I had the day to my self. Finally some time alone to do what I wanted after weeks and weeks of catering to others. It is mid Autumn in Manhattan. Back in Boston it had been unusually warm, not so down here. I had most of the afternoon ahead of me after a quick coffee with a few colleagues in the city, the friend I was going to meet for dinner had to work late, so there I was with a good eight hours to kill. I went to Bryant park; the last time I was in the city with time to spare that is where I went, I ended up meeting with a dead end recruiter in the Chrysler building shortly after that, so who knows where this moment of pause in the park would bring me. I wanted Indian food, and of course, being only a few blocks from the tourist traps of the city, every place I looked at was either packed or over priced. I looked online to see where the closest subway was and then saw where that subway would take me; I could go uptown towards Central Park, have some food and then have a cigar (I brought one because I knew I would have time to enjoy it), or I could go downtown to SoHo and Greenwich Village. I opted for the later. I got off at Washington Square and started walking towards the Indian restaurant I picked out in the West Village. I really didn’t want to go into Greenwich Village because of the bad memories of my last time there over the summer, so that guided me towards the Hudson. While I walked I happened to come across this little Mexican restaurant that looked perfect to relax for a few hours and have some tasty food. Just as I hoped the place was empty and it was warm, those were the two requirements I had.
Like I mentioned earlier, the weather in Manhattan was pretty different than Boston’s the day before, it was actually seasonal so I can’t complain, all I can say is that I was sorely mistaken for not wearing a jacket. I had a pretty good burrito at the Mexican place; the ground beef was just spicy enough to warm me up and the guacamole, lettuce, tomatoes cooled my tongue when things got too hot. I wanted a beer, but they wanted too much for one, so I got coffee. The coffee was fantastic; almost like Turkish coffee there was a pleasant sweet aroma and a hint of cane sugar and caramel that worked my palate
like a crisp sauvingon blanc would after having brie and apple in a puff pastry – if that means nothing to you then I highly suggest you try it right now! Anyway, this is not a restaurant review, but this would be an otherwise unsavory account of an ordinary afternoon if I didn’t include the above. After gorging on Mexican goodness I needed that cigar and a good walk. I really had only one objective and that was to find a park were I could enjoy that cigar, as luck would have it, Washington Park was only a few blocks away.
It had gotten dark and I saw that the bums had set up camp in on the benches by the entrance I was approaching. I decided to be bold and invade their territory with hopes of not angering the urban homesteaders with my cigar smoke. It was here where I met Alex. About sixty years old, Alex was dressed like your typical hobo; he had the baseball cap, at least one big puffy winter jacket and probably a few layers of pants on. I actually felt envious for once – I was clearly out of my element in my jeans, cotton button down dress shirt with only a thin cotton v-neck sweater, hardly protecting me from the penetrating cold wind that pushed its way through the trees of the park. Alex was sitting in front of a chess board. I loved chess and I had nothing to do for several hours, I asked him if he charged to play. I knew his time had to be worth something. It only cost me a coffee and donut from the Starbucks up the street.
Alex didn’t say much, but he played chess pretty well. I figured he would be about as good at chess as I would be at making macros given that this must have been somewhat of an occupation outside of his cigarette business. He sold a pack for nine bucks, making a small profit margin, especially in New York, but he still undersold the corner stores by a few bucks. His clients tended to be exclusive though, he knew them on a first name basis like any good proprietor and was flexible with the quantity he sold. I liked this guy, he was smart. I guess even the bums in New York have that drive to achieve that I really haven’t seen in other cities. Alex and I played three games. I lost all three. What I learned though was not just a better way to play chess, but I learned something about my self. In chess, just like in life, I like to make the first move. I guess that is the control freak in me, but what it does is open me up to a vulnerability of being taken by someone who waits for me to make the bad move that inevitably comes. This guy exploited that bad move every time just like a sharp trader on Wall Street would make a quick in and out move on an undervalued stock and get out just before the price hits equilibrium and the gains flatten. So Alex just waited. Even when I tried to change up my playing style in the second game he still got me after about twenty moves. He took me after I had every major piece except a rook and a queen and he took me after I totally shifted from a heavy offense to an almost neutral playing style. The key he told me was not strategy, but tactics, and then it made sense; I had a strategy, but he really didn’t play with a strategy, he would not hold himself to a predictable pattern, but he would use a few clever tactics to put me into a position where I was trapped – trapped by my own strategy as it were since that is what he exploited. It would not have mattered if I played defense or offense I think since he was always just a few moves ahead of me. Alex’s favorite piece was the knight, I hate the knight, but I have now come to respect it just like I respect Alex and will be thankful for the lesson he taught me.