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Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table


Lovel James, John Wang, Santiljan Vukaj, Samuel Dominguez.   

By Friday evening, with two of the seven rounds complete, things were looking good. By his own unofficial total, Mr. Times counted seven points out of a possible eight. That night, with his players ostensibly safely tucked in bed, getting their beauty rest (like, yeah, sure), Mr. Times went down to “Chess Control,” located in one of the Orpyland’s gargantuan lobbies, to find out where the team stood.

The scores were supposed to be posted by eleven o’clock, but it was now past midnight. Several coaches were hanging around, grousing at the inefficiency of it all.

Then, from the far end of the hall, Sunil Weeramantry appeared with half a dozen assistants. Stepfather of the 17-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, who most experts believe is the best American player since Bobby Fischer, the regal Weeramantry is the coach at Hunter. “Hunter is the Yankees of chess,” said Mr. Times, a hard-core Yankees fan. “And Sunil is Steinbrenner.”

“What is this nonsense?” Weeramantry barked in his haute sub-continental accent. “Do you have any idea what time it is? Where are the scores?” Almost immediately, the results were posted.

Mr. Times shook his head. “Sunil says get the damn boards up, they get the damn boards up.”

A moment later, noting that Mott Hall, with its seven points in the K–6 under-1,000 division, sat in a tie with Hunter for second place behind the perfect eight of a team from Gilbert, Arizona, Mr. Times smiled. “You know, you can’t beat the Yankees too often. But you can beat them some of the time.”

Then, almost on cue, Weeramantry came over and announced that he never thought Hunter would win the K–6 under-1,000 anyway, that his team in the division was not that strong. “Typical,” Mr. Times said. “He lets you know that even if you win, it’s no big deal . . . He’d much rather win the K–1 and K–3. The young kids—that’s where it’s at for the Yankees of chess. Prospects. They want to control the future. The long run. That’s the way they think.”

It is this outsider mind-set that Mr. Times says he’s had no choice but to get used to ever since he began growing up in Harlem back in the battle-scarred seventies as a self-confessed “nerd and mama’s boy.”

“We were thrown out of at least five places that I can remember. I thought they just didn’t like us. That was before I understood the meaning of ‘nonpayment of rent.’ I didn’t know who my real father was until I was 21. I thought my stepfather was my father. Not that he was around either. He was an abusive alcoholic.”

It was his prodigious autodidacticism that kept him sane. “I read the dictionary. The Britannica dictionary. I wanted to have the biggest vocabulary in Harlem.” He also memorized poems. It is nothing for Mr. Times, who lived in Langston Hughes’s old brownstone for nine years and has written his own book of verse, Da’ Badman Songs, A Book of African American Folkloric Poems, to stop a conversation over beers in the raucous Lenox Lounge and ask you to pick a number between 1 and 154, which happens to be how many sonnets Shakespeare wrote.

“One and 154,” Mr. Times repeats.

“One hundred thirty-eight?”

“One hundred thirty-eight?” Mr. Times returns, with that player’s face that asks without saying, “Is that the best you’ve got?” And then he’s off: “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies . . . ”

This is how it is with Jerald Times, a genuine post–Harlem Renaissance bohemian-intellectual of the self-made variety. In the end, though, for Mr. Times, everything is related to chess. For instance: “If I was going to characterize African-American style, it is a highly tactical game, as opposed to strategic. The African-American player is an attacking player. Prison chess is an exaggeration of this. You’re locked up, doing ten to twenty, but you’re not thinking long-term. The African-American can never play for time. It is summed up in the first rule of chess: White always goes first.”

Mr. Times, who picks up a little pocket cash amid the dense hairspray clouds in the Elegance Barbershop on Lenox Avenue playing a “five-one” (the hangers-on get five minutes on their clock while Mr. Times has one), escaped the life of park hustler thanks, in part, to his mom’s “magical economics.” Working numerous jobs, she got together the money to send him to Rice, the Catholic high school on 124th Street, where he made the basketball team as an undersize point guard. Another piece of sorcery came to pass when Mrs. Times won $40,000 playing Lotto. That paid for Mr. Times’s first year at St. John’s, in Queens, where he became an English major.

All of which is a long-form way of saying Mr. Times, local boy who came up hard, makes a perfect chess coach for Mott Hall, located only blocks from Harlem’s famous Strivers’ Row.

At Mott Hall three days a week, usually for two hours, Mr. Times, who until recently had a 2,400 tourney rating (making him one of the top five black chess players in the world), employs an offhand but relentless teaching model aimed at merging “the physical, the spiritual, and the intellectual.” Before rapid-fire instruction as to variations on the Ruy Lopez opening and the Sicilian defense can begin, team members must commit to memory what are known as the “sacred hierarchies.” These include the four cornerstones of existence—God, family, school, and chess—to be venerated in any order as long as chess comes first. Also essential is the dossier of opponents’ “mistakes”: (a) They were born; (b) some moron taught them to play chess; (c) they were dumb enough to enter this tournament; and (d) they were playing you, i.e., someone from Mott Hall. This didn’t mean respect should not be given adversaries. As Mr. Times says, “Just because your opponent is a piece of garbage, that piece of garbage might have moves.”

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