New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood is famous as a place of quaint tree-lined streets where lovers, artists, and aficionados of offbeat nightlife can feel at home. One interesting locale tourists won't find in many guidebooks is The Village Chess Shop a pleasantly rundown establishment that caters to chess players every night until midnight - and later.
It is only 9:30 PM, but 16 separate chess games are already underway here at the Village Chess Shop. All the players are men, but the similarity ends there. They range in age from twenty to about eighty. Some are neatly kempt. Others are, well, "casual" in the extreme. Many punch their clock timers in what is known a "speed chess." All are deeply absorbed.
These elements create just the atmosphere that has kept Neil Ackerman coming back to the Village Chess Shop for almost three decades. "Smoke. Jazz. Coffee. The muttering of minor epithets. The pictures, the chess sets. It's a place that has a flavor that improves with age. It's a niche in the middle of Manhattan," he says.
The establishment bears the personal stamp of German-born George Frohlinde, who opened the shop in 1972. "The place has a very European flavor to it, you know. Almost a little Russian. A little dilapidated. A little patina on the walls, you know. Not modern plastic," he says. "And it's just a place for the average chess player. And I decorated the place with a lot of chess sets, which I found all over the world, to make an environment that induces people to love chess! Chess ennobles people. And they feel accepted. And then, when flowers have light, they bloom!"
The actual light is none too bright in this shop. Still, it is hard to miss the many aphorisms posted on the walls among the scribbled drawings and the yellowed clippings. One sign reads "Chess is an ocean where an elephant can drown and a mosquito can drink." Mr. Frohlinde's nephew, Laurence Nash, who bought the place a couple of years ago, admires the phrase.
Phillips: "What does that mean?"
Nash: "A mosquito can go and have a drink in an ocean. A tiny little nothing thing! And then, an elephant can go in the same thing, the hugest animal, and drown there. And it's the same thing in chess. It's sort of clear. Even a giant at chess can sink at the board against the bum. It's a great equalizer in that sense.
Frohlinde: After three moves there are 128,000 positions that are possible. That's the ocean…."
Russian, Chinese, Latino, Jewish, Muslim and a host of other nationalities and ethnic groups are represented among the customers tonight. It is this international flavor, as much as the chess itself, which draws tournament player Marc Margolis here. "How can I explain the attraction of this? You have this language, this universal language; you don't have to speak English. It's much like music is a universal language, and you can come into a place like this and meet all kinds of people and that bond is made and that connection is made," he says. "And they'll practice their English and they will ask a local like me about New York and I could discuss ideas of their country… It's almost like the direct experience of listening to another country on short-wave radio…. And of course to do in a complete context of amity."
Not that all is quiet cooperation and amity at the Village Chess Shop.
"It's quiet is because he is losing."
"Settle down, Cupcake!"
"It's wonderful how he does that."
Along with the wide range in backgrounds here, are clear differences in chess ability. Thomas Lin is a regular patron. "They got different levels. Some guys are beginners... and some guys are advanced, expert and masters. Some of these guys will play with you, but right away they know you're not strong and after one game or two games, they say 'I got to go,' or they want to play with someone else," he says. "I mean, they are here every day seven days a week. They spend more time here than at work. Yeah, it's very consuming. You really get into it. You start playing you lose all sense of time. Before you know it it's like twelve o'clock midnight. [And you think] 'Oh! I've been here since four or five o'clock.' You just lose all sense of time."
Long-time customer Neil Ackerman warns that there can be a danger of entering into the world of chess too deeply. "I've known a lot of people who have played a lot and played well and sacrificed portions of their lives because of the game. When you're very good at something that occupies a small world you may tend to neglect the larger world in exchange for the security and power you feel in your smaller world. "And there are a lot of people who might end up becoming what you might call 'chess bums.' But if you keep it in perspective, it's fun."
Larry Liebowitz, another Village Chess Shop habitue, says he just likes to bask in an atmosphere he finds both ancient and "refined." "It goes back to a time when people were pretty primitive, and yet it took a computer mind to know what's happening, because every move you make, you could be causing a disaster later on. It shows the computer mind of people of ancient times. It takes a lot of intelligence to do it," he says.
Neither Laurence Nash nor George Frohlinde play as much chess as they once did. What continues to make the game interesting to the shop's owner and its founder are its neutral nature, and its ability to provide a place where the endless colorful parade of Greenwich Village personalities can express themselves.
Frohlinde: "All, interactions, human interactions, you can see across a chessboard when two people are playing."
Phillips:"What are some of the more peaceful possibilities?"
Nash:"A good, nice game. Lots of laughs. And also another possibility is a fight. There are people who shouldn't be playing each other."
Frohlinde:"All great passions have great dangers."
Perhaps it is as the author George Steiner once wrote: 'Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it's nothing more.' Your move!