Saturday, June 09, 2007

Chess in Bryant Park

I once overheard a tourist say to his family, " Well, we're here in Bryant Park. I don't know why it is famous, but this is it. " True, the park is nice but nothing spectacular. It is approximately half an avenue block with the New York Public Library's main building as its closest neighbor to the east. Bryant Park's fame stems from a long history that is both good and bad. Many famous people, when recounting their down and out times, claim they slept overnight in the park. Nikola Tesla, the scientist, was known to frequent the park in the early 20th century as he mulled scientific theories in his head. He died a few blocks away, alone in his hotel room. Sometime around the 1970s, Bryant Park was a dangerous place where drugs were sold. Nobody in their right mind would wander into the park as early as late afternoon. Even walking just outside its perimeter fence was a bad idea during the dark hours. People were dragged from the sidewalk into the park at night and victimized. Today, it is much safer. Good Morning America holds frequent morning shows at Bryant Park. There are security guards roaming the grounds. The long, closed public toilets on the 42nd street side renovated and reopened for use. Outdoor movies are shown in the park during the summer. HBO presents their newest talents by hosting free comedy shows. Where radiating walkways from a central fountain used to be, you'll find an open green where people sit, eat, play,or sleep. In the Winter, it becomes an ice skating rink. Lunch time on a working day is the busiest time to be at the park. I should know... I have worked next door since the 1970s!

Oh, yes, chess! Well, there are two places to play chess at the park. On the southwestern side of the park ( 6th Avenue ) is the Chess & Backgammon Center run by my friend Alex. He was a well-traveled salesman in his native Russia before coming to America. Friendly and accommodating, Alex is a chessplayer himself. At his place, you'll have to pay 50 cents a game including a digital clock. Your opponent pays the same rate so the house earns a dollar per game played. If you can't find an opponent, Alex will play you in behalf of the house. I'd say he's about an 1800 player at blitz. Payment is largely based on an honor system because nobody counts how many games you've played. Be honest. Asa Hoffman, a local master and a character portrayed in the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, can be seen frequently at this site. He charges a stiff fee of $5 a game, but I think you can negotiate. He calls out to the public, " Five bucks for a chance to play the old master. " I think that Mr. Hoffman does not often get his price but you will always get a good game from him. If you like Backgammon, then this is also the place for it. Often, there are more gamers at the backgammon area than at Chess. According to Alex, these guys sometimes play till 11pm. The chessboards are arranged along a table under a shady tree. The clocks are kept a locked box. You need to ask for one. I must admit that sometimes you'll have to wait for someone to play if Alex can't sub. It is very rare to hear trash talk.

Now, walk over to the north side of the park ( 42nd Street ) and you'll find several tables of chessplayers at work in their craft. You can't miss them since there is always a group of spectators huddled around the table. Don't let anybody tell you that chess is not a spectator sport. I found that the players here are generally stronger than at Alex's place. Here, you don't have to pay. Just wait your turn and you play for free. However, getting your turn to play could be a problem. Usually, by the time you get there, the rotation is fully established and you need to be assertive to get a chance to play. At this place, the players bring their own sets and clocks. So, you would up your percentages if you bring your own equipment. This way, you get to play most of the time. Please, do not bring nice wooden pieces. A nicely weighted plastic set will be perfect. What about hustlers? It is tricky defining what a hustler is. I reckon that someone who is always pressing you for a bet is a hustler. My strict rule is that I don't play for money. My usual response is, " Hey, I work and so I don't have to earn my money this way." One more thing about getting involved in this money business, unless you know your opponent very well, you have no assurance you'll get paid. So, be smart. Legally, I think it is illegal to have a betting game in a public park. Anyway, the good news is that most players don't play for money. They play for pride and bragging rights. Those are more valuable currencies for them. These guys play all day, and you could say that they've made it in the shade!


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