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Sixty-Something: Chess Over The Years

T.J. Clemente

The author playing Matt Culen at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. (Courtesy Photo)

Everywhere you look on the Internet, people are posting, talking, and recommending the Netflix original series, The Queen's Gambit. I am amazed by how many folks are praising the series because its chess scenes are actually a large part of the show, along with a wonderful driving narrative about an orphaned young girl and her journey through her life to become a chess champion.

Although the game of chess has been around at least 1,500 years, its main stream popularity is usually limited to some hard-core chess players who have the time and knowledge to engage in some intense one on one mind games with those chess pieces on that chess board. I can't remember not knowing how to play chess. I know I knew how to play before I went to school. I also know my folks had no idea how to play and were amazed I did. They always bought me nice chess sets. I believe my first set was in a round metal tin can with a checkerboard on one side and a Chinese checker board on the other, inside were checkers, pieces, lot of marbles for Chinese checkers, dice and finally, plastic white and black chess pieces.

Over my sixty-seven years, I have had some intense chess partners playing regular games. My first intense daily game experience was with Tom Romero, following a tragic accident right after high school graduation (1971), Tom and his girlfriend Joanne were driving in his sports car when they were hit by a drunk driver head-on. This happened on US 1 at an intersection in Mamaroneck, NY early on a summer evening. Joanne was killed and Tom was so badly injured that after being extracted from the car, he was left with multiple broken leg bones, broken ribs, and shattered knee caps, not to mention in a coma. It was touch and go, but Tom pulled through and after eight months in New Rochelle Hospital, mostly in traction and intense physical therapy, Tom was released. He purchased a Ford Econoline van and, in that van, we spent the late spring and early summer of 1972 going cross country both east-west, north-south. We even crossed half of Canada on Canadian Highway 1. Before sleeping in our bunks in the van, we would play chess every night.

At first, I was winning, but Tom was improving with each game. Then, somewhere through the journey, he emerged from a gas station holding Bobby Fischer's chess book. He refused to play me for two days while he completely read the book. The next match, he crushed me. Then I read the book and afterwards we had great matches with victory going back and forth.

At the same time of our sojourn of 1972, there was the Boris Spassky/Bobby Fischer World Chess Championship played in Reykjavík, Iceland during the summer of 1972. So, by the time I arrived at GWU in September, everyone was talking chess. We had a chess club and I was able to win matches. During college I had a daily game with David Busler everyday during lunch. We would play one or two games while we ate sandwiches. When he graduated, I played less and less.

During my divorce, because of a whole host of events, I ended up having a regular game in the evening - usually during dinner with Mary Ross Sibrams (2000) in her New Rochelle attic apartment. We never dated, but played chess almost every day for months and during the matches we would talk about my divorce and her dates.

After the divorce, I landed in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and played chess every Tuesday night at the New York Athletic Club with the NYAC Chess Club. I was even President for a short while under Chess Chairman Alec Diacou. My highlight there was playing a match at first position versus the Harvard Club and winning while also drinking five Jack and Cokes! The gentleman I defeated recorded every move in this huge book of every chess match he ever played. When we would meet up, he would pull out the book and turn to that page and called it one of his worst defeats. I told him I have lost to everyone, which only made him more depressed about that loss. I will never forget being at the NYAC on the night of September 11th in 2001, a Tuesday. We didn't play chess that night, we all went to the restaurant/bar, 21, and sat in shock like a family while all the drinks were on the house. Some of our friends were unaccounted for, 13 of mine perished.

When I moved to the East End permanently in 2003, I started a chess friendship with Ben Dollinger - who was the bartender at the Blue Parrot. We would play on the bar itself when business was very slow. Then I moved to Ditch Plains in Montauk and would play a surfer and writer named Thor. We played regularly either at the beach or on his boat, until brain cancer took him.

Now the only chess I play is at the American Hotel with friend Matt Culen - who now is President of the NYAC Chess Club (still under Chairman Alec Diacou). When we last played at the American Hotel (pre-COVID), it was prime summertime. The match went on for almost three hours (no clock), and at the end, we were getting suggestions from the waiters, busboys and bartenders. Even the G.M. Julian Ramirez was suggesting moves. I loved that match. It was a pure East End experience.




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