Two people sit at a stone table in front of Au Bon Pain. A chess board is spread flat, a timer alongside; the casualties of battle are knocked askew around the perimeter. Only 15 of the original 32 pieces remain. Both players flick pieces across the board, then tap their own side of the clock, ending their turn and restarting their opponent’s countdown.
This is blitz chess: occurring in the Square for hours on end, day after day. Each player starts with five minutes, but whenever the move is on them, their precious seconds trickle away. If you play carelessly, you’ll be checkmated before the clock runs down. If you think too long about all the options, however, it won’t matter how well you’re playing: you lose the game when you run out of time.
Daylight fades on a game this Sunday night, and the only illumination comes from a street light on the corner. An older man, playing white, sits between the board and the light, casting a shadow over the game. His opponent is a curly-headed teenager who hunches over the board, studying the situation. Black is down a pawn but up in time.
There is a man standing behind the clock. He nods approvingly when a good move is made and cringes when he sees a mistake. His shirt is cut open at the neck, making a V from his collar down his chest. He is middle-aged and well-built; he stands up straight, shoulders back, arms crossed.
His name is Thomas J. DeMartino and he was a Southie boy back in the ’70s. During dark times for the city of Boston, the 11-year-old DeMartino was allowed to roam free on the streets. “My father was a drunk and my mother had to let me go out of the house sooner or later,” he explains. “So I would make my way out of South Boston, downtown, where the lights were bright and everything stayed open late at night ... I was sick of going to bed, tired of going to bed, eight o’clock, nine o’clock ... screw that. I went downtown and I realized there was poison, and danger, and mayhem on the streets during that time and in that area,” he says. “If I got into a situation where I had to run, I’d run into this place called the Boston Christian Youth Organization, and they’d be open ’til 11 o’clock and in there they would have a place where you could work out, a place where you could read books, and they’d have a place in there for a gentleman to play chess.”
That’s how it started. But as a teenager, DeMartino started to lose interest in the game. “Basketball was the thing, and when I was telling people, ‘Yeah, I’m playing chess,’ they would say, ‘Well you’re gay; you’re queer. You’re playing chess? There’s something wrong with you.’ And I’d go, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I ain’t playing no more.’” So he quit the game. But just as his interest in chess was waning, the American chess hero Bobby Fischer captured the World Championship from Boris Spassky and the USSR. “And now it belonged to America!” DeMartino exclaims, “And I say, ‘Well I play that game! I know that game!’ So I went back.”
After playing competitively for a few years, he was “dragged” into the military and served in Afghanistan and Kuwait. “You know how life is, it just takes you away from the thing you like a lot,” he says. But when he returned, he found himself at those very tables on Mass. Ave., playing chess.
Today the game he has been watching comes to an end, and the older man is ushered away by his daughter. She had appeared during the game: when she walked over and tapped her father on the shoulder, he looked up at her as if he didn’t know her and turned back to the game. But now the chess is done, so life can resume.
The kid is Thornton M. Tice, a student at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, on the other end of Cambridge, who comes to Harvard Square for the chess. Lately, he has been revisiting the game he started playing when he was five years old. “My dad taught me how to play. And most recently, I’ve just been playing my older brother a lot, and he’s good. So whenever I lose, it’s a lesson.” Tice has been getting much better, DeMartino informs me. “He’s an aspiring expert for as young as he is and the amount of time he’s been playing. So this guy’s really, really good.”
DeMartino often reprimands the young man for not taking enough time with his moves, but Tice seems to like moving fast. He rarely pauses to think after his opponent has moved. DeMartino explains that this is because Tice plays both sides of the board: he figures out the best move for the other side to make, and then prepares his own best move in anticipation—all while his opponent’s clock ticks on.
Tice and DeMartino play a game, which Tice wins on the clock: DeMartino had a better position on the board but he ran out of time. When Tice plays, he seems relaxed and willing to make friendly conversation. “I’m getting my tempo back now, right?” DeMartino exclaims. “No,” Tice responds with an easy smile. “Not quite yet.” DeMartino keeps up his psychological game, insisting that Tice is in a bad situation, but the younger man’s confidence is unshaken.
After the game, a high school student leaves his sister and sits down opposite Tice. When he gets up again, Tice’s clock reads 4:54—the newcomer has been defeated in all of six seconds. Tice plays DeMartino once more and then rushes off to East Cambridge, leaving DeMartino alone in front of a dimly lit chess set, waiting for the next competitor.