A match of wits versus a literal genius
While I just mentioned my trip to the White House, let me also share another encounter I had recently with an American Iconoclast.
Let's start in 1994. I am 15 years old. I see a film called "Fresh" about a young inner-city youth around my own age who sells drugs and learns to play chess and to manipulate people like chess pieces to help him escape from his tragic situation in his hood.
The movie resonated with me, (it still does) and it spawned not just a love of independent film which has carried on throughout the years, but a love for the game of chess. On the soundtrack to the film, is a song by an artist named "The GZA" or "The Genius" who is from the Wu-Tang Clan.
I had heard the Wu-Tang clan album a year before, but also around this period, they drop a music video for a song titled, "The Mystery Of Chessboxin'" and it features members of this mysterious Wu-Tang Clan (we didn't have internet back then) with panty hose over their heads, holding samurai swords and rapping about cutting heads off while standing on a giant chess board. It was great!!! Now, not only did I have a love for independent cinema and chess, but now add hip-hop to the mix.
When I moved to New York in the late 90's, I re-discovered my love for chess. I was known for carrying a chess set around the campus of Pratt, and for playing chess with anyone on the scenic lawn of the campus. Eventually, I discovered the chess players of the Fort Greene Park in downtown Brooklyn. They would sit and play for hours, late into the evening, under a beautiful canopy of trees while the World Trade Center sat in the background, sun peeking out behind it as it set.
I would go there every night, and despite my position as a young, white, "college boy", I would wait my turn to play, and to get brutally defeated. They loved beating up on the privileged "college boy", because chess doesn't care about your race, education, background, or status, it cares about the attention you give to the game and its rules.
I must have gone to that park for a year before I finally won my first game, but I was in love with the movement of the material, the spatial relationships and the challenge of the mental positioning and deep thought and strategy that took place each game. I was hooked.
While not playing, colorful side conversations would take place that rivaled any barbershop I have ever been too, and despite the common misconception that I was an undercover police officer that the locals believed for several months, eventually I became a regular and sometimes I would hang with the better players when I was in a good zone, often times I would be regulated to playing a talented young prodigy who came by the park.
Once, I casually played his chess teacher, who was the rank of a master, who easily defeated me in a short flurry of moves and that was the end of that. He offered to play me handicap without his queen, but I declined.
There was a famous player in the park, from Brooklyn, named "Kamikaze". He was named this because he never played defense, he never castled, he was aggressive and brash and always putting on the pressure. His motto was, "Pressure busts pipes". He played the master too, and ended up losing, but he hung with him, and the master noted that he had to have been playing for at least twenty years to arrive at the level he was at.
After a year or so, I became a regular at the park, not the best player, but decent enough that I could eke out a win occasionally and garner some respect. Playing chess in Fort Greene Park, along with my family, friends and the delicious pizza, are the main things I really miss about New York.
Fast forward to tonight. After a whole pandemic of not playing any people live, only online chess, my friend Monk and I meet up to go play chess with one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang Clan, The GZA himself, in D.C. at a private event, after my friend Julian hips me to the event. We meet up, and get there at my trademark early time, and sign up to be some of the first players on the list.
In walks the GZA, dressed in humble attire, not really noticeable if you don't know who he is. Monk plays, gets a few compliments on his playing, but the GZA is playing really well and capitalizing on his advantage and reputation as a good chess player. The GZA and Wu-Tang's music is playing in the background, people have drink tickets and those not playing are being social.
Finally, it's my turn. I ask GZA if I can notate the game. He says it only three minutes per player, so it doesn't make much sense, so I will try to replay this game in my mind for you all, because no notation exists. We are playing speed chess, so when it's your turn the clock is counting down from three minutes. If you run out of time, you lose, no matter where the pieces are.
He plays white and comes out pretty standard. I make a humble move and pretty soon I am on the defensive. Then, I decide to go for my first "check" of the game. (How cool is this I get to say "check" to a legendary rapper who basically started me off playing chess because of his influence). He counterattacks and I am on the defensive. I am taking my time, and I start to notice he has about a minute more time than me. I move my bishop back, retreating and he starts to turn up the heat.
I decide to sacrifice my bishop for a pawn, a reckless, but strategic move that works in the Fort Green Park, where players like "Kamikaze" have taught me about pressure. This move wouldn't work in a normal game where you have about an hour or two to play the entire game, but we only have three minutes a player. This move destabilizes his protective pawns and leaves his king less guarded. It's also my second time putting the GZA in check.
I make a blunder, lose a knight and soon he is attacking me again. He puts me in check and now my king cannot castle. He forks my king and rook, and eats my rook up, gaining more material. With the luxury of time, I would have tried a sneaky mate, with an attack on his king coordinated with my queen, but I blunder and hang my other knight. I look at my clock, not paying attention to his, and I have about a minute of time left.
When he takes my rook, I don't take the rook back, I immediately move my other rook in position to strike again, my third time putting him in check. I'm playing loose and recklessly, and not paying attention to all my pieces, but instead trying to throw haymaker after haymaker. I don't see his bishop, which he drags back and eats my rook with, averting disaster for him. I don't have many pieces except for my queen and king and a handful of pawns left, and I glance at my clock and it's dwindling down to thirty seconds.
He puts me in check again, and again and my king retreats to wherever it is safe. We are both moving rapidly, like a call and response, move to move and pieces are hurriedly jumping from square to square in a frenetic and hectic dance. Then he speaks to me.
This voice that I have heard for almost three decades, the voice of a wise sage, the voice who rapped iconic lyrics on his bonafide musical masterpiece, Liquid Swords, (One of the best hip-hop albums of all time and one of the best music albums of all time) the head of the robot that forms like Voltron, the motherf*cking Genius of the whole Wu-Tang clan, and he informs me that, despite his material and positional advantage, "You won on time."
I had been so caught up in play that I hadn't noticed his time had expired. I had a measly ten seconds left on my clock. He asked if I wanted to continue playing the game. I looked at the board and his dominant position and material advantage and decided to quit while I was in the winning position. Because, although he had the winning moves ahead of him, he lost on time, so even though he played stronger, the time management gave me the win, even if it's only a technicality. Hey, a win is a win!!!
A "W" is a "W" and "W" stand for Wu-Tang which is forever and for the children, like the 14 year-old who started playing chess because someone like Gary "GZA" aka "The Genius" Grice made me feel like chess was the coolest game in the world, an intellectual and noble pursuit. I have applied things I have learned in chess in other aspects of my life and it has helped me think very deeply.
I am humble, I am thankful to all this man has meant to me, chess players and fans of the Wu-Tang Clan. Thank you GZA, for making me feel 14 all over again, and for everything you do for hip-hop and chess.