The Restorative Force of Chess: Overcoming the Most Destructive Hurricane in Louisiana History

By Nate Cowan

           By all standards, Jude Acers is a world-renowned chess player. At 17 years old, he received the distinguished title of National Master (NM) by the US Chess Federation. According to US Chess Online 2004, there were 691 active NMs, placing Jude in the 99th percentile of registered players. Those most familiar with Acers know of him for two unforgettable achievements. First, he drew a match against Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, the 11th World Chess Champion and consensus pick by players of all skill levels as the greatest American chess player of all time. Second, he held a Guinness World Record for playing against the most opponents in a simultaneous exhibition (simul). Acers faced 179 challengers in 1976 at the Broadway Mall in Long Island, New York.

           What is lesser known about Jude Acers are the hardships he endured and the lessons he learned as Hurricane Katrina – a Category 3 hurricane that struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005 – uprooted his existence and forced him to pick up the pieces. As Jude puts it best, “And you realize, it may be chess. This is board position. Things are bad, but there is a playable move over here. Maybe it helps me. I don’t know.”

           Jude Acers is at heart, an optimist and a minimalist. The value of his life is not defined by his clothes or property, but rather by the people he meets and the memories he makes. One such encounter occurred in 2000 at the Loyola University New Orleans Library with Derek Bridges, a budding photographer and fiction writer. Astonishingly, the two have built a lifelong friendship and Derek has spent the past 10+ years filming a documentary about Acers. When asked about his reasons for creating the film, Bridges revealed, “I became a knowledgeable source about him to other people….It’s fun to be a vehicle to share with other people about this person right in front of you that you don’t know anything about that has a really fascinating life and way of looking at the world…That made me an authority of a kind on this little sliver of New Orleans institutions.” Recalling their first interaction, Bridges remarked, “Jude would come in late at night…and he would jump around from computer to computer playing different chess games with people from around the world.” Soon after, Derek shot film of Jude at a small simul, presenting Acers with a “big ole print” the next time he sauntered into the library.

           Jude is an extrovert, never going anywhere without a smile on his face, a plain red T-shirt, and a patented red beret fit snugly to his head. The red beret schtick was conceived in 1981 as a ploy to attract mothers and their children over for a quick game. Acers also learned that schmoozing with vacationers paid dividends, understanding that affluents visiting from Chicago and New York City had disposable income to spend. Jude’s charm and showmanship are antithetical to the stodgy and unsociable qualities that stereotypical chess players tend to embody.

           Jude Acers’ world is centered at 1018 Decatur Street, a quaint section of sidewalk sandwiched between a patio restaurant and a sweet-smelling confectionary shop. Acers shows up every day, rain or shine, to play for a bargain, at a time when chess hustlers dominate the streets. Jude charges $5 a game and $200 for a four-hour private lesson. Throughout his professional career, Jude has committed himself to promoting the game over earning a huge profit. “He’s a chess evangelist,” Bridges noted. “In the ’70s when he did those simul tours… he showed up to town and that would be the payment to get him there. But then he would do all these other shows at schools, prisons and orphanages. He didn’t get paid for any of that stuff…he was doing that ostensibly to create more publicity for his main gig. But he really did it because he loved chess and thought it was important to expose people to it.”

           Acers conducts business over the “World Chess Table”, a deteriorating folding table jerry-rigged with carabiner clips, bungee cords and zip ties upon which two chessboards await a deserving foe. “I’m just setting up the chess pieces so people in passing cars see me, and I don’t care what anybody tells you…advertise.” To accommodate his customers, Jude offers a selection of plastic lawn chairs, none of which match in color or size. It is unclear whether the shoddy condition of his effects is out of financial necessity or an illustration of his eclectic personality.

           Jude greets all passersby, waving to tourists and holding conversations with regulars. Commenting about Acers’ spirited nature, Derek Bridges mentioned, “He’s all energy and he’s charismatic and thrilling in his own way… I found that out walking around the Quarter trying to keep up with him because man, that guy books it!” Jude Acers has established himself as a local fixture akin to a modern-day Ruthie the Duck Girl, best known for roller-skating around the French Quarter wearing a wedding dress with ducks trailing behind.

           On the eve of Katrina, Jude prepared as if it were just any other storm. He stocked up on all the essentials: 50 cans of beans, a portable radio with batteries, garbage bags full of water for cleaning and drinking, and of course, chess. Jude caught a glimpse of what was on the horizon while watching a PSA on TV from the weather bureau. “Death and destruction… it was playing around the clock,” he recalled.

           It was too late to evacuate New Orleans, so Acers was forced to make a potentially life-or-death decision. Go downtown to the Superdome or stick it out in his French Quarter apartment building. In his mind, the choice was obvious. “I know my building is from 1840… So, I now know that I am going to sit through this… [Jude and his landlord] thought that the walls would hold and so we’re betting.” Before Katrina made landfall, Acers noted an eerie silence in the streets, signaling to him that all the people and animals had either vacated the city or were sheltering-in-place.

           A few hours later, the winds picked up and rain fell in sheets. The force of the storm was so strong that Jude “heard little rocks going through the air, hitting my building… every chimney in the area was being taken down brick by brick.” All things considered, Jude’s iron-clad resolve to survive prevailed. In the event of rising water levels, Jude was not overly concerned, referencing his swimming prowess and clean bill of health. Around 4 AM, Jude’s physiological need for sleep overtook his desire to monitor the raging storm. “I woke up in the morning. I was alive,” Acers remarked. Jude had no idea what the coming months had in store.

One of the less flooded steets in downtown New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

           Acers remained in New Orleans for seven days after Katrina decimated Southeastern Louisiana.  During that week, Jude supported his community by volunteering in an emergency food kitchen at Harrah’s Casino. One afternoon, while walking back to his apartment after his shift, Jude ran into a National Guardsman armed with an assault rifle who exclaimed, “Hey man, you got to leave the city man!” And so began the first chapter in Jude Acer’s journey as a domestic refugee.

           The next day, Acers was picked up by helicopter and whisked away to the airport. For someone whose preferred method of transportation was a Greyhound, traveling via chopper placed Jude firmly outside his comfort zone. Unbeknownst to him, Jude was placed on a plane destined for Greenville, Tennessee. Upon arrival, Jude and his fellow New Orleanians were shepherded over to the city council, with many uneasy locals in attendance. Acers was inspired to speak up. “They needed a spokesperson…there were like a hundred people in there in the city council meeting and I prepared it to make them feel the people out there. These are not killers; these are not people out of jail. These are people who had water in their pants. The guys to my left and right had water in their pants…They were on the roofs for 11 days.”

           Although Acers did not bring his identifiable chess table to Greenville, his reputation followed. “Everywhere I went, people were looking at me. They knew who I was, and news media accounts featured me. Hundreds of wire services carried the story.” Jude capitalized on the TV network presence, proclaiming his status as a world-famous chess player while providing the game with airtime. 

           Growing up largely in isolation, Jude felt comfortable spending extended periods of time alone. Yearning to reconnect with chess and nature, Acers took a copy of Chess Stars and a pocket chess set into the Greenville woods, playing out every game of the Russian Grandmaster, Mikhail Chigorin. Referring to this experience, Acers remarked, “It helped me a lot. It offered a form of escapism. It was like cocaine.”

           Jude’s mother struggled with drug addiction and died tragically in a plane crash when he was just three years old. His father, an ex-Marine, was a compulsive drinker and took out his frustrations on Jude through physical and psychological abuse. After gaining emancipation from his father at 16, Jude emerged from his troubling childhood, moving to a Behavioral Health Hospital in Mandeville, Louisiana. Here, he found solace and meaning in famous chess literature. “I could never have survived. I was in very deep trouble…. Without chess, I never would have made it.” Many decades later, Jude found a similar reason to carry on after Hurricane Katrina disrupted his life.

           When Jude Acers returned to New Orleans, he encountered a former metropolis populated by emergency workers without a single light to Lake Pontchartrain. Curiosity and fear consumed Jude, guiding his actions in the following days. He set out on foot to appraise the condition of surrounding neighborhoods. “I walked three blocks past Elysian Fields, and stopped and I said, ‘Jude, you don’t want to see this. You don’t see to see the horror that’s out there.’ And I just pretended it wasn’t there…Walking by the Superdome… it’s totally quiet, I go down and the ground level of the parking lot was filled with sewage, floating dogs, a body for all I know!” Finding himself in unfamiliar territory, Jude sought comfort and reverted to what he knew best: chess.

           In an alley across the street from 1018 Decatur, Jude found the World Chess Table underneath a mound of garbage and debris. That his most prized possession was spared from the storm’s wrath was interpreted as a sign of hope. Jude reclaimed some semblance of normalcy, setting up his iconic stand to be challenged by only the ghosts of the Quarter. “I went back to the board, looked at the board, coffee, chess, coffee, and refused to believe, pretended the water never came. Chess helps denial.” Not even a catastrophic natural disaster could stop Jude from being enthralled by chess. For Jude, chess made life purposeful in those desperate times. Derek Bridges opined, “It’s his identity. It’s so deeply enmeshed. I don’t know where Jude ends, and chess starts. It’s all one piece.” It would take eight months until the popularity of Acers’ chess stand returned to normal. Luckily, a generous donation by an anonymous benefactor got Jude back on his feet.

           At 77 years old, Acers is one of the few remaining chess trailblazers from the Fischer era. Much of his continued success is credited to the efforts of Baylee Badawy, a digital strategist working for the New Orleans Jazz Museum. She has assisted Jude pro bono to augment his branding and social media presence. Jude Acers, “The Man in the Red Beret”, is now active on all major platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. An avid chess fan herself, Badawy acknowledged a need to transform chess into a spectator sport.  “These matches have to be shorter; they have to be no longer than the length of a movie…It’s very intimidating and off-putting to the casual fan.” Consequently, Jude’s recognition in New Orleans has grown considerably.

           In the most unlikely of circumstances, Derek, Jude, and Baylee forged an enduring connection revolving around chess, the de facto organizing element of Acers’ entire life. In many ways, their dynamic resembles the ideal family, perhaps acting as a replacement for the warmhearted homelife Acers was deprived of. When asked why he loves the game of chess, Acers responded, “Oh, this is a lot of fun, which is exactly what chess is. It gives you, if nothing else, happiness.”

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