Checkmating the Weather


I've never been to New York but I hear it's an amazing place with so many things to do and so many places to see that the mind boggles at the possibilities. A friend of mine is from New York and, although she doesn't live there anymore, returns occasionally for a visit.  Recently she went to Central Park and stopped by the Chess and Checker House for a couple of games.  Although it's been around for 60 years, I'd never heard of it before, so she did some research for me and sent me newpaper clipping from the "New York Times" about the creation of this neat little chess retreat within one of the most famous parks in the world. 

Here's the story:

The Chess and Checker House of Central Park


New York Times,  December 12, 1951

                                        Photograph Spur To Chess Shelter
    Picture of 2 Old Men Playing in Central Park Brings Gift From Anonymous Man

     The anonymous gift of $38,000 from a prominanet New Yorke for a chess and checker shelter in Central Park, which  has just been announced, grew out of a picture of two men playing chess on a park bench.
     For many years the Park Association of New York had sought without success to persuade someone to finance such a shelter.  A member of the accociation driving through the park had often felt pity at seeing many old men sitting out in the rain and sleet of winter or under the hot sun of summer.
     One day as she watched the players the thought suddenly struck her that a certain wealthy man of her acquaintance would feel the same way if he could  see the players at their game. So she hunted for a picture and found the one reproduced herewith, showing two old men, loking down on a chess board between them, and she sent it to the philanthropist.
     "Wouldn't it interest you to take care of these old fellows?" she wrote.
     "How much would it cost?" he replied.
     She then communicated with Park Commissioner Robert Moses.  He had designs drawn up and an estimate prepared, and sent them to the philanthropist.  The latter studied the plans, paid a visit to the park, saw the old men at their play, and then drew a check for the full amount needed.
     "I used to play on this very spot when I was a boy," said the giver.  "There was an arbor there, overed with wisteria.  This spot means a lot to me."
     The shelter will be ereted on the high promontory called the Kinderberg, in the southwest part of the park opposite Sixty-fourth Street between the Merry-Go-Round and the Wollman Memorial, which in recent years has been the park's mecca for chess and checker players.  Mostly retired oldsters, they have played there daily except in the worst weather.  The shelter will be fully usable the year round.  It will be a brick octagonal structure with a slate roof, thirty-five feet in diameter with ten-foot-wide doors, and eight tables.


New York Times,  August 12, 1952
                            New Building Rising for Chess and Checker Set.
               Chess Players Await Vital Move  -- Into New Central Park Shelter
                                                by William M. Farrell

     The sound of hammering - even when it penetrated the rugged consciousness of Central Park's chess players -- was a welcome noise yesterday.  It signaled the approaching completion of a handsome brick shelter into which they will retire next fall.
     The park's chess and checker players, of whom there are several hundred, are just about weather-proof.  Yesterday a score of them were basking contentedly in the sun, with only a few retired to the near-by shade.  In other seasons they have withstood bitter cold and even snow.  Rain is about the only element that really puts them to flight, according to Fred M. Chapman, their dean.
     Mr. Chapman, who lives at 1444 Second Ave., is 83 years old.  He has been coming to the park for thiry-five years, and genereally puts in three to six hours a day at chess four or five days a week.
     As a member of the retired set, which outdoes the younger members in attendance, Mr. Chapman will particularly welcome the new brick building.  It will house fourteen game tables, with space for twenty-eight chess and checker games and a goodly number of onlookers.
     The building is the gift of an anonymous New Yorker, who was moved to contribute $38,000 last December. This anonymous benefactor, whose generous spirit seems to hover over the older players --- "He might be sittinghere now," said one man yesterday -- is known to have played right on the spot where the building is going up.
     That spot is on a promontory, formerly known as Kinderberg (Children's Hill).  The hill is opposite Sixty-fourth Street and overlooks a playground.  It is near the zoo and the Wollman Menorial skating rink. and the sound of the carousel may be heard if the pressure of play lets anyone listen.
     The financing of the new building was the result f the efforts of a member of the Parks Association of New York, who found a striking photograph of two old men playing chess on a park bench.  Taking the picture to a friend known for his philanthropies, the association member obtained from him the gift that enabled the Department of Parks to have the building erected.
     Designed by Gustav Cirilian, the octagonal structure is thirty-five feet in diameter.  It will have a cupola and a slate roof, thus fitting into the architectural style  of other buildings in the area. Yesterday workmen were setting in heavy beams for the roof.
     Benjamon Leavin, president of the Great Eastern-Victor Corporation, contractor for the construction, said the building would be completed by Oct. 1.  It wil have heating and other facilities eagerly awaited and thoroughy discussed by the players.
     The completion of the building will put a final stamp on the development of the Kinderberg s a resort for those who like fresh air with their sedentary sport.  The Kinderberg used to be a children's playground, and there was an old, rustic,, wooden building on it, with tables for basket parties.
     Mr. Chapman related yesterday how chess and checker players painter boards on the tables and with dogged persistance, managed to convert the place for their use. It was a long process, and, when the old building burned down a number of years ago, the players were driven to use ordinary park benches as both seats and tables.
     A couple of years ago, concrete tables with inlaid checkerboards were installed, Sixteen of these now flank the new building, which has risen even as the knights and bishops moved across the board, propelled by old and young, busy and rerired, professional and laboring, male and  female, French, German, Russian, Korean, and American devotees of the games that are as international as the United Nations.


New York Times, February 1, 1953

                                        Checkmating the Weatherman
                                                    by C.B. Palmer
      The tower is by no means ivory; it is red and yellow brick.  But it is nonetheless a remarkable. slow-paced retreat, set down among the cloud-scraping towers of New York.  It is populated b men of keen devotion and strong opinions,  waxing eloquent in their discussions of an ancient line of research.
     This citadel, set on a hill in Central Park, is the chess-and-checkers pavillion, opened last October, where, on these wintry days, men may bend over their boards in steam-heated comfort rather than huddle on benches and walls.  It is a boon such as men have seldom received, to hear the regulars talk about it.  They are touchingly grateful for it.  And they are pleasantly mystified.  Funds for this special building were contributed anaonymously by someone who knew of the steady devotion of these men to their game,  who knew that most of them could not or would not join the Manhattan Chess Club (little more than a pawn's throw away on Central Park South)  and who was interested.  Who did it?
     "You know something?" said a man in a red mackinaw, standing by a sunny window the other day, "It might have been one of the men in this room right now."
     And it might be, indeed, because the men ran quite a range of appearance and background.  This was a bright but cold blustery Sunday afternoon.  The room - octagonal and perhaps forty feet across, with seven double tables, or fourteen boards - was literally jammed to the walls with players and kibitzers.  Besides the red mackinaw there were black sweaters, windbreakers, worn ulsters, neat Chesterfields.  Headgear ranged from cloth caps, broken at the visor, to very correct fedoras.  The rom was hazy and fragrant with the smoke of cigars, pipes, brown Cuban cigarettes, Italin stogies and regular cigarettes.  There were men from the waterfront and from department store counters, a jeweler and a night watchman, a college student on his way to his busboy's job, retired gentlemen from the West Side rooming houses, dapper in their Sunday best.  Maybe the anonymos donor was among them; maybe that gentleman in rich but conservative clothes, trim goatee and large gold pince-nez.
     If it were he, then he was still anonymous because no one knew his name.  "Us regulars," said the night watchman, "don't know many names - maybe some first names like Bob and Joe.  We've been seeing and playing each other in the park steady for maybe twenty years, but that's as far as it goes.  No, we don't go to each other's home; the most we do is have a cup of coffee together after we get through playing.  We scatter in all different directions."
     This man was strictly a checkers player, and a ding-dong one at that.  He was taking on all comers and I timed one of his victories  in forty-seven seconds.  At the chess table the pace is, of course, slower,  but it is by no means a matter of deep silences.  The kibitzers are highly vocal during the game and at the post-mortems. ("You shouldn't of drawed that game, Red, you should never of drawed it!")  And some of the players are garrulous. ("What am I doing here?  I'm being murdered!"  "It's a mtter of who gets there mostest with the lastest." "He's 57 years old? Don't talk to me about skeletons; it upsets me."  "The victory is moral.")  Occasionally a knot of noisy kibitzers will draw a shouted "Quiet!  Quiet!"  from another kibitzer.  But one of the players says: "Look, any man pays attention to kibitzers, he just don't play here."
     The fact is the men alternate being players and kibitzers; a man loses, he has to stand up and somebody else sits down, but the loser stays around.  Apparently the regulars are good in either role.  A Parks Department spokeman says: "The play a good game: practically any of the old-timers will take on all comers."  And a man who has watched the games - and played a few 0 with the regulars in the outdoor season in recent years says: "They're good; probably ot big-tournament stuff, but good." (Larry Evans, the young whizz, has been an occasional park-bencher.)
    On this Sunday afternoon, as the sun got lower in the sky, the Wollman Memorial skating rink at the foot of the hill was still a Pieter Breughel scene, in contrast to the Rembrandt studies inside.  It was getting colder, but there at the outside tables of concrete and terazzo some hardy souls were still playing - hunched in overcoats, their hands and faces blue.  Two men were absolutley raucous in their play.  One said: "Hey, that's a move!  We're playing touch-move; you touched it, so move it."  And his opponent replied, "Touch-move, touch-move!  You're always wanting to play legal!"  "Sure we're playing legal!  "Legal for you, you [deleted]."  Fortunately out of earshot was the only woman player, in fur coat and kerchief (she later moved inside).  There were one or two female kibitzers inside and out; occasionally young skaters would wander by, look in the building and go on.  One said: "Ah, it's just some corny old chess club."
     As it got darker and colder, the crowd began to thin out from its early afternoon peak of about 125, but the breaking up was a difficult process.  The players wanted "one more game" ; the kibitzers couldn't bear to leave while the play was still on. (The pavillion is open from 9 A.M. to 8 P.M). One of the onlookers moaned: "Don't you guys ever eat?"  An elderly and rather feeble gentleman waited at the door until one of the regulars looked up and said: "Hey, it's too late for you to be out; come on, I'll walk you out of the park."
     And one of the last to leave - a man in a hunting cap and a peajacket - stood around, not kibitzing a game, but kibitzing the scene, with a half-smile on his face.  He was happy to talk about it all.
     "I'm a veteran of coming to the park almost thirty yeas ago with my own board and chessmen and putting it down on a bench beside me - almost like a sidewalk peddler.  Someone would lok.  stop and sit down and we'd have a game.  Sometimes we'd make a date for next week, sometimes we wouldn't, but there'd always be somebody.  Then after a while the city began to put in outdoor tables for us, which was nice.  But this pavillion is wonderful.  No wind. Nice heat. Good tables and chairs.  Built-in ashtrays.  A regular place to meet.  You meet new people- not like a regular club you might have where it's always the same crowd.  You might have some friends in a club and some enemies - chess enemies, that is - but here you get new men, new games; you like to see how a man figures his play.
     "Who gave this place I don't know, but I certainly thank him - or her."


The popularity grows:

New York Times,  September 9, 1960
Chess Match in Central Park
Samuel Reshevsky, International Grandmaster in Chess and former United States Chess Champion, and Pal Benko, former Hungarian Champion and Western Open Champion, will play chess at 2 P.M. Sunday in the Park Department Chess and Checker House in Central Park at Sixty-fourth Street.


It should be mentioned here that although many of these articles centered around the anonymity of the generous benefactor who contributed $38,000 in 1952 (according to a site that purports to make these calculations:  "$38,000.00 in 1952 had the same buying power as $323,605.13 in 2012"), the identity of is known.

Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, one-time president of the Park Association and chairperson fro 1950-57, was the Park committe member who entreatied the famous financier Bernard Barauch into donating the money for the Chess and Checker House.


New York Times, July 17, 1985

By Susan Heller Anderson and David W. Dunlap
     . . .Patrick and 12 other youngsters were at the Central Park Chess and Checkers House, at 64th Street overlooking the Wollman Rink, attending the first free children's summer chess camp.
     Tables were set up inside the octagonal house, where an international master, Michael Rohde, played 10 children simultaneously, instructing them along the way.
. . .

. . ."'It's a highly interactive program, with nothing to memorize - they're just doing chess,'' said Bruce Pandolfini of the Manhattan Chess Club, which, with the American Chess Foundation, sponsors the classes for the Central Park Conservancy."

Here it should be noted that the Canadian chess prodigy, Jeff Sarwer, was playing in New York at this time training with Pandolfini (Pandolfini gave both Jeff and his sister, Julia, a lifetime membership in the Manhattan Chess Club) and actually won the Central Park Chess Championship in the U10 category.  The picture credit (the photo for the article was excluded) listed Monique Fry and Jeff Sawyer. I think it's more than reasonable to assume it was Sarwer, not Sawyer in the photo.

Jeff Sarwer at Washington Square Park NYC





New York Times, May 31, 1998
                Chess Buddies' Friendly War.
                by BERNARD STAMLER

     "They sit on the western side of the terrace at Central Park's Chess and Checkers House, on a hill north of the Wollman Rink, near East 64th Street. They are all men, of various ethnic backgrounds and mostly of retirement age. On weekday afternoons, a dozen or so show up, more on weekends.
     Laughing, cracking jokes and taunting each other, they play what they call ''speed chess,'' in which each player is allotted only a total of five minutes per game to make all his moves. It's not the stuff of serious tournaments, to be sure. But the men are kibitzers more than they are chess players. Eighty-something Nick, who has been among them for three decades, put it this way:
     ''It's a lonely hearts club.''
     Unwilling to give his last name -- ''I am from Europe,'' he said conspiratorially, ''and I don't know what might happen if I gave it out'' -- Nick mostly watches now, feeding birds and tending to the flower garden that he planted decades ago on the hill by the stone chess tables.
     Meanwhile, the others play, switching opponents, exulting when they win, cursing when they lose. Oliver Paredes of Manhattan, who at 24 is by far the youngest among them, says it is ''sometimes kind of like a war.''
     All in good fun, of course.
     ''This group has a social life all of its own,'' said Matthew D'Amato, 57, known as Mike, who lives inmidtown and has played chess in the park for about six years. The Central Park group is different from others that play in public, he said, like the men at the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park. ''They play for money,'' Mr. D'Amato said. ''But we don't. Here, it's like a home.''
     The other men, many of whom used to play downtown, all nodded in agreement: Bill, in the green hat. Kenny, in the plaid shirt. Peter, in the blue shirt, and Hussein, in the striped shirt, who confided only that he was from Afghanistan. No last names, please. ''We're private people,'' said Dick, in a tan hat, who is probably the loudest of the bunch; he says he is a playwright from the Upper East Side and has been coming to the park for about eight years.
     He and Mr. D'Amato played a few games. ''I've known Dick for 40 years,'' Mr. D'Amato said, ''ever since I was a kid waiting tables at the Figaro cafe on Bleecker Street.''