Chocolate, vanilla, rather Jamoca Almond fudge, this describes the chess circle at Captain Gerald MacDonald Memorial Park in Queens. Not because the Mr. Softie truck regularly chimes the area, but here resides the most diverse ethnic congregation short of the United Nations. Drawn by the game, a cultural mix of players gather to play “Blitz” chess.
Indifferent, chess and timer remain blind to age, sex, religion and race. Surrounding one of twelve tables, you might observe four New Yorkers awaiting their turn. An Italian, a Cuban, an Albanian and a retired gentleman of German, Austrian and Hungarian descent study two comrades, a Lithuanian and a young man from Sri Lanka. After parking his Taxi nearby, glides the Indonesian expert seeking a game with his pal from Turkey who just hopped off the subway. At another table, a Columbian and an Israeli Chess master attract a crowd including a Greek, a Romanian dentist, Montenegrin, a German lawyer, Afro-American, Belgian and Latino, while a Deli owner from Nepal hurries off to bring coffee. Likewise, Russia, Serbia, Bosnia, England, France, Georgia, Ireland and China have full representation.
Probably the largest, unofficial, easily accessed, impromptu chess club anywhere, Blitz addicts of various levels and the Long Game find membership free. Across from the Post Office, this narrow park, made fine with a variety of trees, plants and flowers, also plays host to some Domino and Backgammon play as well as respite for the passersby. Relatively void of gambling, drinking or drugs, the Park remains a comfortable haven for all. Varied cuisines adorn Queens Boulevard and Austin Street. You can break for fast food, the KFC, Taco Bell, Boston Market and such, or Italian fine-dine at Positano’s, perhaps Mexican, Chinese and other restaurants, maybe stop for gelato, catch a ballgame or movie.
Although scarcely six female players frequent the tables, some males remain hopeful for change. Players offer a wide variety of interests and occupations. Besides those mentioned, doctors, stockbrokers, computer programmers, court officers, firefighters, teachers like myself, also play chess, white collar, blue collar and no collar. Evening socialization includes late night pizza breaks, an audience of EMS workers and the occasional birthday cake. Conversation opens to music, history, science, politics, every topic and issue to stimulate the intellect from the profound to the ridiculous. Argumentation rarely gets out of hand enough to disturb lasting friendships, friendships molded by laughter and trust, created over time and over the chessboard.
As a newcomer to Speed Chess, I spent a full day of observation before venturing to play. I hoped that I could put up a good fight, but suspected to lose on time. The game lay open to everyone; still, a silent, unknown chess player can create some tension. I remember how the regular players, a conglomerate of cultures, watched me from the sides of their eyes. “Is he a hustler?” I wondered at their thoughts masked in multiple languages, or “some lunatic?” Levity commonly colors the atmosphere around the chess circle enhancing the excitement and seriousness of the game. After watching a respected chess master win, I remarked, “You know, I think I could beat him.” Then, I added through a silence you needed to wade through, “on a good day… if the sun was out… and he had a few beers.”
A regular over the past month, my Blitz game improves and hopefully continues to do so from the high level of chess played here. However, perhaps most important remains the promise of new acquaintances and friends befitting this World War I Memorial Park. In this sense, no one gets checkmated.