Volume 75, Number 21 | October 12 - 18, 2005

Villager photo by John Ranard

Chess Monster plays Capture the Queen with Bill Wittlinger in Tompkins Square Park. Wittlinger has taken two knights. To his left is Chess Monster’s identifier, in which his opponent is supposed to punch in his “PIN.”

Tompkins Square chess player has created a monster

By Daniel Wallace

Under the trees in Tompkins Square there is a monster. This monster neither lurks nor prowls. He can be found smiling among the homeless of East Village. He is missing a few teeth. And those which remain are not sharp.

If, however, you are caught retracting a chess move, watch out. The monster will show no mercy.

Lewis Taylor, a.k.a. the Chess Monster, is a large African-American man who wears thick glasses, smiles amiably and has gained a smattering of local fame for his unconventional chess rules — which he has tried to patent — his costume and his general approachability.

His demeanor stands in sharp contrast to his surroundings. The homeless culture of Tompkins Square has adopted a tragic aspect as autumn shortens the days of New York. Faces have grown wistful and a little sadder. Bearded men on park benches can occasionally be found staring off into the distance. And already many of the street kids have migrated to warmer climates.

Perhaps the last thing you’d expect to find, then, in meeting a homeless man facing the winter months, is a fountain of unfettered joy.

That is exactly what I found when I met Taylor, the Monster, who goes by Chess.

I learned about Chess in a book by Jim Flynn called “Stranger to the System,” published by Curbside Press, in which he is profiled. When I called his voicemail to set up an interview, I was greeted by the following message:

“Hello to the sun, goodbye to the moon. My name is the Chess Monster…please leave a message in the English talk-talk, and tell me the numbers my chubby fingers have to touch to keep in touch. And don’t ever forget: there is always time for a game of chess. Goodbye to the moon.”

After Chess returned my call and a meeting was established, I did not know what to expect: a drunken poet, a disillusioned veteran; perhaps a violent man. After all, he calls himself a monster.

But Chess is none of these things. He is always sober and always friendly; and he speaks with childlike enthusiasm when asked about chess.

“You see, Danny,” he said kindly, sitting across from me at a cement table in Tompkins Square, “chess is the best game in the world. It is the king of games, and the game of kings.”

Chess grew up in New Rochelle, Westchester, where his family still lives. He didn’t know his specific age but said he was between 31 and 37. He graduated from New York University with a degree in education. And after a two-year stint teaching history, he opted for a more unconventional lifestyle.

“I loved the kids, but hated the system,” he said. “It burnt me out.”

When his nephew taught him to play chess 10 years ago, Taylor heard the call of destiny. He joined the United States Chess Federation and ordered so many books about chess that the UPS man in New Rochelle came to know him personally. He went to Chinatown, purchased materials and built his own full-size magnetic chess board.

“One thing led to another,” he said. “Now I’m here. And now I’m happy.”

Not long after his love affair with chess began, Chess moved to the Village and became homeless.

“I was homeless for a few years,” he said. “But I was never uncomfortable. I consider myself fortunate. I had cousins with whom I occasionally stayed; and I had a tent and a sleeping bag, so I was always warm and dry.”

Chess now has an apartment on Seventh St. between Avenues C and D.

“And the lease is in my name,” he boasted. “I feel very good about that.”

Although Chess spoke willingly of his personal life his conversation was clipped and noncommittal. When discussing chess, he beamed with enthusiasm.

Chess Monster chess, as he calls it, is an alteration of official rules in which the back row of pieces are arranged in whatever way one chooses.

“When I see the board like that, I get excited,” he said. “There are about 1,400 ways you can line up the pieces. It gives me a feeling of liberation.”

Then, using a metaphor replete with poetic tension, he said his style of chess was like the combination of a Volkswagen and a Cadillac.

I nodded. It was silent for a moment. The wind rustled in the trees; Chess looked down at the board. The conversation had clearly reached its end. And what had been bound to happen all along, happened.

I challenged the monster to a game.

“Yeah, O.K.,” he said, lifting a green canvas bag from which he removed large, black-and-white chess pieces.

“Set yours in the back row any way you want,” he said. “I’m going to use four horses and leave the bishops off.”

We played a game that Chess invented called rescue the queen, in which the queens, left off the board, can be redeemed by a brave pawn that makes it to the other side.

I made the first move, explaining that I hadn’t played chess in years, that he’d kill me.

“Oh, who knows, who knows,” Chess said. “Could be psyching me out.”

No, no, I protested, but Chess cut me off.

“Could be a bigger chess geek than me,” he said.

The game became silent and intense. People passing by stopped to watch. Soon a small crowd had gathered.

“Take your time, Danny,” Chess said. And then, perhaps sensing my lack of ability and trying to ease my shame, he told a story about how he often lost very early in matches, which is of course what I expected.

But amazingly, I hung in there. After the first pawn was captured, Chess said, “Uh, oh, we’re enemies now.”

As the game progressed my enemy steadily wore me down, capturing pieces which he referred to as my army (he is currently building a jail to house captured soldiers).

“You’re killing me, Chess.”

“Actually, you’re doing quite well,” he said diplomatically, in the tone of a British general.

Once during the match a small misunderstanding arose in which I was (falsely) accused of taking back a move, and I saw the monster in Chess emerge.

“Chess’ll cut your fingers off if you take back a move,” he said.

When I looked up, alarmed, he was smiling; and we both laughed.

Of course, Chess won. But he was gracious about it and at the end of the match he shook my hand and thanked me.

The following day I went to meet Chess again, and what he presented me with this time made his Chess Monster chess look downright normal.

He was in his usual spot, but on the table there was a huge old-fashioned calculator with a blank screen and dirty keys. Arched over the calculator, a plastic box with one side cut off was perched like a bridge, and Chess entreated me to say toward the back of the box: “the sky above, the mud below” — this year’s password — while typing a four-digit PIN into the calculator keypad. The calculator didn’t work, and there was clearly no recording device in the box.

“This is my identifier,” Chess explained. “Next year, when my game really catches on, this machine will identify you. You’ll type in your PIN number, and the machine will say, ‘Dan is O.K.’ ”

I asked Chess what he would do if his style of chess didn’t catch on.

“Oh, same thing,” he said. “I’m really happy, Danny. As corny as it sounds, if someone were to offer me all the money in the world, but said I had to give up chess, I wouldn’t do it. I’d say, nope, no thanks. You know, I feel sorry for people. I knew guys in New Rochelle who had everything society had to offer, a house, a car, a family. But they just — weren’t — happy.”

He shook his head. “Chess has opened up a whole new world to me. I have found my happiness.”

And looking at him, a big jovial man smiling in the autumn sunlight, I had to agree. Chess is certainly happy.

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