By Alan Prendergast
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By Melanie Asmar
Losing a queen isn't the worst thing that can happen to a chess player.
"My friend told me about this big guy, Gary, who was playing speed chess on the 16th Street Mall," says Carey Jenkins, a math major at Metro State and last year's chess club president at the college.
"This guy is a big guy, and he talks a lot of shit. He's really bad about it, slapping pieces and insulting people. So he sits down with a guy even bigger than him, and he's a good player, so he keeps beating the bigger guy. Finally, though, he blunders and drops his queen, and the other guy says, 'You're not so good,' and Gary stands up and slaps him. So they get into it, a fistfight, and they're on the ground, and finally the big guy's sitting on Gary's chest.
"My friend said it made him laugh and that it brings back the passion to chess," Jenkins adds. "But I don't know. It's no fun to play when it's like that."
Then there are the guys who use their big brains like brass knuckles.
"Chess attracts a lot of those jerks," Jenkins says. "There's a lot of players with esteem issues who will use chess to boost their self-esteem and beat people. They can be bullies, breathing heavy, slamming pieces and slamming the clock. A lot of people get off on that -- trying to be the top dog, if you will. I've always thought of it as mental boxing or mental wrestling. You've got to be quick and nimble, but it's all in your head. So playing with jerks is like getting poked in the eye, I guess. Some of these guys try to be physically intimidating; some of them believe it's a legitimate way to win, through mental intimidation. And there are a whole bunch of people who play that way at St. Mark's."
At least, they used to. But it wasn't the speed chess or the "jerks" who got the game of kings and the king of games banned from St. Mark's Coffeehouse at 1416 Market Street, one of the best spots in town for chess since it opened in 1992.
It was the "unwashed, unpolite and un-monied," says owner Eric Alstad. "I can accept one or two of those things, but not three. If you're not going to have any money, then go to a park.
"It's about five or six people," he continues. "It was a hassle to keep harassing them to buy something, and it got to the point where I was sick of babysitting them. They smell bad and they have bad manners. I don't want to sound like a jerk, but when someone is, like, unwashed, stinky and bumming cigs and change off you, I don't find that acceptable."
Just across Speer Boulevard from the Auraria campus, St. Mark's is the kind of place where college kids mix with the homeless, where businessmen mingle with surly java-slingers. It's the kind of place with a lot of handwritten signs taped to the walls: "Ladies and Gentlemen: Our saucers are not ashtrays. Do not use them as such"; "We gladly accept Czechs and all Earthly People. We do not accept checks"; "We'd appreciate it if you did not walk in with a lit cigarette. So...put it out"; "No public restrooms. You must order to P here."
And then there was the sign with the word "Chess" inside a circle -- and a diagonal line slashed through it.
There's a lot of hanging out at St. Mark's, a lot of slacking, says Alstad, and it's fine as long as the slackers buy something. Alstad doesn't do much slacking himself, though. "I'm a busy man," he says. In addition to the LoDo outpost, he and his wife, Tina Pappas, own a St. Mark's uptown, at 2017 East 17th Avenue. "I own a coffeehouse. But I'm not the kind of guy who would hang out in a coffeehouse."
He's not much of a chess fan, either. "Chess players have never been what I would call fun," he says. "They are a group of misfits with marginally acceptable social behavior. Everybody is welcome here as long as they pay to be here. Those are the rules, and those guys are players, so they should know how to play by the rules. I've never kicked out an entire group of people before. They really forced me into it. I'm sending a message to those guys to shape up.
"I'm sure people are mad," he adds. "I know I would be mad if I was a chess player. But I don't really miss them, and I'm not missing much business."
Clay Lassak is one of the customers Alstad doesn't miss. A Denver native, Lassak spent fifteen years in New York and then Santa Fe before moving to Capitol Hill about two years ago. When he did, he started playing speed chess -- in which each player has a limited time to make his move -- at St. Mark's on Mondays and Thursdays. Then he walked in one day with his plastic board, 32 chess pieces and his clock, and saw the signs banning chess -- one on the front door and one at the counter.
"There is something un-American about it," he says. "This group is being arbitrarily discriminated against. How do they come to the conclusion to target this group of people? Are they rowdy? No. Aggressive? No. Hostile? No. What seemed to be the problem? The pierced, punk-rock types seem to have some problem with the disenfranchised chess players who are poor tippers and because they have to go pick up their cups and saucers without a tip."
Far from smelly misfits, Lassak insists, chess players are an "eclectic" group. "There's no cohesive front," he says. "It's an interesting collection of the academic and the disenfranchised. And in a coffeeshop like St. Mark's, there's a casual sense of being bohemian or artistic or whatever one does in that type of atmosphere."
Lassak now plays on the 16th Street Mall, where there's always a group of people gathered around the public tables at lunchtime and usually a game on at all other times as well. The guys at the tables will tell you that St. Mark's isn't the first place to kick out the chess players, either. They've been booted from Pablo's, the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery and other spots.
"Clay is a gentleman, but he's not the norm," says Jenkins, who met Lassak last year, when a few members of the Metro chess club gathered at St. Mark's on Thursdays. "There are a couple of locals like him who are real class acts. But then there's the jerks. And a couple of the St. Mark's employees have pretty bad attitudes, too. I don't know what happened there, but it was probably bound to happen." The club has since gone back to playing in a break room at the Tivoli Student Union.
But its members still miss their old hangout. "We liked St. Mark's because there were other chess players there, so it was an opportunity to play other players," Jenkins says. "It had a good atmosphere. It was appealing because it felt kind of clubbish, a dark little hole in the wall."
Alstad insists that his image of St. Mark's isn't very different. "What I loved about my store is how many different kinds of people there were -- businesspeople, old ladies, cops, students, Japanese people, even the grungy chess players," he says. "At one point, I bought three nice chess sets for them. But after eight years, I just got tired of hearing about it.
"I probably should have just kicked out the troublemakers," he adds. "This was just my solution to a problem I couldn't quite weed out myself."
Alstad isn't going to make a public announcement about it, but he recently took down the signs banning chess, and an employee at the shop says players will be allowed back in on a case-by-case basis, "provided they buy something."
That's what Lassak says Alstad told him when Lassak called to complain about the no-chess policy. "I was assured that chess playing will be reinstated when the subset is gone," he says. "But I don't want to go back to that place. I'm alienated. All of a sudden, as a chess player, I'm not welcome."