From the opening intricacies to the quiet fatalism attached to every move, chess can be a daunting game, particularly for beginners. To play at a competitive level is a lifelong pursuit requiring a constant imagining and reimagining of the 8 x 8 board. Chess is half planning and half intuition and the latter can’t really be taught.
My relationship with chess started a year ago. During a particularly humiliating night I dropped eight straight games to a friend of mine. Embarrassed, I began furiously studying the fundamentals with the singular goal of setting up a rematch. In the end, I did beat my friend but I also fell in love with chess and its complicated beauty. As I began to get better, I wanted to see how my game would hold up against the hustlers in Washington Square Park.
For a long time, the Southwest corner of Washington Square was the bastion of chess in New York City. It’s where Bobby Fischer along with many other chess masters cut their teeth and learned to play competitively. In recent years, most of the younger players have moved on to Union Square. The foot traffic is higher and so is the potential to line one’s pockets. Despite this, you’ll still find plenty of old school players clinging to nostalgia and trying to keep chess in WSP alive.
The games are five dollars apiece and the competition is tough. In order to make the most of their time, most players there play blitz, a chess variation in which each player gets a total of 5 minutes to make all of their moves. I managed to find an older player, named Shiree, who was willing to play without a timer. I was nervous. My opening moves were conservative, his unorthodox. Slowly but surely, it became clear that I wasn’t going to win, even without the clock. Shiree was friendly though. After our first game he told me, “You play well but you attack too fast. If you don’t take the time to set up, you exhaust your pieces. You exhaust your options.” I tried to take his advice but after three more losses, it was time to call it quits. In the end, I spent twenty bucks for a bruised ego and a lesson in patience.
I spent twenty bucks for a bruised ego and a lesson in patience.
While the men in the park are very gifted chess players, their true talent lies in their ability to make anyone feel as though he or she has a chance to win. During my matches, I spent at least half the time thinking I held an advantage and was almost always surprised when the cracks in my game were exposed.
Unfortunately, playing chess in Washington Square has its downsides. A lot of the players will use sleight of hand tricks to illegally place pieces or will refuse to pay up in the rare instances that they lose. As an outsider, just keep your eyes open and if you feel that you’re being cheated, don’t argue. Just play someone new after your match. If you really need to get into a fight over five dollars, you probably shouldn’t be betting on chess in the park anyway.
Despite occasional foul play, if you can find an honest game, WSP is still a great place for a match. Everyone is welcome from world champions to complete novices. The players are generally friendly and if you’re lucky, they might even teach you a thing or two. There may be more players and stiffer competition elsewhere but sitting underneath the trees, with the triumphal arch in peripheral view, it’s hard for me to imagine a more perfect venue.