An investigation into the hidden world of park chess.
It’s a midweek afternoon in Washington Square Park. It’s one of the warmest days of the spring so far, and everyone seems to have emerged from their hiding places to eat their lunchtime salads on the patchy grass.
However, in the Southwestern corner of the park, it’s business as usual. 16 chess tables, complete with cheap plastic pieces perfectly placed by some unknown God of Board Games, are constantly waiting. The only difference today is the lush patch of the largest red tulips I have ever seen, newly sprouted in the center of the corner. A Weimaraner puppy is peeing on them and smiling.
Most of the tables are captained by tired looking men, all over fifty—or at least grizzled enough for me to logically make that assumption. Flannel, baggy t-shirts, baseballs caps, and yellowed Nike sneakers are the unspoken uniform.
Only one table is currently engaged. A red-headed insect of a kid is taking on a Jerry Garcia look-alike. Both of them have their legs neatly crossed and keep their eyes fixated on the pieces. Parents with backpacks and sweatshirts tied around their waists attempt to feign interest between bouts of using their iPhones to take pictures of the flowering dogwood trees above.
The men of the other tables pass the time by leaning back and talking or consuming large quantities of Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. Everyone seems familiar with each other, and they shoot the breeze water-cooler style. The only conversation I manage to overhear is one man discussing his friend who was recently indicted for unknowingly serving as a marijuana drug mule. Little sympathy was offered in return.
These chess captains don’t seem particularly bent on luring in players. There’s no competition to entice tourists eager to earn a New York experience. It’s as if they know they are more of a fixture than an active entity. One particularly hyperactive man calls out: “How about a game of chess, sir?” It’s an ironic form of cat-calling: luring in only those with shirts tucked into belted pants and Jewfros flapping in the wind. “I don’t know how to play chess, I only know how to checkmate!” he repeats, cackling at his own hilarity. His scheme is unsuccessful and in the hour I spend here, not one dweeby target takes him up on his all-too appealing offer.
Despite my reasonable chess skills, I am nervous here. There is nothing threatening in a physical or sexual sense. Strangely, I have never been so surrounded with men and felt so totally invisible. It’s even worth mentioning that I was wearing short shorts. Instead, my nervousness stems from the psychological game that is chess. When you sit down across from someone to play, you are in a sense, engaging in battle. You must be relaxed, composed, quick; aggressive yet passive. Walking up to someone who clearly doesn’t give a shit about anything and offering them five dollars to mentally destroy you is not the easiest task in the world.
For this reason, I choose my opponent carefully. I decide on a man sitting with his arms crossed, observing some birds in the tree above him. Perhaps he is merely concerned about them crapping on his knitted cap, but either way it gives him a gentle, pensive appearance. He has two trash bags next to him, and they are full of clothes and American Spirit cartons, some empty some not. He doesn’t seem like he will try to talk to me beyond what’s necessary, and I appreciate this.
I sit down on the bench across from him and offer up the requisite five dollars. He takes the bill with a nod and removes the clock from the table.
“No clock?” I ask out of reflex.
“Not unless you want to use it,” he says.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have been insulted at his assumption that I’m not a speedy, quick-thinking player. In the moment though, with my nervousness radiating out in all directions, I was thankful for this gesture.
All of the tables are set up so that the challenger plays as white, meaning whoever sits down to play always has the supposed advantage of going first. I move my King’s pawn to e4 and the game begins.
Chess players are rated by a system of points. Though there are different systems, the most common is called the Elo System. The scale runs roughly from 1000 points (novices) to 2600 and above (Grandmasters). It is worth noting that in women’s tournaments, all rankings are handicapped by 200 points. Meaning, for a woman to be a Grandmaster (or, Woman Grandmaster as technicalities would have it) she must only rank at 2400. Such a thoughtful gesture easing the pain of the fairer sex.
Nonsense aside, it’s a simple system: you earn points when you win games and win them well, and points are deducted from your status when you lose. The average active chess player falls somewhere around 1400-1600. The term “average” here meaning one has an in-depth knowledge of chess strategy and tactical capacity. Currently, according to Chess.com, my Elo ranking is 1456. I regularly compete in online games and tournaments, and haven’t been beaten by my dad since I was twelve.
I don’t intend to wow you with my chess prowess (that would certainly be the day), but rather demonstrate that I was satisfactorily equipped for the world I was about to enter. I had heard mixed rumors about the Chess Players of Washington Square Park. Some said these men could easily be world champions, other said they were all too clearly playing for an easy dollar.
Well, I lost. My much-practiced set of opening moves went smoothly enough. My challenger, who I later learned was named James, even complimented me on my knowledge. “It looks like you know what you’re doing,” he laughed as I confidently executed a set of moves known as the Spanish Opening. Yet, my burst of self-assurance was short-lived. James was a quick and stealthy player. He seemed to barely study the board before he raised his hand and made his next cutting move. I was forced to sacrifice one valuable piece after another in order to survive. My two Rooks stupidly danced around his King with no real intent, my King was completely exposed, and Checkmate came without any warning.
I thanked him sincerely for the game, and he thanked me back.
“You’re good after you get warmed up,” he said.
Though James certainly has the skill to earn his five dollar cover charge, he told me he still takes lessons. All of these men are constantly learning from one another—playing and analyzing games when business is slow. Whether or not these men entered this world based solely on a love of the game, it’s clear that a passion has taken root in everyone here.
One may be surprised to learn that the chess tables of Washington Square were, at one time, the playing fields of legends. Bobby Fischer, among others, was known for his repeat appearances on the New York street chess scene. Interestingly, Washington Square Park, in the era of Fischer’s prime, was known as a hotbed of drugs and violence. Yet this small “chess district,” formed by the tables in the park and nearby chess shops on Thompson Street, was as wholesome and protected as the game itself. The men who play here aren’t outwardly proud of this history, but seem appreciative when I bring it up.
“That’s right, some of the greats have sat right here,” nods a man named Darrel. His body language—crossed arms, slouched low on the bench—suggests he isn’t a big fan of these types of inquisitions. But there’s an unmistakable upward tick on his lips when I mention the glamorous past of the chess scene.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” Darrel’s grin fades as quickly as it came. I know he knows what I mean, but more than that I know our discussion is over.
In my investigation, I had repeatedly heard of a man who went by the name Russian Paul. His reputation framed him as somewhat of an elder statesman of the street chess world. When a question couldn’t, or didn’t want to be, answered, I was told to head to Union Square in search of Russian Paul.
He’s an easy man to find: round, pale, bald, with a forlorn droopy gaze that reminds me of Louis XVI. His arms are covered in black and red tattoos and a cigarette is permanently perched between his index and middle finger. I ask him if he’s Russian Paul.
“Yeah, who’s asking?” he says. His voice quickly breaks into a laugh, following by a hacking cough. “I’m actually from the Ukraine, though,” he notes without further prompting.
It turns out Paul doesn’t actually “play” chess. Instead, he offers up lessons at a rate of $45 an hour. Judging by his reputation, it seems like it could be worth it. Unfortunately, I don’t have $45 to spare, but he lets me stick around and watch as he simultaneously decimates and instructs his pupils. He clearly has the most skill of anyone I’ve encountered and his style of play is incredibly educated. Of course, he’s had plenty of time to practice: Russian Paul has been a figure on the scene for more than twenty years.
There’s no indoctrination to become one of New York’s underground chess ambassadors. Frankly, you don’t even have to be good at chess; for many it’s a learn on the job kind of gig. If you show up one day and there’s a free table, it’s yours to herald for as long as you can handle it. I heard all varieties or origin stories: halfway houses, disability leave, kicked out of the house, retired. The only common thread was the need for easy money, and a lack of questions asked in the process.
Make no mistake, the money may be simply earned, but it’s rarely in abundance. On an average day, a chess player will take home sixty to seventy dollars. At a rate of $5, that’s only 14 games. When you’re sitting on that bench, waiting…waiting…waiting from ten in the morning until ten at night or later, 14 games is hardly enough to make the time go by. Just as in the game itself, a chess player must sit and meditate on his next move.
On a great day—ideal conditions, 80-degree weather, a park flooded with tourists—you could take home $200 after a steady stream of games. On cold, short, winter days, good luck finding anyone to cough up five bucks.
No one I spoke to had much in the way of family to mention. It makes sense these men would be drawn to this instant community. Camaraderie flows and spats are quickly stamped out. No one argues over money and everyone lets the game speak for itself. Their individual lives are undoubtedly difficult and filled with hurdles, but the world in which they choose to exist is one rooted in legend and prestige. They are in total control of their knowledge of chess, their personas, their interactions.
One afternoon, I’m hurrying through the park to meet a friend. I pass through the southwestern quadrant and the tables are bountiful with players. I can’t stop to talk, but I offer James a little wave and even Darrel acknowledges me with a nod. The chorus of “My Favorite Things” played by a nearby jazz quartet travels through the air.
NYC-based writer of feelings.
Fiction an non-fiction in Cosmonauts Avenue, New York Magazine, Jezebel, Salon, and more.