Chess tables have been a staple of New York City public parks for decades. While the first ones appeared in parks during the 1940s, the popularity of “street chess” as it is known, came about beginning in the 1960s when a man named Bobby Hayward set up a chess set on top of a garbage can at 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. By the late 1960s, chess tables peppered Washington Square Park, occupying the park’s southwest corner. Here players could compete against famed world champions like Bobby Fischer, Kamran Shirazi, and Joel Benjamin.
The Washington Square Park chess tables lie directly adjacent to Manhattan’s “chess district,” as the area south of the park, particularly Thompson Street, between West 3rd and Bleecker Street, have been called. The street has a number of chess shops , the oldest being the Village Chess Shop at 82 West 3rd Street. The Washington Square Park chess tables have even been featured in several movies including the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer and 1994’s Fresh.
Because of construction in Washington Square Park, much of the Washington Square chess scene migrated about 10 blocks north to Union Square in the early 2000s. The Union Square chess area is located just outside the subway entrance near the southwest corner of 14th Street and Union Square West. This space is often densely packed with tourists, students, and commuters. Here dozens of chess players sit on crates and bring their own boards (as there are no permanent ones like there are in Washington Square Park). Many of the games are friendly ones between chess enthusiasts while others are a bit more intense with “chess hustlers” luring in spectators and charging by game, by the hour, or sometimes by betting on the outcome.
While the Union Square chess scene thrives, the Washington Square Park chess area has regained popularity, with the installation of a new chess plaza during the park’s 2012 park renovation.