I PLAY WORDLE, the game that fits perfectly into early 21st-century American culture.
I play on a 6-inch portable screen, so I can play at work, at home, even in the bathroom.
A game is quick; a session rarely exceeds 10 minutes.
The skill set for the game hinges on the trivial — my lexicon of five-letter words.
And even though it is a single-person game, it offers lots of opportunities for human interaction: I can post the results on Facebook.
Dave Pfahler plays chess.
He does so inside the front of the Panera Bread at a South Willow Street shopping center.
No digital interface is necessary; his games are face-to-face. And he plays all comers: kids whose parents grab a booth and linger while their child gets a free lesson. Fellow retirees who stop by to kill an hour or so. Chess wizards happy to see a public arena for a game whose popularity depends more on Netflix than anything else.
“He’s been quite a benefit for the city,” said Manchester resident Hal Terrie, co-founder of the New Hampshire Chess Association and author of “Test, Evaluate and Improve Your Chess.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Manchester had two chess clubs, he said. Each had a core of about a dozen members who met on a regular basis.
No such clubs now exist, so Pfahler’s table at Panera is chess central.
“It makes you think,” Pfahler said about chess. “Thinking’s important. It’s like a war.”
His table holds a 20-inch by 20-inch board. It has the feel of a mousepad, which secures the location of the weighted, hard plastic chessmen as his fingers confidently pluck up a piece, slide it to a new square and then, often enough, grasp up the quarry, his opponent’s captured piece.
Pfahler’s chess-playing enclave is just off the entrance to Panera. Many customers walk in fixated on the display of icing-etched pastries and pass him by. They station themselves with pastry and coffee in booths, electronic lassos secured to their ear canals and trailing to keyboards on which they peck away.
Pfahler said he’s been holding court at Panera for about a year. Before COVID-19 shutdowns, he and his chessboard graced the lobby at the Dunkin’ across the street.
But Panera reopened first, and he and his regulars decided to remain at Panera. They save money on the coffee club, and they like the range of food offerings.
Sometimes he’ll play 20 games a day. He’s there for the 6 a.m. opening and at times stays until closing.
“The problem is, I’m in a retirement situation, which I’m not happy about. This is a way for me to fill the day,” he said.
Pfahler said he retired 11 years ago, when everything crashed in on his life. He owned and ran a successful antiques auctioneering business in Michigan, but millennials opted for contemporary furniture rather than antiques, and the market crashed.
His wife, who was from Manchester, died of breast cancer. And he had a stroke, which limits the mobility of his left arm.
His corner was lively during my visit. He was playing Jim, a fellow retiree, when I arrived. Their play was deft and decisive, and each anticipated his opponent’s next move.
The game was slower with Charles Therrien, a second-shift prep cook at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Therrien’s men quickly landed in Pfahler’s board-side POW camp, eventually forcing a resignation.
“His play is vicious, cruel and fun. Dave’s a fun player,” Therrien said.
I played too, and was quickly forced into dilemmas: which piece would I protect, which would I lose. I toppled my king after about 15 minutes.
He avoids speaking too much about betting, but at one point, a crisp $100 bill floats from his pocket to the floor. This is Manchvegas, after all, where a Celtics playoff game, a neighborhood Little League game, even a pickup chess match can capture a wager.
Terrie, who tied for state champion in the 2010s, said Pfahler’s skills are comparable to an average club player. On a good day, Pfahler ranks between 1,500 and 1,600 on a scale that puts a U.S. grandmaster at 2,500, Terrie said.
Pfahler does mention that he defeated Terrie once. But he doesn’t appear to be too hung up on winning or losing.
He doesn’t brag of deft moves or vanquished opponents. In fact, he likes to talk more about his fellow players — the foreign-born who are unfailingly generous, the kids who know their stuff, the regulars who have become his friends.
“I don’t care who sits here,” he said, “I don’t care where they’re from. They can just sit here and we’ll have a good time.”