Oaks creaking in the wind

I’ve been dismantled. Every bishop, knight and rook I once marshaled on the checkered battlefield has been ruthlessly eliminated. It’s taken exactly four minutes and 47 seconds — my humiliation is complete.

Across the table from me, an older man with wispy, thinning gray hair taps the reset button on the chess clock and begins reassembling the board for the next game in between sips of coffee.

“Well,” I say, more to break up the silence than anything else, “that was fast.”

The clock at the next table is winding down, and the two players are moving faster to avoid running out of time. A couple of spectators — students with their arms crossed and brows furrowed in concentration — look on silently.

“I guess I haven’t played enough — blitz chess, you called it? — to win just yet.”

The man says nothing as he replaces the black rooks at the far corners of the board.

“I suppose I have a lot to learn from you gentlemen,” I say.

He looks up at me with placid eyes. “You’ll have fun when you get better,” he says.

I hear a cough behind me. At International House there is limited space for chess players, so lines often form behind each board. I get up to watch the next few games until it is time for my next trouncing. I notice a burnished, old plaque at the center of the table that reads, “This table is reserved from 5 p.m. to closing daily for chess players. Feel free to join them.”

If people knew what they were up against at the I-House Cafe, they might not be so eager to join in. Internationally ranked masters, state champions, former U.S. champions — the pedigree of the cafe’s players is staggering. But these same players will be the first to admit that the brand of chess played at this spot is an equalizing factor.

Under the duress of a ticking clock, some players panic and react in ways that one wouldn’t expect. Missteps are common for newer players such as myself. With only five minutes to play, a slowly developing board can lead to uncomfortable losses in which the player who seems to be “ahead” actually loses because they thought too hard.

Most of the players at I-House are older men who congregate at the cafe to enjoy each other’s company and play the game they love so much. Aside from former and current champions, Cal students can also sometimes be found in the cafe. They sit with computers on their laps playing practice games against A.I. opponents while they wait for spots to open up.

Some of the men are more talkative than others. During less intense games it is common for some players to chide or berate each other when their opponents make questionable moves.

“Are you sure you want to do that? OK, that’s fine, but I’m just letting you know.”

“Let’s see. Oh, you’re a tricky one. Very tricky indeed. You think you’re so smart.”

Strange, guttural noises often float around these tables too. When an insult won’t suffice, a whoop or cry serves as an emphatic means of emphasizing a crucial capture or a strong move. Players will pick up their pieces and slam them onto the opponents’ while removing them from play, and for the coup de grace some players double-tap the clock. Captive pieces are lined up like firing squad victims off the board, where idle fingers swirl pawns back and forth while opponents ponder their next moves.

The intense focus these players employ during games gives their side of the cafe a breathless feeling. Newer players or students passing by seem afraid to approach the men lest they break their intense concentration.

But once you sit down and play a game or two against them, which the players are always happy to do — though don’t expect any mercy — you begin to get a sense that there is more than just chess going on here.

Once, after a crushing defeat at the hands of one of the locals, an older player named Craig with a gray beard and an Oakland hat sat with me and asked me about myself. As pieces clacked against the nearby tables we fell into a conversation about journalism and Hunter S. Thompson novels. Another local known simply as “Doc” discussed the cafe’s summer management change with me, citing the removal of beer from the menu as one of the only noticeable differences.

There is an atmosphere of charged intellectual pursuit in the I-House cafe. These men arrive for the company and stay for the challenge. When I play, I can’t help but feel that I am a mere distraction, a kid killing time in an arena he has no place in.

But then I remember the plaque: “Feel free to join them.”