Must See NYC: Chess

So way back in October we went to New York. We saw many fabulous sights, including Broadway Shows, a taping of the Daily Show, a concert at a bowling alley in Brooklyn, and a lot of people buying toilet paper in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. I am told that last part worked out fine.*

All of those things were very exciting and deserve a long post about how much I love New York. But I am here to talk to you today about Chess Tourism.

Background

All my knowledge is courtesy of Mr. Giraffe, who spent his youth playing chess. Needless to say, (and thankfully) we don’t run in to legions of old girlfriends.

Tournament goers are very diverse, but tend toward eccentric. The one thing that they have in common is that they are brilliant with the sixty-four squares and seem to enjoy sitting. Forget your notions of ornately carved wood and comfortable leather chairs, this is low rent but serious business.

A typical chess trip is something like this:

1) Study chess. This requires reading books full of diagrams like this:

This is something really exciting that someone famous did.

2) Cram into car with as many chess players as you can fit (they’re more flexible than clowns this way due to budgetary concerns).

3) Check in to crappy hotel, and prepare not to see the sunshine for four days.

4) Sit with your head in your hands for six hours without movement, food, or breaks, occasionally moving a piece as needed. Other player observe in silence and occasionally nod in approval or defeat.

5) Hope to repeat #4 as often as possible because that means you’re being successful.

6) Review games with other players and fret over all of your key mistakes in life.

Anyway, because of all the hours invested into such things it was natural that when we hit New York we were going to fulfill a lifelong dream to hit all the chess landmarks.

There are three.

Washington Square Park

This is where the chess players play outdoors in all the movies. We met a charming man named NaShawn at Washington Square Park who held his own against Mr. Giraffe for many hours on a sunny fall afternoon.

New York 2012 075

A chess player would look at this board and instantly tell me who is winning. I am telling you it’s a chess board.

This gentleman kept me company while Mr. Giraffe was playing and insisted I take his photo.

New York 2012 096

Steeze

I assure you there was nothing untoward, as he was mostly showing me pictures of his girlfriend on his iPad complete with Barry White soundtrack. Their living situation is tragically complicated by his parole conditions, but I think those two are going to make it.

The Chess District

South of Washington Square Park in the hopelessly complicated maze of streets that is Greenwich Village, there is the largest chess district in any urban dwelling. There are over two stores packed to the rafters with chess books, sets, t-shirts, clocks and any kind of chess related paraphernalia you could ever imagine. My favourite part was that I was allowed to use the bathroom there because Jesus Christ, where does anyone go to the bathroom in Manhattan? Are you all chronically dehydrated? Is there a special brand of Depends for Manhattanites that gives you all pert asses?

New York 2012 080

This is not the one I used the bathroom in.

Marshall Chess Club

Two blocks north of Washington Square Park, inhabiting a beautiful townhouse in Greenwich Village, is the Marshall Chess Club. Some enterprising chess guy dedicated an expensive piece of Manhattan property to the pursuit and study of chess. The door is so elusive it will only appear to you if you know what a Spassky is. Grandmasters from all over the world have honorary memberships. This inspires a bit of class warfare between them and regular members who pay steep dues only to have their asses handed to them at tournaments. Even chess players have problems.

New York 2012 105

Elegant old world charm accented with cheap $4.99 chess boards. Chess players care not for aesthetics, only for symmetry of the board. Or something.

Chess Tour Notes

Mr. Giraffe had thoughts about all of this ranging from awe to being underwhelmed by certain aspects. Unfortunately, I don’t play chess. Instead I contemplated the socioeconomic implications of the down and out players at Washington Square who eke out a living hustling chess not knowing that the high falutin’ Marshall Chess Club existed only blocks from them. On the whole, the players at Washington Square seemed to be having a better time.

The Rollergiraffe recommends the NYC chess tour for those who enjoy chess, chess history, and chess politics. All eleven of you. It may also be of interest to those who enjoy wafts of pot smoke, observing racial and socioeconomic tensions, conversing with ex-convicts, and watching old white men attempt to wrap bologna sandwiches in wax paper. Bathrooms are located in the Starbucks at NYU on the east side of the park, in the chess stores and NOWHERE ELSE IN MANHATTAN.

Summer 2012 440

There is a lot of this in my future.

*Hurricane Sandy did not work out fine at all. Please catch up on ongoing relief efforts at http://sandyrelief.org/

This post was inspired by the redoubtable Carrie Rubin, who braved a magic convention with her son. She also wrote a book while still being a doctor and a bunch of other stuff, and I am more or less convinced she’s actually Wonder Woman.

28 comments

  1. You’ve made me realize what a goldmine the magic conference was. At least there, I could be entertained by wandering magicians, all eager to show off their tricks. All you had to look at were chess boards and practically immobile chess players. All with a full bladder from lack of bathroom access. Oy vey.

    Thank you so much for the wonderful mention and links to my blog and novel. What a nice surprise to find this morning. It is greatly appreciated! But I should confess, the book took eight years to see the light of day. Something tells me Wonder Woman could have pulled it off a lot quicker…

    1. I think all you’re missing is the cuffs, possibly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your wrists. Your book is on my list after I finish slogging through the Thursday Next series that I have been reading forever.
      Yes, the chess tournaments can be pretty dull for an observer which is why it took me forever to write this post. The people who play are pretty interesting, so if you can get someone talking there’s usually an engaging conversation to be had. Also, I once saw a grown man skip down a hallway with glee.

  2. Frig, this was hilarious, RG. I’ve been to all the places you’ve mentioned with the exception of the Grand chess place. And the bathroom thing…there are some you’d probably not want to visit and as you can surmise from the smell in certain places, there are those who just give in to the call of nature on the alleys, streets — some of which are charming cobblestone. I’m glad you had a great time and it looks as if the weather cooperated while you were here.

    You can use the bathroom in the restaurants but you have to pay. For food and then you can use the bathroom.

    1. I mentioned the bathroom so often in this post because I made a critical mistake. I went to a juice place in search of a bathroom, purchased a delicious juice and then was told there was no bathroom. Those cobblestone streets just about got a workout.
      New York definitely did not disappoint, and I look forward to making it back there to explore again some day soon!

  3. One of the things I’ve always loved about nyc is that most of the parks have stone tables with the chess squares already in tehm. all you need are players, pieces and a timer. And I’ve seen people improvise the pieces with whatever they could gather.
    (Ok, that was me.)
    (And we were drunk.)
    (And I don’t think it was chess we were playing.)

    Sadly, I was down in the village a few weeks ago, and one of the chess stores closed.

    1. NOOOOO! That actually makes me very sad. Despite the tone of my post, I like that there’s a place in the world for every obscure pursuit. NY is full of that, and that’s what makes it such a great place to be.
      But I guess as long as there’s booze and found objects there will always be chess, or a reasonable approximation of it.

  4. Great tour of the NYC chess world, Jen. Hilarious! While I can appreciate the game in concept, it’s truly a mystery – and to me, about as exciting as watching paint dry. Way to immerse yourself in one of the more obscure aspects of NYC!

    1. I used to play a lot when I was a kid, but we never had access to a chess club or anything in my town so I stopped. Now, there’s actually a huge chess community in my hometown and I am sad I missed out on that. I don’t play now, but I do like any opportunity to observe strange people in their natural habitat.

  5. Sometimes I get cussed at for not stopping to play a round.
    I recently played a round with my 8 year old nephew. I stressed defense, and protecting your pieces. I did that a little too well – he set me up and had juuust a little more patience. I still can’t believe I walked right into that move. ;)

  6. Your piece made me homesick for my old ‘hood. I never had a problem with needing to find a bathroom because I lived 3 blocks away from Chess Row. But you’re right, public bathrooms are notoriously absent down there. Just McDonald’s and Starbucks and a few other places. I too have zero patience for chess, and almost zero understanding of the game. I know how the pieces move, but that’s pretty much it. I watch those guys in the park and think, HOW DO THEY KNOW WTF THEY’RE DOING???

    Meanwhile, when are you coming back here so we can do a proper tour of all the important things, like the gourmet food stores?

    1. Mr. Giraffe has this weird skill where if a chess board appears on a screen for even a second he can comment on whether it’s set up wrong (almost always), and what’s going on in the game. I think he should be hired as a continuity person for movies because if it bothers him, all chess players must be bothered.
      I have plans.. I have plans. I am trying to talk my pals into a NY music trip this year, or any excuse to get back really.

  7. Jen,
    You are blogging with gusto. So great to read. I did see one of the chess parks when we were in NYC a few years ago. I don’t follow chess and know only that Horses move in L’s, so didn’t stop to ponder how quickly the little pawns were moving. Love that you could make something so foreign so accessible. And I can totally relate to the bathroom dilemma!

    1. Just trying to squeeze in a few posts before I go back to work. Plus it’s been snowing nonstop here and I have nothing else to do but yell at the kids all day. Before Mr. Giraffe I never would have guessed that there was a chess culture of any kind, but I guess having a spouse introduces you to things you’d never expect. Like that there’s another way to hang the toilet paper.

  8. If you and Mr. Giraffe ever make it to London, you should let him drag you about 45 minutes north to Oxford to have lunch at The Perch. He can play a game with life-size chess pieces and you can relax in a lounge chair in the garden. Win win.

      1. Oh there is beer. Plenty of beer. I found English pubs to have an eclectic assortment of brews from the lightest light to the darkest dark. Plus this one has a beautiful garden with plenty of shade, and delicious French inspired foods.

  9. I am glad that Mr. Giraffe got to savor the fine chess playing experience over here in my part of the world. That said, I know nuthin’ about chess, but if you’re uptown/midtown, you can always hit the department stores for their bathrooms. Downtown, the Public Theater and the Film Form have shown compassion for those with a near-bursting bladder. If you do return, keep me posted. Maybe we can re-visit BettieBar — provided their rent doesn’t skyrocket and they don’t shutter before you make a return visit.

    1. Forget the travel guide, a restroom guide to NY is what is really needed. Until otherwise notified, I will assume that’s what the Manhattan Project is.
      And when (not if) I come back, you are on my list of people to see and drink mystery beer with. I know what it is to lose a haunt; our favourite bar was shut down a few years ago and a good friend lost his gig out of the deal. We’ve been at loose ends ever since. And that place had nowhere near 70 years of history behind it.

    2. Forget the travel guide, a restroom guide to NY is what is really needed. Until otherwise notified, I will assume that’s what the Manhattan Project is.
      And when (not if) I come back, you are on my list of people to see and drink mystery beer with. I know what it is to lose a haunt; our favourite bar was shut down a few years ago and a good friend lost his gig out of the deal. We’ve been at loose ends ever since. And that place had nowhere near 70 years of history behind it.

      1. This reminds me that the bathroom in my haunt was renovated two years ago. Unfortunately, the Manhattan Project is not about where to go for relief when you really need relief. Sorry to disappoint.

        Can’t wait to see you and Mr. Giraffe again!

        It’s snowing over here right, soppy, wet flakes — the equivalent of a dusting to you.

  10. Can I suggest you get hold of Fred Waitzkin’s book, Searching For Bobby Fischer, for Mr Giraffe?. It’s about chess in the same way that Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea is about fishing. What it’s really about is the relationship between a father and his son. It’s not so much the game, as the way the affection comes through in plain, but well crafted writing. Much like your lovely blog.

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