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MY DINNER WITH JUDE ACERS – by Casey Bush
HE WORE A RASPBERRY BERET
In March I went on a business trip to New Orleans and had the opportunity to spend a few hours with chess legend, Jude Acers. As soon as I got a break from the conference I headed down to the address listed in an advertisement that appears in every issue of Chess Life: “FRENCH QUARTER CHESS – Jude Acers plays all challengers daily at the Gazebo Restaurant, 1018 Decatur.” I couldn’t find the Gazebo but spotted Jude by his trademark red beret. Jude explains it simply: “The beret is red. Red in traffic means stop, so people walk past my boards and stop to play.”
I had only met Jude on one previous occasion, at Arthur Dake’s 90th birthday party where he had delivered an inspirational tribute to Oregon’s only Grandmaster, the story of Arthur’s coin purse. Jude told how Arthur supported himself playing speed chess in the New York City during the Great Depression, “Alehine, all the masters, they came, they played, they lost. Dake carried a tiny change purse with him at all times to collect his winnings on the spot …You heard the jingle and you just knew your coins were about to sprout wings of their own – headed toward a predestined journey to Dake’s coin purse.” Living hand to mouth through your skill at the chess board is something Arthur and Jude had in common, and they both admired each other greatly. Arthur was buried with one of Jude’s red berets inside the coffin.
Almost every day of the year Jude Acers sits behind a cafeteria style folding table set out on a sidewalk with two chess sets attended by plastic chairs adjacent to a signpost announcing the fee schedule “$5 per game or a four hour lesson for $200; Visa and Mastercard accepted.” The French Quarter is known for its street performers painting portraits, juggling, reading palms, tap dancing all to a Cajun-Zydeco beat. Jude fits into the tableau perfectly. Decatur is New Orleans’ second most famous street, home of the House of Blues, Bubba Gumps and Café du Monde. The Gazebo is an outdoor affair built around a beautiful pocket park, a fountain surrounded my flowers under a canopy of trees. Actually, it is currently called the Voo Carre Restaurant and although it has changed hands twice in the last few years, Jude has kept his spot and has a key so he can store his chess gear each evening. The Voo Carre has about twenty tables around a central booth that houses the cash register and a kitchen in a small building, right behind a bandstand. Jude is strategically placed at the entrance from Decatur under part of the awning; an important point as New Orleans typically has 60 inches of rain each year.
Jude didn’t recognize me and so I was greeted as just another customer and was immediately informed: “You possess the great fortune of having the opportunity to play one of the best chess players in these United States. Of course, you don’t stand a chance of winning.” As soon as the game began the banter disappeared. In my game Jude did not make any brilliant moves, but took me seriously and slowly ground down my position, invading the queenside with pawns and a knight. After I resigned he provided a thoroughly analysis of how I went wrong and an active alternative to the Advanced Caro-Kann. After the chess lesson I informed that we had met before and Jude insisted I take a seat on his side of the table so that we could talk while he continued to entertain his clientele. “Now you get to see me in action,” Jude proclaimed. “This is where I work. This is my office and that chair on the other side of the table is my inbox.” Over the next few hours I witnessed Jude working the public, attracting every passing gamester with his magnetic charisma. Jude took each game seriously. He explained that he didn’t calculate deeply but just looked for good moves. “As I get older it gets easier to make decisions.” After each victory he offered his opponent encouragement and advice, analyzing every game and recommending chess books. At the same time I engaged him in a go-as-you-please conversation that covered the history and future of chess, as well as Jude’s own unique life story.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN
All I knew about Jude before that afternoon I had either heard from Arthur or read in the March 2000 issue of John Grisham’s glossy monthly The Oxford American in Mathew Teague’s article “Chess King of the Streets”. Jude told me so many stories that I have a great sympathy for the 22 year old Teague, who was overwhelmed and inspired by Jude. He reviewed the gruesome details of Jude’s upbringing almost without comment: “Acers was four years old when police in New Bern, North Carolina, found him and his sister digging through garbage …so when Jude was young, he spent most of his time in orphanages.” Chess is weaved into the story as an aside. “When he was five years old, he came across a book about chess, and his obsession began. He used soda bottle tops to make chess sets, but the nuns at the orphanage took them away. So he made more.” Teague recounts how Jude’s father later reclaimed his son only to “abuse Jude with a flair.” Then “When Jude was fourteen, his father stopped beating him, and delivered the hardest blow of all. He committed the teen to Louisiana’s state mental institution in Mandeville, where loneliness only fueled his drive to study chess.”
Jude was a chess master by the time he was 17 and the State sent him to LSU where he studied Russian so that he could learn from the Soviet School without a translator. After graduating, Jude traveled across the USA and ended up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district where for a period of time he lived in the same house as Janis Joplin. “When I first moved in I didn’t even know who she was,” Jude admits. Teague quotes Jude telling a classic Acers story, “One day during a party I was in the bathtub, where it was quiet, reading, and Janis came in, naked, and sat down on the toilet. She looked at me and said, “Funny, funny Jude. You play with your little pieces all day long, and you know what? You’ll live to be an old, old man someday.” And here I am.” With yarns like that who can doubt that Jude “stood at a urinal next to John Fogarty, and played basketball with the Doors between sound checks.”
During that same time he played over 800 rated games against Bay Area chess gladiators such as Browne, Commons, Grefe, Tarjan and Waterman. Jude attained a 2400 rating and also found the time to write a stream-of-consciousness column for the Berkeley Barb called Chess Barbs which he used to chronicle his life whirling along edges of a cultural vortex. His touchstones ranged from political references such as George Wallace and Patty Hearst mixed with chess name dropping as though the average college student was familiar with the likes of Koltanowski and Karpov.
RUSTY MILLER TIME
Jude first came to the Pacific Northwest in 1968 as Clark Harmon remembers “It was at the Strawberry Open in Marysville, Washington. Jude and GM Larry Evans were the big out of town players, Jude was living in San Francisco then. Vic Pupols was married at the time to a nice, very sociable gal who cooked dinner for the out of town celebs. GM Evans, Jude, myself and others attended. Jude and I hit it off which is not hard to do with Jude, with that southern charm to him and he knew the art of compliments. I made it to SF a number of times and caught up with Jude. He and I rattled around the hot parts of SF and usually ended up having dinner at the Olde Spaghetti Factory.” Clark still visits Jude whenever he visits New Orleans and assures me that all the stories about Jude are true, or at least have a factual basis.
It was also at Maryville that Jude first met Rusty Miller and they soon became business partners. During the Fischer era Jude conducted cross-country chess exhibition tours organized by Rusty Miller. Jude wrote about his manager affectionately in the Barb, (1974) “Miller thinks very little of his personality, has very little confidence in his promotional ideas, so he tries a lot of them … He is a most curious friend, a most curious opposite of a professional chess player. And he is, stated simply, a genius.” Over a few years Rusty arranged hundreds of exhibitions for Jude across the country. Jude’s total dependence on his manager was documented in his two-part Barb article “The Price is Austin”. Frustrated by cancellations and plane delays Jude relates, “I drag the bags as Russell Miller has told me to on his tight perfectly planned airline schedule for me. He says my ticket will be there but my plane is not … Jude Acers has never missed a contracted exhibition in his lifetime. The phone rings at Miller’s hotel … Russell Miller is asleep but rises in full horror as he realizes the stakes. You do not tell him that you cannot think anymore … Miller also has the job of fielding the tremendous heat that begins to pour over the phone lines from Georgia’s commercial and club organizers who had worked countless hours on the prison, shopping center and television appearances of Jude Acers.” Riding the coattails of Bobby Fischer, Jude became a national figure, his tours were chronicled by a wide range of media, including the New York Times as well as NW Chess which reported in its January 1972 issue that in the previous year Jude had conducted 134 simuls in 83 cities, drawing 30, losing 174, and winning 2673 games. Rusty faithfully reports: “November 16 saw Jude Acers return to Seattle to wind up his 1971 Nationwide Lecture and Exhibition Tour. Shoreline Community College was the scene. After an interesting lecture of extraordinary games he took on a group of 27 in simultaneous play. He was ambushed by John Braley 1971 Champion, Mike Franett 1970 Washington Champion and two others. Acers won the other 23 games in about 4 hours … Then another horrible experience for Jude Acers occurred Friday morning. Someone broke into his hotel room and stole his suitcase that had a number of chess books in it. Fortunately, they did not take his demonstration board. The books were a great loss especially the MCO 10 in German that Jude had been putting notes into for the last 8 months.” Despite the excitement of the chess tours, they proved problematic. After a busy and tumultuous decade spent largely on the West Coast, Jude moved back to New Orleans looking for a less complicated existence. It was then, a quarter century ago, that Jude began to live on Decatur.
Today, Jude’s pace has slowed down, but he still manages to get out on the road. When I visited he had just conducted a forty board simul at nearby Angola Federal Penitentiary, an event which garnered local and national television coverage. He talked about a trip to New Jersey for a simul at another prison as well as shopping mall, but no matter what type of income those jobs generate, Jude has learned to earn his living right on the streets of New Orleans. That afternoon he dismissed each of his opponents with good humor while providing autographs for the asking and graciously had his picture taken with his admiring chess victims. As Clark pointed out, Jude does know the art of compliment, he can make people feel good about themselves, but he also speaks highly of himself assuring me that he is better known than New Orleans’ popular mayor second term mayor Marc Morial. But it was when he proclaimed that he was “The best chess player ever from the state of Louisiana” that I had to draw the line.
MORPHY TOUR OF THE FRENCH QUARTER
For a man without material resources, self-confidence has gotten Jude a long ways but I couldn’t help but remind him in whose shadow he stands. “The best chess player ever?” He quickly corrected himself with a wink. “I mean in the modern era.” That was the beginning of a special chess tour of the French Quarter. The afternoon had already passed us by and it was dark by the time we set out. The few blocks between Decatur and Burbon are layered with three hundred years of history. First we went to the house where Morphy was brought up located on the Rue de Chartres, a magnificent structure, built up on a mound above the street with a spacious veranda and garden. Today it bears a bronze plaque on a wall facing the street which formally proclaims the historic link to the first World Chess Champion. My guide informed me that “The house was later bought by Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote The Chess Players, the novel about Morphy’s life.” I touched the raised letters of the plaque, just to make sure I was really seeing it.
We strolled through the dark avenues with Jude providing commentary on every block with nonstop details about Morphy’s life; where he played chess, what streets he walked down, the location of his law office. Our final destination was the so-called Morphy House, where Paul died of a stroke in a bathtub. That building now houses a high class restaurant, Brenan’s, pride of the Rue Royale, which boasts a 50,000 bottle wine cellar. We were met at the door by the hostess who greeted my guide as an old friend, “Come in Jude, how have you been?” I’m sure Brenan’s has a dress code that we did not meet but it didn’t matter, she knew we were there to pay homage to one of the most haloed sites of chess history. Just like the residence in which he was born, the Morphy House also has a bronze plaque denoting its historical significance, except this one is in the lobby.
The tour ended there. We could have walked to Morphy’s grave but Jude informed me “Its not a safe place for tourists at night.” We retired to at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, half a block from the Voo Carre and talked nonstop over a chicken and garlic pie. Jude attacked the pizza, consuming the generous topping with his fingers, and then rolling up the moist crust like a big cigar and chewing it down to a stub. He had an opinion about everything to do with chess, from the future of Kasparov to the invasion of the Chinese. He believes that there is a vast untapped chess public that has been nurtured by computers and the Internet but are not being served by the organizers, in the USA and around the world. “The USCF is a corporate ripoff. They’ve squandered millions. The people in charge of it now don’t even know who the American grandmasters are. That’s why it took them so long before running Dake’s obituary.” He’s also in favor of the shorter time controls “Believe me, it’s inevitable that games must last no more than an hour for worldwide TV and Internet coverage! And all tournaments must end in one day. Chess will no longer be an ordeal – trial by chair!” Jude was not surprised to see Kasparov squander his diminishing stature by appearing in a Pepsi commercial during the Superbowl. “How perfect,” Jude chuckled, “Going head to head with a vending machine and losing, then sucked down an elevator shaft.” In a recent letter printed in Larry Evans’ column Jude observed “There’s absolutely no reason why the world championship cannot be settled in six murderous games between two finalists on a single Sunday afternoon.” I scoffed when Jude predicted that the Chinese would win the match in Seattle. “The Asian invasion has just begun,” he assured me. “Start studying your Mandarin right now.”
Jude’s enthusiasm for the future is infectious. His hunger for the present is inspiring. What I liked most about Jude is how he has lived his life. He is a true pedestrian in a motorized world. He is a non-materialist who owns only what he needs. Michael Teague was not ready for the depths of Bohemia or a Louisiana address without air conditioning, when he was honored to be invited to visit Jude’s barracks. “… he threw open the door to his apartment, and the smell that poured out drove me back a step. It was a mixture of old clothes, coffee, and mildew. The entire apartment was about eight by four feet. There was a closet at one end, and at the other end a toilet and shower, where Acers washes his clothes. Newspaper clips featuring Acers – including one that described his relationship with roomie Janis Joplin – were randomly tacked to the walls. On the floor was a pile of towels and blankets that he used as a bed, and stacks of books: hundreds, maybe thousands of books, some in Russian and Chinese, all about chess.” Teague summarizes the wealth of association that has made Jude Acer’s life so rich but doesn’t quite get it: “He was a little off, but he knew it. Knew it perfectly well. Knew nobody was going to understand him and knew he would die poor. But he was boss of his world.” I believe Mr. Teague meant King, Jude Acers is the King of his world, Grand Ambassador of Cassia with his embassy located conveniently at the crossroads of the world on Decatur Street in New Orleans’ colorful French Quarter.