Volume 80, Number 12 | August 19 - 25, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Aidan Gardiner

Saravuth Inn inviting a player to a chess game in Union Square.

Chess man plots his next moves to citizenship

By Aidan Gardiner

Saravuth Inn crooked his hand over the board and let it hang for a moment. He slapped his knight down and as suddenly, snatched up the enemy pawn.

“I love chess,” he said. “To be able to be omnipotent. To be able to do many things in one shot. Freedom. Control. Flexibility. 

“Chess allows you to do that when in life, you can’t,” he added.

Inn, 49 and Cambodian-born, is fighting his way out of legal limbo and into proper citizenship. He’s been making a living playing chess in Union Square for the past two years. After Christmas, he plans to finally visit the Department of Homeland Security to get a naturalization number, which will enable him to get a steady job. However, he fears officials may deport him to Cambodia instead. 

“I will not accept that as an option,” said Inn, who was brought to the United States during Operation Babylift in 1975. “I’m an American. This is my home.”

Inn’s father taught him chess as a boy, before the Khmer Rouge killed his family when he was 13. He was living in an orphanage when American soldiers found him and took him to the U.S. A family in New Jersey adopted him, but then began abusing him. Inn played the tournament chess circuit throughout high school. He later attended Rutgers University between 1984 and 1987 and studied literature and classics. 

“Ulysses is hilarious. Back then I didn’t think so. But now — oh God, I’m laughing!” he said, leaning back, grinning, with his eyes wide. “It’s the way he mastered everything and expressed it the way he does. It’s wonderful.”

Inn comes to Union Square every day and perches over his chess mat rolled out flat on a piece of plywood. Usually, he’s surrounded by a crowd. Some are his supporters who come to keep him company. Others are passersby looking to watch a quick game. Though his daily revenue varies, Inn’s supporters, mostly students, always come play and donate about $5 each. He said it’s enough to pay his modest rent. 

Two years ago, border agents temporarily detained Inn during his return from Montreal. He had been making a living playing guitar on the street after his wife left him, citing their worsening financial situation. A bag containing all Inn’s most important belongings had been stolen from him sometime before, so he had no documentation proving his citizenship.

“I was captured by Calypso,” Inn said, referring to “The Odyssey” and Ulysses’s, a.k.a. Odysseus’s, journey. “Except I don’t have a dog to recognize me coming back.” 

After some questioning, agents handed Inn a slip of paper, and let him in. He pocketed it, not knowing what it was for, and forgot about it. 

A.J. Abucay, a documentarian making a film about Inn’s life, said that the paper allowed Inn’s re-entry on the condition that he turn himself over to Homeland Security at Newark Airport’s Terminal B by the following month.

“It was not until he allowed me to look through all the documentation he had in his possession that I discovered this piece of paper,” Abucay said. “It was already late 2008 or early 2009, way past the date he was supposed to appear.”

When Inn consulted Ana Pottratz, a pro-bono lawyer, she told him not to go because he might be deported back to Cambodia.

Inn said that he’s tired of scraping together a living and would like to go into teaching.

“I don’t want to continue this,” he said. “I want to have rights, to at least be able to work at McDonald’s.”

Inn seldom discusses life in Cambodia, but still remembers his family’s death. They were living in Phnom Penh, the capital, when Cambodian troops forced his family into a truck. 

“They gathered us like we were going on vacation,” Inn said. 

They drove for an hour to an area outside Oudong. When his family exited the truck, the troops shot each of them. Saravuth was the only person to survive. 

Inn is covered in bullet holes, like pink fingerprints all over his body.

“I can’t even count them all anymore,” he said. Inn also has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain that causes him to suffer occasional seizures.

Brother Mike, a monk, found Inn wandering the streets and brought him to an orphanage. 

“Unfortunately,” Inn said, “I’m the character of my own story.”

Inn leaned back in his chair, took a drag from his cigarette, and let the smoke dribble out of his mouth. 

“Chess is a war game,” he said. “You’ve got to have that conniving and crushing instinct in you. I have a lot of anger and I express it in that.

“I use a defense when I’m playing as a black,” Inn added. “It’s very aggressive. It expresses a lot of emotion, a lot of anger. It’s called Sicilian Dragon. And I’m good at that in the game chess, but in life I need to slow down.”

Inn leaned forward and quickly pushed his rook forward two squares knocking over an enemy bishop. For him, the board is a playground, a space to move freely and dance with power, even while he’s caught in a bureaucratic maze.

“I used to be vicious,” Inn said. “Now, I just enjoy chess. Like with Ulysses, I was too academic. Now I look at it and I’m laughing.”

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