A cold wind blows outside. But we’re warm in here now. The conversation is made mostly by people who all seem to be under 30 years of age, but there is a distinctly different breed in here tonight.
One man sits at the epicenter of the coffee-drinking crowd. He leans back in his seat cross-legged with a black bag resting at his feet that is labeled, “Chess.” He wears a blue cotton sweater that hangs loosely over his hunched shoulders and black corduroy pants with brown leather loafers on his feet. Drooping eyes survey the scene behind large square rimmed glasses with lenses that look about an inch thick.
His rather large head sits atop a long neck. Thinning grey and brown hair is combed back over his head before stopping at the middle of his neck. Wispy grey sideburns stick out in sharp perpendicular fashion from his round face. It is a face that is constantly grimacing and shifting; lips pursing and wincing. His eyes bob up and down underneath bushy eyebrows.
Greg Nowak, chess master, reaches into the black bag with his long, thin tentacle-like fingers and pulls out two portable chess boards. Four other men sit at nearby tables surrounding him. They all seem to be in their 50s and 60s and they’re all playing chess.
“This is what’s left of the chess club. Everyone is dying or moving away,” says Nowak, 59.
The Octopus nickname developed because he squeezes the pawns off the board like an octopus and he can play multiple games at once; each tentacle plays a different game.
Nowak grew up in Milwaukee where chess became a big part of his life.
“I’ve been playing since age nine. I was an instant prodigy within a year,” Nowak says. “I won the youth tournament in Milwaukee until they kicked me out claiming I was a ‘chess bully’.”
Nowak said he was beating adults quickly and not long after that he beat some of the world’s best masters. Those games took two to five years because each move was sent via postcard to his opponents around the world.
“I played Bobby Fisher to a draw back in high school,” Nowak says. Some consider this his greatest accomplishment in chess — the draw with one of the best and most infamous chess masters in the world.
Nowak pauses and contorts his face as he sips his hot coffee. He slowly looks around at his flock of chess club members.
“By the way, I’m looking for a sponsor so I can play 76 games at once. Bobby has the record at 75,” Nowak says.
The man known as Octopus picked up chess in a dime store while shopping for a gift for his cousin. He picked out a chess set and kept it for himself instead of giving it to his cousin and was immediately drawn to the game.
“I was introduced through the playground system in Milwaukee,” Nowak says. “I knew exactly what chess books to buy without anyone telling me which is still a mystery to me.”
A middle-aged man with bloodshot eyes and a face that doesn’t smile arrives at the shop.
“Paul Mitchell, you decided to show up after all,” Nowak says to the newcomer. He turns to me: “He’s one of the most dangerous coffee house players in Missoula.” Nowak will play Mitchell and two other games are beginning.
The mood changes. Nowak becomes silent as the game commences. After each move he taps a button on a varnished wood clock with gold metal trim. The other men play in complete silence. One has a grey beard and ponytail and a hunting hat, while his opponent has intense red eyebrows, moustache and long red ponytail. Another member sits and watches Nowak play.
He’s locked in now, occasionally stopping to blow through his hands. Every once in a while he shifts and lets out a long puff of air he’s been holding in his lungs. His eyes squint in concentration.
“We’re playing game 60; you get 60 seconds a move,” Nowak says. The game goes fairly quickly with Nowak pointing out strategy such as his favorite — the King’s Indian Formation.
“When you’ve been playing for 50 years, you get to know all the formations,” Nowak says.
After each move, the hand he used to move the piece goes back into his pocket. He wins the game. The other players and coffee drinkers shuffle out. Nowak methodically packs away his chess sets.
It’s another night in the city. Nowak is inside a different coffee shop. This time he’s playing a dark-skinned man with a salt and pepper moustache. The man is just passing through Missoula, he has to challenge the Octopus during his stay. Another man sits reading a chess book on one of the couches. He has just lost to Nowak.
“I’ve been playing chess all my life. When you play chess a lot, you gravitate towards the best players and Greg is one of the best,” says the man who wants to be known as “White Man” Burt. “I mean, he got a draw with Bobby Fisher.”
Nowak is really rolling now. His confidence is revealed in his tone. “He’s got a slight chance if it gets to the end. That’s a big if,” Nowak says.
Nowak is a 10-time Montana state chess champion and has won championships in Idaho and the Dakotas, not to mention city championships around the country. In this game, he has surrounded one of his opponent’s pawns with a knight, bishop, and two pawns.
“Do you see my power play?” Nowak asks. “I can see a six-move check coming.” He turns to me. “Are you learning something about chess?” His coffee cup hangs on two fingers, dipping, almost spilling.
“Timing is an important key to chess,” Nowak says. “Chess has an elemental beauty when you have all the pieces moving together as a team.”
He wins this game, too. Maybe it was modeled after the fried chicken championship game in San Antonio. Nowak often reenacts famous games that have already been played.
He still thinks about Milwaukee. He misses the big city. “In Milwaukee, there was an opera, a dinner playhouse, and I even took ballet for appreciation,” Nowak says. “I have high cultural interests.” He talks about the great German food and the competing Italian restaurants.
“I miss the Milwaukee weather; the humidity and the storms,” Nowak says. “The air is nicer in Milwaukee, it’s thicker,” he says, swirling his half filled coffee cup around.
Nowak graduated from high school and got a job at a watch shop, made candy and stationary. One day he was walking across a street and he was struck by a car, busting his knee, which required major surgery. During his time off, his job was given to someone else and he was unemployed for a while, living off his chess income. The accident gave him a crooked walk and his plan to stay with the company until he retired was no more.
One winter, he went on a month long vacation to the northwest. He arrived in Missoula on April Fools Day, 1991.
“It seemed like a wholesome place to live,” Nowak says.
Aside from playing chess these days, Greg the Octopus says he hikes, reads, listens to music, goes to movies at the Wilma and generally keeps to himself. Nowak also mentions that he will be playing chess at First Night Missoula against whoever wants to play.
“One year I won 128 to zero. That was my banner year,” Nowak says.
Much of his family has died or moved away, and he isn’t married.
“I’m a professional loner. I do everything solo which gives you total control all the time. I don’t have to compromise and I get to think a lot more,” Nowak says. “Chess fills the void, but I’m a sociable Christian loner. I follow the golden rule but I move in solitary directions.”
He looks around, his mouth contorting violently and his eyes blinking and twitching. He looks out the window at the car lights streaking by and the drunken college kids stumbling from bar to bar. It’s a Friday night. Nowak is sitting and waiting for an old chess buddy to stroll in from the cold.
He does socialize with the other customers and employees of the coffee shops, often asking strangers if they’re up for a game as they come and go clutching their respective steaming caffeinated beverages. Most of the coffee drinkers don’t stop and play, and Nowak resorts to strategizing by himself, reading chess books and setting up potential innovative and mind-blowing moves that he will use on his next challenger.
Megan Moering works at the Starbucks Nowak frequently visits.
“We talk about chess, music, and just a lot of small talk,” Moering says. “We’re always really jolly. We make funny faces and I make fun of his sideburns.” The sideburns are remarkable — Nowak himself compared them to Don King’s hair. According to another Starbuck’s employee, Nowak comes in almost every night.
Nowak is vague about his goals, thoughts, ponderings and interests other than chess. His conversation always seems to gravitate back to chess.
“The problem is that all there is to do in town is chess. In Milwaukee there was so much more,” Nowak says. “Chess fills the void.”
It’s as if chess is the one thing he can rely on. When things in his life have gone wrong such as the car accident, a low income and losing his job, chess has always been there for him. He can get lost in the game. He can study its many nuances.
Suddenly Nowak pauses. One finger points up at the speaker above his head and his mouth bends into a smile, his eyes light up. A classical music track is now audible within the mellow mumble of people talking and cups clanking together.
“You have to study this to be good,” Nowak says, his head slowly moving back and forth with the music. “It’s not just screaming and banging, like today’s music.”
Nowak has done his fair share of studying chess, and he is still perfecting the art judging by the chess book that usually rests on his lap.
“It’s not about winning or losing. When people see me moving pieces around when no one is there, I’m not playing myself, I’m appreciating a beautiful game that was played by former world champions,” Nowak says.
His passion isn’t always enough. “It takes money. The big master tournaments cost about $600, and it’s hard on a very limited income,” Nowak says. “Everything depends on the dollar sign — you have to get a patron of the arts to support you.”
For now, the crowd files out once again. The girl who works at the shop announces that it’s closing time. Nowak gathers his chess pieces together into that black bag and ambles out into the cold night.