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Eddie Torres has a knack for stumbling upon heated battles unfolding on chessboards in some peculiar spots around town. “The Starbucks over on North and Wells—you go there around 4 or 5 and it’s full of chess players. At certain McDonald’s around 5 or 6, the entire back room is chess players,” he says. That’s not to mention the transient pay-to-play boards of Touch & Go Chess Party on Michigan Avenue at Jackson Boulevard. “There are tons of unexpected places in the city where chess is being played.”
Over the past few weeks, one of those odd chess hubs has been the Goodman Theatre. Torres, artistic director of Teatro Vista, makes his Goodman directorial debut with Fish Men, a new drama opening Monday 16 that centers on a group of New York City speed-chess hustlers. Because street chess is as much a showcase of rhetorical bombast as of strategy, there’s been an inordinate amount of profanity-laced trash talk in the air during rehearsals. Some scripted, much of it off-the-cuff.
The man running his mouth most often has been the playwright, Cándido Tirado. And rightfully so. He happens to be a ranked player with the United States Chess Federation. The certified master first played the game at home in the Bronx while on Christmas break from college. It was the early ’70s, and phenom Bobby Fischer had captured the World Championship, catapulting chess’s popularity. “I didn’t want to learn, because I thought the game was boring,” he says with a laugh. “My little brother and my best friend tied me up to a chair and made me play.”
Tirado is sitting in one of Goodman’s two rehearsal rooms, which has been sparsely staged with a park bench and three chess tables to resemble the spot that inspired Fish Men one hot summer day in 2000. “I always wanted to combine my passions and write a play about chess, but I couldn’t find the right story,” he says. “The a-ha moment came when I was walking through Washington Square Park.” On public display were archetypes that, Tirado says, come out in the play: the weathered old-timers, the cocksure showmen—and the naive passersby, the titular “fish” on whom the sharks mercilessly prey.
“There’s a real rhythm to it,” Torres says of street speed chess, in which players make several moves in a matter of seconds, slapping the clock after each turn. “The sound of the pieces moving, the tick-tock of the clock and these guys talking shit. So how do we make that work in the theater?” For one, he’s staging the show in the round so the audience is on top of the action.
The actors have been memorizing the choreography of as many as eight chess games along with their lines. Before rehearsals, some of the cast didn’t know a rook from a bishop. “The knight was easy to identify,” says actor Cedric Mays, a chess newbie. “‘Oh, a horse!’ ” But Tirado stresses chess hustling is as much about flash—how to make moving a pawn into an event. “A hustler gives autographs,” he says. “He’s a star. People come to see you entertain.” This isn’t Kasparov deliberating with his head in his hands.
Mays’s brainy showboater, Cash, is a chief rival of Rey Reyes, who comes by the park to pay a debt his uncle owes. Despite Rey’s intention to leave behind his gambling habit, he gets sucked back in. “We’ve named each game like they’re songs in a musical,” says Raúl Castillo, who plays Rey. “In ‘Father Issues,’ I leave my king out to dry in the center of the board, and Cash pulls out some chess psychology about how putting your king out there to die means you have daddy issues.”
“Chess ultimately displays our weaknesses as people,” Tirado adds. It’s what attracted him to the street form of the game as a dramatic conceit: Even when the wager is chump change, the personal stakes are high.