Flyer by Paul Glover (via Molasses Books/ Facebook)

On any given night Molasses Books, the tiny bookshop/bar in Bushwick, draws a colorful crowd to readings and other happenings– really, on any given night of the week you are bound to find cool characters. But on Tuesday, an especially great group made it out to Chess Night, a newish event popping off once a month at the shop. At one point, my friend who had invited me to the casual, come-and-go-whenever get-together, looked up from his chess game and remarked, “I’ve heard, like, five people mention polyamory tonight.”

He was right. There had been an awful lot of sexy talk. In fact, the date (or, possibly, Tinder “date” avatars) next to me had divulged into breakup-story peacocking. Definitely out of step with the usual, oppressively bland attempts to impress one another through subtle one-uppings of coolness, these two instead seemed to be sparring about who had inflicted the most “pain” on their respective exes.

And that was just the start, really. Things got a bit looser as the night wore on (because alcohol) and eventually, what had at first seemed like a gathering of regulars, nerdy chess lovers, and the usual Bushwick independent bookshop types, took subtle turns veering off into a more after-hours-type affair. (Accidentally stumbling into a bright and bustling trivia night at a busy spot around the corner might as well have been a visit to a parallel dimension.) One couple took over the front-window booth and were necking like French teenagers.

Meanwhile, as I wolfed a sandwich down at the bar, an enormously thick lock of Pantene-shiny hair fell from the sky and grazed my miserable meal ever so slightly like a tickley feather. Turns out that this mane was attached to a human, a very attractive girl doing some high-drama hair flip into my lap– purposely? Who knows. But she was definitely shooting me eyes. Which, to be perfectly honest, never really happens when I’m sandwiching.

Eventually, we started talking about the New Yorker and the apathetic children from Scandinavia I was reading about. She was very talkative, and kept steering the conversation back to herself, and eventually her sex life, of course. She was moving to Bushwick soon, to an apartment of her own, probably, and would soon be rid of roommates altogether, hopefully. This was great news because the girl she was currently living with might be listening in on her hookups, and maybe even recording these encounters and “getting off” on all of this. That was her theory anyway. “My lifestyle’s not for everyone, I know,” she said. “But that’s not consensual.” Right she was.

What was I doing here, she wanted to know. I told her that I was writing about Chess Night, and she laughed when I asked if she was into chess. “I’m not an enthusiast.” She had played a game but it was… whatever, that wasn’t why she came. “There are some people from the BDSM scene here,” she said plainly, and directed my attention outside to a male figure. “I’m sleeping with him.”

Everything about the vibe, an explanation as to why my friend was even here, it all started to make sense. There was at least a partial explanation of why the long-haired girl had taken an interest in me, I was wearing my uncharacteristically hard black leather jacket with a couple of spikes that were there when I bought it. I mean, from the torso up, I would have pegged me for a bondage gal. And I guess I really had been abusing that sandwich pretty hard. And yes, an inside source confirmed, there happened to be a whole lot of fet people committed to Chess Night. Understandably, my source refused to submit to my giddy gasps– so this Chess Night was, like, secretly a front for bondage chess? No, no. It really was just chess, he insisted.

Flyer by Paul Glover (via Molasses Books/ Facebook)

It wasn’t so surprising that people, no matter what their pleasure persuasion, felt free enough to let it all hang out at Chess Night, if that night was any indicator of how things usually go: games move slowly, almost sensuously in the candlelit bookshop, which hums somewhere between quiet chatting and silent concentration, a level of calm that wasn’t disturbed even with the door was propped wide open to let in warm air and, inadvertently, the sound of Bushwick’s distressed, sweater-clad mini-dogs yelping desperately at the Pink Moon. But the atmosphere was far from sedate– the chess players were highly focused, even if they were not out for blood, and it was actually something that could be felt as you approached the shop. “You can cut the tension with a knife,” one regular told me.

Master of ceremonies Paul Glover explained that he and his partner Emily McMaster, both Bushwick residents, started Chess Night six months ago with the intention of welcoming “all comers” to their friend Matt Winn’s independent bookshop for friendly chess playing in a “low-pressure environment.” Perhaps this was a break from another, much more high-pressure, but equally fun (for some) pursuit? It could also be that Chess Night just serves as another healthy release valve for NYC stress– because let’s be real, you can’t masturbate all the time.

It’s best to look back to one’s childhood for the source of these interests, I guess. Both organizers had a chess-soaked upbringing– Emily came from “a pretty serious chess family,” Paul explained, while he was taught the game in fifth grade. “That went beyond just how the pieces move,” he said. “Then I had no relationship with chess for a long time, until recently.”

He had been reintroduced to the practice by way of “the simulated world of 2D chess.” Chess.com and Chess With Friends were fun and accessible platforms that allow users to play with pals located across the country and beyond, all from the convenience of their own toilet, if they so choose. But eventually, Paul felt that the game was “getting lost in the internet.” That’s understandable since once you’re comfortable with the game, at least, IRL chess can be a surprisingly visceral face-off that, even though technically it’s just a board game (i.e. what are usually bored games). Unfortunately for the toilet players, an on-screen match just doesn’t compare. “What’s actually fun is the chemistry of being in-person with an opponent,” Paul said.

Of course, there are plenty of options for in-person tangos if you’re down to compete, but there’s a reason why the players in Union Square or Washington Square Park look intimidating– that’s because they are intimidating. Unfortunately that leaves the rest of us who aren’t insanely fast, experienced players or dedicated hustlers at a loss for in-person options and generally doomed to playing with bratty nephews and nieces. I know the predicament well, and it partly explains why I had not played chess in years. Like Paul, chess was just part of my fifth grade curriculum and I never really treated it as a competitive sport. That’s never stopped me from telling everyone and anyone that I competed in the National Chess Tournament in Columbus, Ohio circa 1999. (Needless to say I was not one of the kids with one or more parents massaging their neck, dabbing their forehead with a sweat rag, and refreshing water bottles during a game.) Like many ex-chessheads out there, I’ve been wise to avoid the hustler games, but should probably stop playing kids too now, because they cry so easily.

Flyer by Paul Glover (via Molasses Books/ Facebook)

Paul is one of these middling players too (not the kids– they are definitely not as good as me), and so he knows exactly how to attract mediocre people such as myself. “I would never call myself a particularly adept chess player,” he said. “I just like to have a little fun, hang out with my friends, play a little chess.” That’s why Chess Night doesn’t host tournaments and is serious about encouraging a “noncompetitive” atmosphere. There’s also alcohol, which has #blessed this event with a chill vibe and relieved it of children.

So far, the approach has attracted players of all skill levels– from total newbs all the way up to the straight-up addicts. “If you’re a really good chess player, that involves a heavy habit,” Paul explained. “So chances are you also have some friends who are on your level.” The cool thing about Chess Night is that the experts have been pretty willing (and patient enough) to coach newer players– even completely unexperienced ones. “We’ve had folks come who didn’t know how to play chess, and we’ve all teamed up to help them learn, over a glass of beer or wine or something,” he explained. “Now they come and have beaten me.”

That shruggy attitude toward losing is a pretty rare thing in a city where even bowling leagues can be just, like, so much pressure. But it’s great way to encourage people to put themselves out there– even adults, who are famously bad at learning new tricks and generally unwilling to submit to humiliation. Unless you’re into humiliation, in which case, it shouldn’t be hard at all to find yourself a partner who’s willing to make you feel really, really stupid.

Camillo DiMaria, a poet and lifelong Bushwick resident, took a break from being a regular fixture at the bar to play his first game of chess. (One Molasses employee and a close confidante described Camillo as “the Molasses mascot.”) “I was a little bit bored, twiddling my thumbs, doing nothing,” he recounted in his boisterous, old-school Brooklyn cadence. A friend named Ross had prodded Camillo away from the bar. “So I said, alright I’ll learn, maybe it’ll lapse into my poetry a little.”

I asked him if he enjoyed the game at all, and he seemed split. “It lasted an hour. And it was very mind taxing,” he answered thoughtfully, and admitted: “I have a lot more to learn, I didn’t catch on quickly. I’m a slow learner.” Even though he had lost the game, Camillo wasn’t sore about it. “I don’t mind losing. That might sound a little self-flagellating, sure, but it seemed like Camillo is just brutally honest always. Asked if he would play again he confirmed, yes he would, but– “reluctantly.”

Camillo read a poem title “Fugue” from his book, Wayswhich seemed telling:

“A quaint petticoat encapsulates a figure that waits under sycamores, we turn our eyes from this masterpiece to focus on the future of freedom– a cement wall in an airshaft blocks us from seeing beyond its musty tapestry, clay grey and imageless.”

Something was there– “masterpiece” sounds kind of like a stand-in for chess, and that grey, imageless thing is, like, the complicated, disappointing world beyond the chessboard’s simple black and white squares. Or something.

Flyer by Paul Glover (via Molasses Books/ Facebook)

I couldn’t recall the exact definition of “fugue,” so Camillo explained patiently (and probably in the least haughty way a poet has ever said anything, ever). “There’s various meanings, but the one I was going for, is a mental state where your mind is absent.” As the internet tells me, it’s also a term used in psychology that applies to “a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy.”

In a way, playing chess was like momentarily hanging up your identity in lieu of a super-simplified, egoless self. The game requires so much concentration that if you’re actually taking the match seriously (meaning, you’re not just schmanging back drinks– but if you are, that’s totally fine with Chess Night too… so, cheers!) then you really do kind of disappear into the pieces. Whether you choose black or white, it doesn’t matter because both are colorless, timeless, and made up of an identical set of pieces that’s always the same, forever. (Like, sorry, I know Marge’s hair is cool or whatever, but no one ever plays with The Simpsons chess set more than once). Even your opponent ceases to exist– they could be a friend or a stranger, it doesn’t matter and it won’t change the game. (Unless a really close friend allows you to cheat or take a move back, in which case they are doing you a disservice by spoiling you and should stop, like, immediately.)

The game is designed to be stripped down, with its super simple pieces, and a purposefully plain checkered black-and-white board to match them, which itself is totally absent of instructive cues (save for the occasional column and row markings letter/number you see on roll-up learner boards). Chess is definitely cryptic, and can even feel like a secret language. Learning is painful, and such a brain-grinding task that most people never, ever forget the game– even after years have passed without playing. If this hasn’t started to sound like BDSM yet, then I give up.

Paul had used the word “opponent,” and in the moment, I felt like there was a strange sharpness to it. It was jarring actually, until I played a game with my friend– the gutter-minded, sex-crazed one who was trying to turn a thing as simple as Chess Night into a polygamist meet-n’-greet. At first I was nervous, too hesitant about the moves I was making, but as soon as things picked up I remembered instantly that, dang– chess is intense, but the relief that comes after the stress of your move makes it a fun game too. Seriously.

We started to discuss the BDSM vibes that surrounded us. Yup, it was there, we both agreed. But I started to lose him when I tried to connect BDSM with the game. “Chess is kind of kinky if you think about it,” I said.

Flyer by Paul Glover (via Molasses Books/ Facebook)

Yeah right, he laughed at me. “I mean, I guess there’s a sort of power dynamic, but chess isn’t exactly a sexy game.” That might be true– it’s not sexy in the traditional sense, except for maybe the fact that the bishop piece kinda looks like a boob, and there are two of them which makes a pair. And I guess the king is slightly phallic (but then again so is the queen).

Games– and all forms of competition, really– have back-and-forth power dynamics that aren’t far from BDSM if you break it down into simplistic terms: humiliation/domination, withholding, teasing, punishment, inflicting self-abuse, and most importantly, a mutual understanding of rules that prevent things from going too far. Chess is just a super-distilled version of the master/submissive dynamic, and if your head is really in the game, it can be a transcendent experience just like pain and subsequent release of pain, when endorphins and dopamine are released in the body ultimately leading to some good ol’ fashioned euphoria– a set of feelings which everyone from drug people to religious fanatics and road ragers, and actually just every human ever can enjoy.

Ok, so chess isn’t quite as exhilarating as, like, mainlining bath salts or getting a four-hour groin paddling, or even anything close to that really, but chess leaves you dangling on the edge of the unknown, unsure if victory or humiliation is on the other side. And if you’ve had a few beers and the lighting is right, well, you just might convince yourself that winning two games in a row probably means you’re a genius. Come to think of it, aside from BDSM, chess is another great option for getting high in a clean, safe, and legal fashion– which I bet most of you assumed was impossible. If you think that’s the nerdiest thing you’ve ever read, so be it– as for the rest of you, I’ll see you on the board.