Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table

Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

At the start of the school year, Jerald Times, coach of the Dark Knights of Harlem’s Mott Hall School chess team, wasn’t feeling particularly sanguine about his club’s chances. As a New York school subject to the vagaries of public education, things are never easy, especially at an inner-city school on 131st Street, and this year was shaping up as no exception.

Since 1991, when Times’s predecessor, Maurice Ashley, the first and still the only African-American to attain the rank of grandmaster, started the program, Mott Hall, a.k.a. Manhattan P.S./I.S. 223, has been considered one of the top public-school chess programs not only in New York but the entire country. From 1997 to 2001, with Times as coach, Mott Hall had won three national championships. Back then, the school was an obligatory stop on the value-of-chess-in-the-schools tour. Bill Gates came uptown, declaring chess excellent for raising standardized-test scores. Prince Andrew arrived in a limo. New Yorker editor David Remnick was principal for a day, which he spent getting checkmated by sixth-graders before refusing to play a fourth-grader because enough was enough.

By 2003, however, the program was in trouble. Funding was cut by three-quarters, leaving only what the 37-year-old Mr. Times—as he is commonly called, whether he is in the classroom, scurrying down 125th Street, or taking some fool’s money playing a little speed chess in the park—refers to as “my cheap little salary.” Last year, for the first time, there were no funds to send the team to the national championships. With no more money available this year, prospects for the team to compete in the 2005 SuperNationals, to be held in Nashville, appeared equally bleak.

But then came this current team, a hard-charging bunch of 10-to-12-year-olds from Washington Heights, Inwood, and Harlem. Not one of them had played a game of tournament chess until as recently as a year before, nor had any of them ever taken the private lessons so important to the development of many of their neo-prodigy opponents. No grandmasters worked with them day after day. Few of their parents even understood the game (they are mostly sons and daughters of recent immigrants), much less played the role of the ubiquitous chess moms and dads lurking around the better Manhattan chess clubs.

Yet under Mr. Times’s streetwise tutelage, Mott Hall began to excel in local tournaments, racking up victories against far more experienced opponents. Then in January, the Dark Knights won the overall city championship in the middle-school division, competing with and beating such well-funded powerhouses as Columbia Grammar and Prep and the perennial champ, Hunter. Word of these successes reached Daniel Rose of the philanthropic Rose family, a longtime supporter of Mott Hall and Harlem public education. “They’re city champions, and they can’t afford to go to the nationals? What does that say about New York?” says Rose. He supplied the money for the trip out of his own pocket.

Which is how Mr. Times and his underdog crew found their way on this early April weekend to the Opryland hotel in Music City, USA, home of a thousand country singers in faux-cowboy hats and a long, long way away from Convent Avenue and 131st Street. This year’s SuperNationals was the biggest in history, with more than 5,000 kid players from across the country competing. And after two days and six of the scheduled seven rounds, much to the surprise of just about everyone except Mr. Times and his undaunted troops, Mott Hall was right in the middle of a three-way tie for first place in the K–6 under-1,000 division (kindergarten through sixth grade for players with a tournament rating below 1,000). Mott’s 16.5 points had them even with the Villa Academy from far-off Seattle and the more familiar junior minions of Columbia Grammar and Prep from West 93rd Street.

Back in Harlem, Mr. Times had said there would come “a moment of truth when dreams and fantasies would live or die.” Now that time had arrived. The next hour would adjudicate the fate of those dreams.

The electricity is palpable—the zap of synapses engaging in the football-field-size room where 2,500 chessboards are set out on 100-foot-long tables. Five thousand young, switched-on brains about to go to war according to the rules of a game invented more than a thousand years ago. “I love the hush, before the clocks start, before the first move,” says Mr. Times, standing in the back of the vapor-lamped ballroom, waiting for the climactic action to begin. He’d made his rounds, checking out the body language of his charges. First stop was Dionis Jahjaga. Tom Mlodozeniec might be the team’s highest-rated K-6 player, but Dionis is the loudest, which demands a certain priority. A big-faced 12-year-old with a bowl haircut, Dionis, like almost all the Mott Hall team members, was born outside the U.S., fleeing the war in Kosovo with his family in 1999. When he first got to the U.S., he spoke no English. Now, after uncounted trips on the 1/9 train and a year in Mr. Times’s classroom, Dionis talks the talk at least as well as he walks the walk. His seventh-round game was critical, a fact Dionis acknowledged by standing over the playing table.

“I think of sitting as a disability. It makes me look puny,” Dionis announced, looming over his opponent, a blond kid from Minnesota in a plaid shirt.

On the other end of the spectrum is Diego Mendia. Born in Cuenca, Ecuador, Diego, who came to New York in 1998, is something of a mystery man. Nowhere near five feet tall, Diego, a jeweler’s son who plans on becoming “a bio-scientist,” manifests a gnomish aspect with his too-big blue blazer and deadpan expression. No star in earlier tournaments, Diego has been the best in Nashville, winning five out of six games.

“I’ve heard of poker faces, but he takes the cake,” says Mr. Times. After round five, Mr. Times had watched Diego exit the playing area exuding an air of melancholy reserve. With any other kid, you’d assume he’d lost. But Diego had won, wiped the guy out.

Diana Durán is easier to read. A sixth-grader from Mexico, thin with long, flowing black hair and a sly look, Diana brought several changes of clothing to Nashville, including a neat swingy pantsuit and black jeans with slick orange piping.

“Look at that smile,” Mr. Times marveled, observing Diana haughtily ignoring her opponent, a rotund black kid from Michigan. “She flashes it at the guy, sweet as can be, then she kills them. Spider and the fly. There’s no mercy.”

That’s the fun of this team, Mr. Times says. “They’re from everywhere; there’s no conformity.” In addition to Dionis, Diego, and Diana, the Mott Hall club currently includes the Mlodozeniec brothers, Tom and Adam, from Warsaw; Santiljan Vukaj, from Albania; Luis Pardo (Colombia); John Wang and Yiqing Li (China); Samuel Dominguez and Elvis Morales (Mexico); Albert Iglesias, Leonardo Peña, and Angel Tavarez (Dominican Republic); Henry Loehrke (Washington Heights); and Lovel James (Harlem).

Elvin Morales, Tom Mlodozeniec, Yiqing Li, Leonardo Peña. Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

In other words, the Mott Hall chess team is a highly variegated collection of immigrants and strivers (very few of their parents speak English, even now) in the time-honored New York big-tent tradition. They are at Mott Hall because it is the best magnet/“gifted” program in what used to be called District 6. They all passed the school’s specialized test to gain admittance. This means they are “brains,” the skimmed cream of the rapidly shifting community’s crop, the sort of kids who used to come out of the old-time Jewish, Italian, and Irish neighborhoods, go to Stuyvesant or Bronx Science and then CCNY (the erstwhile “Harvard of the Streets”), and later take their places in the upper echelons of politics, business, and the arts with an often cocky assurance that they were just as good as their private-school, blue-blooded competition, and a whole lot savvier. What once was the norm during the twentieth-century rise of New York’s grand egalitarian social experiment—sidetracked for decades thanks to the difficulties of race, greed, and mind-numbing “No Child Left Behind” test prep—lives on at Mott Hall, where the emphasis, for once, is less on survival than on success.

Maybe, as Mr. Times said, the national championship was “a dream,” but it was a way better dream than any Hollywood-production-line Bad News Bears feel-good cynicism. Mott Hall was a solid New York club, a team to root for.

Some might call it something to be proud of, coming this far, Mr. Times says, standing beside a portrait of old country star Minnie Pearl, his bantam, cocoa-hued body dressed snow-white from the rakish Kangol hat on his shaven head down to his billowy linen shirt and pants and pristine sneakers. But coming close is nothing to celebrate. Consolation prizes offer no consolation. All around is the enemy, from close to home (Hunter is here as well as Columbia Grammar) and from many impossibly exotic locales not likely to appear on a geography pop quiz back on 131st Street: the Knight Stalkers of Clio, Michigan; the Rebellin’ Rooks of Grayslake, Illinois; the Kings on Fire from Edinburg, Texas (back of flame-embossed T-shirt: BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID).

“Isn’t Edinburg in England?” asks Tom Mlodozeniec.

“I thought it was the capital of Pennsylvania,” returns Sammy Dominguez, the noted card among Mott Hall cards.

Before the tournament began, Mr. Times had taken the Mott Hall players to view the dozens of trophies, arrayed like a shiny New York skyline on a platform in the giant playing room. “These are our trophies, no one else’s … ours,” Mr. Times had said. With one last game to go, it is time to claim permanent ownership.

Mr. Times said there would come a moment of truth when dreams would live or die. That time had arrived.

With that, the Mott Hall team puts their hands together, as all teams do before big games. In previous rounds they’d broken with generic shouts like “Believe!” and “Focus!” But a climactic moment requires something new, deeper.

Albert Iglesias, from Inwood, whose mom works in a Strawberry clothing store in the Bronx and has six brothers all named Pablo, most of them living in the Dominican Republic with his father (he is called Albert because his mother’s friend’s baby died and he’s “carrying on for that child”), suggests that the team break on the word “Sugar!” This is on account of the candy-and-video-game ban Mr. Times had decreed for the duration of the tournament. The suggestion is typical of Albert, handsome and puckish, with a firm grasp of the sardonic.

Luis Pardo, son of a dental-claims processor from Barranquilla, Colombia, seconds the notion. “My teeth are not falling out fast enough,” he says, decked out in his Derek Jeter jersey. “Sugar!”

But Mott Hall isn’t going for the championship fueled by anything as flimsy as empty calories. What is called for is metaphor, what Mr. Times had always told them to envision: the truth lurking amid the facts, the soul beneath the surface. They want the visceral, a scrappy throwdown befitting their newly forged grasp on the current version of the American Dream. Warriors all, they’ve been spoiling for such a confrontation ever since they checked in to the Opryland and its swankily appointed hotel rooms, so much bigger and plusher than their own at home. The environment called out for one great blowout. And Mr. Times had granted the request—if they won.

Pillow fight!” the Mott Hall team shouted and ran down the hallway to take on the nation.

Mr. Times feared the first two rounds, to be played on Friday, the opening day of the tournament. “Down there, it’s all new, easy to get distracted,” he fretted. But Mott Hall was ready. Dionis attacked from the start, as is his style, assaulting the middle with his knights, winning in 25 moves. Diego and Elvis won. Diana sat down opposite a young man from Texas who took one look at her and exclaimed, “I’m playing her?” It took her fourteen moves to get the guy to quit. Luis caught Mr. Times’s eye prior to beginning play and slowly ran his finger across his windpipe. Then he forged ahead with his own idiosyncratic take on the Italian opening and beat a kid from Minnesota.

The second round was similarly successful. Displaying his highly diversified game, Tom Mlodozeniec mated a 12-year-old from Maine, not that it was so easy. “He was kind of strange,” Tom recalled. “He kept talking to himself. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy or just trying to throw me off.” Albert remembered what Mr. Times had said about “poison pawns,” how if you eat them at the wrong time they tend to give you serious indigestion. He laid off, instead pushing his queen down the middle, and won.

Lovel James, John Wang, Santiljan Vukaj, Samuel Dominguez. Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

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.”

Albert Iglesias, Luis Pardo, Diana Durán, Henry Loehrke.Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

There is a solidarity between teacher and team, a bond forged by Americans outside the mainstream. “Mr. Times, he’s one of us. He doesn’t talk down to you. If he says knight-to-f4 is a wack move, he tells you why. He doesn’t just teach you how to play chess, he makes you feel like a chess player. That’s why we learn so fast,” says Santiljan Vukaj, who was born twelve years ago in the small village of Vermosh on the northern frontier of Albania and now lives with his family in the shadow of the approach ramp to the George Washington Bridge. Santi’s father, Sander, a raw-boned man in his forties currently “in construction,” he says, left Albania because “there Santi can be in the military or a farmer. If he is smart, it doesn’t matter. Here he has a chance. I will do anything, anything—to make that happen.”

It is that awesome anything—the unconditional immigrant ethic—that makes his team so tough, Mr. Times thinks. “They have a lot of heart,” he says. “They don’t give in.”

When you’re with the Mott Hall team, you can feel it, this sort of love, if not necessarily for each other, then for the game and the way Mr. Times brings it to them. You can see it in Mr. Times’s face at the Opryland, watching a practice game between Santiljan and Sammy Dominguez, who was born in Mexico and now lives in Brooklyn, where his father sells flowers to delis. “Here’s Santi, who loves to win, and Sammy, who hates to lose. The ultimate optimist versus the ultimate pessimist, closely matched. Hard to pick a winner.”

Off in another part of the room, Angel is playing Luis. Diana is kibitzing, along with Yiqing. The evening before, Angel had broken out in hives. It was very painful. Marc Briller, who serves as the program coordinator at Mott Hall, had to take him to the emergency room in the middle of the night. There was some thought that perhaps Angel should withdraw from his third-round game on Saturday morning. But Angel, whose father works in a grocery store, refused. He played a marathon 56-move match and was still totally pissed at himself for making what he called “an idiot move” that cost him the contest. This effort, however, was cutting Angel no particular slack from Diana.

He moved his bishop, and she frowned.

“What’s the matter?” Angel demanded. “It is a good move.”

“Maybe for you it is.” Lauren Bacall couldn’t have said it better.

The third round proved to be an excellent one for Mott Hall. Diana’s game was a standout. She found herself in a brutal, drawn-out struggle with a pudgy 12-year-old boy from Arizona. The boy kept the pressure on, taking Diana’s queen in the early stages. But she didn’t fold. She was able to develop her bishops to compensate for the loss in material. It was as if, overnight, in the stress of the tourney, Diana had developed a new way of spacing her pieces on the board. Mr. Times said Diana’s improvement was owed to the “Mott Hall hairpin learning curve.” The game came down to pawns, exactly the sort of situation an inexperienced player like Diana might lose against a higher-rated opponent. But Diana won after 60 moves. Asked to describe the game, Mr. Times said, simply, “Will.”

Diana set the tone. Then Dionis, Diego, and Albert also won, and Mott Hall scored a perfect four points, the maximum. They were in a tie for first with Hunter. “Don’t get too happy,” warned Mr. Times. Upcoming was “the karmic fourth round.” Historically, for reasons known only to the chess gods, the fourth round has been difficult for Mott Hall.

“History? What’s that?” asked Luis, with a bit more Colombian bravado than called for.

“Oh, history, we don’t need no stinkin’ history,” shot Mr. Times, alluding to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As it was, history proved a formidable foe. One by one, the Mott Hall players left the giant Ryman Hall with vexed and puzzled expressions on their faces. Tom went into his room and slammed the door. Even Diego looked shell-shocked. Luis’s game was the most galling. Able to discuss the formation of black holes with ease, Luis was nonetheless capable of losing chess games in the most exasperating fashion. This time, up a queen and five pawns in the middle game, he’d somehow gotten himself checkmated in 30 moves. “How do you do this?” Mr. Times wondered, looking ill as he analyzed Luis’s game. “You’re playing blind … Stevie Blunder chess.”

Last to appear was John Wang, the fourth-grader, the youngest on the team. He said nothing, just slumped down into the chair. “Well?” Everyone wanted to know. What happened? John wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he’d won or lost. “The game kept going on like dripping water … The lights were in my eyes … I felt like my head was full of spaghetti,” John said.

It was the dreaded zero round. Out of a possible four points, Mott had gotten none. They’d fallen from the lead, back to fifth, behind Hunter and a school named Moreland Elementary, from Minnesota.

Clearly, it was time to unleash the secret weapon, Mr. Times said, turning the round-five pep talk over to Candido Tirado. When he first took over at Mott Hall, Mr. Times established a three-pronged teaching model, hiring Abdul Musawwir, a t’ai chi master, and Tirado, a well-known playwright in addition to being a 2,200-rated chess master. “Abdul taught them to channel energy, gave them confidence, a swagger,” Mr. Times said. “Candido was the storyteller, the purveyor of the metaphor, from The Iliad on. He showed them the faces of the hero, the cosmic struggle, which is what chess is.”

With the funding cuts, however, t’ai chi and storytelling were out. But now, thanks to Daniel Rose’s largesse, Tirado, a large, simpatico man whose work has been a staple of Latino theater for years, was on the scene, metaphor in hand.

Alarmed that the team was blowing “won” games, Tirado told the story of the shark. “The fisherman pulls in the shark,” he said in his mellifluous Nuyorican accent. “He hangs the shark up by the tail to take his picture. Then, as the fisherman is smiling for the camera, the shark leans over and bites the fisherman’s leg off. So listen: When you’ve got the guy down, don’t relax, stick the knife in.”

Now, however, Tirado invoked the wounded bear. “What happens when a bear is wounded?” the playwright asked.

“He gets angry,” replied Albert.

“He gets dangerous,” said Sammy.

“He gets revenge,” said Yiqing Li.

“Right,” replied Tirado. “He gets revenge. We have been insulted. We have been wounded. Now we will get our revenge.”

It worked. Dionis was out of the playing room in ten minutes, roaring. “When he tried to take my queen, I laughed to myself. He tried to take it again, and I sneered. When he tried the third time, I checkmated him.” Angel’s game proved inspirational. Back from the hives, Angel had played a game Mr. Times called his “epiphany moment.” Often overanxious, thinking only of his own moves while ignoring his opponent’s, Angel had learned the difference between what Mr. Times calls “the monologue and dialogue.” The idea was to have a conversation, a little back-and-forth, while waiting for the instant to pounce.

Angel said, “He said what he said until there was nothing left for him to say.”

One by one, the Mott Hall players arrived back at the room, all winners. Again, John Wang was the last to return. Spaghetti no longer in his head, he smiled and said, “The wounded bear has returned from the hunt with his kill, and it is good.”

Mott Hall was back in it. After three more points in the sixth round, they were tied for first, ready to play for it all.

Prior to the seventh round, Anatoly Karpov appeared at Chess Control in a gray pin-striped suit. Wide smile on his circular head, Karpov, once the youngest world champion in history, was asked if there was ever a time for him when chess was “not the most important thing.” Karpov answered, “No.” After saying his own son learned how to play “before he could speak,” Karpov was asked if he could immediately tell if someone would become a great player. “Absolutely,” Karpov said. Did his own son show such talent? “Not at all,” the champion replied. “No patience.”

Told this, Mr. Times and Tirado sighed. “Can’t even speak and he doesn’t have enough patience.” Then again, you doubted great players at your peril. Patience was certainly a virtue. Mr. Times had been telling his Mott Hall players that from the start.

They’d need it now, Mr. Times knew, feeling “agitated” himself as he made his final body-language check. Diana was perfect, casually sizing up her cuticles. Albert was also fine, aloof, distant, pumping himself up. There was a dark side to Albert, Mr. Times often thought, a turmoil inside. No one on the team was brighter, or more unpredictable. The brothers Tom and Adam stared straight ahead, acknowledging neither their opponents nor each other, radiating a stolid consistency.

Key would be Diego. He was up against Daron Brown, from Detroit. Also a winner of five games, Brown, an African-American kid who looked to be twice Diego’s size, kept rolling his shoulders and pressing his palms together. He seemed more like a fledgling linebacker than a chess player. “He looks aggressive,” said Mr. Times, with a chill.

Three points would do it, Mr. Times said. It was rare to get more in the final round, with the best players going head-to-head. Perhaps two and a half might suffice. Anything less would be trouble.

As it turned out, Sunil Weeramantry was right about his K–6 under-1,000 team. They’d fallen back, several points behind. In their place was another familiar threat, Columbia Grammar and Prep. Mott had had good results against Columbia in the city championships, but the mightily endowed Upper West Side private school had an imposing coaching staff including grandmaster Joel Benjamin, one of the highest-rated American players.

Right off, Tom won his game. But Adam lost, almost as quick. Still, that was one point in the bank. But then, in quick succession, Elvis and Albert, both potential point qualifiers, lost.

Time wore on. Most of the games were over now, the hall emptying out, the electricity of 5,000 minds congealed to a desperate endgame thrum. Diego and Dionis were still playing. Hours before, Sunil Weeramantry, right about everything else (Hunter nearly swept the younger groups), predicted it would take nineteen points to take the K–6 under-1,000 division. If Dionis and Diego won, that would be 19.5.

Almost simultaneously, both players were done. Dionis, biting his lip, looked to Mr. Times and extended a level hand. His game was a draw. Diego offered no such signal. Slowly, as evenly as if he were making his way down the Mott Hall corridor on 131st Street, he approached, forever unreadable.

“Draw,” he said, without inflection. That gave Mott Hall two points for the round, which added up to 18.5.

Mr. Times peered up at the blaring lights. “I think … we just lost by a half-point.”

Waiting for the results, Mr. Times and Tirado analyzed the games. Diego had saved himself, salvaging a losing position with canny defense. Dionis’s game was a different matter. Behind in both material and position, Dionis had equalized the contest. With one or two astute moves, he would have taken charge. The trouble was, he didn’t see it.

Instantly, Dionis knew what had gone wrong. That innocent-looking kid from the Midwest had hustled him. “I was losing,” Dionis said ruefully. “He kept looking like he was sorry for me. That got me so convinced I was losing, I never realized it when I started winning. But he knew …

“I’m sorry, Mr. Times,” Dionis said, chastened. Mr. Times waved off this apology. Sure, Dionis should have seen what was happening. Next time, he will.

The scores were up. Mr. Times had it right: Columbia Grammar and Prep, sixth-grade tuition, $26,350: 19.0 points. Mott Hall, tuition, free: 18.5. It was what Mr. Times feared—a crushing of dreams, a “weaving of the web of despondency.”

Back in their Opryland lair, Mr. Times cheered his wounded bears. Of all his Mott Hall teams, this was the “most significant”—the one he was most proud of. They went to battle with “limited resources,” with only one coach and a decided lack of experience, and held their own against the heavies.

This said, there would be no pillow fight. The pillow fight was for winning, not losing, however closely. Chess had been around for a millennium, but it was still vicious, illusion-killing. If there was one thing Mr. Times taught, you had to work for what you get. Not that he’d have to tell the wounded bears of Mott Hall that. Born into the school of hard knocks, they already knew.

But wounded bears don’t necessarily stay wounded forever. Diego got a giant trophy, almost bigger than himself, for finishing in eleventh place, and finally, he smiled. A nice, toothy smile it was, too. They would be back, the Mott Hall team vowed, dragging out the chess boards again. It was only nine o’clock, time to play four or five games before the lights went out.

Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table