High-stakes chess game at corner
Chess is a rough game. Russian star Garry Kasparov once said, "There is nothing cute or charming about chess. It's a violent sport. When you confront your...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Chess is a rough game. Russian star Garry Kasparov once said, "There is nothing cute or charming about chess. It's a violent sport. When you confront your opponent, you set out to crush his ego."
Still, I bet Kasparov was never patted down for weapons before playing.Which means he's never been to chess night at Thompson's Point of View, a friendly but troubled soul-food place at Seattle's most cursed corner, 23rd and Union.
It was at this intersection that the owner of Philadelphia Cheese Steak was gunned down a few months back. Before that there was a spate of shootings. The corner is mostly shuttered businesses or empty lots — a weed in the lush lawn of boomtown Seattle.
The other night, glassy-eyed women roamed the corner, running a "gas-can hustle." You tote an empty can, pretending you're out of gas. Money duped from kindly passers-by is used to buy drugs.
"This is as close as Seattle gets to Harlem," says Ray Wright Jr.
He would know. Wright, a 51-year-old everyone calls Uncle Ray, grew up two blocks away. He spent most of his adult life hooked on crack, in and out of prison.
Now nine years clean, he's trying to bring peace to this corner — and to the heart of it, Thompson's — using the most combative of games.
At 7 p.m. every Wednesday, Wright and a friend, Saviour Knowledge, roll chess mats onto the tables of Thompson's and invite anyone, from regulars to leery neighbors to "those kids on the street," to come play.
They got the idea after Degene Barecha was killed in January. He was the second owner of Philadelphia Cheese Steak to be murdered in five years.
They also are trying to help a restaurant known for 30 years for its soul music and fried catfish. When drug hangout Club Chocolate City closed six blocks away last year, Thompson's was beset by drug loitering and violence.
It changed the place. It used to be like eating at a black community center. Now at the door you get scanned for guns. There's a bullet hole in the wall. And cracked glass near the front from a fight.
"It's hanging by a thread," Knowledge says. "It's not this place's fault. All the kids out here selling drugs, shooting — Thompson's can't control them. We've got to get some juice in here to take the place back."
When he says "juice," he taps his head. Chess is the antidote to rash behavior. You have to think three or four moves ahead. Or get your ego crushed.
Both men learned the game in prison. Their play is slashing, bullying. They often make moves in 15 seconds or less, launching aggressive assaults on the king.
"It's the game for street fighters," Wright laughs. "It's combat. Only it's combat with your brain."
This summer, they plan to move their games outside, onto that cursed corner. They dream of filling the walkways with chess. Folks going by would see that 23rd Avenue and East Union Street isn't all about dumb moves and lost opportunity.
Can chess save a corner?
"I don't know, man," Wright says. We are out on the corner, watching the gas-can hustle.
"But you don't see me out here doing that anymore, do you? Somehow, some way, it helped save me."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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