The game of chess, say the best players, is really a series of puzzles. Solve enough puzzles and you end up on the right side of a checkmate. Keep it up for enough games and you might earn a title like "master" or "grandmaster," a title that brings entry into a storied meritocracy of world leaders and street hustlers; a title with a lineage of names like Fischer and Kasparov; a title that started in New Orleans a century and a half ago when a one-time child prodigy named Paul Morphy crossed the ocean to defeat the finest players in Europe. (See sidebar: "Paul Morphy's Shaky Shadow.")
That's the kind of chess that Jesuit student Trevor Jackson played at a national high school tournament to win a four-year college scholarship, or that Haynes Middle School student Jordanna Williams played as part of the United States team at the World Youth Chess Championship in France. It's the kind of chess that Jude Acers plays every day at his battered table on Decatur Street, where he takes on all comers for five bucks a match.
And it's the kind of chess that René Phillips was playing on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, in a high school in Sulphur, at an event billed as the Louisiana State Blitz Chess Championship.
When Phillips finally emerged that afternoon from a room lined with folding tables and roll-up chessboards, he had gone 7-2 for a second-place finish. The tournament over, he told his kids that he was too tired to drive back to New Orleans; they'd grab a hotel room and relax.
Up to that point, he'd been thinking only about chess, not the hurricane then swirling in the Gulf. The night before, he'd been at St. Augustine coaching the school's chess team; his friend Eddie Compass had stopped by to help out. But on Saturday evening in Sulphur, his nine chess games finally over, Phillips turned on the hotel television. When he saw the news, he immediately started trying to contact his family, including his mother, a nurse who was on duty at Lindy Boggs Medical Center and ended up staying through Thursday with her patients.
He reached some loved ones, couldn't reach others. Phillips was stuck in Sulphur, stuck in his room. Over the next few days, he figured out that his residence at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was flooded and that he'd lost everything.
An ordained minister, Phillips had served as a sergeant in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and was a member of the S.W.A.T. team before he launched a chess training Web site called The Chess Gym. Now, suddenly depleted, he faced a new puzzle, a new set of moves. "I couldn't get any money. I couldn't show any fear in front of my wife and kids. We didn't know where we were going," he says.
He tried returning to the Sulphur high school, the site of his recent tournament victory, to ask for a job, but that went nowhere. Phillips' mother-in-law heard that the mayor of Philadelphia was inviting a thousand evacuees to the city. Phillips' extended family -- he now was looking after a group of 13 -- didn't have enough money to get that far. Then a call came from somebody he didn't know: Daaim Shabazz, an associate professor at Florida A&M University who runs The Chess Drum, a Web site for black chess players.
Shabazz knew about Phillips, knew about his game. He immediately wired him $200 and began calling every few hours to guide the family to Philadelphia, supplying directions and making hotel reservations. More than anything, Phillips says, Shabazz helped him keep his sanity.
In Philadelphia, some of the city's top chess players showed up at Phillips' hotel to greet him and play a few quick games, and they hurried together a benefit tournament that took place on Sept. 25. Shabazz called in to check on the tournament's progress. "I was told brothers were 'droppin' hundreds,'" he reported on The Chess Drum. In all, Phillips says, he and his family received a television, a microwave and $1,200 on the spot.
"All these years, my wife said, 'You spend too much time playing chess,'" he says. "But I've never been so proud to be a chess player or a black chess master. It wasn't the church, it wasn't the Red Cross or FEMA, it was a chess player over a Web site in Florida I never met before. God used him as a link to get us the resources we needed to survive."
THE STORY OF POST-KATRINA NEW ORLEANS IS, IN PART, A STORY of communities -- the chess community among them. Not everyone knows that New Orleans is a chess city; the game, after all, is often played in the corners of dark coffee shops, and some of its fiercest matches take place on weekends in school cafeterias. (See sidebar: "Where to Play Chess.") Yet when New Orleans flooded, there was panic in the chess world just as there was panic everywhere. "Game's History Taken By Storm," cried the New York Post, with one grandmaster mistakenly reporting that chess legend Paul Morphy's Royal Street home -- now the site of Brennan's Restaurant -- was under water.
Most of the early attention focused on Jude Acers, a celebrated and eccentric player who became the Fats Domino of the chess world when his whereabouts became unknown following Katrina. A tireless player and self-promoter, Acers, always clad in a red beret that he says acts like a stoplight for passing tourists, routinely beats his opponents on Decatur Street while recounting stories of playing Bobby Fischer to a draw, or of the day on Long Island in 1976 when he played 179 opponents at once, earning one of several citations in the Guiness World Records book.
Acers' resume also includes teaching chess in prisons, authoring books, and now, surviving Katrina. After staying in New Orleans for nine days, he finally emerged in a shelter at the Clyde Austin 4-H Center in Greeneville, Tenn. Chess sites soon posted a letter from Acers, in which the 61-year-old player described running "the night gauntlet" to get rations for his 80-year-old landlord.
By October 2005, much of the French Quarter was still shuttered, with only a few clusters of relief workers walking around to see the sites. But Acers' Decatur Street chess table was back up, and his return was heralded nationwide as one small sign that the French Quarter would regain both its character and its characters. "In my own running narrative about life in the French Quarter, Jude Acers never loses," wrote Kane Webb, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
It wasn't the first time that local players attracted national attention. In the 19th century, New Orleans was the nation's capital city of chess. In 1887, New Orleans' chess club had 700 members; the next largest was the Manhattan Chess Club with 200 members, according to a report in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Early 20th century chess magazines also cited New Orleans' high standing in the game, and organized chess clubs attracted city leaders. In later years, the New Orleans Chess Club's notable members included former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who during his JFK assassination probe reportedly spoke in coded chess moves over the phone to elude suspected wiretappers.
Yet much of New Orleans' chess action has taken place outside of organized clubs and tournaments. John Parsons, who coaches chess teams for Lusher and Trinity schools, also co-founded the Maple Leaf Bar. From the start, he put a chess table in the music club's front window to attract the chess crowd that hung out at the Seven Seas bar in the French Quarter. "All the guys from the Seas started coming up to the Maple Leaf," says Parsons. "I learned to play by getting pounded by people like Jude Acers."
Growing up near the corner on Seventh and Dryades streets, jazz musician Irvin Mayfield says he and his friends would jump backyard fences to go watch the old men play chess, checkers and backgammon. The same guys he'd see masking as Mardi Gras Indians would be huddled over a chess board, with their shouts of "Go ahead, take it," echoing under pecan trees. Mayfield learned the game from his father, who from the start never intentionally let his son win. "If my dad was playing chess with you, it was a sign that you were somebody he really respected," Mayfield says.
"New Orleans is one of the few places where you can go and find a chess game at any point of the day," Mayfield says, ticking off the jazz musicians he knows who are good players: drummer Herlin Riley, trumpeter Leon Brown. But bassist David Pulphus is another story, he says with a laugh. "He's one of the people who'll take 30 years to move. He beats you by waiting."
Mayfield says there's a reason why jazz musicians like chess, and it's the same reason the game has been a New Orleans institution for so long. "Chess is a lot like jazz," he says. "You have the form and structure, but inside, there's a lot of room for freedom. The more you understand the laws, the more freedom you have with it.
"In New Orleans, we improvise. That doesn't mean that we're making stuff up. That means that we're taking what's available and making better opportunities with it. A true chess player looks at those blocks on the board and they represent opportunity, they represent control, they represent mastery. The chess board is just an instrument."
And like jazz, chess can have its own cutting contests, with a current contest between Mayfield and fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis starting to gain a legendary status. In a series of interviews in various newspapers and magazines, the two musicians have brought up each other's chess game. For his part, Mayfield says that they started playing together about seven years ago. "At first, I was killing him," Mayfield says. "But you know Wynton, he's got to do everything just perfect. He started getting better and better, then I think I let him win a game.
"Now, I've asked him several times to play, but he says he's too busy. He's got so much stuff to do. But when you play chess with somebody and you put that hurt on them, it's hard for them to really come back. And I tell you another thing, it's hard to see a grown man cry. I'm glad to know he has an emotional side, but it's not pretty."
Mayfield has also gone downtown to play chess on Canal Street, and he says he's taken on Jude Acers at his Decatur Street table. "He tore my ass up," Mayfield admits. Another frequent opponent has been former police chief Eddie Compass. About once a month, Mayfield says, he'd meet Compass at 7 a.m. at police headquarters. "Compass is a consummate chess player, one of the best," Mayfield says. "I've never won a chess game against Compass, I tell you no lie."
One morning, Mayfield recounts, he showed up at Compass' office with Marsalis at his side. What happened in the Compass-Marsalis match is a matter of ongoing dispute. Mayfield says that Marsalis touched a piece, which mandated that he move it. Marsalis protested that he was just adjusting it. "Compass said, 'Don't make me go ballistic up here!'" Mayfield says.
Compass also remembers the game well. "I had Wynton against the ropes," he says. "But I need quiet and Irvin knows this. I was a piece up and was about to go in for the kill, and Irvin was talking the whole time, and I touched the wrong piece. Wynton gave me the deathblow. That game haunts me to this day. I'm ready for the rematch, and Wynton knows it. But next time I'm going to put tape on Irvin's mouth."
Compass also remembers the Friday night before Hurricane Katrina, when he was working with René Phillips and the St. Augustine team. He was a St. Aug student himself when he first saw people playing the game. It was lunchtime, and two students were facing off across the board. "These dudes were so intense," he says. "The more I watched the more interested I got." Although he started playing, he never admitted to his friends at St. Augustine or later at the University of New Orleans that he was hitting the boards. "I was so young and stupid, I was kind of an undercover player," he says. "I'd sneak off and play, because I didn't want my friends to know I was playing chess. I didn't think it was cool."
Compass joined NOPD and began playing with Arnesta Taylor when the former police chief was still a sergeant. He says his game continued to improve when he matched up against cab drivers at Wendy's on Canal Street. "I had a detail there and when they closed the Wendy's up, I would sit there for two or three hours while they counted the money, and play the cab drivers. They would teach me how to street fight."
In the mid-1990s, Compass played chess with kids in the Desire projects as part of his community development work. He remembers bringing University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf to play a few games. One of the Desire kids beat Scharf, he recalls proudly.
But Compass says it was during the first hellish week after Katrina that he most recognized the real value of the game. "Chess helped me tremendously after Katrina," he says. "I wasn't getting much sleep, and I would go over past chess games like a mental exercise to keep alert. Where I had made mistakes, I'd go over those mistakes over and over. Chess settled my mind."
EVEN BEFORE KATRINA, ORGANIZED CHESS in New Orleans wasn't quite what it used to be, says John Parsons. For a time, he says, a group of businessmen met as the Paul Morphy Chess Club, but they mostly played bridge. "They didn't even have a chess set," Parsons says.
For a time, the Maple Leaf had even taken the chess table out of its front window. "All the good players either found Jesus or they started playing on the Internet," Parsons says. "They went to church or they'd just sit there in their office on the computer. The Internet hurt chess even more than the hurricane."
Yet during this same period, another chess league blossomed. The names of New Orleans kids started appearing in the national rankings of top scholastic players. In the past 15 years, local students twice took home first-place honors in annual tournaments. The most recent New Orleans scholastic league before the flood had 105 teams, totaling about 800 kids. Not since Paul Morphy's time had such attention been paid to chess in the city.
For scholastic chess, however, 2005-2006 became the missing year. Top scorers got out of their game during the evacuation. Some returned to playing to discover that they'd been outpaced by competitors from other cities. Many never came back to New Orleans -- or if they did, their coaches didn't.
"Last year, we got back together after Katrina, and we had a couple tournaments, just to let everybody know that we're going to do it again," says David Pierson, who founded the Louisiana Scholastic Chess League in 1985 and recently returned as its president. "We had maybe 60 to 80 kids in each division. We were smaller than the gym." He pauses, his voice registering his dismay. "Smaller than an elementary school gym," he says.
Pierson launched the scholastic chess league when his daughter was starting school; he says that she had low self-esteem and they later learned she had a learning disability. Chess is just the thing to help kids like her. "People think of this as the game for the gifted and talented," Pierson says. "But I've found my best chess players are the kids who are getting frustrated in other areas. They're the troubled kids who are working around the edges. And because of chess, reading comprehension improves, their attention spans begin to increase."
Pierson was driven by another agenda, he says. "All the way back to the beginning of when we started it, we constantly heard how Louisiana can't do this or can't do that, and how we're on the bottom of every list. The idea was to use chess as a metaphor so people would see that something good must be going on in Louisiana."
At first, it wasn't an easy sell. Pierson called every public and private elementary school principal in the New Orleans area. Some thought chess was too hard for kids, and asked if he'd consider a checkers league instead. But he got eight schools to participate, and it took off from there. Pierson, who now teaches English at De La Salle, says the local league's unique team approach -- which motivates the best players to coach more inexperienced team members to drive up the overall score -- is one reason why the city has produced so many top-ranking players. In other cities, players are mostly out for themselves.
Rebuilding the league won't be as hard as getting it started was 20 years ago, Pierson says. He won't need to convince as many people of the value of chess. He also hopes that the league might reap benefits from the dismantling of the New Orleans school district. "We were trying to work through the school board and it was ridiculous," he says. "Everything had to be in triplicate. The problem wasn't the kids, it's never been the kids. They come in and they're so hungry for it. The problem is when no adults want to step forward."
Yet Pierson also measures the toll that the past year has taken. In addition to Phillips, top teacher and frequent Louisiana champion Alfred Carlin is no longer in the city; he's living in Dallas. One Canal Street player, "Cincinnati" Harold McDaniel, still hasn't been heard from. The hardest-hit school in the league was Ben Franklin Elementary, which, in the 2004-2005 school year, won top prizes in the city and state. In the fall of 2005, "Baby Ben" was the first public School in New Orleans to reopen after the hurricane -- but it no longer had a chess team or a coach.
"We started the team from scratch," recalls John Johnson, Ben Franklin's former coach, who is now living in Conway, Ark. Ten years ago, Johnson had taught his son to play chess, and he'd started volunteering in the school. One evening, the principal called to see if he wanted to be the school's chess coach. "Our first tournament, we went eight losses," he says. "The only game we won was because of a no-show."
Johnson's chess club started meeting three times a week. Parents of chess players were required to volunteer one afternoon a month. "We went from the bottom of the league to the top tier. That's where we were when Katrina came. We had won state. We were going to go to nationals."
Johnson says he's stayed in touch with his chess parents, most of whom are scattered across the country. One has started a club at her new school. And last spring, when the New Orleans league hosted its first tournament after the flood, Johnson's top player drove in from Atlanta to represent his old team and his old coach. The student called Johnson on the cell phone after every game and at the end of the tournament, when he won first place.
Johnson still chokes up at the memory. "The group I had was really a special group of kids," he says. "They supported one another. The older kids supported the younger kids. That was our family."
LAST FALL, WHEN MIKE TROENDLE ENTERED HIS EASTERN New Orleans warehouse for the first time since the levees broke, he saw for himself what it looks like when 12,000 chess sets go through a flood. He started digging, hoping to maybe salvage a few boards, but came up empty.
Troendle started his Internet company CajunChess.com when he was still a student at Ben Franklin Senior High. Before the storm, it grossed $350,000 in annual revenue. The scholastic season gears up in the fall of the year, and Troendle had just gotten his new orders in. There was no insurance.
Troendle now has the Web site back up and a new storage facility in Alabama. But while he was down, other chess sites filled his orders and gained his customers. "I'm not sure how this is going to play out," he says.
He's gotten his old club going again. Every Friday night, Troendle hosts chess games at Puccino's Coffee House on Magazine Street. But the numbers aren't there, he says. They're getting maybe a third of the players they got before the storm. And some of the people who stop by aren't really chess players. They're moms and dads just trying to pad the numbers and keep the club going.
"A lot of the targets are taken away," he says. "What keeps kids going is if you have a René Phillips or an Alfred Carlin. Then the kids have someone to shoot for, someone to beat."
IN PHILADELPHIA, RENÉ PHILLIPS ADMITS HE'S BEEN SUFFERING from PTSD, a disorder that he used to think was a myth. He has sleepless nights, depression, mood swings. He also sees it in his son, who was a running champion but now says he just doesn't see the point to it anymore.
Phillips says that he quit his first job in Philadelphia when he and his co-workers were walking down a snowy sidewalk and the co-workers stepped over a homeless man. "They said the city would take care of him. It reminded me of the Katrina response," he says. "I just went into the restroom and broke down."
He's not currently entering some of the big tournaments, where you pay $500 to compete for a $13,000 prize. At this point, he says, that would just be gambling. His top game is probably the five-minute blitz, a timed match that requires quick, decisive moves. Once in a while, he says, a picture of Katrina will come into his mind during those five minutes, and it slows him up.
That's one reason why his new goal is to get his national rankings back up, to regain his status as a master. To show himself that it can be done.
Phillips, like coaches throughout the city, insists that the game must go on. Because as often as chess players talk about the stresses of the game and the uncertain legacies of forefathers like Paul Morphy, they also talk about the many benefits for people -- especially kids -- who learn to play.
Everyone offers an individual spin on this belief. Mayfield says that chess instruction should be mandatory; it gives kids a knowledge that can never be taken from them. Chess is a great humbler, says Compass, adding that, along with the martial arts, it's the best discipline a child could have. As Parsons sees it, the game teaches children to question authority and examine all decisions, including their own. There's not enough of that kind of thinking in the country these days, he says.
When asked why he thinks chess is good for students, David Pierson recalls a summer class he once offered to inner-city kids at the University of New Orleans. He was playing a few students at the same time, and he noticed that one boy wasn't making any moves. Pierson turned his attention back to the other players, but every time he returned to the boy, the board hadn't changed. "I asked him, 'What's the matter?'" Pierson says. "He was a second or third grader. He said, 'There's no way to get out of check.'"
Pierson then listed the possible moves that can get a player out of check. One of the methods is to capture the piece that's threatening the king. When the boy took another look at the board, he saw that his bishop could capture Phillips' rook. "Then I said, 'I want you to look at the board. Is there anything else you want to say?' He said, 'You're in check.'"
"That's what the game teaches. You're not at the mercy of some other power. You're not a pawn."