Chess Hustling: Top 5 Excuses We Hear Every Day

December 30, 2022

"The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made." - Savielly Tartakower

Hustling (part i)
Hustling (part i)


At its core, chess hustling is a business, one riddled with ego, reality-checking, financial schemata, and intelligent collaboration. To newcomers, it might seem sleazy; to others, downright silly. Everyone has an angle when they drop into the lion's den at Washington Square, but in the end it comes down to your game. Don't want to gamble? Go home. Not willing to throw $5, 10, sometimes $20 on a 5-minute or 3-minute game? Once again, carry on. The guys who run the show are there to make money, and if you're not down, play with your phone. Much more on this later, but this mini-piece focuses on a combination every regular hustler has to manage around: perception and excuses.

If you're a strong player, arrive early, and know the guys, you can run a table for the day. Over the course of a six, eight, sometimes ten-hour session, you'll encounter every personality under the sun: the over-confident finance bro; the prodigy and her parents; the dude looking to impress his girl (strong overlap with 1); the online guru; the bridgade of tourists. Each trope carries some view of who you are (e.g., finance bro = better than you) and a litany of reasons why, even if you win, there's a reason they didn't quite "have it". This first piece of the hustler scene focuses on our top five favorite excuses, an infinitely rewatchable comedy.


Excuse #1: "I mostly play online; over the board is just so different."

Yes, but mostly no. There's certainly something to be said for visualization in chess. Moving from 2D to 3D requires a modicum of adjustment, but if you know how to play, you shouldn't collapse just because you're making moves on a physical board. It's like saying you only understand physics when you're in a lab environment. Amazingly, I'd put it at somewhere around 30-40% of players I face in Washington Square mention this in some form or fashion. The reality is that online ratings are inflated, and until you can play consistently over the board, you're not really that serious of a player. If you make this excuse more than once a year, your mother's basement might be a more suitable space.

Excuse #2: "I would have won, but I didn't have enough time."

This one's particularly great because the logical fallacy is something you might find in an "Intro to Argumentation" class. If you sign up to play a 5-minute or 3-minute game, how can you complain about losing under time pressure? It's like a basketball player who has 10 seconds to shoot complaining he missed because he didn't have 12. Time isn't infinite, and every move is made under its constraint. The notion that only you would have made better moves while I would have been unable to generate any additional ideas is entirely myopic. Chess IQ / Time = Average Move Quality. Making high-quality moves with minimal time on the clock is nothing other than the mark of a strong player. Composure x Conceptual Understanding x Practicality = Capacity to Execute under Pressure. If you can't handle it, you either lack nerve, don't understand the position as well you think you do, or don't have a feel for how to switch gears from finding the best move to finding a series of reasonable ones. Every game can't be an art project; you either win, lose, or draw.

Excuse #3: "I haven't played in forever. My peak rating was 2400 though."

This is me believing you. The amount of people I've beaten who say they were master-level has only led me to not care. If you come to the park and get washed, you either were a master or weren't a master. We couldn't care less—just don't fool yourself with the present tense.

Excuse #4: "I'm more of a positional player; this place is all about tactics."

If you can't unpack tactics, you don't understand the position. The idea that many (really strong) players in the park somehow have a shallower positional understanding simply because we can trick you, doesn't make our understanding less deep or positional. Drawing out players' weaknesses is something any serious player—whether online, in a classical tournament, or playing blitz in the park—will do. An early litmus test is pressuring you with combinatorics—sometimes basic, sometimes advanced—before bothering with anything more layered. Not to mention, tactical combinations are part of every game, whether it's a 20-mover or a 70-move grind. Is there a purely "positional" position where you don't have to calculate? Is there calculus without trigonometry? Of course not.

Excuse #5: "There's so much going on. It's too hard to concentrate."

Again, the idea that noise, conversation or other variables only apply to you is comically bad logic. "The weather has me all off" — cool. Heard this one for the first time this week and it's beautifully stupid. The wind and rain only affect the white pieces when you play them. The capacity to parallel process is essential in chess, particularly at the park. If you can't handle five different conversations going on, Spotify ads punctuating an old Lil Wayne album at 400 decibals or some unexpected characters wandering through your field of view, you're in for it. We'll even lean into it if we're ahead, initiating conversations with your friends who were originally there for some kind of long-lost moral support, getting up from the board to stretch, syncing up with the lyrics—all while nonchantly marching a pawn to promotion. Game is game is game.


What I find fascinating about this laundry list of excuses is it's simply a masquerading ego unable to admit its temporary inferiority. Honorable mentions include, "You should play my cousin. He's really good" and "I not used to playing for money." When the player across from you volunteers one of these little nuggets, all we see is dollar signs. If you play regularly, you're going to have good days, great days, bad days, and the occasional "what am I even doing" couple of hours. Getting too high on a win sets you up for a loss. Tilting after a bad move or a weak game is even worse. Save playing strength, level-headedness is the biggest skill I've honed while hustling day in and day out in the square. Those who've been doing it for years, sometimes decades enjoy a win as much as anyone, but they're ice cold when the next game rolls around. Double or nothing.

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