Do The Knight Thing

Short on the sides and leave a little on top today, please, Professor. And give me a little of that Sicilian Defense while you're at it.

Three barber's chairs A two of them ancient behemoths with iron footrests and padded arms, the third a sleeker, modern, styling chair A lined on one side of the room, even though Lampkin is often the only cutter. (During busy days, his son and nephew help out.) Opposite the chairs, but near enough that a customer could conceivably play a game while getting a haircut, the chess table beckons.

Squeezed in next to Zay is Preacher Man, a hyperactive air-traffic controller and ordained minister who has allowed his queen to roam on Mitch's side of the board in a blatant challenge to the enemy's defense. It's an aggressive move, and perhaps premature. "You got your girl out there on the streets! What she doing there?" Mitch cries. "Girl, you better get back in the house."

"I guess it's after curfew," replies Preacher Man, acknowledging his folly.
"Girl, you know how the boys treat you out there on the street. Get back on home."

"Hollywood" Oscar hunches over a third board, gradually crushing a weaker opponent. In the process he helpfully provides a running commentary of his thoughts and observations regarding the unfolding game. "Gotta play the strong guys," patters Oscar, an above-average but unrated player who, according to Lampkin, suffers from an inflated estimation of his own ability. "These little guys don't mean nothing. Beating a light guy doesn't mean nothing. It won't be much longer. It's almost over. Cookies 'n' cream, cookies 'n' cream. Let's make it nice, let's make it pretty. Cookies 'n' cream. Cookies 'n' cream. Now what's he doing down there? What's he doing down there? I don't see anything down there. Oh, he's making it tougher now. He's makin' it tougher for me now. Now he's taking some time to move. What happened? He's taking some time. Brain contusions and illusions. Brain contusions and illusions. Oh that's better. Now I can see more clearly. Yes, I can see more clearly now."

Professor Lampkin, a compact man with a proud bearing and TV-worthy good looks, takes a couple of steps toward the table to assess the games, his clippers still buzzing in his hand, the power cord taut as the leash of a dog tugging at its master. It's a familiar sight, and one his clients have come to expect. While long-time customers know they'll step out of Lampkin's chair with a good, inexpensive cut (eight dollars for adults, seven dollars for kids; five bucks for a shave), it isn't necessarily going to be fast.

"I am frustrated most times," admits the barber, who although unrated by the USCF is one of the top players in the 23-member Knights club. "I have to constrain myself because I want to get over there so bad." But Lampkin wouldn't have it any other way. "There are times of unexpected excitement," he says, his voice the same resonating low pitch and soothing timbre as the electric clippers he is dragging across a customer's head. "When we get all the guys here, the atmosphere becomes like Jesse James and some of the other outlaws all meeting together in one place."

For years African Square Park, a little patch of cement and dirt on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in a forlorn neighborhood of Liberty City, was the unofficial headquarters of chess in black Miami. "You had something cultural, something that had been in place a long time, unmarred by all around it," remembers barbershop habitue Bernard Isler, a 39-year-old firefighter and paramedic who founded the Miami Knights in 1988. "It was a microcosm of the black community. It didn't matter what you did A we had everyone from homeless to attorneys. Anyone, no matter how strong they were, could be beaten up by an unrated player. You couldn't look at their appearance and make any prejudgments."

But by the late Eighties, dealers and users had turned the park into an open-air drug bazaar. When Miami city officials transformed the space into a children-only sanctuary, Isler moved his fledgling club first to Miramar and then, about three years ago, to Lampkin's shop. "The expenses of renting the office went beyond the budget of the club," Lampkin explains. "So for expediency's sake I offered my shop free of charge." The active membership of the club, one of about five chess clubs in Dade, is all male and mostly black.

While the chess club schedules no formal meetings, many members drop in at the shop at least a couple of times a week to hone their skills against each other and against opponents who visit occasionally from other local chess clubs. Lampkin also gives occasional chess clinics at the shop A a sign on the front window advertises "Chess Lessons" A and has taught the game at several public elementary schools around North Dade.

Several times a year the club's top-rated players compete in matches against other South Florida clubs; they also make an annual trek to the New York Open and to the World Open held in Philadelphia. "We have stiffer competition than any other club," the normally humble Lampkin boasts. "We get into a lot of practical games. It's not a matter of sitting down and playing out chess positions and theory from books. We get into a lot of combat every day. No one sits down at the board and acquiesces, but you don't generally sit down with the expectation of winning, either. The caliber of play is high. I'll say that for anybody who is not a strong master, if he's not playing above 2400, then he's going to have trouble in our club. Not necessarily by all the members, but by the time he gets down to play and the competition gets at him, he'll probably go away and say, 'These guys are underrated.'"

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