Josh Shaffer

Smack-talk and game clocks: Chess makes a comeback in downtown Raleigh

In the lunchtime bustle on Fayetteville Street, a crowd gathers to watch the High Sheriff of Chess hold court at a concrete table, a seat he guards by sliding bishops, smacking clocks and talking vigorous junk.

At 81, Sherman Leathers has spent a decade as the game’s ambassador downtown, and as the onlookers stop to watch him and his “gunslingers,” he takes a queen and invites the next fool – er, player – to the match.

“Chess is what we do,” says Leathers, his New York accent still strong after years of retirement in Raleigh. “People love to play chess, and we love to see people down here. We’re trying to maintain the fellowship we found. Noontime is good time.”

As warm weather approaches, Leathers makes his annual pitch for the game as mental exercise and nonviolent battling – a colorful addition to downtown sidewalks cluttered with lawyers. He introduces his cast of regular “gunslingers” – Billy the Kid, Abdul the Gatekeeper – and as they slap pieces on the board, fresh challengers trickle out of Chick-fil-A and the Sir Walter Apartments.

“Do I play?” asks a homeless man who takes a seat and introduces himself as Rick. “Do I play? I play on the side of a building. On the ground. In the dirt. I want to play somebody. Anybody! You don’t know how much stress I’m gonna put on the board.”

As chess enthusiasts, Leathers and his crew endured through the destruction of Fayetteville Street Mall, which put their game boards in long-term storage. After persistent lobbying, they got six of eight gray and black tables returned.

But this year, they celebrate a new victory. After further persistence, Leathers persuaded the city to add a lawn chair at each board, replacing a stone block. As chess seats, the blocks not only tended to freeze a player’s back side, they stood too tall to comfortably rest one’s legs under the table.

To Raleigh’s Parks and Recreation Department, Leathers offers this thankful review of the new furnishings: “Fantastic. Fantastic.”

His downtown chess boosterism comes as the game soars in popularity. The Triangle Chess Club now teaches 1,000 kids a week, and its March 4 tournament for players in kindergarten through 12th grade will fill the Raleigh Convention Center. As club President Bill Clausen brags on these facts, Billy the Kid loudly laments losing a pawn.

“That’s called stealing, right there,” he complains. “That pawn wasn’t bothering you. Minding its own business ...”

On Raleigh’s main drag, the midday rush is punctuated by the click of plastic pawns and the occasional outburst from a wounded gunslinger: “You’re trying some slicky Ricky stuff!”

Leathers hopes the tables will fill up on any day warm enough to sit on a chunk of concrete. He pictures a chess scene as lively as New York’s Washington Square, and he promises to lend novices a protective hand.

“I’m still the sheriff,” he says.