By CATHY TATOM
CONCENTRATION: These teens are among people of all ages that enjoy playing chess at the Java Dave’s at 81st Street and Harvard Avenue in Tulsa.
Courtesy Cathy Tatom
Check out Java Dave’s at 81st Street and Harvard Avenue on any Friday night and you’ll find an eclectic gathering of intense regulars and nervous looking newbies. They’re not here for the coffee, or even the free wi-fi access. They’re here to play a game that has frustrated and fascinated devotees for centuries. That game is chess, but don’t think of these gatherings as some Mensa meeting for the pocket protector set. It is closer to a street corner basketball pick-up game and often played with the same intense ferocity. When a match gets really good, other players will hover over the table as if it were a heavyweight title bout.
Sixteen-year-old John Cope is a regular. He lives in East Tulsa and has made the Friday night trek to Java Dave’s for more than two years to hone his game. On February 12, he brought first timer, Matt Camp, also 16. They were in training for a chess tournament the next day in Claremore. “I suggested he play some of the guys here because the competition will be tougher than anything at the tournament,” said Cope. “If he does well here it will be a confidence builder.” Camp just nervously nodded then went back to studying his current match.
Players including 16-year-old Jason Kalivas of Broken Arrow and Bob Van Sant of Tulsa arrive at about seven o’clock. Van Sant is one of the adult regulars. He’s been playing here since this café became a chess hot spot back in the mid-’90s. He points out that about half the players will come in carrying zippered nylon cases or old grocery sacks stuffed with game pieces and boards that either fold out or roll out. The truly serious also bring special timers with a button on each side to keep track of how long each play takes.
Soon after the players arrive one can hear the slapping of the timers and the click of pieces quickly being eliminated. Van Sant says, “Everyone who comes really loves chess and that’s why it’s so fun and why we do it.” By eight o’clock, nearly every table in the café is filled with players ranging in age from their almost teens to the silver-haired set.
Before the truly intense games begin, many players casually wander from table to table choosing partners for a later match or sizing up future opponents by watching them play. Over the less intense games, players and watchers hold friendly conversations about how to play—or pull out reference manuals to consult the options chess masters have outlined for where various pieces land on the board.
As the night wears on, the noise level drops and the more intense games get underway, which can easily be spotted because its players are hunched over the board. As it progresses and tension mounts, toes begin speed tapping beneath the table and some players nervously scratch or pull at their faces. Others allow frown lines to crease their foreheads above anxious eyes.
But when the night is over, the boards are folded, pieces stuffed in cases and plastic bags, players shake hands and with sincerity say, “See you next week.”