Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Sly and Willie will play you anytime you want.
Just come down, they say. Seven in the morning? Fine with them. How about 2 a.m.? Good enough.
Chess is the world to them now. They've been on the corner of 10th and Massachusetts streets, playing nearly every day for three months.
They're not afraid of your game, you can bet on that. They've seen much worse.
See, Sly taught Willie chess in rehab. They worked on their game together in Lansing State Penitentiary.
Their friendship and the game they shared helped them get by 10 years behind bars. And now, on the streets of the town where they grew up, it's helping them again.
"Move!" screams Sherman Talbert, the man everyone calls Sly. He slams down his knight and looks across the board. "Move!"
Sly plays the game hard and fast, daring his opponent - in this case, a young man in jeans and a white tee-shirt - to try to follow what he's doing.
"He's good," the young man says.
"Chess is life," Sly says. "That's what (chess master) Bobby Fisher tought me."
Sly plays just as he's lived. He was arrested in 1986, after a shooting on Memorial Day in Centennial Park, the same place he met Willie more than 20 years earlier.
He did his time for aiding and abetting manslaughter. That's when he learned the game of chess.
"Nobody gave me any respect," he says. "I could never play with the good players."
Eventually, Sly was unbeatable.
"I knew I was smarter than the other players," he said. He was a brutal player, he says. It's the only way to get any respect, to win the things you need to survive in prison.
After he got out, he tried to live a straight life. But it wasn't long before he was back in rehab, and then back in Lansing on drug charges.
That's when Willie Moore came back into his life.
Willie's hands are huge. Enormous. Crumpled and crooked, worn from years of arthritis and circulation problems.
"You should see his feet," Sly says, smiling and poking Willie in the shoulder.
"You wouldn't want to do that," Willie mumbles.
- Sly talks about how he feels about getting a citation for playing chess on the street and why he'd like a permanent chess board to be installed at 10th and Mass.
- Sly talks about why he started playing chess at 10th and Mass. and how chess is a metaphor for life.
- Sounds of the game: Listen as Sly plays six-year-old Raymond Faith
Willie's body tells a lot about his life. It tells about years in and out of prison. It tells about years on the street.
But life changed for Willie when he went back to Lansing in the mid-90s. Willie's medical problems were at their worst. He couldn't walk across the gray television room of the prison's common area without stopping to rest, he says.
"I couldn't stand seeing him like that, seeing the lack of medical help in that prison," Sly says.
So Sly took Willie under his wing. When Willie needed something - a sandwich, a bag of chips, a cigarette - Sly would bring it for him.
"We knew of each other," Sly says. "We weren't boys, yet."
Willie would do what he could in return. He held the good spot in front of the TV while Sly gathered what Willie wanted. He played game after game of chess with him.
Sly tried to teach Willie the way he learned to play: aggressively, always looking for the kill.
But "I make a mistake, every time," he says. "especially when it comes to killing time."
Sly says Willie can never be as good as him. Sly repeats, over and over, that Willie only has an I.Q. of 70.
Regardless one thing Sly loves: watching Willie play chess with children.
"They are so smart. Even more than chess, I love children playing chess," Sly says.
The children, Sly says, remind him of Bobby Fisher, a chess master who began playing when he was just a boy.
"That's what we're all looking for," Sly says. "We're looking for the next Bobby Fisher."
Back to the streets
Sometimes, Sly says, the streets can be a dangerous place. Breaking up fights and dealing with drugs have become a daily chore for him.
"Twenty-two hours a day, it's fine around here. The other two, it's chaotic," he says.
Unlike Willie, Sly had a place to go, away from the streets. Until three months ago he worked for Rhino Linings of Lawrence, living with a sister.
But once summer hit, he only wanted two things: To be with Willie and play chess.
"I wasn't happy," he says of living with his sister. "It felt like I was still in prison."
He's been sleeping on the streets with his friend ever since.
"When I told him, he didn't believe me," Sly says. "But here I am."
But now, the temperature plummets at night. It's hard for the two to stay out, to play and sleep once the sun goes down.
Sly takes a moment away from the corner and slides into a nearby bar to warm up. He doesn't order anything, just slips into a booth and sits.
"Willie drinks, that's his big problem," Sly says.
With Willie's poor health, he won't make it if he doesn't take care of himself, Sly says. But Sly has a drinking problem, too.
"I'm trying, I'm trying," he says. "I'd rather quit drinking than teach children."
Chess has helped Sly survive prison and a cocaine addiction, but it can't keep him away from alcohol so long as he's on the streets with Willie.
"I have a life, a home," he says. "But how can I leave him?
"Do you know what he did the other day?" he asks. "He was playing this five year old boy, this boy who comes and plays chess with him almost every day. And he won, man. He had never beaten him before. He was so excited. He threw his arms up in the air like this:"
Sly throws both arms up and waves them around in the air, victorious.
"Like a child, man." Tears well up in Sly's eyes.
"See, chess is better than selling crack. It's better than stealing, than pimping. It's better than doing prostitution. It's all we have."
And with that, tears rolling into his gray and black beard, Sly leaves the bar and heads back to the corner.
Within a few weeks, Sly is hoping, he and Willie won't be on the streets anymore.
Sly recently took Willie to Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to pick up housing and disability forms.
Sly had to buy a pair of glasses so he could fill out Willie's forms. Willie can't read or write.
But SRS isn't a sure thing. Meanwhile, Sly is looking for other options.
"I just wish I had something," Sly says. "A van or a car. Something that Willie could sleep in at night."
Sly gets frustrated and walks off. Willie flashes a toothless smile.
"He's my best friend," Willie says. "I love him to death."