Gregory Garrett knocks down his adversary's queen, drawing the game to a checkmate. With a victorious grin that exposes two bright golden teeth, he calls after his opponent, who sighs and turns away from the chess area at New York's Bryant Park. "Let me show you where you went wrong," says Gregory. His eyes are hidden by the shades he wears almost constantly, even at night.
After doling out some chess wisdom, Gregory takes the seat reserved for the instructor of the games, an elevated green chair, and says to no one in particular, but to everyone who is playing: "Life is like a game of chess. But life is hard." Like Plato lecturing in his academy. The game has been more than an analogy of life for Gregory, however. Chess has consumed him.
On a gloomy afternoon in early November, as he teaches the game, he ignores repeated phone calls from his girlfriend and his daughter. As he puts his phone on vibrate, Curtis Strain walks up. Curtis is a resident genius who spends 18 hours a day at the park designing a complicated board game involving trading, banking, and investing, a take on Monopoly. He arrives at dawn and sits under a park-owned green umbrella, watching as bums and businessmen take their places at the park's 14 chess sets. Clad in a heavy red jacket and carrying most of his worldly belongings, Curtis lives as if he was homeless. Sometimes he even sleeps in the park, preferring it to his tiny room in Woodside, Queens.
"It's almost three. You don't wanna get lunch?" asks Curtis.
"You go! My food is on the board," Gregory responds.
In his 45 years on earth, Gregory has assumed many roles: He has been a janitor, a failed music producer, a father, a brother, and, most recently, the chess instructor at Bryant Park. Among all these, one thing remained constant: chess. The game offers him a vicarious glimpse into a royal world.
He learned the game from his older brother, Jacob, who died young in 1981. His brother raised him in Harlem and was Gregory's hero. He admired Jacob's intelligence, and he adopted the one thing that embodied Jacob's legacy: chess.
Chess was his savior when his girlfriend, Bonnie, left him, after his music production company couldn't pay the bills any more. When she left, she took their eight-year-old daughter, Kiara, with her, because Gregory had not eaten or slept for 40 hours. He had been too busy studying chess. It had become a habit.
Greg is not alone in his love of the game. Marshall Chess Club, one of the oldest chess clubs in America, where many Grandmasters frequently do battle, was until last summer responsible for running the Bryant Park chess area on a daily basis. The club has some 2,000 members and almost all of them play regularly at Bryant Park. Although only about 10 percent of the size of Central Park, Bryant Park — in midtown Manhattan — has a carousel, an ice skating rink, exhibitions, juggling, board games, and more. For Gregory, it is "the microcosm of all parks in the city." Occasionally, star chess players play at the park, too. According to Curtis, three grandmasters and four international masters have graced the park's chess tables in the last two years.
Back in early April 2014, Marshall Chess Club was considering relinquishing its role as facilitator of chess at Bryant Park to the park's authority. That meant that the park would need a new instructor and facilitator for the chess area — someone from its own workforce who understands the game.
When he first started hearing rumors that the park would choose from among its employees to maintain the chess area, Gregory knew that his life could change. If he got the position, no longer would he have to clean toilets. No longer would they cut his hours for skipping work to sneak into the chess area for a quick game. He was confident that no one in the park's employee roster loved the game more than he did. He had worked in the sanitation department of the park for two years, and he was tired of that.
"God was moving his pieces," Gregory says.
It was on a Wednesday in April of 2014 that Gregory was finally called into the Bryant Park administrator's office. He was nervous.
His regular chess companions were standing outside as Gregory walked in — the happy-go-lucky Egyptian, Yusef Hennen; the introverted-yet-arrogant Uzbek, Hamza, and the daydreaming Curtis. They are the unofficial champions of the motley Bryant Park chess crew. And for the three down-on-their-luck souls, this moment was not just about friendship.
Up until this time, players had to pay $6 an hour to play in the park. If the chess area were to be placed under the park's own control, games would become free. For Yusef, who had recently lost his job at a nearby Subway and for Hamza, an undocumented immigrant who always has trouble finding jobs, the change would be monumental. As they stood in the noon sun, Hamza squeezed his wrists with his jagged fingertips. Yusef was praying for the hope of keeping the place where, just a year ago, he had won a three-minute blitz match against the 2012 U.S. women's chess champion, Alena Kats.
After 20 minutes, Gregory came out. He was not smiling. His friends got scared. Gregory approached Curtis, Hamza, and Yusef. "Yes," he said, and then he let a smile spread over his face.
Everyone but Gregory jumped in jubilation. Their dream had come true! Hamza could now afford to play the game that makes him forget his troubles. Yusef would put off the job hunt. Curtis would have a permanent place to hang out. Life would be easier.
That afternoon, they planned a three-day celebration in the chess area. Gregory reached for his cell phone and called his girlfriend. He wouldn't be seeing his daughter that weekend.
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