NYU Diaries: Controlling the Square
Written by Bwog Staff
The latest installment from faithful NYU correspondent W.M. Akers, in which our diarist recites a history of the Square’s chess-playing past.
The recently commenced construction on Washington Square has consumed the middle of the park, disrupting the walking and sitting that are so important a part of NYU life. But it has been arranged to skirt the park’s chess tables which are the public face of the game on southern Manhattan. They are dominated by a crowd of regulars, mostly young to middle aged black men who, when not playing each other, play strangers willing to ante five dollars. This isn’t quite hustling, but one should expect to lose. The cold thins the crowd during the winter, but last Sunday, weather-be-damned, one remained by a table, his pieces set up before him. His name was Simon, and he pointed to the muddy fields and tarnished footpaths of the Square as evidence that the construction is necessary.
“This must be the only park on Manhattan that hasn’t been fixed up,” he said. “I’ve heard numbers in the thirties of millions, and with that this place had better be the shit. Everything had better look good. The trees should look better. [If they can’t fix it up] it will be just another notch in the belt of bullshit that people around here wear around their waists.” While he was pontificating, a friend approached and asked for a quick game. “I don’t want to sit down,” Simon said. “It’s too cold. Besides, do you have a clock?”
“No,” said his friend. “Let’s play slow chess fast.”
“I won’t play any ‘slow chess fast.’ Everybody’s at the Forum. Go down there and play.” The Forum is Chess Forum, the younger of the two clubs on Thompson Street, right below the Square where, “for a buck an hour you can sit someplace warm, play some chess, relax. You can’t beat that.” Simon plays in the park because he doesn’t like being in a “controlled space,” though some in the university community would suggest that the construction is evidence that the park is itself controlled.
A dollar an hour is the going rate at the Forum. Chess Shop charges two an hour, but the store is handsome, and the environment is warmer. Tyler, who runs their register, says that the Shop has “a definite sense of culture, and family. The other chess club has only been there for seven years, and they don’t have house masters or house regulars.” The Village Chess Shop is what they call an “institution.” This could be because its location–on Thompson Street, a block below the Square–puts it directly in the middle of the forgotten Bohemia of Greenwich Village. It could also be because it is old, older than Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” or because it has been challenged, and something must be established before it can be contested. When Imad Khachchan, a then NYU student, broke off from the Chess Shop—it was actually in 1994—to open the Forum across the street, it was a testament to its predecessor as well as a challenge.
The regulars at the Shop usually play in set pairs. They play silently, or trash talk in familiar patterns. On Tuesday night a young man, probably an NYU senior or grad student, darted in from the street to ask an elderly man for a few quick games. The student lost most of the rapid-fire games, but that didn’t stop him from letting his opponent know when he was winning. “Did you know I’m writing a book, Teddy? It’s called 100 Things I’m Going To Do To Teddy With My Extra Bishop. Do you see what I just did? That was just chapter one.” Teddy went on to win that game, and like two aging pool sharks, they quickly re-racked their pieces.
Both clubs rely not just on their regulars–some who go back to 1972–but on casual customers drawn by the displays of different sets in the window. David, who works at Chess Forum, says the construction in Washington Square has affected business by disrupting foot traffic. “Thompson is an extension of Fifth,” he said. “And that’s not true any longer…The worst part of it is that it reads like a joke: they’re closing the park to move the fountain two inches to the left. That hurts chess culture, but also just business on the block.”
They’re moving the fountain twenty-three feet, in fact, and the path from Fifth Avenue to Thompson Street will be blocked up for much of the next two or three years. Foot traffic will have to learn to walk around. Because the planning committee has been relatively receptive to community input, the chess area will be safe from the repairs. It’s hard to see how it could be improved, except by installing Star Wars-style holographic tables. When the weather improves the usual crowd should migrate from Thompson Street back to their haunt. Any time you’d like to throw away five dollars, they’ll be happy to take it.
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