For a free, friendly game of chess, regulars head to Central Park, in the area near 64th Street. Since the 1950s, the Chess and Checkers House there has hosted a socially diverse community, many of whom play every day. The space is known for its courteous character and lack of hustling, providing an alternative to the more frenetic, competitive atmosphere of chess meccas like Washington Square Park.
Players come from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and all ages, though many are old enough to be retired. Most of them are men. The "family" of players includes homeless men and foreign visitors, businessmen, tourists, and children. Beginners are welcome to play, and don't have to pay for their games, as they would in Washington Square ($3.00). Some have been champions in chess tournaments. Some have been playing each other for decades. The regulars are there "all the time," and some are known by their quirks or nicknames like "the crazy Russian." Most players bring their own chess pieces and timers--the game here is five-minute speed chess--but the information center nearby also lends out pieces.
The name of the house is half anachronism since checkers gave way to chess. "Checkers faded away like the old horse dealers and cowboys," says one regular. Some people, though, come here to play backgammon and scrabble. The game of chess itself provides the focus for most of the joking and conversation that takes place. Many of the people who play with each other every day have never discussed their own personal lives.
"It's a lonely hearts club," a man named Nick once told the New York Times. Nick, who is now ninety, planted a flower garden on the hill near the chess tables, and tended it for years. Until recently, he came every day to tend what is known as "Nick's Garden."
The Chess and Checkers House once sheltered players year-round, but the Parks Department closed the house itself, with bathrooms and indoor tables, several years ago. The Department gave financial reasons for shutting it, but some players have suspected other motives, since the closure eliminated both a nightly refuge for the homeless and a meeting spot for homosexual men. Now, daytime players gather at the concrete tables under the outdoor shelter until winter cold drives them to seek indoor spaces elsewhere--places like the public-access pavilion of the Sony building. They use the outdoor tables about nine months out of the year.
The house was built in the era when Robert Moses, who promoted organized play space, had control of the city's parks. Moses looked for ways to keep improvement and building projects going in Central Park with private funding instead of public money. Financier and philanthropist Barnard Baruch donated the Chess and Checkers House.
It's a family. Community of daily players includes people of all ages, nationalities and economic backgrounds. Some spend decades playing together, but chess continues to be the force which holds the group together.