Why Play Chess?

Jan 8, 2011, 2:06 PM |

Why Play Chess? 

By National Chess Master Eric Fleischman

(Originally Printed in Midwood Development Corporation Sentry, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 26, No. 3, P.4) 

RECENTLY, during the summer I had the pleasure of not only giving an all-day simultaneous chess exhibition at the annual Midwood Mardi Gras Street Festival in June, but to be a self-appointed ambassador of chess from Brooklyn to our neighboring Northeast cities of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

As I entered the small village-type park at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., on a hot sunny summer afternoon in mid-August, I eagerly searched for potential chess opponents (patzers or masters). Exhausted from no sleep the night before and several hours of sightseeing, I walked up to a small concrete table where one middle-aged African-American man was playing chess against a young and overly confident Latino male. After their lively match was over and I was able to assess the winner's chess ability, I naturally asked  if I could "get a game." The African-American man who had thoroughly tortured and beat his younger opponent told me that he would only play me for money. I chuckled silently to myself thinking how familiar this ritualistic and somewhat obnoxious chess hustling behavior is to me, since I have spent much of my adult life playing and watching chess at Washington Square Park in New York City---the world's capital of chess hustling! I responded succinctly and with an overabundance of confidence by asking "are you sure that you want to play me for money"? The somewaht startled chess hustler pondered over my response for a few seconds and then assuredly said "no, I don't want to play you."

Although, I had no intention of playing for money, since I rarely ever do that outside of tournaments, I might have been fortunate with his response, particularly since I had not slept the night before and the guy was actually a pretty good 'speed chess' player (five minutes per player for the entire game), which is what he wanted to play. Now, I had no opponent, was thoroughly exhausted, and there were only four or five games going on at the seven tables tha tthe park hosted. So I waited and rested. At last I got myself a game and found an opponent---a young African-American male who I sized-up as an average but friendly player. I paid a dollar to the grateful owner of the chess pieces occupying one of the nearby tables, since neither of us had chess equipment with which to play.

After a quick but cordial thrashing of my opponent, I was on my way after about forty-five minutes. I left D.C.'s chess community without a loss, thoroughly exhausted and without having had a really good challenging game of chess, I thought. Next stop Philadelphia.

About a week later, I headed down to Philly for some more sightseeing and a chance to play chess against hopefully some of their best players. Before going, I did my chess homework and discovered that there was a pretty active chess club in Philadelphia called the Franklin Mercantile Chess Club. At the end of a long day and lots of sightseeing I headed over to the chess club for some action. The club was small and located in the basement of a brownstone building in a mixed residential and commercial area. Upon entering I walked over to a young blonde guy sitting quietly at a chess board with no visible opponent. I eagerly asked him if he wanted to play a game, but he told me that he was in the middle of a game with someone else who would be back soon. I was then greeted by a couple of other chess players and the manager of the club, who I had spoken with earlier over the phone. I asked him if there was anyone I could play a few games with. He quickly assigned a player who he probably thought would be a good challenge for me.


After a few minutes of waiting and watching I was on my way to a game and match. I sat down on one of their most comfortable chairs to play speed chess with a heavyset middle-aged African-American male who was very friendly, but clearly interested in testing my skill by playing for two dollars a game. Initially he had led me to believe that we would just play for fun. After about an hour or so I had clearly broken my Washington D.C. and New York City rule about not playing chess for money and walked away without losing a single game, but without being sufficiently challenged. During the match, I had attracted a small but enthusiastic crowd and was constantly being compared with one of the club's top players (who happened to not be there). The sentiment was that their best player could beat me, or so they thought!

I was then approached by an older Caucasian gentleman who wanted me to play speed chess against his chess computer, with the caveat that we play for money. Simultaneously, the man who I had just beaten asked if he could bet on the side against me hoping to regain not only some of the money he had lost to me, but some of his self-esteem and dignity. I agreed to both requests and began my battle with my faceless opponent...the mighty chess computer.

The first game was a complicated tactical struggle where I sacrificed a huge amount of material (pieces) for a highly speculative attack against the computer's KING! This is usually not a good idea against the strongest chess computers, but this computer was rated at about 2300 to 2400---only master level strength. My strategy and tactics surprisingly worked and I won the first game. The next game I was not so lucky and let down my guard, losing a pawn in the opening (which I rarely ever do against human opponents). I had lost my first game in Philadelphia and suddenly the crowd was excited. The final game, which was not so exciting from a chess player's perspective, was an agreed draw and consequently a draw for the match with the computer. I bid my farewell and left with the feeling that I would like to visit the club again some time in the not so distant future.

After returning to Brooklyn I headed over to Asser Levy (Seaside) Park in Coney Island on Labor Day. I met up with my brother and a friend, both strong chess players. After telling them of my chess journey and sightseeing they asked if I would give a simultaneous chess exhibition against them (this would be a rematch from the Midwood Mardis Gras chess exhibition in which they participated). I agreed to their request and a few hours later emerged victorious and undefeated, having played some really beautiful games of chess.

My next task was to write a chess article for Midwood Development Corporation's Sentry newsletter, entitled "Why Play Chess." Well, initially I thought that I would provide a technical explanation with statistical information explaining how chess improves problem solving ability and math and reading scores in school-aged children, which it does. I also thought that I would explain how chess improves self-esteem and creates positive social outlets for teenagers, which it does. I further thought that I would mention how chess is now taught in many public schools throughout the country including our own Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, whose chess team is the current national champion for the past three years!

Instead I decided to write a narrative of some of my recent chess experiences to educate and persuade those of you (children and adults) who are unfamiliar with the 'chess world,' as to 'why play chess'?

I hope that this article has sparked an interest in the Royal Game of chess and I want to leave you with on last thought. Winning is not all that matters---it is how you play the game, what you learn that can be successfully integrated into your life, and the positive experiences and feelings that you give to and take away from the games that you play and the people (and computers) that you play with.