Joe and Me

CB Campbell

A small crowd has gathered on Toronto’s Gould Street beside Sam the Record Man. Everyone’s attention is focussed on an old man seated at a table on the sidewalk. He yells, waves his hands, pushes his plastic chessmen violently around the board and slaps the time clock with another of his opponent’s pieces after almost every move. He is a speed chess master named Josef “Joe” Smolij and we are witnessing him execute his “Smash-Crash” gambit.

Smolij has a long grey beard. He wears a tattered, dark red wool sweater with “KILL AS YOU GO” hand-printed on it. He presents his credentials for all to see: a cardboard poster featuring a faded newspaper photo of himself, a sketch of Socrates and a hand-lettered statement proclaiming that he is “the fastest chess player in the world.”

Chess has a dignified and storied history; its origins extend back to the Gupta Empire of India in the sixth century AD. By the time Columbus sailed to what became the West Indies, the game had migrated to Europe and the rules were approaching those we observe today. In 1846, the Toronto Chess Club came into being, formally establishing club play in the drawing rooms of what was to become the Province of Ontario.

The chess being played tonight on Gould Street is not a leisurely game carried out in a quiet club over afternoon tea. It is 2 a.m. on a drizzly October night. The bars, peep shows and strip clubs along Yonge Street have closed. The doors of Sam the Record Man have been locked for hours, although, in a nod to the games taking place outside, the store leaves some lights on. Smolij crows as another defeated challenger gets up and fades back into the crowd around the table. I sit in the empty chair and slip my one-dollar bill under the chess clock. It’s my first game of the night, but certainly not my first of the semester.

It’s 198 and I’m in Toronto pursuing Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute. The crowds and late-night lights of Yonge Street have grabbed my imagination and I’ve embraced the philosophy of the journalist as active observer. A photography assignment challenges me to capture some local colour. Smolij provides it.

I live a block away from Smolij’s street theatre, so close to school that I seldom make it to my morning classes on time. I doubt I will ever be able to pound out sixty words a minute on an IBM Selectric. I’ve also twice forgotten to spell Young Street the way the locals do—“Yonge”—a sign of my flagging commitment to mastering the mundane mechanics required of first-year journalism students. But there are exciting stories to be written. A municipal election is coming; the Toronto mayoral race has progressive incumbent John Sewell defending against conservative Art Eggleton. In Ward 6, an openly gay businessman is attempting to take a seat on council. This generates debates and rallies for young journalists to cover, if only for their class assignments.

One night, while avoiding an assignment, I discover the Game Spot: an arcade where I have my pick of dozens of pinball machines and console video games. There are more prurient offerings on the strip; just north of the chess tables, the Zanzibar offers table-dancers. But a ten-dollar cover charge and five-dollar drinks are beyond my budget. Instead, I play Galaga, Space Invaders and Kiss Pin- ball for the low, low price of a quarter. And another. And another—which is why I head home late most evenings with only a few dollars in my pocket. That’s how I discover the late-night antics of Joe Smolij, a man whose commitment to chess is clearly greater than mine to journalism, or Pac-Man.

Chess is Smolij’s passion, and how he makes his living. Each win earns him one dollar. He plays with a chess clock—a two-faced timer that tracks how long each player takes to make their moves. When a player’s time runs out, a small metal flag drops, declaring them the loser. Smolij’s games seldom end with checkmate. Far more often, a flag drops on the challenger. When our game starts, my clock has five minutes assigned; his has sixty seconds. Each time I move, I push the button on my side of the clock, stopping my time and restarting my opponent’s.

I play a few games each night, studying Smolij’s style and searching for tricks that will buy me enough time to see the master’s flag fall. Since Labour Day weekend, I’ve executed a number of strategies, but have not yet found one that works. No surprise, given that chess is a game that rewards experience and my opponent has spent every evening playing speed chess for over a decade. He has been on this corner for two years. Before that, he was playing a few blocks north at Allan Gardens.

Allan Gardens is home to a century old conservatory with exotic plants in six greenhouses. Patrons can walk along paths and view the collection year-round. I’ve spent some time in the building with its warm, humid air. It reminds me of the cow barn at home: a familiar earthy and organic smell, with just a hint of urine. Even so, it’s a welcome change from the diesel and gas fumes of Carlton Street. Many of the patrons of Allan Gardens are homeless or near homeless, and sometimes shiftless. Back in 1978, the police were concerned about the crowds Smolij attracted, concluding he had to be a front for drug sales, not believing that speed chess was a spectator sport. With some prodding from beat cops, he shifted south to Gould.

Tonight we are playing on stone tables—street furniture that the city installed with the intention to gentrify and soften the urban landscape, to make Yonge Street into Family Fun Street rather than the street where people get their rocks off. Bylaws and rezoning have had some impact, but there are always dodgy characters hanging around at this time of the night. Although Smolij is the star performer, there are other players. Men, with their plastic pieces and clocks, claim tables, sometimes for a few hours, or, in Smolij’s case, for the evening. Some come regularly; others, only on weekends.

Two boards over, a young player seeks to emulate the master. Joel is perhaps in his early thirties, but his beard and hard-worn clothing add years. Joel worked in construction until he was injured. Unable to return to his day job, he turned to late-night speed chess to supplement his disability cheque. Although he usually wins, I’ve claimed a few dollars from him. For Joel, life is larger than the game. He’s interested in more than chess, and we have become friends. In the spring we will work together in a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign, my paladin and his half-elf sharing adventures just slightly more violent than the street chess battles of Smolij and the night crew.

Few of the regulars put in long hours on the street. None are prepared to offer the time advantage that Smolij does. A few are “real” players, insisting on at least ten or fifteen minutes for each player per game to provide time to think and learn. The best among them tell me that playing speed chess will hurt any chance I might have of becoming a tournament player.

There is one man who comes occasionally, better dressed than the usual crowd and more skilled as well. He wants to play longer games, and his respect for Smolij is grudging at best. Smolij usually ignores him, but now and then he will mutter, “Club player.” If it is late and a bad night, he will yell it.

Smolij’s time as a club player is long behind him, but he did have his day. Born in 1921, he came to Canada from Poland in 1954. He is credited with five tournament games between 1956 and 1976; in 1959 he won the Ontario championship, allowing him an unsuccessful bid for the Canadian Championship. During those years, he was a machinist. He kept a chessboard close to his workstation. His employer objected and in 1975 he was let go. Still unemployed, he earns money with his chess pieces and clock, spending long hours doing what he loves most.

And he does it very well. I’ve already used over three and a half of my five minutes, while Smolij is barely at fifteen seconds. There are five people watching us play, a couple of the regulars and a few wanderers, drawn, no doubt, by Smolij’s energetic game commentaries. I grab my knight and bring it out, looking to build a wall of pieces that will take him time to chew through. Then I press down my button and my clock stops; his starts.

“This move? Yes, this move.” Smolij begins his play-by-play. I’ve made him think. Three seconds later, he captures my knight with his bishop. “Hah. Kill as you go.” He smashes my piece down on his button, restarting my clock.

With no time to think, I take his bishop with my pawn. I push down the button with his bishop, a petulant effort to send a message: two can play this game.

We frantically trade pieces, the clock buttons clicking like a metronome.

Less than a minute later, I capture his queen. This time, old man, I’ve got you. “You kill my queen; I kill your king.”

I realize he has advanced a pawn—he’s now only one move away from promotion and check. Even with my advantage in pieces, my only option is a major sacrifice.

He may be down to just twenty seconds now, but I’m down to thirty. I make another move, hoping that I can execute the next few fast enough to hold him off.

I bring my queen into position and click the clock. He moves his other bishop across the board.

He uses my queen to push his button down and my clock restarts. I consider my options, desperate to slow him down.

Each game is fleeting, never lasting more than five minutes. Smolij is a permanent fixture on the corner. That winter, I am a frequent patron of his art. By the spring, my interest in journalism is fading. I realize how much I’m enjoying my economics course and how exciting it is to watch an election play out. I decide on Political Economy as a major and am accepted at a different school in a different city.

Smolij continues to play his nightly style of Smash-Crash chess until he fails to show up one February night in 1985. He is found unconscious in his rooming house, a victim of hypothermia and gall stones. His recovery takes place in a nursing home—he does not return to the corner. Instead, he puts his energy into teaching chess to his caregivers.

That night in 198, the end of my lesson is near. I don’t have enough material left to win. I don’t even have enough pieces to block his pawn, just one move away from promotion. Desperate to buy time, I slide my last rook over to threaten his king. Without protection, it is gobbled up. I pull my last bishop back to buy more time. Even as I hit the clock, I know that, again, this is not my game. Smolij pushes his pawn forward and my clock is running again. Attempting one more delay, I draw my king behind a few surviving pawns, but Smolij shouts, “Time!” I’m just a putz playing the master—I’ve done well just to avoid checkmate.

He points to his sign, and I accept once again that I’ve lost to “the fastest chess player in the world.” The game ends. Smolij takes my dollar from beneath his clock and smiles.

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CB Campbell

CB Campbell was born in New Richmond, QC, and has migrated west through the Eastern Time Zone. He now writes and teaches in Thunder Bay, ON.


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