Ernest Hemingway flashes a smile in a black and white photograph on the wall. Below him, the patrons in the “Hemingway Room” at SoCo Coffee in Santa Rosa quietly concentrate on a rapid-fire game of speed chess, finger slapping the timer buttons in a furious frenzy.
Furrowed foreheads, tense muscles and absolute silence permeate the atmosphere during one of the pick-up games that occur regularly at the downtown coffee shop. The tension is absorbed by the cozy booth-style seating and the walls overflowing with autographed smiles of local authors and poets.
“Don’t tell Hillary I was here,” says one of the players when asked why he does not want to reveal his identity for this story. He winks, takes a sip from his coffee mug and starts to arrange the pawns on the board for a new game. On closer inspection, his face does reveal a slight resemblance to Bill Clinton.
“Bill” is playing chess with Robert Fischer, 80, a retired real estate developer. Not the Bobby Fischer who became world chess champ in 1972, but the man whose trademarks are long and neatly trimmed silver sideburns and a black Army hat. His eyes are hidden behind glasses, his face beneath a beard and thin silver mustache.
“Some players treat this as World War II,” says Fischer, an organizer who shows up to play several times a week. He was part of a group that played on Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street before moving to SoCo about five years ago. If you would like to be matched up with another player, he is the guy to ask.
On a recent Saturday in May, a young man approaches an older man and suggests a game of chess. Edward Rosenthal, 72, pulls a bag from beneath his seat and rolls out a chess board.
The young man is Eric Valor, 22, who says chess changed his life. He says he was 15 and homeless when he was introduced to the game. Chess and the community that supports it helped him focus and regain his footing. Nowadays, he runs the Castles and Crown Chess Club.
Rosenthal offers some tips on strategy as he plays with Valor. Rosenthal is a Web designer during his hours away from the game.
Many days of the week, chess players can be found at SoCo Coffee between 1 and 4 p.m. Sometimes 10 or more people fill several tables, making the trek from as far as Rohnert Park, Petaluma or another nearby town. The cafe owner provides chess boards, pieces and timers, although some players prefer to bring their own equipment.
As they sip their coffee, players talk and joke, thrusting their knights into aggressive positions or making defensive moves with a pawn. The mood can shift quickly as the game gains momentum. During games of speed chess, each player has only five minutes to play and can lose the game by running out of time if the opponent’s play demonstrates a potential checkmate. A player also can lose by making illegal moves.
It is not all about quick, strategic moves at SoCo. For those who want to indulge in a slow and comfortable games, Tuesdays are “no clock” days. Proficiency with rooks and bishops is not a prerequisite, nor is knowledge of the rules of chess. Spectators are welcome and encouraged.