50 on down. You say, “I'm not worried about nothing now. I’m coming the park to play chess, drink some brandy, I’m going to talk to Raul or to Pedro.”
That’s how chess is. That’s how life is.
And let me tell you something. People make mistakes early in their life. I made mistakes early in my life. I got locked up when I was living in Maryland, selling drugs and stuff. But that doesn't mean that the game was over. That's how I equate chess with life.
The one thing I tell my students is that when you get to a confrontation of any type, you have to remain calm. When you remain calm, you can see the board a lot clearer. You can see the person you're playing or arguing with a lot more clearly, for who and what they are. So you don't even have to entertain that shit. You understand?
You have to be very careful. You can't argue with a fool. You know that, right? Because you know what the fool will do? The fool will drag you down and drown you. And guess what? He’ll drag you down in your own pride and your own stupidity.
Do you ever let people win?
Yeah! I can't beat them all the time. I gotta let them win to give them some incentive to want to play more, so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. You beat somebody down, they’ll never do it again. If they play their hardest, and you see them playing their hardest, I’m going to let them win. Especially the children. Not the adults though!
You have the best job.
I do now!
My name is E.G.G.S. That’s the acronym for my name.
E.G.G.S.! What’s that stand for?
I can’t tell you that. The ‘E’ and the ‘G’ is my grandfather’s name, the second ‘G’ is my father’s last name and the ‘S’ is my given name.
So what happens when I sit down and play chess with you?
I'm not like Marcel, or fellows like my friend Cheese. My communication skills are not that good. So I try not to teach, but I will train, or we can play a competition.
The training part, I like to do puzzles. Puzzles that I can explain. They're all end-game, mating-themed puzzles. Exercises that help you with different mating strategies.
First I always give them a free puzzle. And then judging on how fast they solve the free puzzle, I know the right puzzle to give them. Depending on the complexity of the puzzle, and the strength of the player, is how I charge them. I generally charge $5. But there may be a $10 puzzle guy, because I can't give an easy puzzle to somebody who's a master or tournament A-level player.
Why do they call you guys chess hustlers?
To do anything for the money is what hustling is, you know. To separate hustling from non-hustling, the hustlers will use any tactic to get the person to sit down and get that money. So in a sense we are hustlers. We use any slogan we can to get people to sit down with us.
This guy over here, Abdul. He’s Vice President of the Pace University Chess Club. Now, you hear somebody tell you they’re the vice president of a university chess club, you’re going to automatically think they’re good. So when he tells people they have a 95% chance of beating him, they think he’s hustling. But it’s actually the truth. He’s not very good.
What if I wanted to come out here with my own chess pieces and snag a table and start playing people? Could I do that?
This is a New York City public park. First come, first served. But we would like players who come to keep 80 years of tradition going—which is to charge somehow, some way. Whether you’re giving a lesson, providing entertainment, giving them a puzzle like myself or allowing a visitor to challenge you in in a championship game for money. But as long as you keep the 80 years of tradition, there being a transaction of money, then I don’t have a problem with you.
How early do you have to come out to get a table?
Since we are approaching the summertime, I’d get out here by 6:30 am. Yesterday I got here at 9 o’clock. This other guy got here after me. He was very upset he didn’t get his table. He was in my face, spittin’ in my face. And all I could tell him was, “You got here late.” He got here early today.
A lot of players out here, they believe that the corner tables are the best tables to have, like this table. No table belongs to anybody, but people are in love with their positions. That guy Johnny, he loves that first table. It gets the most sun. Now you’d think that as black men, we can take the sun, but we can’t. We say, “You can take it, Johnny. You can eat the whole sun!”
Some tables in our minds are taboo, and some tables in our minds are gold mines. My favorite table is the one by that tree. I don’t like the corner tables. When people walk in, I want to see them from afar, their posture. I want to always sit in the middle.
I also want to know if they prefer clock or no clock, if they pay cash or Venmo. Let’s say you agree to play on the clock, a five-minute game with me. Normally it’d be cash $5. But with Venmo I tell them it’s $7 because you can’t pay with Venmo at the store. But everybody does their own thing. Everything is pretty much negotiable. We may start at $5, but if you’re smart you know how to wiggle it down.
How much can you make in a day here?
It’s a range, it depends on how nice the weather is, how many people are willing to sit with you. On a day like this, I came early, got well positioned with people coming through, an easy hundred I guess.
One person told me you can make $1000 on a good day.
They must have been talking about years ago. After Covid, most of the people went back to their countries, all the international tourists. It’s a mix of locals and tourists.
I’ve lived in New York for 26 years and it’s never occurred to me to come play here. I’d be intimidated.
I was intimidated too, myself, going back 20 years. I used to come through here and I was scared to even ask players to play. I didn’t know what to think.
So having done this for so long and having met a wide variety of people playing, what is the best life advice you can give?
I’m stuck right now. I can’t give any life advice.
I think you’re the first person I’ve ever met has no life advice to give. People love to give advice!
Well, I’ll tell you this. Chess rewards those who study. So in life, to be good, you gotta study.
My name is Nathaniel, and I'm known as Nate. I’m a native New Yorker. My mother taught me how to play chess when I was eleven. When I came home from the Air Force, in 1978, I was 23. So I’d been playing twelve years and I thought I was a good player. The first day I played here was November 8 of 1978. I've been playing in this park for 43 years.
More people play chess. Because children learn from the computer. That's the number one thing to change. You get kids coming in here eight, ten years old, they can beat some of us. And we're good players.
How do you make money?
There's two types of players here. The one who gambles— that means they play for any amount of money, whoever wants to play. And people like me, a table host. A host of the table means when you come up, I ask you what your rating is and what your strength is, do you want a lesson or you want a game?
If you want a game, I say one game, five dollars, five minutes. So we play a five-minute game for five dollars. If you said you don't want no clock, I might say I give you one game, $10, because without the clock, it's longer. You're wasting time.
Some people say $5 to the winner. That means, we play each other and whoever wins gets the $5. That's tricky, because I don't know how strong you are. You might beat me and I lose $5. I’ve wasted time AND I’ve lost money! So I’m one of those people who don’t say $5 to the winner.
I’ll give you a lesson, a half hour for $20. I have some children that come just to see me once a week and I give them a lesson—$20 for a half hour. And there’s a lot of NYU students that come by, we give them a discount for being students. One hour for 40 bucks.
Sixty percent of the people who play me are tourists. They say, “Can I take a picture with you? Can I give you a donation?” I draw them in with my personality. I say, “Welcome to New York City and the world famous Washington Square chess players, the home of Bobby Fischer!” That's a good pitch, right?
And you have a big bottle of disinfectant on your table!
And hand sanitizer and all of that. And I sell cigarettes! [Points out several packs of Newport 100s on the table.] I've never smoked in my life. I was born with bronchitis. I sell them a dollar a piece or four for three. I went to the Air Force where cigarettes were $2.10 a carton. From that day on I was selling cigarettes. Hahaha! Cigarettes are $1, or four for $3 or three for $2 for the heads—the people who don’t have it.
Have you done any other kind of work?
I worked for the City of New York. First, I was a case aid. I worked for the Department of Social Services, special services to children for eleven years. I got caught up in drugs in the 80s and I left because how are you going to be a good example to children if you're doing drugs. But God bless me, I got 25 years in recovery now. I'm 67 and I'm in good health. I left and went to the Department of Finance. So then I was basically working with computers and data entry. And I retired in 2014.
I've been playing chess as a side hustle 43 years. But since Covid came out, I started playing more. A lot of people play chess and they didn't have no place to go. I tell them to come to my house. I built a shed in the backyard. I cook for them. I make sandwiches, dinner, $5 a plate. Shot of whiskey $2; a beer for $1. And I let them play chess as long as they want. I don’t do that so much anymore because people don’t want to travel to the Bronx.
What have you learned about people playing chess out here?
They timid, they're not willing to take a chance. See this? [He moves a pawn forward one space.] That means sometimes people don't want to be hurt. They have a fear of losing.
I always give the opponent white so they make the first move. See this?[Makes another move]. This is called fool’s mate right here. The definition of fool means that you're not paying attention, that's all it means. It can't happen unless you allow it to happen. You do this, and now I do like that—that's checkmate already!
What else have you learned?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In chess, you have to take control of these four squares right here, the universal center of the chessboard. And in life, since I'm living in New York, I consider that to be the number one city in the world, the Universal City. I traveled in the Air Force to many places and to different cities. But there is no place like New York.
So living in New York is like capturing the center of the chess board?
It’s the epicenter!
And what’s your life advice?
I tell everybody that they should be proficient in the Bible, even if you're not religious. To me, the Bible is Basic Information Before Leaving Earth—B.I.B.L.E. If you utilize the Bible, 99% of all the things you do bad, you wouldn’t do.
Steal or lie. Do drugs. Covet another man’s possessions or his woman. If you slept with another man’s wife in the old days, that was a killing offense. They came and stoned you. So stop playing! If you just stop doing that stuff, that eliminates 99% of the things that can go bad. You can still make mistakes, you might say a curse word. But stealing, robbing, lying—if you eliminate that from your program, you’ll be 99% better as a person.
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!