NEW YORK -- Chris King couldn't care less about the Nimzo-Indian defense. The queen's gambit does not excite him. Capablanca? Sounds like a Bogart flick.
"Who has time for that stuff?" said King as he prowled along his special piece of earth, the southwest corner of Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park. "This is the real world, and here we play chess the New York way."
It perhaps will come as no surprise that the New York way is neither elegant nor cerebral. The New York way is loud and fast and slightly edgy. It has far more in common with three-card monte than with the genteel game played by the horde of brooding chess masters who will convene here this week as the World Chess Championships return to the city for the first time since 1907.
Skeptics say that New York's power as a chess center lies forever in the past. But others, including some of the game's true masters, say the game's vitality here has simply shifted over the years from luxurious dinner clubs to the streets, where on any day a visitor to New York can find the world's best players, and some of its seamiest citizens, often in the same place.
King, for example, has a habit of shouting popular rap lyrics at his opponents as he watches them ponder their next move in speed chess, the audacious 10-minute game that is the chess equivalent of basketball's one-on-one.
"It's gettin', it's gettin', it's gettin' kind of hectic," he repeatedly shrieked at one player the other day in a slight misquote from Snap's current hit, "The Power." So much for the poor man's concentration, and so much for the timeless pursuit of introverted ideals.
Every sunny afternoon, hundreds of players are at their stations around the city. At lunch time in Liberty Park, Wall Street brokers stop by, carrying with one hand a chess set and with the other a fine linen jacket slung over the shoulder. The hustlers are always out on Broadway, playing fast, fast, fast for a dollar. They don't usually have deep knowledge but they can rattle most amateurs with their power and their speed.
From Central Park to Brighton Beach, the city has deposited hundreds of heavy tables made of concrete with chessboards etched on top. It is hard to find one that has not been covered in graffiti. But it is even harder to find one that has nobody waiting to use it.
The subterranean cult of chess is about to come out of its shell once again in New York. Beginning tomorrow, the two greatest players in the world, feuding Soviet rivals Gary Kasparov, the reigning world champ, and Anatoly Karpov, who lost the title to Kasparov in 1985, will face off in the beginning of a 24-game championship match that could last as long as four months. The first half will be played in New York; the second is scheduled to begin at the end of November in Lyon, France.
Except for one shining brush with glory, during the brief, frenetic reign of Brooklyn's own Bobby Fischer, the reclusive and single-minded prodigy known almost as much for his childish fits as for what many consider the greatest chess mind of modern times, the United States has largely been a chess backwater.
Fischer was the Muhammad Ali of Chess. He transformed the game, and in the early 1970s while he was champion, chess clubs sprouted, weedlike, across the country. Membership in the U.S Chess Federation exploded and chess sets sold out everywhere.
"He was the best thing that ever happened to this game," said George Frohlinde, owner of The Village Chess Shop, one of the few shops left in the city where stragglers can wander in and play for a few bucks at a time. "It was incredible. When he disappeared so did the players."
They're still here. They've just taken to the streets.
True, there are still a couple of tony New York chess clubs filled with red leather armchairs and boards carved into mahogany tables. For their denizens, for the abiding fans of the game, the ones who belong to the federations and subscribe to magazines like Chess Life (the official national organ of chess players), there is the hope that publicity surrounding the championships will help communicate the beauty and power of the game.
"It's easy enough to find the whole world on the chessboard, " said Tony Ribando, a quiet philosopher who likes to play in Washington Square Park but is also a regular at the city's Marshall Chess Club. "There is no desirable personality trait that is not rewarded by chess. And you can't have an unattractive trait that chess doesn't punish. It is absolutely essential to maintain perspective and objectivity. You can't be selfish and win for long."
Over the past 20 years the evolution of chess in New York has been dictated by the same compelling force that controls most other life here: real estate. There was once a slew of what most old-timers describe as romantic flea joints where one could play a little chess, hang out and kibitz for a buck or two.
The Game Room. Chess City. The Chess House. Rusalinos Chess Station, and perhaps most notable of all, the Times Square Chess and Checkers Club.
"The old 42nd Street place was a lot of fun," said David Hechtlinger, who at 74 plays in the parks and at the city's venerable Marshall Chess Club whenever he can. "We all used to go. One day, 20 years ago it must have been, I walked in and noticed a man sitting behind a plexiglass screen.
"It seemed a little strange to me," he continued. "I started to pay my buck and the guy told me it was 20. Twenty, for chrissake. At first I didn't get it, but then I finally did. Somebody had bought the place, left the chess motif alone and turned it into a whorehouse."
As the chess rooms closed, New York's players split -- as most New Yorkers have for the past decade or more -- into them that's got and them that got nothing. For people with the money, the Manhattan Chess Club and the Marshall Chess Club offer civilized settings and pleasant conversation at reasonable membership fees. The Marshall, located in a town house on West 10th Street, one of the most beautiful blocks in the city, offers chess instruction, lectures, books and people of every level from beginner to grandmaster, ready to play.
During the course of the World Championship, the club -- which is open and occupied every day of the year -- will offer play-by-play analysis from a variety of grandmasters and the reigning world experts in chess. Like many other clubs around the world, they will be linked to the Hotel Macklowe in midtown Manhattan by computer modem.
As soon as each move is registered it will appear in Marshall's chess center to be scrutinized, debated and marveled at by the members and their friends.
"We see it as a chance to remind people that this really is a vital game," said Leon Haft, president of the Marshall Club. "That it's fun, exciting and demanding."
But even its most ardent practitioners acknowledge that it can be difficult to communicate that excitement in a silent game that can last five hours each night. Karpov and Kasparov will each be given 2.5 hours every game to play their first 40 moves, with a special digital chess clock keeping track of each player's time.
At the end of that first five-hour session, if the game has not yet ended in victory or a draw the player whose turn it is writes his move down on a piece of paper, inserts it into an envelope, seals it and turns it over to the "arbiter" (yes, that's what the zebras are called in chess). Then the players leave and return the next day.
"I agree it's not exactly designed to woo the mass markets," said Ilya Gurevich, who at 18 was just crowned the world junior chess champion. Gurevich emigrated with his family to Worcester, Mass., from Kiev as a youngster and has recently enrolled as a freshman at New York University.
"The chess opportunities in New York were just too overwhelming to ignore," he said as he waited patiently for a seat at one of the tables in Washington Square Park, just a few hundred yards from his dorm room.
Gurevich already has a following of international masters, eager to watch how far his intuitive style can take him toward a world championship. But like an egghead counterpart to Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, it's on the streets where his talents sparkle most clearly.
Stroll into Washington Square Park and you will probably find the earnest teenager playing pickup chess, dressed in jeans, high-tops and a brown leather jacket.
Fast chess, where each player gets five minutes to complete the game, requires enormous concentration for short spurts. And since Gurevich has so much more talent than most of the people he plays, he usually gives them a huge handicap.
"Come on, Paulo, I'll give you three, man," Gurevich said to a strong young contender eager to beat the champ and pick up a few bucks in the bargain. They were negotiating over the amount of time each would be allowed to complete the game. If Paulo got three it would mean he got to play for five minutes while Gurevich only got three minutes.
"No way," he replied. He wanted Gurevich to have only one minute.
Whatever. It won't really matter, because Gurevich almost never loses. His lightning moves and his willingness to abandon classical tactics to go for the throat endear him to the park crowd.
"He's got it, no question," said Kamran Shirazi, an international master and Iranian boulevardier, who in his embroidered velvet shoes and felt jacket seems at times a little out of place among the pretzel vendors and drug dealers who are permanent inhabitants of the park. "He's very strong."
In chess, "strong" means you have the moves, you are quick and powerful. But strong isn't all that you find in the park.
"See that guy in the broad gray hat?" asked one park regular last week, taking a visitor on a tour of the tables and players. "He is a masochist, plain old masochist. We call him Rich Tony."
Tony shows up in the park most days with a wad of bills as thick as wet cement. When he leaves, it's often without a cent.
"He's weak, man, weak," said a guy named Poe, a chess matchmaker who takes 10 percent of the pot for his services. "But he doesn't care. He just likes to play."
The hustlers lined up to take his dough. First a Yugoslav emigre spotted him four pawns, a bishop and three minutes and beat him half to death. Then a well-dressed Greek man, sporting a pocket square folded perfectly into his silk suit, whipped him silly.
"Who knows why people do what they do?" said a man wearing a full-length down coat, wool hat and Walkman on a bright, warm October day. "Everyone has their reasons for playing chess. He don't care. He's like some character from the Old West."
Perhaps there is no other activity in New York that so easily brings together geniuses and drifters, homeless men and men who would never dream of venturing out to the park without wearing a tie. It's almost all men. Is chess, the sport that was invented 2,000 years ago as a paradigm of battle, the great equalizer?
"Nah, it's just another addiction, another hustle, another way to beat the other guy and feel good for a while," said Hechtlinger. "We love the game, we all do, or we wouldn't play it. But it's just as maddening as everything else in this city."