Photos by Lael Hines
Robert at his chessboard in Washington Square.
BY LAEL HINES | Attracting a wide variety of parkgoers, Washington Square is renowned for its diversity. The park welcomes offbeat street performers, bohemian musicians, young families, seniors, clean-cut yuppies, N.Y.U. students, and dogs and their owners, among others.
In the park’s southwest corner, yet another well-known user group can be found: the chess players. Over the decades, the corner has been a legendary spot for chess players in New York City.
“Where we are sitting here is where many legendary chess players played,” said George, who has been playing chess in Washington Square since the 1960s. “Mr. Bobby Fisher would play here,” said George, who didn’t give his last name. “No park has the history we have here in Washington Square. There was a time in the ’50s and ’60s when the world community of chess congregated here. You would come here and see world-famous chess players around these tables.”
A longtime Village resident painted a picture of the tightknit chess community in Washington Square during the ’70s.
“It was a lovely little hangout,” she recalled, asking that her name be withheld. “All the guys knew each other. There were a bunch of characters who hung out there. It was all about the game of chess. They took it so seriously: I would see a guy lose and nearly have a nervous breakdown.”
Despite this historic legacy, by all accounts, Washington Square’s chess scene has waned. Around 3 o’clock on a recent sunny Friday afternoon, two-thirds of the chess tables were forlornly empty.
“Everyone has migrated to Union Square,” explained Julian Turner, a Washington Square chess player since the ’90s. “There’s more business in Union Square, there’s more money. The Union Square area has a lot of traffic. You have the Whole Foods, the two trains and just a lot of people around there. In a sense, chess has become a business; a lot of people just do it for the money.”
The Union Square chess area, located just outside the subway entrance near the northeast corner of 14th St. and Union Square West, mirrors the fast pace of its environment. Dozens of chess players sit on crates and use makeshift tables. They lure passersby with offers to try to beat them for $5 to $10 per game. Matches can be played “on the clock,” or without it. They disdain the term “chess hustler.”
Two young girls teamed up to try to beat a chess sharp in Union Square.
Omar, a Union Sq. chess player, described his attraction to the location.
“Don’t get me wrong. Back in the day Washington Square had the great players,” he said. “But the energy is more positive over here. Look over there at Hare Krishna — they generate positive energy. All the real chess players come here now.”
As for why the chess scene has shifted from Washington Square to Union Square, Robert, who plays frequently in the former, also cited economics.
“A good day is like 100 bucks for some guys,” he said of the Union Square chess tables.
Omar claimed that drug dealing in Washington Square is also a reason for the shift.
“Over there, there’s a whole bunch of drugs and stuff,” he said. “I don’t want to be around that negative energy.”
Mack, a Washington Square player, also blames drug use for ruining the Washington Square chess environment.
“There are too many hooligans here,” he said. “Everyone does drugs. It ruins the enjoyment and morality of the park.”
However, Union Square is also known for its drug issues nowadays, in fact, perhaps even more so — particularly with young heroin users.
The Union Square chess scene is centered in the square’s southwestern corner.
Some, though, think Washington Square Park’s recent renovation was the real reason behind the move of the epicenter of the Downtown chess scene: Some of the players migrated to Union Square during the construction, then never returned back to Washington Square, or so the theory goes.
Yet, Washington Square’s renovation also spruced up the park’s chess tables area. New chess tables and a small central grass mound were added, and a low, concrete, encircling wall was removed. The ground was also leveled out, allowing for better drainage after rain.
“The construction was definitely a positive move,” Mack remarked. “It was good that they removed that sketchy wall. There used to be a guy who lived behind that wall — like, he had a little tent and everything set up there.”
Another chess regular, Julian Turner expressed confidence that, with its newly refurbished playing area, Washington Square will once again fulfill its historical chess legacy.
“It changed for the better when they changed the layout of the park,” he said. “They finally removed that wall, which allows things to grow. It’s just more open now. The energy is still here, the Bobby Fischer energy is still in the air.”