When a world-ranked chess champion read a story in the Independent that retired city cop Stacy Spell was determined to checkmate crime in his neighborhood, she decided to help.
By last week seven handsome portable chess sets had arrived in the neighborhood, sent by gender-barrier-breaking Grandmaster Susan Polgar, the director of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Saturday morning at the square where Derby meets Norton, Spell deployed those sets and oversaw an intense match in which the Sound School’s Seth Ortiz (right) was cornering East Rock School’s Moubarak Oury-Aguy’s king with his knights and rooks.
Along with the sets, Polgar had sent instructional videos and copies of her book.
The square has been plagued in recent years by flagrantly public street sales of drugs and the crime that often follows in its wake.
The Dunkin’ Donuts in the square was the scene of a murder in December and two shootings in February of this year.
On this Saturday morning, the charming square was the scene of more games of chess than of drug dealing.
“It’s becoming infectious, like measles,” Spell said.
This was the fourth weekend Spell, president of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation, had organized a community clean-up followed by public chess games.
At least 16 people participated. They included Moubarak and Seth and several other kids from Squash Haven, for whom the clean-up was part of the 10 hours of required community service.
Moubarak lives a stone’s throw away on Norton Street. He hadn’t played in a while; he lost to Ortiz despite a refresher course from Spell. The young man vowed to return next week and maybe bring some friends.
Both boys had participated in clean-ups before. This was their first chess-playing in a public place.
Seth was deployed to pick up, in addition to the usual cigarette butts and alcohol bottles, an unfortunately wide array of drug paraphernalia.
“Seth was my CSI man,” said Spell. With gloves on, he helped Spell pick up no fewer than 20 drug bags, most in a group found at the empty lot next to Furniture Doctor at the corner of Mead and Derby.
Seth had noticed that while most bags were diaphanous, some smaller ones had the word “bunny” on them.
“That’s heroin. That’s so the dealer is giving you his brand,” explained Spell. “He wants you to remember him.”
Spell said he wanted to bring the bag to upcoming neighborhood meetings to show people what they’re dealing with. “Evidence,” the retired detective said.
After the clean-up, the chess games were on. Seth concentrated so hard he barely looked up. Moubarak waved to passersby.
One of them, a boy with curly hair and a tan jacket, paused as he cruised by on a bicycle.
“I’ll come by to play next week,” he said.
Using the pugilistic argot of chess talk, Spell leaned over another intense game and advised Squash Haven Director Julie Greenwood: “You can step into the punch or you can step away” to counter a move by opponent David Aldaz, a John S. Martinez eighth-grader.
“I stepped away from it,” Greenwood said, and acknowledged that she was outmatched.
As Spell looked around the square, he again invoked military lingo for chess’s transformative potential: “This is the best the neighborhood has looked in years. It’s [referring to the presence of the clean up and the chess players] an occupying force once you’re here. The difference between us and a lot of groups is consistency.”
Another passerby, this one in a vehicle on his day off and with his shirts from the dry cleaner in the back seat, was none other than Police Chief Frank Limon.
He and Spell exchanged words of thanks on the recent cracking of the cold case of the June 2000 murder of Lamont Brockenberry and Lakeia Vaughn. (Read that story here.) Stacy Spell had originally investigated that murder and stuck with it for years.
“It warmed my heart,” Spell said of last week’s news.
“I had no idea you were the detective,” said Limon.
Limon said that on his days off he drives around the city to see how things look and just happened on Spell and the chess games.
Invited to get out and play, the chief said that he has logged many hours over the years by playing electronic chess against a computer. “It always won,” he said. He took a rain check.