Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New York in Nine Hours

My whirlwind swing through the Big Apple’s chess haunts

Let’s face it: New York City is the center of American chess. Compared to Chicago, the royal game seems to be everywhere in the Big Apple.

Last Saturday I had one day to see as many of the local chess landmarks as possible. I did the best I could, and thanks to unseasonably warm weather I even found action at some of the city’s famous outdoor venues, which you would expect to find quiet at this time of year. Herewith the highlights of my self-guided tour.

I. MacDonald Park
When people think of outdoor chess in New York, they think of Washington Square Park, but this spot in Forest Hills, Queens, now rivals its famous Greenwich Village counterpart as a leading local chess Mecca. An article at Chessbase.com awhile back buoyed the park’s reputation worldwide, so it seemed like a good place to start the tour, considering I was embarking from Queens.

I found lots of chess players on hand, but more kibitzing than actual playing. The guy identified in the Chessbase article as “Trade ‘em off, Paul” was holding forth about chess, poker, and college football while two games were under way nearby. Still, I saw some good chess, lots of bonhomie, and a bit of spirited (though not mean-spirited) trash talk.

II. Polgar Chess Center
A few blocks up Queens Boulevard is the home base of GM Susan Polgar, America’s biggest chess celebrity. The Polgar Chess Center is a one of the top spots for scholastic training and

tournaments in the New York area. Naively, I had imagined I might luck out and be met at the door by Susan herself, who would then agree to a joint photo that could give me something I could lord over Sevan Muradian, but it was not to be; she wasn’t there. I did get to meet Leon, the club’s manager who chatted affably but declined to have his picture taken.

III. Washington Square Park
IM Josh Waitzkin, subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, cut his teeth here as a child in the 1980s, just as the film’s namesake and former World Champion had thirty years earlier. Many of the world’s greatest players have made pilgrimages to this hallowed site.

The nineteen concrete chess boards arranged in a circle in the southwest corner of this historic Greenwich Village park may be the single most famous chess site in the country. Nowadays it has a reputation for attracting hustlers, gamblers, and generally unsavory characters, but people continue to come to play.

I got there Saturday about two hours before nightfall, and for a winter’s day it was bustling, with three or four games in progress. I lost to one of the regular denizens named Simon.

IV. Marshall Chess Club
Also in Greenwich Village is the famous Marshall Chess Club, where more chess history has been made than I could even attempt to summarize here. I got there on a quiet Saturday night but still got to see some notable people. If possible I’ll do a separate post on my “Marshall moment.” (Update: Done. Here ’tis.)

V. Thompson Street Shops
A single block in Greenwich Village boasts more chess stores (two) than all of Cook Country, Illinois (which has one that I know of). According to a New York Times article a few years ago, the Village Chess Shop and Chess Forum were then embroiled in a major-league feud, and for all I know they may still be. No matter; both seemed to be thriving the night I was there. You can play chess at the Village Chess Shop, and both stores have lots of fancy sets.

Places I wanted to see but couldn’t get to: Bryant Park; the Chess and Checkers House in Central Park. (There simply wasn't enough time in the day, especially since I wanted to pay a visit to the old neighborhood.)

Hat tip: Michael Goeller, whose blog post, “A Chess Tourist in New York City” loosely inspired this one.

Related post:My Marshall Moment

MEANWHILE, BACK HERE IN CHICAGO, Renaissance Knights reports that more than 1,400 people played chess at the Mayor’s Holiday Sports Festival. Pictures here. I think I spotted former Ray School star Karen Dai in there somewhere.


Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the hat tip -- and for both updating and expanding on my guide! When are you going to give us "Chess in Chicago"?

I have been meaning to get back to that NYC post for some time, especially since I hear all the time of this or that place I left out -- especially the Chess and Checkers House, which is quite active, and various Chess & Backgammon clubs. I imagine you did all of this while making your way to Times Square to see the ball drop....

Tom Panelas said...

Hi, Michael, and Happy New Year. I'm glad you spotted this post.

The chess in Chicago guide is rolling around in my mind, and I even have some notes for it, but you know how it is: certain things are easier for tourists to do. If you live in a place you can always put off seeing something till tomorrow. One of these days, though.

As for going to Times Square to watch the ball drop, fuhgedaboutit. I grew up in New York and never was I even tempted to do that.


Polly said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your whirlwind tour of NYC chess haunts. Even this New Yorker learned something. I didn't know about the park in Queens. But then again, I don't get out to Queens much. Most of my NYC chess is done at the Marshall. I was away that weekend getting stomped on by little children in lovely Saratoga Springs.

Tom Panelas said...


Thanks for stopping by. From your blog I see what you mean: the Empire State Open. Ouch. If there’s any consolation for you in knowing that your suffering has some purpose in the world, rest assured that it’s comforting to us patzers to see that even strong players like you can be twitted by children. I guess no one’s immune, even grandmasters. Tough game, chess.

I may have exaggerated a bit in saying that MacDonald Park rivals Washington Square, but the place does have critical mass: a sizable assortment of regulars, several of them strong players, I think, and they’re all characters of the first rank. It's a nice spot. I’d recommend it.