Fading the Vig: A Gambler’s Guide to Life
David Hill is a gambler. Each column will tell the story of a single bet that he made and examine what that bet reveals about life in America.
$5 Chess Game,
BY DAVID HILL
It’s six in the morning in Zucotti Park. Quiet hours started at eleven, but that isn’t stopping the kid behind me from singing and playing Bob Dylan’s greatest hits on his guitar. I politely tolerate it until he starts to play “Rainy Day Women.” That cinches it.
“Knock it off, it’s quiet hours.”
I point to the sign nearby that lays out the self-mandated rules about music. He scowls at me as he puts his guitar back in its case.
I’m usually more patient than this. Maybe I’m feeling punchy because in two hours the police are supposed to show up and arrest all of us. More likely it has to do with the fact that I’m down two pawns going in to the endgame.
“Sorry, man, but this is a money game,” is all the apology I can muster. I have to focus.
It looks bad now, but you should have seen me earlier. I got here around three, right after the rainstorm quit, after getting several emails and text messages that the cops were planning to storm the park at seven. I packed my bag with extra clothes and some comic books, wrote the National Lawyer’s Guild phone number on my arm, kissed my wife on the forehead and told her I was going to go get arrested at the park. She mumbled something like “good luck” and rolled back over to sleep.
When I arrived at the park people were trying to settle in and get some rest. It had been a rough night of rain that likely kept a lot of people who were planning to help occupy the park away. There were only a couple hundred people here, drying off, straightening up, and winding down.
I walked over to the chess table. Bystanders held their cell phones over the table to offer the players some light. I watched a game between an Eastern European student with a backpack and a young Middle Eastern man in a baseball cap. One glance at their position told me these guys were patzers. I asked them how much they were playing for.
“We aren’t gambling.”
No shit. I asked who has next; the onlookers all shook their heads. I sat down and played the Middle Eastern kid and end up holding the table for the next couple of hours. I’m no chess master. My last rated game had me around 1450. But tonight I was king of the park. It isn’t saying much. This is no Washington Square Park. The players in Zuccotti Park are an embarrassment to the lumpenproletariat park-dwellers of New York City. Then James showed up.
James was a young Puerto Rican guy from the Bronx. He worked for the MTA, a member of TWU Local 100. He had on a 59fifty Yankees cap, a grey hoodie and a backpack. He was polite and pleasant. Like me he had a wife and baby at home. He kept texting his wife to let her know he was still okay and not in jail. He told me he was “a little rusty.” I beat him pretty easily in our first game. I even let him take back a few moves. I felt like a goddamn grandmaster. Then he brought me back down to earth with one question.
“You want to play for money?”
“So you’re a hustler?”
We’re sitting around a poker table at the old Play Station, the last of the great underground New York City cardrooms. On this night it was busier than normal. We were in the corner playing $10-20 and everyone was quizzing Poe about chess.
“No I ain’t no motherfuckin’ hustler!”
Poe was a fixture in illegal New York casinos for as long as I had been hanging out in them. He made an impression. He was always the loudest in any room. He wore bright-colored suits and ascots. He told tall tales about his sexual exploits. He had been an extra in several movies and even had small parts in a few like the Michael Mann film Ali. Tonight, however, all we want to talk to him about is chess. In addition to poker, Poe was also a skilled chess player and a frequent player in Washington Square Park.
“I think it’s a shame that everyone calls you guys hustlers,” I say. “It isn’t fair to you and it isn’t fair to real hustlers.”
“What do you mean, real hustlers,” the guy on my left pipes up.
“I mean these guys just play for money. They’re just gambling. It isn’t like it’s a secret that they are good. A hustler hides his skill. He makes you feel confident that you can beat him. He preys on your greed by pretending to be a mark. These guys set up their boards and basically dare you to play them. Seems fair to me.”
“I’ll tell you how they’re hustlers,” Josh says.
Josh is one of my best and oldest friends. He and I grew up together in Arkansas. We went to college together in Texas. Then we moved to New York together after graduation, he for grad school, and me for a job. I lived in what was basically his closet at Columbia, where he was studying for a PhD in physics.
My mother taught me the rules to chess, but Josh taught me how to play. Sitting in a pizza parlor one summer afternoon in high school he showed me about backwards pawns, knight forks, bishop skewers, and open files. He gave me a chess set and a dozen back issues of Chess Life magazine. A few days later I left town to work construction jobs on the road with my dad. That summer I lived cooped up in a dingy Motel 6 with my dad, eating baloney every night and playing through the games in the magazines. My dad would shake his head in disbelief. “How do you play chess against yourself? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Josh also taught me to play poker. In fact he was the one who first introduced me to get me into this club. And on this night he unfortunately was sitting to my right, which meant he was winning most of my money. He took a break from raking pots to tell us his story.
“I’ve won exactly three games against the hustlers in Washington Square. The first time I won the guy told me that I owed him $3. I told him he owed me $3 and he said I misunderstood, that it was $3 to play, not a $3 bet. I argued and he pointed at the NO GAMBLING sign. I paid him and left.
“The next time I won I made sure to ask before the game started if we were betting or if I was paying him to play. He assured me we were betting. Then as soon as I had a winning position he called ‘touch move’ on me. I said I thought we had been playing ‘clock move.’ He said nope, ‘touch move.’ I just resigned.
“The last time I won I asked before the game if we were gambling and if we were playing clock move. Once we had the rules straightened out we played a five-minute game and I won. I asked him for the money and he told me, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ I said, ‘But you lost! If I lost I’d have paid you!’ He stood up and held the rook over his head like he was going to hit me with it. He said ‘I’m not gonna tell you twice’ and he didn’t have to.”
Everyone was laughing at Josh’s misfortune, but at the same time felt sympathy for him.
“That sucks, man. But that’s not hustling,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s straight-up cheating,” says the guy on my left. “That’s bullshit. Why does anyone ever play those guys?
“I know this much,” the guy says after some thought, “if it was me he’d have had to hit me with that rook. I wouldn’t have left without my money.”
“You wouldn’t do shit” says Poe, visibly angry. “That man was probably homeless. Look at you! You rich! You want $3 from a motherfuckin’ homeless man? That’s sorry.”
“It’s the principle of it…” the knucklehead on my left begins. Poe cuts him off.
“Principle? Don’t nobody give a goddamn about no principle! There’s games and then there’s life. They ain’t the same thing.”
Poe picks up a red $5 chip from the stack of hundreds he has in front of him.
“We here playin’ for all this money, but that $3 meant a lot to that man. You say he’s hustlin’. He just tryin’ to eat.”
He flings the $5 chip at Josh’s stack of chips.
“There you go. There’s your money. Keep the change.”
“No thanks, Poe.” Josh slowly pushes the chip back across the felt. “It’s cool. You’re right.”
The dealer starts whipping the cards around for the next hand. We played on in uncomfortable silence.
Despite my hustle alert level being on high, I still agreed to play James for five dollars. I wasn’t in any mood to quit playing, especially if quitting meant I had to join the debate that was going on near the chess table between some “end the fed” guys and a couple of central-casting Bard students over whether or not Obama was to blame for the economic crisis.
The game was uneventful except that neither of us was in the mood to let the other one take moves back anymore. We stayed friendly and jocular over the board, but on the board it was all business. I opened with the Queen’s Gambit, he declined. “A little rusty” my ass. We played a fairly even game and ended in a draw. He seemed disappointed. One of the Bard students asked if we were done and if he could get next.
“We are playing best-of-three.” James looked at me and winked.
Now my hustle alert level was at severe. I figure James just got me for ten dollars. I briefly contemplated just paying him the money right then and there, I was so sure I didn’t stand a chance. We set the pieces up and played on. The Bard student returned to help his comrades win their political debate against the Ron Paul guys.
There are all kinds of seemingly divergent viewpoints here in Zuccotti Park waiting to be arrested. There are libertarians and there are socialists; there are 9-11 “truther” idiots and there are World Trade Center first responders; there are Democrats and there are Republicans; there are anarchists who hate the state and there are public sector unionists who work for it.
Then there’s me and James. Maybe I’m still in a bad mood from the Bob Dylan thing but even though I’m pretty sure he’s trying to hustle me, James is probably the only guy I like in my general vicinity right now. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t like in a couple of hours when the cops come through here they’re going to ask us who we voted for before they arrest us. We’re all getting locked up. Together.
Incredibly we managed to split the first two games. If James was a hustler then he’s got some serious salt in his game because he needed to run the table to make ten dollars. At this point we’re down to a single five-dollar game, a game I intend to win—not because I want James’s five bucks, but because I want to prove to myself that I was right not to surrender back when I felt like paying James off. I want to know that I was right to give myself a chance to win rather than take losing as a foregone conclusion. But the current position doesn’t look good for me. I’m ahead in material, but all of my pieces are committed to defending my king. I’m in zugzwang.
Zugzwang is a term used in chess to refer to a position where every move you have is a bad one. Once you’re in zugzwang, things like having more pieces than your opponent doesn’t matter anymore. If you can’t use them to attack you may as well not have them at all. Often players who find themselves in zugzwang simply resign.
A growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang. For some of them their whole life has been one long zugzwang, they can’t remember ever having any good options. Without catching a lucky break, a lifetime of hard work for most people results in just that—a lifetime of hard work. For others they maybe once thought they had it all—a good job with a pension, a nice house with a payment they could afford, set for life. Then in an instant it all disappeared. House is underwater, ARM is popping on the loan, pension fund bought a bunch of mortgage-backed securities. All that’s left is utter, hopeless zugzwang.
Sadly this, if nothing else, is what unites us. This dreadful unease. This feeling that every option we have is a bad one. And this resentment we feel from being told that it has to be this way, that there are no other options, because these are the rules of the game. But like Poe said, “there’s games and then there’s life. They ain’t the same thing.” It doesn’t have to be this way.
In chess, you don’t have to resign in zugzwang. You can always sacrifice. A sacrifice in chess is when you intentionally give up some material to your opponent. There are two kinds of sacrifices: a straight sacrifice and a sham sacrifice.
A sham sacrifice is basically a kind of hustle. Your opponent gives up material to you, but it’s a trap. If you get greedy and take the piece, you lose. People often make a lot of fuss over games that involve sham sacrifices (like Bobby Fischer’s “Game of the Century”), but there is nothing dramatic about a sham sacrifice. Once you take the bait, all uncertainty about the game disappears.
The other type of sacrifice, a straight sacrifice, is when you accept a disadvantage in order to break the current position. The only way out of zugzwang is to create a new position where you (and your opponent) have a different set of options, even if it means you play from less strength. Strength, after all, is relative to the choices available to you. It is a risk, but when your other option is resignation it hardly seems like one.
A few days ago the philosopher Slavoj Zizek showed up at Zuccotti Park and addressed the protesters. In his thick Slovenian accent he spoke about the grave importance of the protest, beyond just being some vague symbol of populist anger. He said, “I don’t want you to remember these days as ‘oh, we were young and it was beautiful.’ Remember that our basic message is: ‘We are allowed to think about alternatives.’ A taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world.” We are allowed, according to Zizek, to not only imagine a better world. We are allowed to expect it, to demand it. Only then would it be possible. Dare to struggle, dare to win.
I could sacrifice my rook. It wouldn’t be a sham, it wasn’t a trick. It meant I’d be down in material. But if I played well it meant I could probably force a draw. It really all depended on what James would do. I look up at him.
“You want to just call it a draw?”
James looks around. A smile slowly grows across his face. I look around, too, and I’m taken aback. It’s nearly 6:30 and the park is filled with people, maybe five thousand or more. I’ve never seen the park this full before. They are packed in tightly all around us, across the street on the surrounding sidewalks, everywhere you look. I’m shocked that we didn’t notice the park filling up all around us. In the middle of the park a woman is addressing the crowd, reading something off of her phone. Her words reverberate as the crowd repeats after her line-by-line in waves. It’s hard to understand what they are saying, but it soon becomes clear she is announcing that the cops have decided to retreat. The city was backing down from their threat to clear the park. Thousands of people roar with excitement, quiet hours be damned.
I’m not sure why it was so important to keep the park occupied. I just know that when I heard the cops were coming to shut it down, I wasn’t ready for it to end yet. Evidently neither were the rest of these people, here cheering at sunrise like the Yankees just won the pennant. Me and James and the rest of these folks, we couldn’t know for sure, of course, but we figure that this right here is what power feels like. This is what it must feel like to win.
James smiles ear-to-ear. He texts his wife the news. I do the same. He looks up at me, still grinning.
“Still want a draw?”
I look back at the board. I don’t see any better outcome for me. If we play on and James plays perfectly I’ll be lucky to get a draw. The more likely outcome is that I’ll lose. I shrug, then reach over and move the rook, hanging it.
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