CHESS STORY opened in September 1990, when Damon Norko rented the building on the corner of Park and Mulberry streets where the late Abe Sherman used to rule irascibly.
The bookshelves of Sherman's Out of Town News remain, but now books on chess strategy and tactics have replaced paperbacks and foreign press publications. Handcrafted chess boards, sculpted pieces and framed newspaper clippings about chess tournaments fill the large storefront window.
Night after night, players compete from 6 p.m. until midnight. Sometimes the mood is subdued, the room silent, like the reserve room of a library. At other times, when a blitz chess match begins, the atmosphere is more like that of a friendly poker game. Now the players race against the clock, and the game may become boisterous. The players trade banter, muttering phrases to the invisible demons lurking in the subconscious.
"You ain't got nothin' yet, rookie," Louie the cabdriver insists, over and over. "Once a rookie, always a rookie. Shut up, rookie!"
The players' nicknames reveal the way they play chess:
"The Surgeon" plays on, despite having been shot six times. "Donut" makes bad moves, as though he has a hole in his head. "Doc," the philosopher, explains chess theory as he moves the pieces. "Night Out" goes to town when he hunkers down to a good game of chess. And William, "The Exterminator," is the top-ranking player at Chess Story because he usually wipes out his opponents.
Lew Hucks is another celebrity in the local chess scene. Hucks has managed a Dundalk chess club and is now the president of the Catonsville Chess Club. He has also drawn cartoons for the Maryland Chess Newsletter. Years ago, he played Bobby Fischer in a simultaneous chess match. Fischer was at a disadvantage because he was playing 65 people at the same time, but Hucks was able to beat the grand master in 21 moves.
Many people don't realize the extensive effort that goes into becoming a good chess player. Players work to improve their own skills by reading up on strategies and by observing the games of others. This is a game that demands intense concentration, hours of practice and the extraordinary ability to see moves far in advance.
Chess Story is more than a row of tables and boards. Here, players come to make their moves -- and to live their dreams.
Barbara Traub writes from Baltimore.