Family Saturday

Family Saturday: Hanging With Queens, Kings, and Bishops in the West Village

Photo by Patty Onderko

In the age of Fortnite, it can be hard to get kids excited about an analog game. But chess, my own 11-year-olds swear, can be just as (OK, almost as) compelling, competitive, and exciting. And luckily, New York City is a hotbed of chess activity, especially for kids. Want to pique your child’s interest in the game or treat your little chessheads to a winning day? Head to the West Village, the center of chess life in the United States for more than a century.

Meet Some Chess Characters

Start at Washington Square Park, in the Chess Plaza in the southwest corner, for some pickup games with the chess hustlers. One of my family’s favorite characters there is Cornbread, a sunflower seed–spitting guy with a big (and sometimes off-color) personality who always makes my kids laugh. He’s also excellent at chess, and onlookers often crowd around his games. Another popular player here is Abderrahim Rajahi, who narrates his games like a sportscaster and has a wily, Robin Williams–ish sense of humor that resonates with children (in fact, he teaches the kids’ chess sessions at the nearby Chess Forum). I’d say you could recognize him by the fact that he has no top teeth, but there’s also the the squirrel/bird guy, a toothless Snow White who seems to have charmed all the local pigeons and rodents. He’s typically engrossed in games with serious older players but will make exceptions for experienced youths.

The games will run you $2 to $10 each, depending on the length of the match and whether or not the hustler dispenses advice along the way. If it’s a standard five- to 10-minute match, $3 to $5 is totally acceptable. And yes, you pay even if you win. Don’t be intimidated! The guys here are nice, if not always p.c., and never set out to annihilate young players. Flattering spectators will gather round the table and take photos of your kids, hoping they’ve just encountered the next Bobby Fischer. And your kid will feel like maybe she is.

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Can the student beat the master? Usually not, but it’s fun to try. / Photo by Patty Onderko
Dosas on a Park Bench and Games for Days on Thompson Street

Grab lunch from the famous Dosa Man, whose cart has permanent residence just east of Chess Plaza. His South Indian dosas, samosas, and curries are worth the hype. After filling up, stroll south down Thompson Street to the Chess Forum, an old-timey chess parlor that has been a community center of sorts for chess geeks since 1995. Again, don’t be intimidated by the serious-looking players in the skinny back room, silently moving their pieces by the light of the library lamps; Chess Forum welcomes all ages and all skill levels. Kids play for free, while grown-ups are asked to pay $5 per hour. On Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m., it holds a free chess training session for kids ages 4–12, often led by Rajahi.

A pickup game at the Chess Forum. / Photo by Patty Onderko

In the front room of the shop, Chess Forum sells every kind of chessboard, from the $10 vinyl scholastic mats to $300 ebony-and-maple sets. There is never any pressure to buy, but if you do need supplies, I implore you to purchase them here! This kind of small retail shop is part of a dying breed in NYC.

If you need a snack and coffee or hot chocolate, but want to continue playing, head half a block north to Uncommons, a coffee shop and game café where there are chessboards as well as what seems like every single board and table game ever made. It is nerd nirvana, complete with Melt ice cream sandwiches.

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Negotiations at Uncommons. / Photo by Patty Onderko

The Oldest and Ultimate Challenge

Once your kids have gotten their feet wet, they may be ready to move on to the crown jewel of New York City chess: Marshall Chess Club, just a five-minute walk from the Washington Square Park fountain, founded by grand master Frank J. Marshall in 1915 in a quintessential West Village brownstone (and fictionalized in this fantastic scene from Searching for Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess movie of all time). This is where the city’s best players—masters and grand masters—come to compete, but Marshall also hosts plenty of tournaments for lower-rated players, too. (To become rated, you must become a member of the United States Chess Federation.) Here is where you might see a 7-year-old chess prodigy playing an internationally known and ranked master, like Fabiano Caruana (the Italian-American Brooklynite who is challenging Magnus Carlsen in the World Chess Championship this November). Do feel intimidated here, but don’t let that stop you from going. Your move!

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