New Yorkers Forever Stuck in Checkmate

Everyday, Andre Carson packs up his chess set and takes a one-hour train ride from Brownsville, Brooklyn to Union Square in New York City to play chess for 8 hours, all for $40. And that’s on a good day.

When I sat down for a game of chess with Carson to talk about his life, I soon realized that his struggles were real. The modest $5 donation for a game of chess would make up over 10 percent of his income today.

To many, New York City is a place of fame, fortune, and money. But like every city there are many on the poverty line doing what they can do get by. Carson is no different.

Carson, 46, has lived in every one of New York’s five Boroughs, each move was a financial decision. “I got to get my kids to school you know, and they want me pay more and more,” Carson said.

Carson and his two kids, Nazir, eight and Elaine, six have moved eight times in the last three years as New York rent prices continue to push those on the brink further out. Cason and his two kids have now been pushed to the murder capital of New York.

The rise in the homeless population in New York has been gaining more attention as the pressure on Mayor Bill De Blasio mounts.

I also learned he was a sharp chess player. I had been sitting down a matter of minutes when I looked at the board and asked him if I were in a little bit of trouble, “yes you could say that,” Carson said.

Carson began playing chess in 1991, but it wasn’t until 2004 when it became a source of income. “I lost my job, so I started to play in the parks, Washington Square, here and Brooklyn you know,” Carson said.

Along with his days in Union Square, Carson works two or three evenings a week at a packing warehouse in Midtown, Manhattan when he can get help with his kids.

It wasn’t until he opened up about his other source of income it dawned on me there really is another side to the city that most will never encounter, let alone know about.

Carson frequently runs and plays in underground poker games in the Bronx. The buy-ins start from as little as $10 and go to over $1000. By all accounts these aren’t your typical Thursday night poker gatherings.

Carson’s chess neighbor, who goes by the name ‘Johnny Rockets’ leaned over and told Carson about some dealer who had been texting while at the table in a recent game.

Carson explained to me how dealers receive player codes from other players via text messages and use this information to gain an unfair advantage.

The exchange between Rockets and Carson suggested the player in question wouldn’t be back playing for some time, if at all.

By our third game of chess, Carson had decided to play me without his queen. Game two had been embarrassingly short.

Carson’s father had taught him to play chess by taking his queen off of him. Only this time it was the other way around.

As game three came to an end with another lopsided board, I realized a lack of money and home comforts doesn’t deprive you the right to smile, to laugh, or more importantly to dream.

“I could go on ESPN or First Take you know,” Carson said.