LITTLE ROCK — NEW ORLEANS "Still five dollars a game?" I ask the man in the red beret, his nose buried in the New York Times.
"Have a seat!" says Jude Acers, stuffing the Times under his folding table and straightening out the pieces on the chess boards. I sit across from him and pull out a ten. "Got change?"
"What do you think this is, sir, an ATM?" Jude says as he snatches the $10 bill and, rabbit out of a hat, produces a fin from underneath his magic table. Then he picks up a black chess piece and presents two closed fists. "Pick a hand."
I pick the wrong hand. Jude goes first.
Jude Acers is the Chess King of Decatur Street. World famous. Perhaps the equal of Bobby Fischer, whom he's played several times. Once on TV. If you don't believe me, just ask Jude. He'll confirm it all with, as he puts it, "my usual humility and modesty."
For decades, the Chess King of Decatur ruled the antediluvian sidewalks of the lower French Quarter, right outside the market where the tourists buy their laminated alligator heads and mardi-gras beads. Or, if they're feeling the effects of that second margarita, a game with the King.
I'd wondered if Jude was still around, if he'd not just survived Katrina-or, as they put it around here,K-Day-but stayed.
What was I thinking? Jude Acers, chess master and self-promoter extraordinaire, story-teller supreme in a city still fat with them, would turn even The Great Deluge into a marketing opportunity. Jude leave? What do you think he is, sir, a quitter?
"Of course it's brought worldwide attention to my table," says Jude, wisps of gray-white hair curling out from beneath the trademark beret. His ice-blue eyes light atthe opportunity to tell his story, and he's off and talking. About his filling garbage bags with drinking water in the nick of time. About his daily 40-block Walk of Death along the river to a Wal-Mart, searching for survivors. About how, by his calculations, the city didn't lose 1,800 folks but more like 10,000 or 20,000 if you include those who died after leaving. "Look at the obituaries," he says, shaking the Times-Picayune. "There are more now than ever." And he tells me that I can read all about it at a website that I neglect to scribble down.
He moves his pawn.
"Frankly, it was a phenomenal break, not only in that it's brought me great publicity but that it's been wonderful for my mental health," he says. "In the end, it was a fantastic experience because it made me grateful to be alive."
I match his pawn with mine.
Jude says he was one of the last out and one of the first to return. He says he caught a plane to Greenville, Tennessee, where he stayed at a 4-H camp until late October. "It was the last plane out, of course." Of course. "Your readers may find this of interest," he adds, watching me take notes. "There were two black gentlemen sitting next to me, one on each side. And I noticed that their pants legs were wet. They were the last survivors off the roofs of the flooded houses that you'd seen on television. The last survivors."
He moves his knight.
I move another pawn.
He moves his bishop cross-table.
I'm already in trouble.
"Of course I understand media and P.R.," he says. "That story in the Oxford American made me the Rolling Stones and the Beatles of New Orleans."
A few years back, the OA's Michael Teague did a lengthy feature on Jude. It's a great read. And the Chess King has been dining out on that baby ever since.
I lamely move a knight and ask about the future of his beloved city. Will it come back?
"No," he says. "Not as we've known it. The school system is horrendous. The middle-class black families and backbone of the city are moving away and won't come back. We will have an outstanding Hispanic population and good workforce, which will lead to a greater melting pot. Long term, that might be good for New Orleans."
Jude reads the Times-Picayune and the New York Times every day, cover to cover. Not an inch is missed. And he has a chess master's photographic memory that allows him to repeat whole chunks of articles.
He moves his queen.
I'm in check.
"Have you ever lost a game?"
"Please, sir, watch your language!"
I move my king.
He moves his bishop.
"If you'll allow me to show you Exhibit A of how this city has changed," he says, jumping suddenly from his seat. He moves to one of the big, concrete columns that supports the market. A drain pipe runs the length of the column.
Jude points to several yellowed pieces of newspaper folded and tucked between thecolumn and the drain pipe.
For years he would tear out the crossword puzzles from the Times, fold them, and stuff them between that column and pipe, leaving them for his friend Manny, an 87-year-old drummer who worked down the street.
"You'll notice that the bits of paper haven't been touched," he says. Dramatic pause. "In almost two years." Turns out Manny's wife got deathly ill, and post-K New Orleans is no place for the deathly ill, or even the moderately sick. So the drummer took his wife to Baton Rouge for care-and hasn't been back.
"He'd never been out of New Orleans," says Jude. "Of course he'll never be back."
Jude says he's in excellent health. He moves his knight.
I move my king.
"Next month, September 14th to be exact, I'm being flown to Austria for a senior chess masters tournament. All expenses paid. Some investors in California came through. All expenses. Plus, they sent a simply dazzling blonde to deliver the news. I've truly been hit by the Lucky Truck. Your move."
I look at the board. I try to move my king. He shakes his head. That'd put me in check. I look again. I have no move.
"That's it," I say.
"That's it," he repeats.
Kane Webb is a Perspective feature writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial, Pages 100 on 09/02/2007