Donald Prior, III
Field-study Essay #1
ENGL 21002 — Professor von Uhl
Two slain knights lay side-by-side; water beading off their smooth surface. None of the spectators would’ve been able to guess this outcome a moment ago. A slender man named Ernesto sat at the round table with his custom stool. It was made of a cheap rusted metal frame and several lairs of fabric for cushion while sitting. His worn-down backpack slung across his shoulder and across his stomach; as if It carried most of his cherished possessions inside. A modest smile covered his face as his opponent slipped away in disbelief just to sit at another table nearby; this one underneath a large umbrella. Players continued to play, and losers continued to trade spots along the three tables of chessboards. You’d often see cash being wagered, but today these games must’ve been just for fun.
It was a rainy Thursday afternoon and the reflection of the sun was just beginning to fade from the puddles scattered around the stone courtyard. The sidewalks were filled with people and umbrellas, encapsulating what I’ve come to refer to as “The Chess Yard.” Overlooking the players was Union Sqaure’s Abraham Lincoln on horseback; almost giving each loss a sense of political justice. This is where I initially sat taking fieldnotes; leaning over my notebook to keep my pages from getting too wet. Though I haven’t played in quite some time, I figured I’d see if I could get in on game and ask the players a few questions.
It was 6:30 in the afternoon and I decided to approach the players and see what else I could learn. Usually, they seemed to be inviting of new challengers. However, today the players looked to be in a grove that seemed almost unwelcoming. Initially, I was among the other spectators; I hung around for thirty minutes or so until most of the others cleared off. One of the men glanced over at me and I capitalized on the opportunity. I congratulated on the impressive win and he ended up inviting me in for a game. He was an older man and seemed to have been around the city for some time due to his unwavering and stern physiology. His name was Dennis; he laughed when I told him I was doing research for academic purposes. “What kind of schooling has you lookin’ at us?” He said with a chuckle as he reset the chessboard (at an impressively fast pace). I explained that my assignment was to study a certain area and report on my findings. “Alright my friend.” He spoke with a quirky smile underneath an absolute jungle of a beard. It took about four turns for him to get my king locked into one spot; a fully offensive bishop and knight strategy that had me completely bewildered. Dennis wasn’t very talkative during the game, but I did learn that he lived in Brooklyn and took the L train a few times a week to play in the Square. He often plays games with the same people and he also has rivals that stop by for rematches. I couldn’t be sure – but I got the feeling this group of chess players were Dennis’ friends.
My game with Dennis seemed to get us some notoriety among nearby players. In fact, one young man leaning against the subway entrance seemed to be humored by our game and decided to watch us play. He looked as if he was interested in seeing me take the win; however futile that may have been. The way he approached and stood behind my shoulder made me think of a boxing ring. I believe Dennis had called this man Ernesto – at which point I turned around to take a look. I recognized him immediately from earlier; he must’ve been taking a quick smoke break for some casual spectating. He was a large man; though not much older them myself. “Keep em’ back; queen’s last resort.” Ernesto said before he quickly turned around to sit at his table; resetting his chess table in a hurry. The game ended in about 5 turns; impressive considering most games I saw ended much faster. If I wasn’t mistaken, I had seen Dennis and Ernesto play a heated game before I approached the players. I would’ve preferred to have spectated one of those games rather than play myself – wishing I had a few more years of experience to bring to the table.
This field-study really opened my eyes to the endless possibilities for subcultures within New York City. These people found things they enjoyed and stuck with them; taking full advantage of the social tendencies that these bustling city squares offered. I found the players continuing despite the rain to be admirable; I couldn’t see myself enjoying a chess game in the middle of a rainstorm the way they did. To conclude the study, I wished Dennis and Ernesto my best and went on my way. I crossed the street and as I glanced back to look at the chess players, I noticed how hidden they were from the common pedestrian. Not due to any physical obstruction, but just from seeing them everyday but I doubt I’d ever even think to look in their direction if I wasn’t consciously studying the area. I do believe I will return; maybe even grab another game when the weather is more suitable.