NEW YORK

Making Moves at the Marshall Chess Club

From COVID  to The Queen’s Gambit: How a New York institution has weathered our strange days

by

Writer Frank Brady was 9 years old when he first learned how to play chess. His older brother had bought a small chess set, and they figured out the moves together. Brady, who is now 87, still remembers the exact moment he truly became fascinated with the game of chess.

“I was around 13 years old,” he says. “It was around 5 p.m., and I was playing basketball in Forest Park, in Queens. I was walking through the park, and there were wooden chess tables. People were playing, and somebody asked me to play a game, so I did. There was a carousel on the hill, and it was playing Johann Strauss waltzes over and over again. And there I was, playing this ancient game of chess, and something clicked right then and there.”

Later that year, Brady decided to take a trip downtown to Greenwich Village to visit the acclaimed Marshall Chess Club—he had read about it in several chess magazines. He remembers running up the wooden staircase in the mighty brownstone on West 10th Street. “I walked into the great hall, and there was I.A. Horowitz, American chess master. I had seen his picture in magazines, and I knew who he was—I had just walked into chess heaven.”

At first, Brady had no intention of joining the club. Being only 13, he did not have the funds for dues or membership fees. “Heaven forbid I ask my mother for $20 to play a game; there’s no way that would have been possible.” He didn’t join the club for a few more years, but Brady continued to play chess outdoors in Forest Park. He grew more and more curious about the game; a couple of years later he finally had the membership dues to join and has been involved with the club ever since.

The Marshall Chess Club was founded in 1915 by U.S. Chess Champion Frank James Marshall. (Only the chess club at the Mechanics’ Institute, in San Francisco, begun in the 1850s, has a longer history.) Nestled between Fifth and Sixth avenues in the Village, the Marshall prides itself on hosting the largest number of tournaments of any chess club in the United States. Since its inception, the club has entertained hundreds of chess players, but with its timeless decor—such as the ornate crown molding and antique chandeliers—it appears unchanged and unaffected by the passage of time.

The building was purchased for Frank Marshall by a group of wealthy patrons after he became U.S. Chess Champion; the club occupies the first two floors of the large brownstone but the entire building is owned by the Marshall Chess Club, which rents out the apartments above. The Foundation is a nonprofit formed to promote and encourage the study, play, and appreciation of chess, and supports the chess community through scholarships and direct financial support to those in need. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, like many other small businesses and social clubs around the world, the Marshall was forced to close its doors and move into the virtual realm, offering classes, games, and events remotely. Since the club’s leading source of income is membership dues and tournament fees, closing the physical space created a crisis. The only solution was to leverage the existing infrastructure of the online chess platforms for tournament chess.

Fortunately for the Marshall, the pandemic overlapped with the release of the popular Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, which reignited interest in chess around the world. After the show aired, the website Chess.com erupted with 12.2 million new members. Speaking to the Voice by phone, Brady admits that they hadn’t had this many members since the Bobby Fischer craze of 1972. “I’m delighted,” he says. The historic club currently boasts more than 700 members, 107 years after its inception. Over the course of his time at the Marshall, Brady has moved from tournament director to board member and then served as president of the club from 2007 to 2012. He is now president emeritus. (Brady became widely known for his biography Bobby Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, originally published in 1974.) The club has now reopened to fully vaccinated members, and will soon open its doors again to vaccinated children for chess classes.

The main parlor room is on the second floor of the building. Rows and rows of chess tables are always lined up, ready for the next tournament. The walls are adorned with paintings and photographs of great chess players and former club members. In the center of the west-facing wall, overlooking the main room, is a portrait of the late Frank Marshall himself. The back room is full of more chess tables and bookshelves packed tightly with chess books. The only reminders that we are in the 21st century are the two flat-screen TVs hanging from the walls, which are used to display chess match pairings for the in-house tournaments. Typically, members register for tournaments online, and when the players enter the building, their names and ratings are broadcast on the TV screens, along with the names and ratings of their opponents. After the matches are completed, the results are displayed on-screen. In a corner of this room is a chess table with the inscription “Bobby Fischer played on this table in 1965.” It was at the Marshall that 13-year-old Fischer won the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial Tournament against 26-year-old chess master Donald Byrne. Fischer famously sacrificed his queen to set up a counterattack that led to checkmate in a game that became known as “The Game of the Century.”

In addition to former world champion Fischer, past members have included notables such as Stanley Kubrick, Howard Stern, and Marcel Duchamp. Brady remembers that when he was in his early 20s and had just recently joined the club, he played chess with Duchamp. “Marcel Duchamp moved a few doors down from the Marshall Chess Club, we sort of became friends and he would invite me over to his house for dinner. We would play chess at his place. Here I was, this kid—I couldn’t believe I was associating with some of these people.”

For a long time, the Marshall Chess Club was a rival of the uptown Manhattan Chess Club, which existed from 1877 to 2002. Players would often drift between the two spots before the Manhattan Chess Club closed down—partially because that club did not have the luxury of owning the building as the Marshall does. For many, the Marshall is more than just a place to play chess. Members sit and read books, meet new people, catch up with old friends, in addition to playing chess in the club’s main rooms. “It’s not just a tournament hall,” explains Brady. “They host events, films, and occasional parties. I can name four or five people who have been married at the Marshall. You don’t just come in and play a game and then leave. Here, you can hang out and meet people.”

Member Janice Lathen started taking chess classes at the club in October 2019. Lathen, the founder of the nonprofit organization Powering Potential, which works to improve education in developing countries through technology, came to the Marshall to expand her social activities. “Someone suggested chess. And so I went out to the Marshall Chess Club and started taking classes there, and I just really loved it,” she says. “It’s such a historical place.” Lathen officially became a member in September 2021, after the club changed to admitting members only during the pandemic. There are women-only chess classes and games on Friday evenings, which she has attended. “I joined my first chess tournament on October 6, 2021,” she says. “I live on the Upper West Side. So it’s kind of fun going down to the Village. It’s a beautiful building, and I have the genuine sense that the people at the Marshall want you to enjoy your time there and want to help you improve your game.”

Many current members began playing at the Marshall when they were children. Native New Yorker Ken Fernandez was first introduced to chess at a young age through the city’s “Chess in the Schools” program, which teaches the game to students in just under 50 public schools in New York City. The program focuses on the intellectual and social development of low-income youth through chess education. “I wanted to get better at chess,” says Fernandez. “I wanted to play more chess, so I decided that I needed to get more games in, which is why I got a membership at the Marshall Chess Club. I used to play there two or three times a week when I was a kid. The main thing I liked about it was that I could play adults.”

Fernandez, who is now in his early 20s, stopped his membership when he went to college in Missouri, but when he came back to New York he began playing again and decided to get his membership back. “The Marshall has the best players. There’s no better place to play,” he claims. “I still like to play with people older than me. They can tell me something after the game, and I can learn from them.”

So much of the attraction and allure of the Marshall Chess Club is the physical experience. The building. The players. The history. The community. For newly elected president of the Marshall Chess Foundation and longtime member Sal Matera, bringing the club into the virtual space during the pandemic was a challenge. “We had no online play tournament presence at all when this all happened,” he tells the Voice. “I was in charge of the tournament committee, and lots of people were saying, ‘You can’t do online chess; there’s cheating and all kinds of other stuff.’ And my point then was that we don’t know whether COVID will happen again, and it’s a revenue stream. It expands the Marshall brand globally and onto these gigantic online chess platforms. We started to realize that if we do nothing, we didn’t know how long the Marshall would be successful.”

In 1959, Matera had just learned how to play chess when he first discovered the club. He remembers walking around in the Village one night in the early 1960s, after going to a steakhouse with his parents, when they came across the Marshall. Intrigued, his father buzzed up. They entered the building and saw two chess grandmasters playing—right in front of them. At that moment, Matera’s father inquired about lessons for his son, which led to Matera taking classes at the club from a player named Jack Collins. “We were lower middle class, so Jack and his sister Ethel gave me my first membership into the Marshall Chess Club,” says Matera. He has been a member ever since, and was a professional chess player until the Fischer craze began to die off; he then went to work in technology and business for 30 or so years, pausing his club membership. After retiring, in 2015, Matera rejoined the club and became more involved than ever. He explains that once the pandemic ends, the Marshall will continue to be a hybrid club. “Probably 90% of the games and classes will be in the club, but 10% will probably be remote for classes and courses and events. If you’re sitting in Idaho, you can come and learn chess at the Marshall Chess Club, and that’s a great strength of things being online.”

Earlier this year, Frank Brady was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. The celebratory event was held at the Marshall Chess Club. And he has also been busy over the past year writing a history of the club. “I’m trying to capture how it has developed and how it has changed,” he explains. And why is he writing this book now, at 87? “In 2015, it was the 100th anniversary of the club,” says Brady. “I wrote an article for Chess Life magazine about the history of the Marshall, and it got the magazine’s award for the best historical article of the year. That, in many ways, made me think maybe I should write a whole book on the history of the club. It comes from a complete matter of love and respect that I have for the Marshall Chess Club—that’s why I am doing it.”  ❖

Anna Betts is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. She has written for The Verge and the Washington Post and her photographs have appeared in Buzzfeed News and Teen Vogue. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

Highlights