Check Mates

Trash-talking, fast-moving, root-taking: Chess takes on a whole new attitude with the regulars at Dewey's Coffee House

Forget all that stuff you thought you knew about chess: silent halls filled with players who have been hunkered over boards for hours, concentrating on offense and defense before making a move.

You haven’t heard Al Alford goad Mike Williams over a chessboard at Dewey’s Coffee House in Shaker Square. “Get up, get up,” Alford orders, as Williams slowly raises from the wooden chair. “Take that whipping and get up.”

Williams is a big man; when he sits at the chessboard, he takes up lots of space. He’s big enough to tower over Alford, who also has some heft and height.

But Williams doesn’t argue. He moves to the chair on the left, and settles down to wait for another chance to take on Alford.

He does lob a parting shot, though. “I think he took more moves than he was supposed to,” Williams says.

Alford lines up his pieces for the next game. He doesn’t lift his eyes from the board. “Always got an excuse for losing.”

Williams’ revenge is fast and sweet. With only five minutes to play, Alford ends up on the wrong side of the board — the losing side. When he sees the inevitable, Williams leaps from his chair.

“Finish him, finish him, Spud,” he urges the apparent victor. “Don’t give him no break. Finish him.”

When the chess players gather at Dewey’s, the games collapse into minutes-long competitions. Sure, there’s concentration while the game is on; when the game ends, though ...

Well, listen to the way the guys tease Williams one night, after Alford finishes him off once again. “That’s low-down,” they say, while laughing and shaking their heads. “That was really low-down.”

No, the guys who hang out at Dewey’s don’t just play chess. They’re devoted to speed chess, a game of strategy, quickness and good, old-fashioned trash-talking.

“It’s just a game,” says Tony Dudley, who plays several times a week. “It’s fun.”

The number of regulars varies: One Friday, 10 showed up; one Tuesday, only four made it. They drift in as it suits them. Some arrive around 3 p.m., others come in after work, still others stop by about 8 p.m. But the playing lasts until the coffee-shop staff shuts the door and begins stacking the chairs on the tables.

That’s hours spent on games that run three to five minutes apiece.

The rules of speed chess go like this: Each player gets a limited amount of time to make all his moves. Depending on the opponents, the clock gets set at three or five minutes. It ticks the time down until the player makes his move. He hits the clock, hard, like he’s making his final point. And the man on the other side of the board takes over. You must beat the opponent and the clock.

“If someone’s clock exceeds the limit, they run out of time,” explains Alford, who works as a general contractor. And that player loses, no matter what’s happening on the board.

To win, a player has to be quick, size up his opponent and move the pieces after only seconds of study.

That’s why Williams loves the game.

“I’m not that good a player,” he says bluntly. “I get something more valuable than winning. I get constant exercise here,” he adds, pointing to his forehead.

Williams is one of the faithful, stopping by almost every day after knocking off from work at the commercial roofing company he runs.

He credits an ex-wife with introducing him to chess. “She taught me how to move the pieces,” he says.

Williams played conventional chess until he met Dudley, who introduced him and the others to speed chess. Now, the game is Williams’ mainstay. He says it has taught him how to handle stressful situations he encounters on the job.

On this day, for example, two inspectors were looking over his shoulder. Then a customer wrote a bad check. “I had to back up and make a sound, unemotional decision for each instance,” he says. “[Chess] helps.”

He comes straight from work in his overalls, sweatshirt and work boots, roofing tar stains on the back of his hands.

He runs a tab: treating friends to coffee, alternating Coke — his caffeinated beverage of choice — with orange juice. The bottles pile up on the table, where all eyes are on the chessboard and whoever’s playing the game of the moment.

One Friday, Alford reigns, keeping his seat while opponent after opponent sits down and then gets up. He’s been playing at least 20 years; chess is his way of relaxing after a hard day at work.

“It takes your mind off everything,” he says. “You have to concentrate.” Still, it’s tough to focus when you’ve got a knot of spectators watching your every move.

Their table is in front, right across from the cashier and directly behind the condiments station. Folks who come in to grab a quick cup of coffee often linger, fascinated by the action in front of them.

“A lot of people like to watch it,” Williams says. “They don’t understand how we work so fast. They don’t understand that any human being can adapt to playing speed chess. And the younger they are, the better they’ll be.”

There’s no secret to mastering speed chess, though. Williams says it’s simply a matter of learning the game and playing it repeatedly. And anyone can do that.

But at Dewey’s, women only stop and watch. They don’t ask to play.

Yes, it’s a men’s club, and these guys have been playing together for more than a decade. They started at the Arabica in Shaker Square. When that coffee shop closed, they found other places to play: bars, a doughnut shop in East Cleveland, even on the Square itself when the weather was nice. At Dewey’s, they’ve come back home, to the place where it started.

That’s where Dudley found them back in the ’90s.

“One day, I walked into the Arabica,” recalls Dudley, who lives in Cleveland Heights. “Mike had a little chess set. They let me play; they weren’t used to getting whipped,” he laughs, leaning back in the black leather chair near the fireplace at Dewey’s.

When he ran into Williams and the others, Dudley had played competitively in a British chess league where, he says, he was undefeated. He retired after playing for 2 1/2 years, though.

“I had a marriage and kids,” says Dudley, who is now a barber. “There was no money in the game.”

He likes his speed chess games short and sweet. “I prefer three minutes per game,” he says. “Five minutes is almost boring.”

When he plays, he whips his opponents “for free.” But he won’t play with everybody. “I’m generally selective,” he explains.

And he won’t play for money; he believes it makes the games too volatile.

“Some players are lousy losers, [especially] when you’re whipping them and taking their money. If I know them and I like them, I’ll beat them for free.”

Dudley, like Williams, likes the competition and the camaraderie. But Alford, ironically, says serious chess players should stay away from the rapid-fire games he plays each night.

“In speed chess, you aren’t looking deep into a move; you get into the habit of moving without looking,” he says. “You don’t have time to work out a strong strategy. You aren’t seeing what you’d see when you’re studying the board.

“This is more for coffee-shop players.”

Maybe. While he’s talking though, Alford has one eye on the board and one ear tuned to the timer. It’s clear he’s counting the minutes until he can end this conversation and get back to the chessboard.

And he’ll sit there, playing one game after another, until the coffee-shop clerks roll up the mats, sweep up the floor and turn off the lights. 

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