Every city park has its own life style, its own rhythm. Dupont Circle moves to the peace of the chess players.
Every afternoon they cluster around the six concrete tables on the north side of the circle and there, ringed by the whizzing traffic of Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues, they pursue their 12-century-old game.
Frisbee tossers come and go, but on Dupont Circle, chess is forever.
Marc Jackson, 22, a night clerk at the World Bank, is a self-professed Dupont Circle regular. He organizes his day around playing chess at the circle.
"I work nights so I try to get rolling by one so that I can be here at two. You have to be here at two to get a table," he said.
No one among the circle regulars seems to know how or why 2 p.m. became the opening hour for chess. It seems to have evolved naturally over the years as the noon-hour picnickers and pigeon feeders thinned out. Retired peoply apparently prefer the afternoons. No one on the circle would admit to playing chess earlier in the day.
Jackson has been coming to the park for three years to play chess. His style is casual, his pieces slightly battered and showing their yellow innards through the peeling paint. No matter. There seems to be a pride in the age and used conditions of one's chess set. And in te price as well. The better players say they spend less than $10 for their plastic pieces.
Jackson approaches the tables with a quickened step. There is only one table left and he slides onto a cement stool, laying his cardboard chess board on the ground. The serious players always carry a board with them in case all the tables are filled. If that happens, they are relegated to playing on benches.
Jackson carefully sets his pieces up on the inlaid board. He folds his hands, taps his foot and stares at the board. There is an air of expectancy. Shortly a man walks up. "May I have the next game?" he asks. Jackson nods, he sits down. Jackson says he never has to wait for more than five minutes to find a partner.
But like the other chess players of the circle, he plays in anonymity. Names here aren't important: the game is everything.
Adolf Kuendel, 69, is a self-declared chess fanatic. He sits at the table wearing plaid pants and a print shirt and alternately chomps on and flicks his stubby cigar.
"Chess is a nice fight," he declared. "And at my age, it's nice to beat someone at something."
Robert Lancaster, 22, who for the last four years has made special trips from Georgia Avenue to play chess at the circle, sees it somewhat differently:
"In basketball, you shove and push but in chess, it's all done in your head. And no one gets hurt."
Howell Tumlin works for the Service Employees International Union, which represents low-wage workers in the health care and building maintenance fields. He says he paid $50 more for an apartment in the Dupont Circle area so he could walk to the circle to play chess.
Tumlin sees the game as "a small universe in which you have absolute control and when you move a piece you alter the universe. The object is to kill the other player on the board. You do that by being sly, clever, crafty . . . you use everything you have."
Tumlin says there is a feeling of intimacy at the end of the game. "The game kind of ends with a sigh. Here you have pitted yourself against another person. As soon as they start the game, you know their strength. There are threats and counterthreats. It is a game of total skill; there is no luck here," he says.
If chess is the dominant game of Dupont Circle it is not the only one. One or two of the precious six tables are usually occupied by blackjack players and a crap game usually fluorishes on the ground nearby. The chess players are quite and thoughtful, the card players and crap shooters loud and combative.
But they coexist peacefully, occasionally trading a cigarette or a match.
The pair of Nation Park Service policemen who stroll the area every couple of hours say hello to the gamblers who make their dollar bills disappear with amazing speed. The chess players never seem to play for money.
One of the few people who objects to the card players is "Miss Lynne," one of the few women chess players at the circle. Miss Lynne (the only name she would give) is a retired congressional staff assistant. She arrives carrying a large plastic shopping bag.
Miss Lynne grumbles about the gamblers' noise as she plays Andoh Quarm, a visitor from Ghana. But her love of chess outweighs her displeasure with the card players. "I want to spend my last days playing chess with fast players," she said. "I don't have time to waste on slow players."
Tumlin thinks the low percentage of women players at the circle reflects the actual number of women to men players in the world. Jackson thinks more women would play in a "more parlor-like atmosphere". And Lancaster thinks women see chess as a male game because checkmating the king is the object of the game.
"Women don't realize that the queen is the all-round fighter, the strong piece. They think the game is for men because of the king," he says.
About 5 p.m., more of the regular players arrive. They come from nearby office buildings with their suitcoats slung over their shoulders.
There is ritual and etiquette to joining a game. The new arrivals stand near or lean against the chess table. The players sit on the concrete stools or stand with a leg up on the match, the watchers' eyes shift back and forth across the board.
"finally the game is over. According to Tumlin, if someone has lost badly, he is expected to yield his seat to anyone who approaches the board and asks for the next game. But if the loser is the owner of the chess set, he may well ignore etiquette and stay seated.
Near dark some of the players gather up their sets and boards and leave the circle. A gentle rain begins to fall. Jackson, in the midst of a game, laments the fact that he didn't get the table under the tree.
"sometimes I stay here in the rain and sometimes if the games are good I even stay till midnight," he says.
But on this particular day the card players have the tree-sheltered table. Jackson fnishes his game, collects his players and sprints off toward Connecticut Avenue, now wet and shiny.
The tables empty, except for the card table, where the gamblers carry on in the mist.
Miss Lynne helps Quarm dry off his chess pieces. They head off in opposite directions. Holding her shopping bag close to her side, she calls after Quarm, "I may be late tomorrow; if you get here at two, hold a table for me." CAPTION: Picture 1, Old and young, sitting and standing, playing or watching, they are the players who have made Dupont Circle the City's chess stadium. by Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Howell Tumlin studies his board and his opponent. Picture 3, 79-year old Adolf Kuendel (right) and Steve Osborne demonstrate the two standard playing positions. By Linda Wheeler -- The Washingon Post