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Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2008

Playing Against the Clock

Milwaukee’s chess kings

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Twenty-nine seconds had passed on the metallic timer at the edge of the chessboard. After the swift, melodic taps of fingers on the timer, the clank of the king hitting the board is the only sound that matters. "Checkmate! … So, basically that's how blitz chess works," says Said Hamideh from across the table, amid a cloud of cigarette smoke, swirls of brandy and licks from Led Zeppelin's second album. In this game, each move is set against the clock.

Hamideh has been playing chess for more than a decade. He cut his teeth at the former Rory's Cafe in Milwaukee, playing chess for 12 hours a day. "Afterward, [a group of my friends] would go to people's apartments and drink and play chess until the morning," Hamideh says. "The only thing that glued us together was chess."

Milwaukee's chess scene is somewhat hidden. Only a few venues exist on the East Side where, on certain days, chess players will crowd over boards with drinks in their hands, aligning their pieces. On Wednesday nights, Circa plays host to one of the only chess nights in Milwaukee; Rochambo Coffeehouse and Teahouse is another hot spot. On any given summer's day, crowds of people flock outside Rochambo, waiting to curl their fingers around a chess piece and plot their next step. And when it's closing time at Rochambo, people spill over to Circa to continue the night's moves.

Masters Tournament

It wasn't until quite recently that the chess scene garnered much attention. Paul Zasadny, a 20-year chess player, founded the Brady Street Chess Masters tournament in 2007, which is the only East Side competition in Milwaukee where chess players come to duke it out on the boards. This past year, more than a dozen players took to the streets during Brady Street Days to capture the king.

"I believe that Milwaukee needs a bigger chess scene and I would like to bring it here," Zasadny says.

Two types of players are found in the world of chess: tournament players, such as Zasadny, and coffee shop players.

"Tournament players could consist of, for example, North Shore HHigh School Jewish students whose Russian dads really care about tournaments," Hamideh says. "I'm half coffee shop and half tournament serious."

Coffee shop players play blitz chess doused with a lot of smack talk. The game is both serious and unserious to this breed, though coffee shop players won't play just anyone. And tournament players don't necessarily respect the coffee shop players. However, what's on the board when the timer runs out matters more than the type of player. Milwaukee's elusive senior chess master, Dave Penkalski, understands this.

Penkalski has been playing chess for nearly 30 years and teaches it through the sports and recreation department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He attributes his status as a senior master to being "really good at beating up on masters." Though retired from tournament chess, he still plays at least five to six games per week.

"Playing in tournaments is fun, but it's considered a young man's game," Penkalski says. "Milwaukee has Brady Street. Rochambo is big now, but once upon a time Brewed Awakenings was the premier coffee shop [on Brady Street] and, at that time, there was a really big chess scene."

Chess has evolved to a plateau where two people can sit across from each other, without speaking a common language, and reconcile the logic on the board. In this sense, the game transcends words.

If painting a portrait is like playing chess to an artist, then playing chess is like composing music to a tournament player. "Chess holds the place of music when I'm away from my keyboard, because it has the elements of time, rhythm, color and space in terms of the ways the pieces interact," Penkalski says.

Though Milwaukee's chess community is slowly on the rise, this game is still a battle. "Chess is a simplified version of warfare, without a doubt," Penkalski says. "But it's also a symbol for the struggle outside of war-just fighting the will of another person."