All aboard

Following his first guest post for 66000 on Winston Churchill and writing, Patrick Baglee sends a postcard from the chess parks, chess shops and chess clubs of New York City.

My biennial flirtation with the game of chess is always intense, always enjoyable and always lasts a fortnight. The re-kindling is usually prompted by finding Bobby Fischer’s ‘My 60 Memorable Games’ during a clean out, or as a result of putting a new set of batteries in my pocket chess computer. A rapid re-immersion into the game is followed by defeat against the computer at its weakest level accompanied by the faint yet still painful memory of my defeat, aged 11, at the hands of British chess colossus Nigel Short, aged 13. Together, these remind me of my mediocrity and are usually enough to see the book, the computer and my tournament chess set find their way back to their rightful, shadowy homes. And the affair, again, closes.

Only this time the affair was different. This time, the re-kindling coincided with a temporary move to New York and with it the potential to be plunged into what I’d understood to be the heart of chess culture in the USA. As it now seems clear, New York exhibits choice for the chess player in the same way that it does for lovers of art, cuisine and architecture. My wife and I were to take an apartment on West 12th Street. For fans of the game, our address might best be described as being at the estate agents equivalent of e4.

Just a brisk 10-minute walk from 12th Street is Washington Square Park. Roughly 10 acres, this haven for dog walkers, faux-bohos and fans of outdoor pilates has been at various times a marsh, a cemetery and a parade ground. Today, and every day (weather permitting), the Park is also home to a loose community of chess players who sit and play at an almost perfect circle of stone chess tables that can be found at the Park’s south west corner. Even in the height of summer, the tables are cold to the touch. In clement weather players begin gathering there from 8am, and some will stay well past sundown. Fireflies skitter around the tables on a summer’s evening.

In amongst those who are there purely for the enjoyment of the game you will find those who play strictly for money, in which case there might be the small matter of being asked to pay a fee (somewhere between $5 and $20 a game). You probably won’t see the money again; one imagines it is the appropriate cost to play at one of the great chess locations. That being the case, if you’re feeling confident, you may need to discuss a separate wager with your opponent. Money now changes hands relatively freely, though that’s not always been the case. Apparently there have been raids on the Park, designed to put an end to the ‘gambling’ but it was determined that chess – being a game if skill – could not be classified as gambling.

The Village Chess Shop channels Letraset

Either way, sitting down to play at one of these tables is not for the faint hearted. The standard of players who can be found at the corner of the Park varies enormously, from club player to grand master. Yet if there is an inconsistent grasp of opening theory amongst the regulars, one thing they all appear to share is experience in the theatrical directions of fast moving chess against the clock. And gentlemen’s rules definitely don’t apply. Your moves will be met with arched eyebrows at best and a loud running commentary at worst (‘Now why would you want to go and do a silly thing like that?’ said one recent opponent just three moves before I was finished off). If, or rather when, one of your pieces is captured, your opponent will bring down his assailant from on high and with force. In a single sweeping and surprisingly elegant movement the piece will be isolated, taken with a clunk, and the clock reset to put the time pressure right back on you. It’s a blur, a performance, a tour de force of intellectual intimidation.

Playing against the clock is good discipline, and almost mandatory in the Park. From a commercial perspective, no one playing for money wants to get involved in a lengthy endgame. From a tactical perspective, the residents of Washington Square’s chess circle are so used to the mistakes opponents make under time pressure, and so skilled in the choreography of the piece-move-capture-clock motion, that it’s all too easy to be fascinated by their actions and distracted from the game at hand and your own emerging strategy. The aggressive handling of the pieces has an interesting impact on the aesthetics of the sets in use. Pristine sets are rare. Often there will be a discoloured pawn or two, or bits missing from the castellations of a rook, or the decapitated head of a bishop held in place by duct tape. Wood might stand alongside plastic. Worst of all, you might find an un-weighted queen in a set of triple weighted tournament pieces. Chess players will appreciate how disconcerting this can be. Foreign objects like lighters, cigar stubs, corks and erasers take the place of pawns, knights and rooks. These mercenaries, press-ganged into service, turn an otherwise gleaming force into an unruly mob. They mirror the ugly intent of your opponent.

Depending on where you find yourself in New York City, outdoor chess is almost certainly available within 15 to 20 minutes. At Union Square’s south west corner, you can often find half a dozen players at makeshift tables taking on all comers. In Central Park, there is the Chess & Checkers House, built in 1952 with private funding and located mid-park at 64th Street. You can borrow pieces from the staff there, or take your own. And pick-up games can and do happen in the most unlikely places that have little to do with chess folklore and more to do with commercial expediency and the sheer numbers of passing ‘fish’.

Village Chess Shop, on Thompson Street

Fortunately, for those of a nervous disposition or in possession of a constitution likely to succumb to the effects of inclement weather, there are other options for competitive play only a short walk away from Washington Square that have the added benefit of a roof and central heating. Thompson Street, just south of Washington Square, is perhaps unique in that it boasts two chess ‘emporia’ within 100 yards of each other. The Village Chess Shop and the Chess Forum are both on Thompson between 3rd and Bleecker, and both offer broadly similar facilities. Each has open tables that can be hired by the hour. Each has a stock of chess paraphernalia – from sets and clocks to literature and memorabilia. The Chess Forum is the more bookish of the two, helped perhaps by its warm wood display cabinets and soft downlighting on the playing tables. It is open from 11am until midnight, though closing time is flexible depending on the quality of play and state of the players. The Village Chess Shop is rather more rough-and-ready, its window display a little dustier and more faded. But it is no less hospitable, and greatly benefits the chess playing insomniac by keeping its doors open 24-hours a day.

The opportunity to play chess with such freedom and frequency and at these hours quickly reveals that ones imagined innate ability is – well – a little way short of the natural genius displayed by the original US chess prodigy Paul Morphy. If this is the case, you’d be well advised to pick up some improving books on opening strategy and endgame tactics, and here too you have a choice. You can take your chance at Strand Books on 12th Street and Broadway which generally carries a modest selection of chess literature. Or, you can pay a visit to the premises of Fred Wilson.

From a modest suite on 11th Street, Mr Wilson sells new, vintage and rare chess titles from all over the world. Like the average residential apartment in the city, his place is bijou. Stand in the middle of the room and you can just about touch each corner. It’s filled floor to ceiling with chess books and periodicals, like an Escher-esque vortex of checkerboards and chessmen. Fred is a genial host, a very good chess player and the author of a number of excellent books on the subject. His ‘303 Tricky Checkmates’ might be better titled ‘270 Tricky Checkmates and 33 that no man may solve’. Both it and its companion volumes are ideal means of getting a slow moving chess brain back into some sort of competitive order. This specific chess exercise is essential. It was Martin Amis who said, of chess, that ‘People think it’s a measure of intelligence, and it isn’t. It’s a measure of chess ability. That’s all.’

Mismatched mercenaries

In complete contrast to the wonderful confinement of Mr. Wilson’s store and the close-set tables at both of Thompson Street’s chess shops are the high ceilings, sash windows and garden views of the Marshall Chess Club. Located on leafy West 10th Street, just off 5th Avenue, the Club’s premises were also the former home of Frank Marshall, one of the USA’s strongest players in the early 1900s and holder of the U.S. Chess Championship title for 27 years. Originally founded at Keene’s Chop House (along the same lines as Simpson’s on the Strand in London) the Club’s meeting place changed several times before settling at No23 in 1931. It is a classic brownstone, with the added benefit of a garden that allows al fresco chess in clement weather.

Inside, the main playing rooms are on the second floor and several of the tables have inscribed brass plates. Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, a regular opponent of Marshall’s, gave his last exhibition at the Club. It was at the Marshall Club that Bobby Fischer played Donald Byrne in what became known as the ‘Game of the Century’ (Na4!! being the notation of the move that elevated the game to chess legend). And it was from the Club that Fischer played his 1965 match against opponents in Havana via teletype. The table he played at is reverently inscribed and inaccessible to amateurs like myself. Famous members have included Marcel Duchamp and Stanley Kubrick.

To play at an even modestly competitive level at the Marshall, it is best to arrive with a chess rating based on the internationally recognized ELO classification system. Either that, or you’ll need to play frequently enough to attain one soon after you’ve joined. A rating for tournament play is important so that you can avoid being accused of sandbagging – a serious offence in the code of chess ethics, where having failed to establish your rating you are playing above your natural level thus finding it easier to progress and – in some cases – even win. Getting a rating takes time, and you’ll probably take a pounding along the way. As a noted New York chess commentator said to me, ‘You have to work quite hard to be not very good in this town’. An ‘expert’ is rated between 2000-2199. The current world number one, Magnus Carlsen, is rated at 2843. Nigel Short, my childhood nemesis, is rated 2698. My own ability is as yet unquantified (and I’d like to think is in some way unquantifiable). All in good time. For the moment, I am enjoying this somewhat longer than usual flirtation with a game that offers me long periods of frustration with an occasional glimpse of hope.

An abundant choice of where and how to play chess in New York is one thing. There is though, a bigger, more interesting and more important story here. It is one of access. There is an ease of access to exercise, both mental and physical, in this city quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. Basketball courts, running and cycling tracks, aerobic frames, tennis courts, and more than 2,000 open-air chess tables in the city’s 536 Parks. All of these facilities are either turn up and play, or available with the minimum of paperwork, and no need for friends on the inside, or endless waiting. Like so many other things in New York, chess is available in many forms, at every level of ability and in the broadest possible variety of environments. That the city makes it possible to go from an idle re-kindling to taking a place at the tables, courts or tracks once occupied by legends is something to be admired and where possible and necessary to be imitated to the benefit of every citizen.


Chess table at Chess and Checkers House in Central Park, New York City

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