By Candido Tirado
Directed by Eddie Torres
On a relentlessly hot summer day in New York’s Washington Square Park, a group of chess hustlers gather, as they do every day, in the hopes of scamming unsuspecting players, or “fish.” They come from all walks of life: Flash—arguably the most skilled player among the hustlers—is an African American PhD dropout, John is a Ukrainian immigrant, and Peewee is an African American ex-con. They are joined by Jerome, a Cherokee and retired construction worker, and Adam Kirchbaum (known only by his nickname “Ninety-Two”), an elderly Jewish man. All are united by a love of chess, but tend to squabble over everything else. Jerome and Ninety-Two are disgusted by the act of hustling; they believe it is deceitful and undignified. In fact, just yesterday Flash proved how despicable the hustlers are by taking all of Bernie’s money. Bernie, a regular fish, is a kind man—despite his addiction to alcohol and gambling. Flash defends himself, pointing out that yesterday was a particularly slow day; desperate times call for desperate measures.
Today is proving to be just as slow. As the hustlers grow restless, Rey Reyes, a computer programmer and NYU student, enters the park. The hustlers try to entice him with a game, but Jerome steps in, telling them that Rey doesn’t play for money. Jerome and Rey met last night in the park, and Jerome promised him lessons. The two sit down to play, but are interrupted by the sleeping Ninety-Two’s screams. When Jerome steps away to wake him up, the hustlers again move in on their prey. Overwhelmed, Rey finally agrees to a game and sits down to play Flash.
John and Peewee immediately demand side bets. At twenty dollars a game, the side bets threaten Rey—who has never played speed chess—with a loss of 60 dollars. Ninety-Two interrupts the game to introduce himself, hoping to lure Rey away from the hustlers with stories of famous players. Flash stays focused, however, and quickly defeats the novice Rey who leaves his King defenseless in the center of the board. Flash notes that only chess players with father issues make this mistake. Surprised by this observation, Rey admits that his father was recently murdered as he pays the hustlers. Flash sets up for another game—this time with bets of fifty dollars. Feeling generous, he agrees to give Rey time odds: Rey receives five minutes on the clock, Flash only two.
Flash is quickly defeating Rey, but their game is interrupted again—this time by a call from Rey’s girlfriend. Rey’s uncle has been missing since last night, and she is hoping Rey has found him. His uncle is a scattered man and terribly paranoid ever since witnessing a massacre in his native Guatemala. Rey quickly gets off the phone when his girlfriend questions his whereabouts and if he is playing chess. Flash checkmates him almost immediately.
Flash, Pewee, and John relish in the money they are making, but their joy is threatened by another regular fish, Stuart, who bursts into the park and calls them predators for what they did to Bernie. Stuart believes in the goodness of man and believes Bernie—despite all of his flaws—deserves some respect. Flash, whose unfinished doctorate thesis examined man’s cruelty towards man, challenges Stuart with a theoretical discussion of what “the goodness of man” truly accomplishes. The theoretical quickly becomes the actual when, in a surprise to everyone but Jerome, Ninety-Two reveals that he survived the holocaust; his experiences there prove that trying to understand man’s atrocities is a waste of time. He hasn’t played chess in many years after vowing never to touch a chess piece when it almost ruined his life. Rey is particularly affected by this admission and, feeling like he has nothing to lose, agrees to another game.
While playing, the confident Flash accuses Stuart of being a hustler just like him. A WASP slumlord, Stuart let his buildings become so run down that all the tenants moved out. After they left, he renovated everything and sold the units at high prices. By praying upon the defenseless, he did just what he accuses Flash of doing to Bernie. Stuart lashes back –“the likes of you cannot judge me”—and Flash accuses him of being racist. He removes his shirt, revealing rope burns across his back. In his youth, Flash and a friend were tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged down the road. Flash was lucky—his knots came loose—but his friend wasn’t and suffered the fate of a modern lynching.
Without realizing it, Rey has put Flash in checkmate. Shocked, Flash immediately challenges him to another game. Rey wins again. Suddenly, it becomes clear that the hustlers have been hustled: Rey is a master at chess. Flash is incensed, but agrees to another game—this time without Rey receiving any time odds. They begin playing and Rey tells the Mayan myth of the Fish Men—half-men, half-fish—sent to destroy the wicked that prey on the weak. Rey seeks revenge from the hustlers. Bernie is his uncle.
Rey scorns the hustlers and defends Bernie’s honor by recounting the terrible massacre they both witnessed. Rey was a child and watched a soldier kill his mother and baby brother before fleeing with Bernie. The two have played chess ever since as a way to soothe themselves. Rey can’t understand how Ninety-Two claims quitting chess saved his life.
Rey’s confrontation forces Ninety-Two to relive his experience in Auschwitz. There, he used chess as a means to try and save his father and sister. Although he won a match on which their lives depended, the Nazi’s killed them anyway. His passion for vengeance kept him from throwing the game or giving his opponent a draw—humility that might have saved lives. Ninety-Two fears that Rey’s rage and lust for revenge will destroy him, as well.
Fed up with losing, Flash resigns. Rey, however, wants total revenge. He challenges Flash to a final game: everything he has bet against everything the hustlers have. Rey also agrees to new time odds—five minutes for Flash, one minute for Rey.
The game begins. When Rey’s girlfriend calls again, he answers and confesses that he is playing chess for money. She breaks-up with him, but Rey expected it; he will never be the family man she wants him to be. The human race is terrible, and he hopes to terminate his DNA. He recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, where he killed his father: the man who raped his mother and ordered the massacre of their village.
Ninety-Two tries adamantly to stop Rey from playing. He urges Rey to answer his girlfriend’s incessant calls. If he doesn’t, he might lose her forever. Ninety-Two promises the best way to heal is by building a new family—“For everyone they took you make one.”
Just as he is about to checkmate Flash, Rey swipes all the pieces off the board. He offers Flash a draw, and they all shake hands. Rey picks up his cell phone to call his girlfriend, but before he leaves he asks to see Ninety-Two’s identification tattoo. All that’s left of it are the numbers nine and two—the nickname he uses so he will never forget. Rey tells his girlfriend he is coming home to work things out and leaves.
The hustlers reassemble and begin to play. Ninety-Two suddenly asks Jerome if he would like to play. After all these years, he is ready to play again. Ninety-Two picks up a piece to make his first move and everyone cheers.
- The destructive need to manifest inner pain through revenge
- The need to look to the future to begin the healing process
- The different ways a family/community is built
- The cost of living a “free” existence
- Race relations and racial stereotypes
- Refusing to conform to societal “norms”