Lawyers,writers and homeless people play game after game for hours at a time. They play through the stench of urine that sometimes engulfs the area or the intoxicating scent of marijuana.
Hustlers stand alert,ready to sell ice cold water or a soda in the summer heat. Cigarettes go for 50 cents a stick. The once-active drug trade is more on the hush. Everyone knows it's still around,but no one will say who is a part of it.
This quarter of the historic Dupont Circle,surrounded by pubs and mansions,on most evenings attracts some of the city's best chess players,rich and poor,white and black,but mostly men. Others stand and watch or relax on the benches,across from the action,looking toward a marble fountain in the middle of the park
Games are rarely played in silence. The Bible,politics and life are often discussed around the tables.
Richard Turner,61,does not engage in these discussions when he is on the table. He whispers about what his next move should be. In a game against David Hollingsworth,39,a writer in economic policy,Turner contemplates moving his king to save himself from the inevitable.
“No,that's too open,” he said,eyeing the depleted right side of the board.
The two of them play with a four-minute clock. Hollingsworth,who is quiet and lightning quick,either beats Turner or lets the clock get the better of him.
He plays the game because of its unpredictability.
“I like the mechanics of it,the planning,the execution,seeing the results,” said Hollingsworth,who works at the Center for International Relations in Arlington, Va.
He takes a bus to the circle from his office or D.C. home to play and meet interesting people from diverse backgrounds.
Turner,whose world is completely different from Hollingsworth's,took a break on a recent Sunday evening after winning a number of games against a different opponent and sat down on a nearby bench. He patted it and said this is where he spends most nights. He has no home,no job and no family. His worldly possessions fit into a school-boy backpack.
“I can't even be happy no more,” he said. “There's nothing to be happy about.”
Years ago,before Turner began coming to the circle,he had a daughter,a girlfriend and a job.
“I was doing good,man,working and everything,” he said.
That all changed when his girlfriend left him while he was at work,and left their daughter on the front steps of his mother's home,in the rain. When Child Protective Services found out,the agency took his 4-year-old daughter,now 26. He has lost track of her.
“I couldn't do anything,” he said.
In the process,he lost his job as a security guard. And then one by one his relatives died. He lived in hotels or wherever he could find a place to stay,until he could no longer find work and ran out of money.
“That was it,came to the streets,” he said.
The park benches are a common resting place to homeless people. Turner spends his days playing chess to relieve his mind from the stress of finding the next meal,hoping that someone will give him money or food.
“I ain't robbing a bank,” he said. “Ain't that desperate.”
Next to Turner sits a man who is slumped over and having a hard time getting words out of his mouth. When he does,he says he was a Marine in Vietnam. His shirt is undone and he holds a 24-ounce can of beer.
“He drinks too much for me,” Turner said. “That's what killed my father. I ain't going down that road.”
A few benches down,William Moore,68,sits beside his checkerboard. He has been coming to the park from his nearby home since the concrete chess tables were built in 1968.
The park was like Woodstock back then,he said. College kids slept on the grass in the circle. Bizarre things took place,including baptisms in the fountain.
Retired men spent the day in the circle,just over a mile from the White House,and sometimes people would find work while hanging out. Construction companies or homeowners needing painters came by to recruit.
“Honest money,” Moore said. “You can be what you want to be out here.”
“Mr. William,” as he is known,has been teaching children how to play chess and checkers in his spare time. He retired after doing various jobs,from hotel work to income tax work. He plays music for a church to make money and wants to use his masters degree in biblical theology to do missionary work.
“This is the best park,” he said. “No park can do what this does.”
As night deepens,and the chess quarter clears out,homeless people claim their benches,so they can sleep with the mosquitoes,and wait for one more day to pass.