For three decades, the cluttered Village Chess Shop, on Thompson Street, has been a haven of tranquillity from the dirt-weed dealers and toothless hucksters who control the tables at Washington Square Park. Brahms plays softly, it costs $1.50 an hour to play, and a sign in the back warns $3 PER PROFANITY FINE. Then, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the cops had to be called.
“Violence in chess shops is very rare,” says Richie Gilmartin, a chess instructor and longtime shop habitué. “Very rare.”
The beef was between two of the shop’s veterans, unshaven amateurs who are both finishing out their sixties: Richard E. Brooks (a painter-cinematographer who refers to himself as Master Dick; he’s been playing there since the shop opened in 1972) and a relative newcomer, “Joe the ex-Marine” (no one at the shop knows how to spell his last name, though it sounds like Maserati), who initially showed up in 1997. Joe was always the first person in the shop. He waited for it to open, rushing in under the shuttered steel gate. Together, they played intensely every afternoon—about 5,000 games to date, give or take.
“It’s a rivalry of hate that keeps them going,” says Aaron Louis, the manager. “They can’t stand each other.” But they’d always kept it on the board, until that day, according to several observers. Joe and Dick were hunkered down in battle when Dick moved his bishop and captured Joe’s pawn, and used his piece to knock Joe’s off the board. (When capturing, it’s gentlemanly form to use the hands.)
“You want me to get physical with you?” Joe asked, according to Dick.
“I’ll defend myself if I have to,” Dick replied, according to Dick.
Then Joe picked up the wooden board and rammed it into Dick’s lip. “There was blood everywhere,” says Louis. “Blood on the pieces. Blood on the board. Blood on my hands. I had to hold them both back. We even had to throw the pieces out, they were covered in so much blood.”
Before the cops arrived to take statements, Joe calmly offered to pay his $4 tab. Louis refused it. “I told him to get the fuck out.” So Joe vanished. He won’t be back. The shop’s owners have banned him for life. Dick is pressing criminal charges, and vows to sue. (Joe refused to discuss the incident.)
“It was resentment,” Gilmartin says, explaining how an epic chess match between old men could get bloody. “It was building and building under the skin until—pop!—it burst.”
“You want to know how?” asks Dick. “He’s a fucking nut, that’s how,” says Dick. “He can’t stand losing. I went through him like water.” He adds, “We weren’t really friends, per se. The most I ever did was walk him to the train.”
“He felt that you were being boastful,” Gilmartin says.
“Boastful?” Dick says. “How?”
“He felt that when you said to him, ‘You are about to feel the Master’s lash,’ that was being boastful.”
“Well,” Dick says. “Many have felt the Master’s lash.”