Check, Mate: Playing chess at the Pratt with Aaron Brewer and Girmai Ogbe

Dec 22, 2014 City Paper

Tap-clack. “Here he comes. Here comes Scotty,” someone says. Tap-clack, “Your move.” Tap-clack. Aaron Brewer (pictured) and about nine other men are bowed over rolled-out chess boards making fast moves, taking turns taking down queens and bishops in their consecutive five-minute games. Each player could easily knock back a hundred games straight in a day.

This unoffical chess club plays in the Central Branch of  the Enoch Pratt Free Library way back behind the Business, Science and Technology section. Four long tables hide a dozen small stools each where men rumble and gather from the moment the library doors open until closing time daily. Occasionally, the revolving cast of chess players varies, but not by much.

Brewer is a quieter gentleman who says he started playing chess outside of City Hall in downtown Baltimore in May 1965. “If you lost—you drank a quart of water,” he says. “And I drank a lot of quarts of water before I learned how to play.” No one in his family played chess at the time. He just walked past by the rows of men playing and bellied up one day. “I was watching the guys play down there. I liked the challenge.”

City Hall remained the hotspot for street chess players until about the turn of this century. But this crew, which calls itself chess club, adopted the back half of the reading room in the library about six or seven years ago. Brewer says the library wasn’t overly fond of the group at first. “About three or four years ago we used to come in here and play chess and they would tell us that we couldn’t,” he says. “So we kept coming, they kept putting us out, until eventually they started the chess club for us.”

Now you can check out a mat, pieces, and a timer for the day by giving your ID or a library card at the front desk. There are two small signs on the tables that read “reserved for players” and a big novelty chess board with pawns that come up to your knees.  There are other clubs throughout Baltimore including an advanced group that meets at Reisterstown Plaza from 5-9 p.m. daily, and some of these guys will hit that spot when the library closes.

From May to October the men play at Hopkins Plaza, but they call the library home during winter. Occasionally, a woman will make an appearance, but none have stuck.

Brewer arrived at 10:30 a.m. today and says he will likely stay until 7 p.m. Repeat tomorrow and the next day from here on out. He’s been retired from his post as a machine operator for the railroad for a few years now and is satisfied to finally spend quality time steadily working on his game.

“I always played chess,” he says. “Every day. I even missed out on some opportunities in my life because of it but I don’t regret playing a single game.”

He says that romance in his life has, at times, suffered because of his commitment to playing. “I enjoy playing because it’s good for my mind and it’s taught me how to deal with every kind of personality,” he says. “In order to be a good chess player you have to be able to deal with all kinds of personalities.”

Girmai Ogbe, otherwise known as “G,” is younger than most of the players. His thick dreadlocks can hardly be contained under a grey knit cap. He keeps his jacket on and zipped up as if he’s prepared to leave at any moment, but he doesn’t. He hovers over the games with a tisk-tisk-tisk round of advice, but the players don’t seem to mind. They take note and call him “the teacher.”

“He be teaching us but he be gettin’ his tail whipped, too. Did he tell you that?” Brewer points to G, who smiles and agrees. “He’s not teaching us so much as he is scrimpin’ scrimpin’ our game, see? But I love it. Cause see, I ain’t never got into the books, yet. Everything I learned about chess—ain’t nothing come out from no book. I’ve learned from playing. Just playing.” Both men agree they learn something from each other with every game they play.   

G sounds like a seasoned college professor when he really gets going. He says he is a member of the United States Chess Federation, but has been formally inactive the last few years because the tournaments cost time and money. “Chess is a luxury and you’re not guaranteed to win money,” he says. “Plus you can get good at chess without becoming a member.”

G is articulate, confident, and unafraid of his age, but he never comes off as a know-it-all. “The stronger the player is you can tell by their demeanor cause they’re more humble,” he says. “They’re aware that there are always stronger players around. There are at least millions of chess players in the world, so unless you’re one of the top five, how can you talk trash?”

G works nights and weekends in the food service industry and spends most of his free time at the library and doing other chess-centric activities, some of which are not social—watching and reading historical and modern games, and learning new techniques. “The thing about chess, is that age doesn’t really matter,” he says. “I look like I’m the youngest here but as far as chess goes—I’m the oldest. It’s all about how much time you put into the game and in trying to improve at the game.”

But unless you’re a grand master or teacher, G says it’s pretty hard making a living off of chess alone. “It’s not like other sports in this country. It’s not really supported, kind of like soccer. America doesn’t pay that much attention to chess since Bobby Fisher. The game is more than just filling a script. For some people it’s about the psychological battle on the board. For some it’s a way of living. For some it’s a way to stay in shape mentally.”

G explains that you can learn a lot about life by playing chess, specifically when it comes to trials and tribulations. “It forces you to think strategically, make plans, be patient,” he says. “It teaches you to be responsible. You’re pretty much the general in your own army and each of these 15 pieces—you’re responsible for. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices. The objective is to take and maintain initiative—that way you have more options, just like in life. If you just let things come and go and don’t put that radical action in—then you’ll just be subjective. You won’t have any will to impose.”

G recalls a long-term relationship which ended after nearly 10 years without going into details, but suggested that, as with Brewer’s last relationship, the amount of time he spent with chess had something to do with it.

Brewer and G sit across from one another for a round of three games. G had to sell his chess board last week, but feels confident he’ll be able to buy it back soon enough. The library’s set was well-worn and to a non-player, some of the pieces looked too difficult to distinguish entirely. It’s hard to say who won best out of three because the match seemed to be more of a learning process for the two men with many years between them, like an ongoing argument among old friends. “This bishop’s pinned and you’ve got to defend the queen,” G says to Brewer.  It’s your move, anyway.”

“I know it’s my move. I go, I go there,” Brewer responds. “Now that’s much better than a mate.”

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