Like the snapping of a hypnotist’s fingers, the trance-inducing smell of french fries is shattered by an unusual spectacle that often stops lunch-goers in their tracks after swinging through the door of the McDonald’s at 95th and Halsted streets.
A crowd of men hunched over, snatching at their tables — for chess pieces, not chicken nuggets.
Bouts of concentration are broken by flurries of rooks and pawns, trash-talking — some in the singsong variety — guttural groans and theatrical seat-shifting. One man’s piece-sliding style is akin to karate chopping cinder blocks. Speed chess is not for the meek.
At a corner table, a face is buried in a wonky book on game theory.
Participants are a hodgepodge: jerk chicken delivery guy, former cop, lawyer, minister, bus driver, homeless man, social worker, car salesman.
In lieu of any formal South Side chess clubs, they are a nomadic band who settle nowhere and welcome all.
Several in their ranks can trace the game back decades to open-air spots in Hyde Park, their primary turf. But winter forces the group to migrate, sending them in search of friendly locations.
They’ve done stints at Starbucks, a Borders bookstore, Burger King and a few other fast-food spots.
One man, designated the group’s “advance scout,” does reconnaissance, ensuring potential locations are kosher before the flock lands.
“The main problem is our size. The group can grow to 50 or 60 people some days, all trying to play,” said Leslie Muhammad, a social worker. “It can be a little overwhelming for a business. And not everyone is spending money.”
Since November, they have taken refuge at the the McDonald’s at 95th and Halsted in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Their presence — morning to night, seven days a week — is welcome, unique and serves an unintended purpose.
“They are like security,” said Lance Jones, owner and operator of the restaurant.
“Kids see these grown men in here doing their thing and that’s a deterrent. I could probably even go without a security guard when these guys are in here,” he joked.
Skill levels vary from newbie to national master. But anyone who wants to learn the game is welcome and, when ready, simply needs to knock on a table.
“That’s the protocol here,” Hickman said. “If you want a game, you knock on the table.”
Alex Moore, a freshman at Hansberry College Prep in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, walked in for a burger a few weeks ago and was mesmerized. He knows chess. His grade school physical education teacher taught him the game. But his confidence is not quite there yet to knuckle rap a table. “Hopefully soon,” he said.
The group plays speed chess, also known as “Blitz,” an intimidating variety to the uninitiated.
Add to that the trash-talking that heats up as pieces begin to fly. “But it’s all in love,” said Marvin Dandridge, who holds the rank of national master. He often comes in to watch, but plays only when a “nemesis” — a similarly skilled opponent — is in attendance.
“It’s a place where black men can kind of pull together,” said Dandridge, 58, a social worker who lives in Hegewisch. “I think that’s one of the big attractions for these guys.”
Like in any tight-knit group, nicknames abound. Dandridge is “Uncle Marvin” because his nieces came one day and were crawling all over him.
“The Professional” is sharply dressed, fedora slightly tilted. “Disco” has a mohawk.
Sedrick Prude’s handle is tattooed on his arm: “Big Pawn,” an abbreviated chess-nerd version of “Big Punisher” that was first uttered by a defeated foe at a chess tournament in Atlanta. “It’s a love affair. I love chess and she loves me,” said Prude, 44, a chess instructor who works at several schools in the city and is quick to interrupt a conversation when his wife calls.
Roosevelt Davis, who’s from Bolingbrook and works in auto sales, is the “Hooker” because he hooks opponents and reels them in.
Mike Israel, 34, a warehouse worker known as “Stone Wall.”
“I don’t even know why they call me that,” he said.