Chess Hustlers

How to play street chess without getting scammed.

Springtime is upon us, and with it, scrappy chess players return to the urban landscapes of America’s cities. In Boston, they play at Harvard Square. In New York, they play in Washington Square Park. In San Francisco, they play at the corner of Market and Powell. They’ve also been Hollywoodized in the movies Fresh and Searching for Bobby Fischer. Can you play them without getting scammed?

In his 2000 book The Virtue of Prosperity, Dinesh D’Souza describes how he got taken for a ride on the streets of San Francisco. Though “no Gary Kasparov,” D’Souza is “a decent enough player” who “can usually give the bums a fair game.” While playing for $5 he was “measurably ahead” after 15 minutes. ” ‘I’ll be right back,’ my opponent excused himself. ‘I have to take a shit.’ He made his way to a nearby hotel visible from the street.” Well, a few minutes later one of the spectators pointed out the obvious to D’Souza: The guy wasn’t coming back, and D’Souza wasn’t getting his five bucks.

These chess hustlers, as they’re commonly called, play for money, and they play well, but they don’t always play honestly. Here are some tips for going up against these crafty combatants.

Don’t Get Your Clock Cleaned
In most cases, chess hustlers will play speed chess, where each side has five minutes to complete all their moves. If you run over your five minutes, you lose, no matter how well you’re doing. The problem is, the clock may sometimes be on your opponent’s team. (If you don’t know what a chess clock is, click.)

In Washington, D.C., where I live, the chess gathering spot is Dupont Circle. Last Sunday I lost $10 there over a two-hour period against a chess hustler. Funny thing, though—he wasn’t moving any faster than I was, but when my clock was down to one minute or less, his would still be up at four or four-and-a-half minutes. The clock was rigged.

If you suspect the clock has been tampered with, there’s a simple solution: Ask your opponent to put the clock on the other side of the board. That way, you switch clocks, making you the one with the sympathetic timepiece. If the hustler refuses or makes some excuse to stop playing, you know you got clocked. This is entirely within the rules as long as you have the black pieces; to compensate for the disadvantage of moving second, black gets to choose which side of the board the clock goes on.

Rules Check, Mate Verify the clock rules. There are two ways to play speed chess, touch-move or (more commonly) clock-move. Touch-move means that if you touch a piece, you have to move it. Clock-move means that your move is not done until you punch your clock, which means you can touch a knight, move it, and take your hand off it, but if you haven’t punched your clock yet, you’re still allowed to put the knight back and make another move altogether.

More than once I’ve seen the fish tourist shocked with a cry of “Touch-move!” from the hustler. Clock-move is more common, but most people will be too flustered to argue, especially in an unfamiliar setting.

Tally Ho!
Keep track of the tally. The guy last week pulled this one on me, too. When chess players play several blitz games at once, they mentally keep track of the tally. A chess hustler will often tack on an extra game in his favor. “What are we at?” I asked the guy at Dupont. “I’m up three,” he said, even though he was only up two. I didn’t feel like arguing the point, but I checked each game thereafter.

Keep Tabs on the Tab
Verify the amount you’re playing for after each game. This is another scam, especially against an obvious tourist. Losing three games to the chess master and finding out you’re down $15—instead of the $6 you’d thought—is unpleasant, and unpleasant to argue about.

OK, so those are the scams. Now, how about the chess? The key in blitz chess is to play aggressively. If the opportunity arises to attack, take it, even if it doesn’t look totally sound. Obviously, it shouldn’t look totally unsound either, but if you can’t decide, go for it! Defense is much more difficult in chess than attack, and even more so in blitz chess.

One final thing. If you do lose a few bucks to these guys, legitimately or not, hand it over with a smile. It’s probably a small amount of money, and maybe you learned a thing or two about chess—or chess hustling.