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Jan 2020
Every morning while it was dark
He'd wake and pack his boards
With plastic men, his soldiers
To do battle with no swords

He'd put them in his basket
Load them all into the cart
He'd have a tea and bagel
And then, his day would start

He would walk from his apartment
To the park, before the sun
Two miles and a quarter
Just past highway eighty one

There, inside the complex
In the middle of the park
He'd play chess, against all comers
And he'd stay 'till after dark

A prodigy at ten years old
He would beat men three times his age
He would sit there in stunned silence
As they stormed around in rage

A master by his eighteenth year
He hadn't lost on his home ground
He would play and play and nothing else
To the chess board he was bound

Although he had his title
He couldn't leave to play
If he left the country
Then, back home is where'd he stay

He played some competitions
Made his points to climb the list
But, still he kept on thinking
Of the games that he had missed

I saw him in Toronto
Playing for a buck a game
He played againstΒ Β all comers
The result, always the same

His accent was a harsh one
His beard was slightly rough
With some he'd be a softie
With others, he was gruff

Each day he'd make the journey
Pull his boards down and set off
He'd joke about while playing
And at bad moves he would scoff

"In Russia, they would shoot you"
"If you made a move like that"
Was he lying in the bushes
Should you move or just stand pat?

He moved on down to Yonge Street
When the park land all was sold
No one knew just why it happened
He went there, and it was closed

On a small street down by Eatons
He moved his boards so he could play
He didn't need to walk there now
He could now go by subway

There was more room here for players
To learn at this man's feet
They would line up with their dollars
Knowing full well, they'd be beat

The crowd that came from Yonge street
To see this rock star of the board
Were much different from the park folk
But to this street they poured

College players, bankers
Strippers from the Zanzibar
would come and drop their dollar
Then lose and find a bar

As time went on, his game it changed
He'd take more time for his moves
He would talk more as distraction
And once I saw him lose

His brain was getting fuzzy
Age was now taking a toll
Time, it owned his body
But the board still owned his soul

He'd flirt with the young maidens
Showing cleavage in the sun
One girl even flashed him
Because she thought she'd won

He joked about her actions
Told the crowd that it was nice
He joked that if she showed some more
He'd let her come close twice

As time went on the master
Didn't come downtown each day
He'd stay at home in silence
Downtown was far away

He dreamed of heading home again
But, he knew that couldn't be
Then we saw him on the news one night
On the local CBC

He played downtown for seven years
He last played in 85
He took sick and nearly passed on
Thankfully, the master did survive

His name was Josef Smolij
He was Polish, but we thought
He was Russian from his comments
Made when our bad moves were caught

His absence still is felt there
Gould street it was his space
The area he used to play
Is now called Hacksell Place

He left and went to Europe
Germany became his home
But still down there off Yonge street
The old chess ghosts still roam

I remember playing Smolij
I remember it was hot
I lost and then he told me
"Back in'd be shot"

He was 60 when I played him
He'd be 99 or so
I'm glad I got to meet him
The Master known as Joe
based on Josef Smolij, chess player extraordinaire who played first at Allan Park then Gould street in Toronto. He played from 1978 to 1985 downtown. He was a fixture in downtown Toronto. I played him three times, and got beat like a drum each time. The first part is fictional based on fact, then fact at the end.
Roger Turner - Poet
Written by
Roger Turner - Poet
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