Speed chess is playoff basketball. Regular chess is golf.

Here are some thoughts after reading Stephen Burt’s post. I learned to play chess as a kid, and was pretty decent for a while, able to sometimes hold my own with grown-ups, then I didn’t play much again until my early-twenties: on the quad in grad school, in cafes in Prague.

The first time I played speed chess was in Washington DC, Dupont Circle, 1994. There were six stone chess tables, with stone chairs, built into the cement, on the park’s eastern ring. A poet I knew, DJ Renegade, would play there regularly, and I started watching him. The idea of sitting down and playing myself was intimidating, on a bunch of levels. The speed. The fear of failure. The public nature of it all.

After several weeks of watching, I gave in and settled down one spring afternoon opposite a good-looking young guy with dreadlocks. Maybe he was a bicycle courier; I loved how none of the dozens of players really fit the stereotype of a chess nerd. Anyway, the first game was disorienting; several times I forget to hit the clock after my move, and my opponent slapped the clock with enthusiasm. And he talked trash, trying to intimidate me, as he snapped up a pawn and thwacked the clock across its head, leaning forward a little, casting a shadow on the board, snarling, “where’re you running?” He could smell my nervousness, and he was pouncing. It’s one thing to listen to someone talk trash to a third-party; it’s very different when you are the recipient—the words feel like shoves. Needless to say, I lost that first game, but the beauty is that each game lasts under ten minutes, so you just re-set the pieces and play again, and like Stephen said, it’s addictive. Many a day, just a peek to see who was playing turned into a four-hour detour.

Over the next couple years, I got to know a player named, Arthur. “Why you trembling?” he’d growl when he smelled confusion wafting up and out of my ears. He’d win a couple bucks off me each day, in fifty-cent installments. At the next table, Lefty, turned trash talking into an art form, bellowing out “come on, smoky,” when he felt the momentum shifting his way. “Oh, no you don’t, you little Bama,” he’d bellow. I learned which players I could hang with, and which were a class or three above. Like Sherman, a master, who spotted me a rook and gave me a four-minute time advantage and let me pick the square that he would checkmate me on. I could literally feel his brainpower rolling over me as he stripped my pieces, alchemized two pawns into queens, and herded my king around the board.

I haven’t played chess much since leaving DC fifteen years ago. I just never found somewhere as fun to play as Dupont Circle. You had businesspeople, cab drivers, homeless people, international masters, card sharks, poets, teenagers, old people, of a multitude of races and nationalities, all hovering over the boards. And you had many non-chess players strolling by and milling about. Chess in someone’s apartment just doesn’t have the same thrill, which is probably just as well since speed chess was not good for my poetry; I hardly ever wrote after playing, or even had the urge. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that speed chess and poetry come from the same region of the psyche, but both are intuitive and fast-paced and dramatic, full of surprise, and one move, or line, can set-off a chain reaction, that rare feeling of inevitability, when each piece, or word, seems to propel itself into place.

Originally Published: April 29th, 2011

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...