“Welcome to the terror dome,” Moses said as I sat down across from him.
Seated in a booth on Monday night in the corner of McDonald’s at the intersection of 40th and Walnut streets, we played chess for about 20 minutes before Moses declared victory. (I’m not skilled at all, so it wasn’t a surprise.)
I had already watched Moses beat Rashid right before me in a longer, more skilled match, so, when he said that I was entering the “terror dome,” I already anticipated a quick defeat.
Although I observed the players for just one evening, it was an opportunity to watch a ritual where, nearly every night, male chess players rotate in and out of McDonald’s — and sometimes the Fresh Grocer — to play chess. They do not play for money, but rather for the love of the game — and bragging rights.
“We play for pride,” Moses said.
Moses learned to play chess in the 1970s, although he wouldn’t say exactly when because he didn’t want to disclose his age; none of the players that night wanted to give much personal information, and most chose only to disclose their first name. Rashid learned to play when he was about six years old.
“I’m Muslim and play chess to pass the time away, as I am trying to be obedient to God,” Rashid said. For him, playing chess is a way to keep busy and stay out of trouble.
In total, there are about 10 rotating chess players at McDonald’s. The rotation began in February, said Warren, another frequent player who chose to observe on Monday since he had already lost a few games earlier that evening. It was Warren’s chessboard they were using that night.
Warren moved to Philadelphia from Virginia Beach two years ago with his wife when his mother, a Philadelphia resident, was hospitalized. He currently works part time at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play.
“This is very relaxing,” Warren said. “Chess makes you think — I love that. It keeps you mentally active.”
Occasionally the players play blitz, also known as speed chess.
“Sometimes you might see a dozen guys here,” Moses said. “Some guys bring their own clocks. Sometimes it gets ugly in here.”
As my game with Moses continued, he said he had never before played chess with a girl — which made me laugh, because he had been playing chess for over 40 years. In between our moves and conversation he would motivate himself out loud. “Wait a minute Mo,” he said over and over again, referring to himself, “that’s gonna leave a scar.”
Other than at McDonald’s, the players and observers unanimously agreed that the best spot to play chess during the day is in Rittenhouse Square.
One of the observers, Yahya, who is 30 years old, said he comes but doesn’t play because he wants to observe and improve his chess skills . He has won a pool tournament before and says he did so through careful observation and repetition — the same strategy he’s endeavoring to take with the game of chess.
“All you gotta do is show up,” Moses said to Yahya.
As for playing more frequently with college students, the chess players seemed excited by this possibility.
“We’re not prejudiced,” Moses said. “Students can come by all the time.”
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