Juke Joint

By Ed Staskus

When Matti Lavikka and I slowly but surely stopped playing chess and started playing Go we didn’t know we were sitting down to the oldest board game played continuously to the present day. The game was invented in China almost 3,000 years ago. It is a strategy contest for two players in which the goal is to surround more territory than your opponent. 

   The playing pieces are called stones. One player uses the white ones and the other one the black ones, taking turns placing them on the vacant intersections of the board. The stones can’t be moved once placed, but are removed from the board if it, or a group of stones, is surrounded on all adjacent points, in which case it is captured. The game goes on until both players survey the pickings and agree it’s not worth playing anymore. The winner is determined by counting each player’s surrounded territory along with captured stones. 

   Games also can and do end when one player spent exhausted brain dead simply gives up.

    The chess board starts with everything on it. The last man standing wins. The Go board starts with nothing on it. Whoever is the more cunning craftsman inevitably ends up on top. It’s the way of the world.

   Even though the rules of Go are simple, the play is complex, especially the longer the game goes on. It has a larger board than chess with more scope for play and more alternatives to consider per move. The number of board positions in Go has been calculated to be greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe. The Japanese believe no two matches have ever been or ever will be the same. They consider the game to be a microcosm of everything.

   If we had known that we probably would never have started playing. By the time we found out it was too late. We had been sucked into the black hole of Go. Getting out of the hole for a pick-me-up meant going down to the Harbor Inn, another hole, on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. It either was or wasn’t the oldest bar in town. Either way, the place wore its reputation on its sleeve.

   “The place was always shoulder to shoulder with bikers and their molls,” said Dan Coughlin, a sportswriter for The Plain Dealer. “Wally had a virtual armory behind the bar. He had pistols and shotguns. One night in the middle of the summer we stacked up cases of beer bottles and fired at them from the hip, with shotguns blasting away. I put a hole in the stop sign in front of his bar.”

   Wally was Vlado Pisorn, an immigrant from Slovenia who had recently taken over the bar. We called him Vlady. He had the kind of beer we liked, the kind from Germany and Czechoslovakia. The wine came from a hose and died on the tongue. After a couple of deaths we never drank it again.

   Matti had served a tour of duty in the armed forces, was on a prolonged run of R & R, and was boning up for the entrance exams for mailman, fireman, and policeman. He finally found work with the Bay Village Fire Department, which was like working at a posh nursery school. There were hardly ever any fires anywhere near the upper end lakefront suburb. There were, however, lots of old folks having heart attacks and strokes and the EMS trucks kept up their back and forth to St. John West Shore Hospital.

   One night Matti and his partner Chuck were called to a house where the husband was having chest pains. He was on his back in bed, his eyes closed. When they stepped into the bedroom his wife whispered to them that she thought he was dead, “the poor man.” Chuck was in the lead. When he walked up to the bed, he slipped on a throw rug and went head over heels on top of the man, body slamming him, the bedsprings groaning and complaining.

   “If he’s not dead yet, he’s dead now,” Matti thought. “Is he OK?” the woman asked, alarmed. “Your husband will be OK,” Matti said. “No, not him,” the woman said. “I meant the other fireman.” 

   “What the hell is going on!” the man suddenly spat jolting awake. “Get your fat ass off me.” He rolled Chuck off the bed, who fell to the floor. From then on, he was known as One Alarm Lazarus at headquarters.

   My friend Virginia Sustarsic introduced me to Matti. How they knew each other was beyond me. She was Slovenian and a hippie through and through. He wasn’t, not by a long shot. On top of that, he was cool customer Finnish. He played chess, like me, and we played now and then. I had moved out of the Plaza Apartment, where Virginia still lived, and was living on a forgotten street in North Collinwood, near Bratenahl, a couple of blocks south of Lake Erie. I lived upstairs in a two-bedroom. It was a Polish double. Ray Sabaliauskas, a fellow Lithuanian, owned the house and lived downstairs with his Southeast Asian wife and prize German Shepherd. He had come back safe and sound from the mess that was Vietnam.

   I found my Go game at a garage sale in the neighborhood. It was practically brand new, the instruction sheet still in the box. I paid a dollar for it in quarters. Reading the rules took less than five minutes. Explaining the rules to Matti took less than one minute. Our first game took four hours and was suspended due to darkness. We were playing on the front porch when the sun went down.

   “The best strategy is to spread the pieces far apart and stretch them out, to encircle and attack the opponent, and thus win by having the most points vacant,” Huan Tan said nearly two thousand years ago.

   We were both bug-eyed after our first game. We didn’t know strategy from a seesaw. It was like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired. Go is considered the most difficult board game in the world. Sleeping became my new go-to after a long game.

   I started jogging on Lakeshore Blvd. from North Collinwood, where everybody was a working man in one way or another, through the village of Bratenahl, where everybody was tall thin proud wealthy, to build stamina for the struggle. I had put exercise on the back burner in my early 20s. I never thought I would be working out to be able to sit quietly hour after hour staring at a square board of intersecting lines.

   When I was a teenager, I ran track and field as part and parcel of Zaibas. The Cleveland Lithuanian sports club was formed in 1950. In 1951, at the 1st North American Lithuanian Games, members participated in basketball, volleyball, and table tennis. The next year the club hosted the games in our hometown and fielded a team in track and field. 

   In the 1960s I ran around in circles encouraged by Algirdas Bielskus. He was the director of a men’s vocal ensemble, co-founder of a choir, and concertmaster of the Ciurlonis Ensemble. He was also the community’s track and field coach for sixty years. He had the voice to make himself heard loud and clear from the far end of a quarter-mile track. Every weekend fair or foul all I heard was “Go! Go! Go!”

   He always carried a briefcase, briefcases he was always losing, stuffed with notes about how we were progressing. Rita Kliorys made him a Christmas gift of a new one in 1966. “It was the accordion kind,” she said. “I remember it cost $100.00, and I collected one dollar from many people. He actually did not lose it, either.”

   He coached hundreds of youngsters who ran hundreds of thousands of miles. “I thought of him afterwards whenever I saw the turquoise and orange Howard Johnsons and would remember how he took us there for ice cream sometimes,” said Regina Thomas. “Although I was a talentless klutz at sports, he never made me feel like one. I never thought much about it as a kid, but what a commitment to youth and sports.” The small man with the big voice was seemingly tireless, championing fitness among Cleveland’s Baltic off-spring.

   “He worked for my dad’s company, Transmission Research, in the basement of our house,” said Dalia Nasvytis. “Sometimes we would hear noises downstairs late at night and realize he was still down there running off schedules for the next athletic meet he was organizing.”

   Once we started playing Go, Matti and I made a commitment to it. We played all that spring summer and through the winter, two and three games a week. It wasn’t an obsession although it was. We played on the front porch until it got too cold to play outside. After that we played in the living room at a coffee table, sitting opposite one another, all four of our eyes glued to the board.

   We hardly talked, going for hours without saying a word. Every so often Matti smoked a Marlboro. After another hour he would tap another one out of the red and white flip-top box. Whenever I joined him, the living room filled with smoke, a gray-white cloud stewing over the entanglements of Go.

   The game demands concentration, which is born out of silence. Some of our best moves and long-term maneuvers were made quietly. I found out the more time I spent in the quiet, the more surprised I was about what came into my head.

   When we first started playing the plan of attack was capturing stones. We both saw that surrounding other stones and taking them prisoner yielded points. It was like taking a piece in chess. After a while we discovered the object of Go is not to surround and capture the opponent’s stones. The object is to surround empty territory on the board. The way to do it is by building walls around empty intersections. If your territory includes some opposing stones, all the better. From then on it became a contest to capture territory rather than capture stones.

   In the Eastern world Go was the war strategist’s game of choice for a long time. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” reads as an introduction and exposition to the game. Warlords of every stripe were always big on blockading their enemies and capturing territory back in the day. The times they are not a-changing, not anytime soon. 

   There’s an old saying, “Chess is a battle. Go is a war.” The more we played the more we discovered it was a war of attrition. It was like breaking stones in the hot sun. There was no fighting the law of Go.

   Oskar Korschelt, a German chemist, brought the game from Japan to Europe in the 1880s. Even though it was slow to catch on, by the 1950s championship-level tournaments were being organized. By the mid-70s it was filtering into the United States. I didn’t meet another Lithuanian who played the game.

   Lithuanians are instinctively suspicious, somewhat superstitious, sometimes curious, usually sensible, always pragmatic, hard-working, conformist communal and punctual. They are often reserved except when they get together. Once they establish their bona fides it’s pick up a drink and run off at the mouth. They play volleyball and basketball. They probably couldn’t stand the prolonged silence of Go.

   One night after a protracted back-and-forth game Matti and I drove to the Harbor Inn. We were looking for some down time. Lights were blazing in the handful of windows. The two-story building used to be a home-away-from-home for dockworkers and salt-miners. Anyone who didn’t mind a lumpy mattress could even sleep upstairs. It might have been a dive back in the day, but it was no ifs ands or buts about it a dive now, slinging suds to third shifters in the morning and anybody else who had a buck the rest of the day and night. There was a coin operated bowling arcade game and mangled dart boards upstairs. We got bottles of Pride of Cleveland beer, being short on spare change, and a handful of beat-up bar darts.

  Nobody knew how long the Harbor Inn had been there, but we reckoned it had to be from the day after Moses Cleaveland settled the land centuries before. It smelled rank, like standing water hundreds of years old. It smelled like bad smoke from long-gone cigars and cigarettes. It smelled like sweat. Looking around there was no doubt some of the men in the bar only bathed once a month.

   The beer was cold and refreshing and playing darts was fun. We played 501 Up. Both players start with a score of 501 and take turns throwing three darts. Bullseye scores 50, the outer ring scores 25, and a dart in the double or treble ring counts double or triple. The tally is calculated and deducted from the player’s total. The goal is to be the first dartist to reduce the score to exactly zero, the only hitch being that the last missile thrown must land in a double or the bullseye. 

   Darts are front-weighted flighted weapons a few inches long with a sharp point. A part of playing darts is the throwing part. The rest of it is mental toughness, staying on the button, stinging the cork like a bee. It was like Go except we could let ourselves go. We wrote our names in chalk on the brick wall, adding them to the hundreds of other names reaching to the ceiling. After a couple more P. O. C.’s we got sloppy, but it was no matter.

   There weren’t a hundred-or-more darts crowding the dart board, like all the stones on a Go board. Every throw was always at an empty target, every throw a new chance to get it right, unencumbered by the past. Go was all about the past of all the stones placed on the board. It was a relief to see the target and hit the target, except when we missed, and the dart bounced off the brick wall.

   When that happened, we yukked it up, not like the game of Go, which is no laughing matter.

Photograph by Lisa DeJeng.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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