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Original Issue


It was 2 a.m. on a June morning and a dozen men were playing sidewalk chess at the intersection of Yonge and Gould streets in downtown Toronto. For seats and tables they used upturned food cartons and tablecloths. Lights from two places of business—the Canadian Bank of Commerce and Sam the Record Man—provided plenty of illumination. With one exception, the men played quietly and comfortably. The exception wore old black shoes, tattered pants and a couple of sweaters. With his pug nose, long gray hair, eight-inch beard and blue watchman's cap, he looked like a cross between the Minnesota Vikings' mascot and a Russian peasant. Playing 20-minute speed games, he moved impulsively, grabbing pieces and slapping his time clock almost simultaneously. The games never seemed to last the limit. "Vould you be-leef it?" he cried in a thick Polish accent. "Class-i-cal mate!"

Strange people playing in strange places at strange times is not a new phenomenon in chess, especially in Western democracies. Denied both the stature and the standard of living that many Communist countries offer serious players, those in the West frequently behave in aberrant ways. You will often see them crouched over their boards in such places as New York's Washington Square Park, cursing one another.

But none of chess' other oddballs measure up to the standard set by Toronto's bearded Josef Smolij (it's pronounced Smoley). He is a civic monument in the Canadian city, honored in newspaper columns and television features. Last summer, when Great Britain's International Master David Levy played the Chess 4.7 computer at the Canadian National Exposition, Smolij, sporting his famous CRASH-AND-SMASH GAMBIT T shirt, took on all comers on a nearby stage. In a country with only 3,500 tournament players and three International Grandmasters (the most prominent of whom has moved to the U.S.), Smolij is probably the leading promoter of chess.

He has become something of a celebrity simply by enduring. Every night since April 1, 1977, Smolij has played at Yonge and Gould from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. That's over 800 days and running. "It is an authentic feat," says Levy, "one that should be included in the Guinness Book of World Records." But when documentation was sent to London, the Guinness people icily replied that the achievement was "not suitable" for their book.

Not suitable? Hey, you try playing chess outdoors 10 hours a night—in Toronto. And there's no doubt that Smolij does it. The police at the 52nd precinct confirm it. So do bemused local citizens and gaping tourists. "I came when the snow was falling in January," says Gary Wells, 26, of St. Petersburg, Fla. "I lasted one game. Joe was there all night."

Oh, Smolij is one tough critter. Born in Poland 58 years ago, he left home at 14 to wander through Europe, learning to speak English, Spanish, German and Russian along the way. He arrived in Canada in 1954 and worked hard for 20 years. Eventually his 5'8", 150-pound body was spent. When a hernia operation and a case of lead poisoning made him unfit for manual labor, he retired to devote himself to chess. "Poor in the pocket, rich in the mind," he says.

Every evening Smolij leaves his boardinghouse and pushes a shopping cart full of chess equipment one mile to Gould and Yonge. It is a busy intersection—Yonge is the Broadway of Toronto—marked by flashing lights and pinball arcades. Even so, Smolij is a commanding figure. An opponent moves a piece. "In Russia you would be sent to Siberia for that," Smolij yells triumphantly. Another foe ponders taking a pawn. Smolij breaks into Russian. "Poidiosh propadiosh, nie poidiosh propadiosh," he says. "Is like German army in war. You go to Russia, you are lost. If you not go, same thing. If you capture pawn, you lose. If you not capture pawn, you lose." Smolij moves his own pawn to the eighth rank, converting it into a queen. "How many wars won by foot soldier?" he says.

There have been many such victories for Smolij. He competed in the 1956 Canadian Open and was the Ontario champion in 1959. Though he has no official rating, he is an excellent speed player who rarely loses. When he does, Smolij is less than gracious in defeat. "From time to time a master Joe doesn't know will come off the street and take him," says a regular. "Joe will tell the guy to get the hell off Yonge Street." Smolij is much happier with his own crowd, which consists entirely of men, many of whom are immigrants and single. "Champion from Czechoslovakia, champion from Australia, champion from Macedonia," Smolij says by way of introduction. "Is champion from Hong Kong vinning?" The men smile contentedly. The nightly ritual does much for their self-esteem.

"If I vouldn't play chess, I vouldn't meet you," says Smolij. "I am single, I am alone. I play not to be lonely, not to be drunk. Ve play for friendship. Chess on the street, chess for the people. How you like that?"

Fine, Joe, fine. It is too bad that the Guinness people don't agree.