Ocean Parkway. Photograph by Irving I.Herzberg, c.1970s. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
As a child I looked forward to weekends at my grandparents' house, not only for grandma's homemade lasagna, but also for the chance to watch people playing chess along Ocean Parkway's promenade, across the street from their apartment. As I watched, I often became engrossed in the games, paying close attention to the carefully formulated moves. On the call of "Checkmate!" the players would usually smile and promptly start a new game.
Brooklynites have enjoyed chess for generations. The first official club dedicated to the game was the Brooklyn Chess Club located at 315 Washington Avenue, established in 1869 to promote chess as a recreational activity and to organize annual chess tournaments.
As chess grew in popularity around the borough two new clubs opened in 1902, the East New York Chess Club and the University Chess Club. Throughout the years, clubs would open and close, but chess continued to play a role in Brooklyn's culture. Today there are still chess clubs around the city including a new incarnation of the Brooklyn Chess Club located in Canarsie. (The present club is not related to the Brooklyn Chess Club of the 19th and early-20th Centuries.)
Brooklyn's chess players have made history. In 1999 Brooklyn resident and Brooklyn Technical High School Alumnus, Maurice Ashley, became the first African-American Grandmaster, joining the ranks of some 500 other Grandmasters. Five years later, in 2004, the ever-competitive Brooklyn College fielded the first all-female collegiate chess team. But the most famous player to come out of Brooklyn is surely Grandmaster Bobby Fischer.
Fischer and Petrosian, Candidates tournament, Curacao 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
Fischer began playing chess at the age of six, when his sister bought him a chess set from the candy store below their Brooklyn apartment. At age eight, he began taking lessons at the Brooklyn Chess Club; by age twelve, he was competing against some of the strongest players in New York at the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs; at fifteen, he became the youngest person to hold the Grandmaster title; and at sixteen, he decided school got in the way of his chess playing. He dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush in 1959. He later explained to journalist Ralph Ginzburg, "You don't learn anything in school. It is just a waste of time."
"The Dutchman," Erasmus Hall High School, October 10, 1958. This school newspaper article noted Fischer's return from his record-breaking, title-winning tournament in Yugoslavia.
In 1972, Fischer became the first American to win the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland. His win against Russian rival Boris Spassky sparked a huge increase in sales of chess sets and lessons throughout the United States. When he returned to the U.S., he was invited to the White House by President Nixon and received a hero's welcome in New York, being presented with the Gold Medal by Mayor Lyndsay and hailed as "The new world champion of a truly Brooklyn sport--a sport of intellectuals" by Borough President Leone. A year later Fischer lost his title.
Bobby Fischer, Candidates Tournament, Curacao 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection.
Fisher's troubled life story has been widely reported.
Fischer on right, unidentified player on left. Curacao, 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
The prodigy who dominated the world of chess and had a reported IQ of 181, died in Iceland, which had granted him citizenship, in 2008.
Today, chess is still ingrained in Brooklyn's culture, notably in its elementary and middle schools. "Brooklyn Castle," a recent documentary released as part of the 2012 South By Southwest Festival (SXSW), follows five young chess players from Intermediate School 318 and documents their activities on and off the chessboard. Like many schools, IS 318 has struggled to overcome budget cuts, but has still been able to maintain its extracurricular activities, including chess. Located in Williamsburg, it is an inner-city, Title 1 school, yet the students hold the record for the "most winning junior high chess team in the nation" with 28 national championships. Among many talented players, two standout--Justus Williams, recently selected to join the United States Chess Federation, and Rochelle Ballantyne, who is competing to become the first African-American female Grandmaster.
More recently in May 2012, Public School 503 in Sunset Park won the Unted States Chess Federation's National Elementary Championship in Nashville, Tennessee. According to the New York Times, PS 503 and IS 318 are the only New York City public schools to win championships this season by beating older students.
No genius required to predict more Grandmasters in Brooklyn's future!