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MISSOULA - On New Year's Eve, Greg Nowak sported a fresh haircut and wore a pressed, dark suit.

He was spending the evening playing chess with up to 18 contenders at once in the University of Montana Center.

While onlookers - parents, chess aficionados and the curious - watched from the balcony above and others crowded around below, Nowak moved rapidly from opponent to opponent, occasionally correcting an opponent's move and righting fallen chessmen on the tables, which were arranged in a rectangle.

Nowak stooped at each table, scanned the boards and made his moves. When a seat emptied, another contestant sat down to play.

Nowak demolished his opponents throughout the nonstop, 51/2-hour event, finishing with a score of 1211/2 to 1/2, his best ever at the First Night event.

Actually, he said, the man he drew with was winning. But Nowak pulled out a trick Bobby Fischer, the 1972 world chess champion, had used against him.

"He should have won, but I offered him a free rook. I appeared to blunder," he said.

It worked out so that neither could make a move.

"I got through the event with a lot more energy than I had last year," he said. "I'm glad I won almost all of them."

His 2000 score was 103 wins and 5 draws.

Nowak earned his name "The Octopus" when he played 59 opponents at the same time in Kalispell several years ago. He dreams of setting a record by playing 76 at once. Fischer holds the record of 75.

"I want to do one bigger than Bobby," Nowak said. "It's very do-able. It does take a bit of advertising and someone generous enough to put up the space."

Nowak has played chess since he was 9 years old. He taught himself the game, won many tournaments and held the ranking of a master-level chess player, the only one in Montana. Yet, today, as he tries to make his living off chess in Missoula, he is barely surviving.

Now 54, Nowak discovered chess when he bought a set for his cousin. When he got home, he said, he played the game.

"It was like rediscovering chess. Something clicked there," he said. "I went and got my cousin something else."

He found books about chess and taught himself to play the game. He competed in playground contests sponsored by the Milwaukee newspaper, and "I easily demolished the kids," he recalled.

Five years later, the playground superintendent told him to give the other kids a chance, Nowak remembers.

"He yanked me out. He thought I was too good."

Nowak moved into the adult competition against doctors, lawyers and dentists.

"I embarrassed them," he said.

He won the Milwaukee County Championship for four years. He began traveling to out-of-town tournaments in the 1960s, a time he calls the "golden years." His boss - "a big supporter of my chess" - gave him Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays off.

He traveled by train to Kansas City, Cedar Rapids, Indianapolis and Detroit, all over the Midwest. He flew to the East Coast, down South and to California and Texas.

"I would use the winnings (from tournaments) to pay for the next tournament. I'm glad I got to see the country," he said.

He also got to play and see several noted chess players, among them Bobby Fischer, the 1972 world chess champion. At the time, Nowak said, he had six or seven credit cards and an apartment in a yuppie neighborhood with a view of Lake Michigan. He bought shirts from New Orleans.

"All that changed with the accident," he said.

After he'd worked for 15 years at a clock-and-watch company in Milwaukee, a car hit Nowak in his knee. After a long recovery period, he lost his job.

Nowak decided to move to Missoula, a town he'd seen just a month before when he'd played in a tournament here. He arrived on April Fool's Day 1991. He found a position at The Bon as a part-time maintenance worker and helped unload the trucks for a couple of years.

In a cutback, Nowak lost his job in the fall of 1993. He looked for opportunities, he said, but by February, he had no job and his unemployment ran out.

"People want experience. If you have no experience, they want youth," he said. "I don't have too many job experiences. I have no car. Chess is something I know how to do.

"Chess seemed a ready-made job for me. I'm my own boss with my own hours. I may live poor, but nobody can lay me off," he continued. "I had to rely on chess or become a street person."

His chess knowledge didn't bring in big bucks. Instead, he found himself in the hole.

"I had an eviction notice because I was so far in deep for rent," he said.

He called governmental agencies for help. They referred him to someone else. He called churches, with no luck. And then, someone from one of the churches gave him one month's rent.

"It saved me," he said. "I got the momentum to be on my feet. I came close to being a street person, scarily close. At my very darkest hour, someone came through."

Being homeless and on the street is a fear he still lives with, but Missoula is a healthier place to live than Milwaukee, he said.

The apartment has no stove, so Nowak eats two small meals a day, mostly prepared salads and a whole lot of Cheerios. He totes tiny boxes of raisins, bananas, a candy bar or two and whatever is left of snacks sent by relatives.

He drinks lots of Coca-Cola, liters of it, and admits he's a cola junkie. He eats popcorn and finger food, stuff, he said, "that fills you up." He's a conscientious shopper who looks for cereal selling two-for-one.

"When you don't have money, you develop a keen eye out of necessity," he said.

A friend sometimes brings him a box of food from a church. Every so often, he visits the Poverello Center, which serves lunch, and he has used food stamps just once. He now receives heating assistance.

At 6 p.m., he opens The Clandestine Chess Club for social chess. Chess sets on tables line the walls, waiting for players. At 9 p.m., Nowak closes shop and heads to Bernice's Bakery to finish the evening. Often he plays more chess or reads. And then it's back to his apartment for another night's sleep. Holidays, said Nowak, are boring.

About two years ago, Novak was ill with what he calls "some mysterious headache problem." He lost two games in a state championship and, as a result, lost points that had put him in the master's category.

"Over the last two years, I'm slowly climbing up to (master's level) 2,200. I'm up to 2,170 now," he said. But to get back those needed points he has to play players with 2,300-plus points.

"But there are none (of that caliber) around here," he said. "I would like to play in a tournament stacked with 2,300 (point) players."

Getting to tournaments is an expensive proposition. A big tournament in Las Vegas costs $600. Chicago also is expensive.

"It's way beyond what I can come up with," he said. "I'll be lucky to play in a tourney in Polson."

Despite operating The Clandestine Chess Club, giving chess lessons and holding tournaments, "the walls are coming in on me. I don't see much opportunity," he said.

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