Chess in the City

2/5/2007 – What do taxi drivers in New York do at night? Forget Travis "You talkin' to me?" Bickel stalking a senator or defending the 12-year-old Iris. Today's cabbies go for mind games and intellectual battles. Like Jimmy, Thomas and Big Simal, who slug it out at three-minute chess in Dunkin' Donuts. David Pambianchi watched.

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Taxi Cappuccino

By David Pambianchi

"Why can't I get a cab in Queens?"

On frosty nights, Taxis idly rest outside a parking lot off Woodhaven Boulevard, not because they need repairs or their drivers hurried home to sleep, but because the cabbies left for a... chess-break! While toes freeze, and the frigid wind blows your nose and cheeks raw, three cab drivers sit comfortably in the warmth of a Dunkin’ Donuts sipping hot tea and coffee. They snack on French crullers and blueberry muffins, while playing three minute speed games of Blitz Chess. At a nearby table, children, with Baskin Robins ice cream cones, curiously watch the pieces fly across the board.


Jimmy, Thomas and Big Simal, New York cabbies who love chess

Simal taunts Thomas, "Now, I am going to have to spank you. Come on Latka make a move, so I can give you a lesson," and slaps the canary-yellow clock.

Jimmy complains about his previous loss:“I was ripped-off and would be unbeatable if this was The Long Game.”

Thomas stirs up trouble: “No talking…don’t worry, you’ll win when you look like Robert Redford.”

“What are you trying to say?” Jimmy inquires.

And so they endearingly argue, and bring us a bit of city color.


Tools of the trade: the chess set of a Taxi Driver
[yes, we know they set up the board wrong for the picture]

Big Simal hails from Turkey and is admired for his top-notch chess-play and personable character. Many agree with his friend Cohen who values his charismatic presence, “When Simal leaves, it feels like you lost a limb.”

Thomas immigrated from Indonesia and plays an aggressive, tricky game of chess.

Another friend, Joe, counters, “On the other hand, Thomas’s chess game is like a horror movie. You can cut off a limb, but he keeps coming at you like the living dead.” Everyone agrees with this.

Jimmy is a New York home-grown Italian-German, working hard, losing weight and getting into shape, “Now if they would just make a low-cal donut. There’s an idea.”

All jest aside, this trio plays some serious chess, and while Simal, Thomas and Jimmy might argue "ad infinitum" as to who plays best, they share an almost fifteen year bond. And if someone does need a ride, inclement or weather fair, they happily turn the taxi light on, never leaving a customer stranded.

Brought together by commonalities, we pause to wonder how a board game, driving occupation and single-digit temperatures interconnect to help create lasting relationships. We contemplate our own friendships, how we meet, what we have in common, build trust and what makes it last.

So if you find yourself stranded on a New York winter's night, lips cracked and grocery bags in hand, cross your fingers, and search the steamy windows of a Dunkin’ Donuts for a friendly Taxi Cappuccino Rescue.


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