The Chess King of Decatur Street

By  |  August 15, 2014

Jude Acers, chess player extraordinaire, was to wait somewhere in the French Quarter, wearing a red beret. According to his instructions, I was to approach him holding a printout of his online manifesto, ChessFlash News, and greet him by asking about “the small black boy in the laundromat.”

After half an hour roaming around the Quarter, I saw a man with a wine-colored beret walking in Jackson Square, pacing back and forth along a row of painters and palm readers. I had not expected Acers to be such a large man—circular face, bulbous nose, wrecking-ball belly—but the beret was in place, and he had glanced at me twice, obviously impatient for my introduction. So I stepped up and—with a flourish of the manifesto-delivered my line about the boy. He recoiled from me, gripping a box under his arm and stumbling a little on the gray-slab sidewalk. Right then, a heavyset woman emerged from a porcelain doll shop and joined the man, and together they hustled off across the Square.

Crap, I thought. Maybe I had muttered, or overlooked some mincing piece of deal-breaker protocol. I followed the couple, rehearsing my opener, and when I caught up, I shoved the manifesto close to his face and sprang my line on him, this time with special emphasis on the boy's smallness and blackness. But he just glared at me, hooked an arm around the woman, and burst away again, the unbelievable jerk. I chased after them and this time grabbing at his arm: “Are you Jude Acers?” He seemed to shrink a little, still gripping his box. Then, in a thick, vaguely Swedish accent he said, “Leave us alone. We have nothing for you, please.” A tourist, I realized.

I eventually found another red beret outside a cafe on Decatur Street, attached to a man sitting behind two chess sets on a cafeteria-style table. He wore thick glasses, and silver hair poked from beneath the beret. His face looked like a Mardi Gras mask, with the long chin and nose comically downturned. Behind him, a handwritten sign announced that a game with “Jude Acers—ChessMaster!!!!!” could be had for five bucks, and a four-hour lesson cost $200. He was once heralded by the chess world as a genius, and has appeared six times in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing the most simultaneous chess games. Although the seat across from him was empty, he leaned far over the chessboards, face down, ignoring me. He seemed to be napping.

“Um,” I said. “There's a small black boy—”

“Stop!” he yelled, jumping to his feet. He slapped his hands down on the chess sets, scattering the pieces across the sidewalk. People stopped to watch. His face went red, and he shouted, “I MUST TELL YOU THAT I AM THE GREATEST CHESS PLAYER OF ALL TIME!”

He whipped around and bounded off across the street, narrowly missing the front bumper of a fast-moving city bus. As the bus passed, I saw the tail of Acers's blue sportcoat disappear into the door of a restaurant.

By the time I caught up, he was standing in the center of the place, arms out and palms up, oscillating slightly. “This is where I feast,” he said. “This is my daylight palace. My palate palace, where I please my palate because the food is good. Good, but not as good as the coffee. Because coffee is what makes the world go around when it is free. Like our great country. America. Land of the free….”

He went on like this, loudly, for a couple of minutes, until a burly guy in an apron emerged from the back of the restaurant. I slinked away, sure that the cook was going to throttle Acers, but instead the guy handed him a gigantic cup of coffee. With a nod, the chess player marched past the cash register and out across the street, toward his chessboards. His boots chunked against the asphalt as he walked, and his monologue flowed from subject to subject, slipping and sliding along the path of least resistance.

“Comfortable boots,” he said. “I must dress smart head to toe, toe to head. Boots on my feet, beret on my head. The beret is red. Red in traffic means stop, so people walk past my boards and stop to play. And red is just a beautiful color. Nobody used color like Van Gogh. Now there was a genius. He knew nobody was going to buy his paintings. He was going a little crazy, but he knew it. Knew it perfectly well. Knew nobody was going to understand him, and knew he would die poor. But he was the boss of his world….”

Acers was four years old when police in New Bern, North Carolina, found him and his sister digging through garbage. He remembers that. Most of his early childhood is blurry, but a few things do stand out: dirty dishes pouring out of a closet, crashing to the floor, because his paranoid mother hid one too many there; his mother falling to the floor when his father put his fist in her face too many times; news that his mother's plane had gone down on the way to the asylum. He remembers that his father, a marine, was away at war most of the time, so when Jude was young, he spent most of his childhood in orphanages. When he was five years old, he came across a book about chess, and his obsession began. He used soda bottle tops to make chess sets, but the nuns at the orphanage took them away. So he made more.

When Jude was an adolescent, his father returned from war, fetched him from the North Carolina orphanage, and took him to New Orleans. The elder Acers became a raging alcoholic who abused Jude with flair. Sometimes that meant forcing him to shave his head, or wear shorts to school in the winter, or spend the night kneeling on linoleum. He recalls those tortures as “small stuff.” Small, at least, compared with what came later.

The sun had just set, and the woman was wasted, in the worst way. She was dressed up, except for her left shoe, which was missing. She careened around Acers's table and crashed down hard on a chair opposite him. She put her fist against her face, with the back of her hand smashing her nose, then uncoiled her index finger, drawing an invisible line from her left eyeball to Acers's. “Plaaay,” she said. “Meeeee.” Acers put his New York Times aside and mated her twice, quickly, at five bucks a pop.

She drew herself up and wiggled the index finger toward Decatur's darker end. “My apartment is down the shhtreet,” she said. “I've been walking past here eight years, wanting to play you. Now I did.” And she strode off, listing a little to port. As he did after every game, Acers whipped an envelope out of his fanny pack, stuffed in his cash, jumped up, and shot off around the comer.

When he returned, he said, “I send my fees straight to the bank. I never keep money on my person. It's too dangerous.” He picked up his newspaper. “I have made a lot of money on this sidewalk. Two hundred thousand, easy.” To the casual observer, Acers appears to have scraped by for twenty-three years on fewer than ten grand a year, winning an endless stream of five-dollar bills off drunks and tourists. But to him, the money is a fortune, compiled and invested in twenty-three years of coffee and beignets. Each time a new opponent pays to play, he sees it as validation, as proof that he is a global treasure, and that pilgrims from as far away as Alaska and Italy travel to sit at his little table and bask in the light of his genius.

“Hey, chess man,” a guy yelled from his silver 4Runner, sitting still in the Decatur Street traffic. He smiled at Acers, but nudged his buddy in the passenger's seat: Hey man, get a load of this guy. “What do I get if I win?”

Acers pushed his plastic chair back, stood, and made a grand bow, sweeping his arm from high above his head to down around his ankles. “Dear sir,” he cried, “we shall not speak of things that cannot come to pass.”

Traffic moved on, and the guy dismissively waved off Acers, who strutted back to his table, pulled a handkerchief from his jacket, and swiped it across the seat of his chair. “A little civility is nectar for the gentleman,” he said, winking. “And poison for the barbarian.” Having defeated the aggressor, he sat down, picked up his paper, and waited for his next challenger.

Hours passed. Acers finished the New York Times, the Times-Picayune, and USA Today, all of which are brought to his table each morning by an old man whose name Acers doesn't know. As time passed, Acers's constant stream-of-consciousness soliloquy careened from international politics to the value of the Internet, from the personal cleanliness of New Orleans mayor Marc Morial to the genius of Henry Ford. “People today still don't grasp the possibilities of the simple motorcar,” he said. “So many levels of utility, such variety. You want to take your wife for a night of dancing, you don't take her in a dump truck, do you? No, of course not. You take a limo. Not a bus, not a cab. A limo. There's no other way to do it, for a lady. I have seen some ladies at this table, I'll tell you that. Outstanding women of all shapes and colors. I don't distinguish. I think black women are absolutely stunning….”

When Jude was fourteen, his father suddenly stopped beating him, and delivered the hardest blow. He committed the teen to Louisiana's state mental institution in Mandeville, where loneliness only fueled his drive to study chess. By the time he was seventeen, the U.S. Chess Federation had rated him a master—a status reserved for only the most brilliant players. The state paid his way through Louisiana State University, where he studied Russian, so he could pore over obscure chess texts. After graduation he hopped on a Greyhound bus and crossed the country, searching for better chess players and free meals. In 1968 his ride ended in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where he found a vigorous chess culture and earned a snippet of fame. He picked up an agent. He played blindfolded against multiple opponents in legendary West Coast auditoriums. He stood at a urinal next to John Fogarty, and played basketball with the Doors between sound checks. And, for a while, he roomed with Janis Joplin.

“She was not a pretty lady,” he said. “She was always insecure about that. That's the reason for the drugs. I never did the drugs. One day during a party I was in the bathtub, where it was quiet, reading, and she came in, naked, and sat down on the toilet. She looked at me and said, ‘Funny, funny Jude. You play with your little pieces all day long, and you know what? You'll live to be an old, old man someday.’ And here I am.”

In 1977, broke and hungry, he returned to New Orleans with a chessboard under his arm. He set it up on the Decatur Street sidewalk, and waited for the world to find him.

“How have you been?” Acers said, nodding to a middle-aged couple as they approached the table. He turned to their daughter. “You've grown quite a bit.” The people stopped instantly, as though Acers had just publicly announced the color of their underwear.

“Good God,” mumbled the father, a tall, handsome guy with a graying beard. “It's been thirteen years.”

Acers folded his hands under his chin and smirked a little. “Twelve,” he said, as the dumbstruck father sat down in the challenger's seat. The man lost in fewer than a dozen moves, then stood up, shook Acers's out-thrust hand, and walked away with his wife and daughter following.

“I remember him because he gave me a good run last time,” Acers said once they were out of earshot. “He’s actually quite a good player. I just rattled him. Excellent. Excellent.” Again, he pulled out an envelope, stuffed it, and dashed off around the corner. By the time he came back it was almost midnight. “Time to close up shop,” he announced. “The work day is over. We have an appointment for entertainment.”

Acers wouldn’t tell me where we were going, except that it was “high quality,” and that I would be “paralyzed by the beauty of it all.” We left Decatur Street, and Acers struck off down a set of dark railroad track that run along the river. Drifters stumbled by, and inky figures swayed in the shadows, but Acer plowed ahead like a locomotive on the rails. “This is the no-traffic way,” he said. “I can’t walk anywhere in this city without people recognizing me and wanting to talk, so I have devised no-traffic routes to all my destinations. Desti-desti-destinations. Destiny. Direct routes to destiny. Just keep moving or they'll cut your throat.”

After a while we left the tracks and dodged down several alarming alleys, before stepping onto a well-lit street. Acers suddenly stopped. “Look at those two lamps over that door,” he said. “I played Bobby Fischer in that building many years ago. It is the site of my proudest day.”

“You won?”

“No, of course not. The man is a god. Or he was a god. Now he's just insane, completely lost his mind. A pity.”

He ducked into a corner drugstore, where a lone clerk watched nervously from behind the register. Acers turned to me. “Are you hungry?”

I was starving. Neither of us had eaten in seventeen hours. “Yeah,” I said. “A little.” He grabbed a turnover pie from a shelf and weighed it in his hand. “Sweet potato,” he said. “Excellent. I'm partial to the sweet potato.” Then, standing in the middle of the store, he unwrapped the pie and stuffed half of it into his mouth. “Delicious,” he said, spraying flecks of potato on the other pies. “Try the chocolate.” The clerk, who looked about nineteen years old, gawked at us. Acers raffled through the pies again. “The world revolves around the cherry ones,” he said. The clerk picked up a phone. “There's no cherry here,” Acers announced, facing the clerk, who stood transfixed with the phone in his hand. “This is a blight on your otherwise fine establishment, sir.”

Acers hooked his thumbs behind the breast of his jacket and stepped briskly toward the door. “My gentleman friend here has an expense account, and he will kindly pick up the tab.”

“This is perhaps the greatest feat of architecture in the modern world. And look at the waitresses.”

Acers's “appointment for entertainment” was at the new Harrah's casino, a sprawling, orangish building recently erected near the Quarter. He strolled in and surveyed the premises with the critical regard of a high roller. “Excellent. Excellent.”

It was astonishing: rows of slot machines fading into the distance; roulette, baccarat, blackjack table, all attended by buxom waitresses in spangled outfits; lights blinking, music pounding, women laughing, and men with cigars puffing like smokestacks. Acers wove in and out of the tables and machines like a pro, sweeping his arms left and right for my benefit: On the right we see the cashiers' booth, and on the left you’ll find the high-stakes salon.

“First we need to get drinks,” he said. We roamed the floor of the casino for almost an hour until we found a dark-haired waitress with smooth skin and deep-set eyes. When she caught sight of Acers honing in, panic skittered across her face, then pity. Acers sidled up with a dollar fluttering at his fingertips, then he sneaked the dollar onto her drink tray. I felt the scrutiny of a hundred security cameras training in on that dollar, then the red beret, then the dollar. Then the beret.

“Hey there,” he said, quite the cool cat.

“Hey, Jude,” she said.

We had apparently found his appointment. He leaned in close to her face and said, “'How about a coffee? And a Coke for my friend.” She delivered an admirable smile and walked away. Acers flattened out his right hand, palm down, at his waist, as though pushing away the nose of a curious dog. The gesture seemed to signify, Stay cool. He said, “There won't be a charge. I know her. You keep the ladies happy, and they'll take care of you. Did you see her smile? I am surrounded by beautiful women. Exotic women of all kinds….”

After she returned with our drinks, Acers continued his tour of the casino, which seemed to be roughly diamond shaped. “Look over here,” he said. “This is the finest restaurant you'll find for the money.” It was a buffet, a mammoth one, and most of the food looked bland, perfectly suited for the wary tastebuds of vacationing Midwesterners. “Look at this,” he said, sashaying down the buffet with his fingers trailing lightly on the glass sneeze guard. “Pork, chicken, every kind of fish you could ever want. Look at the salad section. Did you ever see anything like it? Fresh, everything fresh. I don't see turkey, though. That's a blight. I'm sure they’ll have it out next Thursday. I'll be coming by for that. I'm going to fill up on turkey and dressing and a big piece of pumpkin pie. That's the only way to do Thanksgiving dinner. The only way….”

A fat bass beat rolled through the restaurant area, followed by the growls of an ersatz Aretha Franklin. “It's show time!” Acers said, moving toward the source like a child to the pied piper, elbows out, bony knees pumping up with each step. We pinballed through the casino, moving toward the center, where the show was under way. A tremendously large woman was belting out a soul medley, while a tiny woman in a dollar-sign-covered cat suit danced around her. A shockingly tall man—he may have been on stilts—marched back and forth across the stage in a sequined Uncle Sam outfit, complete with long coattails and top hat. Lights flashed, confetti glittered, horns blew; more girls streamed onstage, with feathers trailing; liquored-up business men in the crowd loosened their ties and danced with the girls; the purple and gold of Mardi Gras swirled with patriotic colors, Christmas colors, every hue of cummerbund. We had found the lowest point in the city, where the runoff from a thousand gaudy celebrations had pooled and fermented, a hundred-proof concoction guaranteed to sicken all but the hardiest drinkers. Acers swayed to the music, beret in hand, and silently moved his lips: “Excellent, excellent.”

We were approaching Acers's home in the Quarter. He is secretive about its location—I was the first person in twenty-three years to be invited over, he said—and to get there we took a confusing, circling route through alleys and courtyards that were increasingly narrow and cramped. “I'd say almost everybody in this section is gay!” Acers said. He seemed to be yelling. His voice bounced along the cobblestones and rang off the wrought iron, seeking ears to fill. “They don't bother me. I stay to myself, and they leave me alone. But I have seen some oddities!”

The last passage we wound through was so narrow that we had to walk sideways, and Acers whacked his shoulder on a mailbox. We emerged into a tiny courtyard that had one palm tree in the middle. Acers started up a spiral staircase. “This is my stairway to the sky,” he said. “People ask where I live. I tell them I live in the sky. The other day a little bird flew in the window while I was taking a shower, and it sang to me. I knew then that I had been accepted as a citizen of the sky….”

At the top of the stairs he threw open the door to his apartment, and the smell that poured out drove me back a step. It was a mixture of old clothes, coffee, and mildew. The entire apartment was about eight feet by four feet. There was a closet at one end, and at the other end a toilet and shower, where Acers washes his clothes. Newspaper clips featuring Acers—including one that described his relationship with roomie Janis Joplin—were randomly tacked to the walls. On the floor there was a pile of towels and blankets used as a bed, and stacks of books: hundreds, maybe thousands of books, some in Russian and Chinese, all about chess.

“Look at this,” he said, grabbing up one of the books and flipping to an opaquely notated chess game. “It’s brilliant.” Before my eyes could focus, he tossed the book aside and tried to illustrate the game physically, rushing around the room and issuing a stream of chess moves: “You've got to get your pawns forking down the middle, like this, see, just like this, forking like a snake.” He stabbed his index and middle fingers toward my eyes to demonstrate, which was startling, and I stumbled backward onto one of the piles of books. Acers didn't seem to notice. “And then down the side come the rooks,” he continued. “Options, always options. Keep the options open so you can dance without fear.” He pranced around the room, bringing his knees up high to his chest, flailing his arms, sucking in the room's poor supply of oxygen and expelling it in a stream of suddenly Russian commentary, shouting and weeping and raging and laughing.

He had left me behind long ago and gone somewhere else. A place where the food is delicious, the women are beautiful, and the entertainment is endless and free. He was a little off, but he knew it. Knew it perfectly well. Knew nobody was going to understand him, and knew he would die poor. But he was the boss of his world.

From Issue 32 of the Oxford American

Matthew Teague is a journalist form Alabama. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewteague