20 September 2007

The House of Chess

Walking down West 10th Street the other night, I passed a handsome townhouse with its windows brightly blazing and caught the odd sight of several serious men hunched over tables that were pushed up against the front windows.

They were playing chess, I soon realized. I peered further and realized the whole floor was occupied with men (all men) examining active chess board. I looked about and noticed a small plaque: Marshall Chess Club.

This club, whose existence has escaped my attention until now, has been housed in these premises—the former home of its founder, American chess master Frank J. Marshall (1877-1944)—since 1931. U.S. chess champ for many years, Marshall was known for an endgame strategy with the delightful name of "The Marshall Swindle."

The main room of the club is filled with about a dozen tables, but otherwise still looks like the living room of a Victorian gentleman: old fireplace, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, hardwood floors.

Marshall, who admitted to devoting his life single-mindedly to chess (his memoir was called "My Fifty Years of Chess"), wanted to form a club where chess lovers could meet, talk and play. Marshall's Chess Divan was begun at Keene's Chop House (as it was then called and spelled) in 1915. Keens still stands, of course. It moved about for many years, until Marshall bought himself a home in the Village and installed the club inside.

Anyone can join, as far as I know. Dues are $325 a year, for a New York area resident. For your money, you get lectures, classes, tournaments, "Friday Rapids/Blitz," summer chess camp, garden parties and something called "casual play" (which is probably what normal chess is for you and me).

The club owns the building, as far as I can see, which is why it still exists.

I like chess, but have never followed its personalities. It was interesting to me, however, that artist Marcel Duchamp and the novelist Sinclair Lewis used to hang here, and amusing that songwriter Johnny ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") Marks was a habitue. Chess wunderkind Hikaru Nakamura is apparently an active member.

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