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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Chess Monsters

The last great chess player I saw in Washington Square Park was Yaacov Norowitz; this was to be his story, as well as that of the other great players who have graced the southwest corner of the park. But I have not seen Yaacov playing in some time.

On and off, for a few decades, I have spent many a Sunday afternoon watching the games of many masters, international masters, grandmasters, and blitz players. I never got to see Hikaru Nakamura, reputed to be one of the undisputed monsters of blitz chess. I did often see Israel Zilber, a former Latvian chess champion who was homeless during most of the 1980s and was one of the best players in the park.

One of the wildest incidents I have witnessed in this area was a shooting. As all the players scurried for cover behind the low concrete wall which encircled the tables, one chess fan who had been watching the games actually made the rounds pausing everyone's clocks. Once the smoke had cleared and the police had reestablished law and order, the players jumped backed and resumed playing as if nothing had happened. We were told that that the incident was motivated by a previous drug deal gone awry. On this day, one party encountered the other, pulled out a gun in broad daylight, and fired.

One of the highlights for me was the regular appearance in the 1980s of Grandmaster Roman Dzindzichashvili, a two-time U.S. chess champion. He played blitz chess for money, as is common there. Blitz is speed chess, where each opponent is limited to 5 minutes total per game. Accumulated time for each player is tracked using a chess clock. A player whose time runs out loses (unless his opponent does not have enough material to win).

There is a spectrum of playing styles here. Much of street or park chess played for money involves hustling, which can take the form of anything from the classic hustle (i.e. disguising one's skill level) to outright cheating, which I have witnessed. Skills are honed specifically for speed chess, an aggressive style of playing and a mastery of all the tricks and traps of the game, along with distractions such as chess trash talk. Time odds are frequently offered to players of lesser strength. When played for money, games range from a few dollars and up - I have seen sessions played for as much as $100 per game. Side bets are also frequently made. Some regulars (such as Bobby Plummer, aka Sweet P) essentially set up office, staking out a good table early and barking the offer of a game to passersby. Some are able to eke out a subsistence living. This area is known worldwide to chess players, and many come here for a challenging encounter, prepared to lose some cash. Read article here.

This corner of the park was the setting for the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a story based on the life of chess prodigy and Village resident Joshua Waitzkin. Bobby Fischer was a player here in the 1960s - unfortunately, this was before my time in New York City, and I never got a chance to see this legendary chess icon play.

The quality of player has gone down decidedly in the park, as has the physical environment in this area, which badly needs an update (scheduled as part of a future phase of the park renovation). I hope for a return of the chess monsters :)

Notable chess players who have played in Washington Square Park:
Joel Benjamin, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Kamran Shirazi, Joshua Waitzkin, Bruce Pandolfini, Vincent Livermore, Russian Paul, Hikaru Nakamura, Yaacov Norowitz, Luis Busquets, Bobby Fischer (early 1950s), Maurice Ashley, Asa Hoffman, and Israel Zilber. There are also regular games played in Union Square, Times Square, and Central Park.

Related Postings: Good Fortune, Marshall Chess Club


Eddie said...

Im definitely going to have to take time to check some of these people playing!

Anonymous said...

I am not a chess fan, but I like your today story.

I am one of your blog's admirers.

Zamankhan said...

your blog is nice

Jeffrey Byrnes said...

This photograph reminds me of the place in Cambridge, MA on the corner of Mass ave and Holyoke St where there are a few tables set aside for people who want to play chess. Its a beautiful area right across from Harvard. This photo just conjured up a few memories of passing by there.

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