Chess is the game of the city, it’s everywhere in New York from the famous players and hustlers in the parks, to the bars and the chess clubs. For New York chess players and fans the Chess Forum is much. Its a small boutique chess store in Greenwich Village where you can buy beautifull different chess sets, and play a game with a friend or a stranger. The Chess Forum has been in a staple in Greenwich Village since 1995, and has a special place in New York’s history. I talked to the owner of Chess Forum, Imad Khachan about the interesting history of the store and how the business of chess has changed since he first opened 23 years ago.
How were you first introduced to Chess?
I grew up in an old city in Lebanon which is 2000 years old at least. There is a lot of history there as city was built by the Romans, so I grew up living in history. Here when you look around you see the Empire State Building, there when you look around you see the Temple Of Bacchus. So you become so deeply tied to the past as much as too the present. You start collecting things from that time, you want to find historical things. When you look and dig you are bound to find something historical like a vase, a gold coin, or you can even find a whole floor of mosaic just underneath the ground.
I got into chess as a collector, my first chess set was a portable magnetic chess set that folded in half. I had seen kids playing it, I spoke only Arabic then and heard words for the first time like ‘Castling’ and ‘Dutch Move’ in English which were moves relating to the game. But I was more drawn to the game because it was magnetic. I suppose you can say I was attracted to chess by magnetism.
Can you tell me the history of this space before it was Chess Forum?
This is the second location of a shop opened by Russian Grandmaster chess player Nicolas Rossolimo, the first place was on Sullivan Street in the 50’s and 60’s. Rossolimo’s wife was from Spain so he went to play chess in Europe, he came back and he lost his store as his employee closed it down and had opened a store in his own name. Rossolimo and his wife opened here in 1970 until 1976.
Rossolimo fell from a balcony, some people think he was pushed, some say he was drunk and fell. Either way he was left there mysteriously for hours and later taken to the hospital and died. Unfortunately his wife wasn’t able to look after the store so they closed. Then it was a printing place, and now low and behold. There might be such a thing as commercial justice, Rossolimos place was meant to be revived. Now we even have his grandaughter who comes and visits the store.
Marcel Duchamp used to play in the Sullivan Street store and here is where Stanley Kubrick used to play. He was a chess hustler, some say he used to finance some of his short films by hustling in the park where he would make a few hundred bucks during the week!
How did you come to open Chess Forum?
I came to New York and I found a chess store, I was looking for a job and they hired me. A year later they made me a partner, and five years later they told me to get lost. Just after I mustered the courage to ask about the things that didn’t look good to me.
Then one day by chance I was walking and I saw the sign ‘Store For Rent’ and just when you think you are screwed – I guess that’s what they mean by a silver lining. I didn’t know this stores history, I had no idea! When I opened people started coming in asking ‘is this Rossolimo’s place?’ as he had a place here.
Photo Credit: Chess Forum
Can you tell me about the Grandmaster, Fabiano Caruana who will be playing in the World Championship this year?
Fabiano is 26 now, he started here at the age of four, he would come here as part of the summer camp and for private lessons. He would play the regular players here I remember putting books on the chairs so he could reach the game. At seven he was beating everybody here the adults too.
Why do you think chess has such a strong following?
Sports tend to be democratic but chess is even more so as gender and age mean nothing. It’s not like tennis where women play women and men play men here they could be a four or five year old and he could beat a fifty year old. With chess as a sport you are welcome it doesn’t matter who you are. They still have the men and womens’ World Championship separate, but it’s beginning to be like….. why?
Also the game is endless, they brought the IBM computer and got it to play the best player, one is human thinking the other is brute force, speed, and pattern recognition even though the computer beat the best human, it never beat the game.
More seems to happen here then just chess, its also seems to be about people sharing ideas?
That’s exactly why I chose the name ‘Forum’, its about ideas. If we disagree we don’t step outside and punch each other we step inside to the board and punch each other except it’s an intellectual punching, and a fight of chess is a form of knowledge.
How has the Chess Forum Changed since it opened in 1995?
What happened with the internet we lost a community, before everybody came. There used to be a lot of people who just came out of prison who learnt chess in prison and wanted to be chess players, then they came here and there would be sitting with a celebrity, a student, a child, a senior citizen a doctor, all with nothing in common with each other besides the love of chess. We used to be 24 hours, people would be spending everyday and everynight coming straight from work to here, and then from here to work straight after. If they go home it was just to change and shower that was the standard.
People started leaving, everybody was on computers where you can sit at home and play. From some of the players coming back out of habit I realised they weren’t all separated they were playing their games online.
The scene was kept together by the seniors and the children. The young people who are beginning to make a career working with the internet or computers. They want to do something real, so that is bringing some of the young people back, which is a great surprise. Not as consistent as before but for an hour or two hours they come back to the real chess board.
What do you think peoples reactions are to the Chess Forum?
New York has a lot of hype because of places like this. I have gotten to discover through the reactions with people that this place must be unique or something special. When I see European’s going crazy when they come in, even Russians who you would think would have hundreds of places like this. They have clubs or cafes, but only here do you have places like this, retail with room to play and pick up games.
When you have low self esteem you disregard everything that you are and that you have – thats me. But when someone reacts to what you take for granted, and instead insists that you have merit. When people give this to you, it’s something you gained and it can’t be measured.
Head into the Chess Forum, pick up a game or grab a coffee and watch the masters play. For newbies come take a lesson, they also offer free lessons for kids on Saturdays between 2-4. Games are only a $5 per hour, $1 for senior citizens, and kids always play free!