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Outdoor Chess Game Captivates Players, Passersby in Columbia Heights for 13 Years

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Victor Savnkov and Jorge Belloso play chess on a makeshift board and table in Columbia Heights.
WAMU/Lauren Ober
Victor Savnkov and Jorge Belloso play chess on a makeshift board and table in Columbia Heights.

Victor Savnkov and Jorge Belloso stand over a makeshift chess table and stare. This game between the older Russian and the much younger Salvadoran is taking forever. Both men seem deep in thought as they calculate their next moves.

The two players have an audience of one. Quinton Gatling, a sidewalk vendor selling hats and bags and essential oils, has left his table for a second to watch. But this isn’t exactly a spectator sport, since there’s not really a whole lot happening.

If Gatling was playing, it’d be a different story. The man is a regular on this chessboard, which sits on the sidewalk outside of a Bank of America. That means he’s fast — and he’s not the only one.

“We not playing on a clock,” said John Israel, a regular player. “But some people play quick and other people play slow. I’m used to playing on a clock. But most of these guys ain’t.”

Like Gatling, Israel has developed his chess to be speedy.

“If we play five minutes a game, I’d probably beat most of them because I’m used to playing like that,” he said.

But Israel concedes that sometimes slow and steady wins the proverbial race.

“Now, we got some good players up here who aren’t fast chess players. You know, they’ll take their time and they’ll beat you,” Israel said. “They’ll look at everything on the board, every move that you making and why you making it and all that.”

The Columbia Heights sidewalk chess game has been happening for at least the past 13 years, every weekday in the spring and summer. Assuming it’s not raining or oppressively hot and humid, these guys — and they are all guys — will be out from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. playing chess.

Their chessboard is a homemade job, explained Israel.

“We have a guy that bring the table up here. It’s been around for years,” he said. “It’s made out of like, the material that a stop sign is made out of. And it’s like a bar stool that it sits on, an old broken up bar stool that it sits on.”

The game began as a way for the sidewalk vendors to stave off boredom during lulls in business. It grew from there.

Israel lives in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast D.C., but he works at the Giant grocery store in Columbia Heights and grew up just a couple blocks from where they play chess.

“We been around here all our lives and that’s what we been doing. We been doing this for years,” he said.

The game is open to anyone who passes by and wants to stop and take the regulars on. That’s how Victor Savnkov and Jorge Belloso happen to be playing each other this afternoon. Catch it on the right day, and the game can have a United Nations feel to it. No English needed if you speak the language of rooks and knights.

Over the years, the demographics of Columbia Heights have shifted tectonically. As one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the District, the upper 14th Street corridor has seen a drop in the black and Hispanic populations as the white population has spiked. John Israel has watched the change from his perch at the chessboard.

“I remember when it was mostly just African Americans. And you had a couple of Jamaicans and a couple Cubans,” he said.

Israel recalls that the bank they play in front of used to be a post office back before the behemoth DC USA shopping complex moved in. All the development hasn’t changed their game, except for making the sidewalks more crowded. Even during the construction, Israel says, the regulars found a way to keep playing chess.

“Times change and people have to change with the time. It don’t bother me not one bit. I welcome it,” Israel said. “It’s bringing business to the city, making the city better, safer, all that. I like it.”

There are other places in D.C. where chess enthusiasts can get a game. Dupont Circle, for one. Though you better be prepared to bring it because that chess is no joke. And there’s a park with chess tables at 14th and Girard Streets NW, but the games are less regular.

Here at 14th and Irving, though, if you can find a place on the crowded sidewalk, then you’re welcome to a game at this table.

Music: "Checkmate" by Jason Palmer, Greg Osby & Ravi Coltrane from Songbook


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