Kings of a Different Game

Frank Evans taunts his foe as he continues a winning streak at Starbucks in Forestville. Behind him are Tyrone Brown, left, and Lamar Pearson.
Frank Evans taunts his foe as he continues a winning streak at Starbucks in Forestville. Behind him are Tyrone Brown, left, and Lamar Pearson. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

It's 9 o'clock on a Friday night at a Starbucks in Forestville, and Robb Peterbark is glaring across the chessboard at his opponent.

"You better take Barbaro while you got the chance. If not, he's gonna get you," Peterbark snarls, referring to a knight he has named after the Kentucky Derby winner.

Across the board, Dwight Dawson frowns as he contemplates his next move.

"This game was supposed to be over a half-hour go," Peterbark exclaims, sighing loudly. "Can I get you to consider making this move sometime today? How about just sometime this side of eternity?"

Dawson snatches up the knight. Peterbark grabs his chest.

"You took Barbaro!" he said. "That's all right! Secretariat is still gonna get you!"

It's three hours into the Forestville Chess Club's weekly chess binge that starts every Friday afternoon at Starbucks, then moves down the block to the International House of Pancakes, where players compete until sunup. It picks up the next afternoon at Borders bookstore in Largo, often followed by hours playing at one another's homes.

Many consider the Washington area a hub of black chess: Two of the first African American men to achieve the rank of chess master came from here, and Dupont Circle offers a classic chess scene for African Americans and others, with players ringing the park as men in suits competing with street hustlers. Thousands more, including many blacks, gather to play from Potomac Mills to Anacostia to Columbia Mall. It's not Bobby Fischer's brand, either.

"Black chess is not like European chess, where everybody sits there all quiet and doesn't say anything," said player Nathan Saunders, 42, general vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union. "Black folks talk trash. You gotta have that sass to go along with the game. As a matter of fact, a lot of guys will ask each other as they sit down, 'Are we going to play European chess or chess from the 'hood?' "

Many of them play speed chess -- on a timer -- and bet. "That's how a lot of the park players make their living," said Eugene Brown, 60, founder of the Big Chair Chess Club in Deanwood. "They call it 'fishing in the park.' "

It's not lost on some players that white moves first, Brown said; in fact, it's a life lesson.

"You've got to take the initiative, no matter that someone else has it first," said Brown, who is producing a documentary on the region's black chess scene. "All that 'white moves first, white people do this and white people do that' -- that is only an excuse, and if you give a chess player an excuse, they are more likely to fail. That's the same in life."

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