Each year, Village Preservation honors the invaluable people, businesses, and organizations that make a special contribution to our neighborhoods at our Annual Meeting and Village Awards. On June 17th, 2020 we will be celebrating nine outstanding awardees — RSVP here to participate virtually.
Chess Forum at 219 Thompson Street (West 3rd/Bleecker Streets) has been located in the heart of the “Chess District” of New York City, in our very own South Village, since it’s founding twenty-five years ago. Owner and Palestinian immigrant from Lebanon Imad Khachan was an NYU PhD student in comparative religion in the 1990s when he was swept up into the world of chess. Enamored of the bohemian and cultural richness of the neighborhood, he felt that unique character was not complete without its chess scene. As Imad said, Bob Dylan was on MacDougal Street, Bobby Fisher was in Washington Square Park, and Chess Forum is still on Thompson Street.
In Imad’s view, chess has two sides, an aesthetic one and a practical one. Beautiful boards and sets from across the world, many hand-crafted, reside behind old school glass cabinets in Chess Forum, like valuables in a gallery. And a dozen-plus tables are set for anyone to walk in and play. Sets for sale range in price from $10 to $10,000.
In Imad’s world, Chess is the great equalizer of people from all races and classes, creating a common language which cuts across multiple boundaries. Imad recounted the well-dressed and highly educated doctor who would come in wearing his Harvard logo sweater, and lose repeatedly to a man without a stable home who was a regular at Chess Forum and a chess master.
Although internet chess has had a significant impact on the need for and appeal of such a shop and location, Chess Forum was still a lively place before the New York Pause. It has been only $5 an hour to play for years, with the added bonus of being able soak in the ambiance, which could be both fiercely competitive and joyfully fun. Backgammon also would draw a combination of mavens and those just looking to have fun.
Over twenty five years shop the shop has had a diverse array of customers, which Imad describes as fitting in three main categories: seniors, children, and at night, couples (they are usually open till midnight). In the shop’s heydays, it always had a full house, and even at midnight on a summer night, you often could not get a chess table even at nearby at Washington Square Park. Naturally, when the weather gets colder, more people come indoors to play; the busiest time of year for Chess Forum is usually November to April.
Imad also takes calls from customers and estate inheritors seeking appraisals on recently-acquired chess sets — another service he provides. Imad considers himself a ‘last man standing’ of sorts, “to stop the barbarians of capital” from taking over the city. He is not a fan of the trend of chain stores on every block. For him, it’s important that Chess Forum remain both a destination and a place people are inspired to explore when passing by when restrictions on businesses are lifted and into the future.
But it took time to build such a trusted business. “You can have millions for marketing, but a place is where your feet take you by themselves,” says Imad. The few feet of the cozy shop is shaped like an “L”, the way a knight moves on a chess board. You’ll find sets of the type crafted at chess’ inception to pieces crafted like works of art of the modern era . Imad is of the opinion that although they do not have the same chess culture as other parts of the world, the best designs come from Italy. And all of the sets are available online https://www.chessforum.com/.
One fine day last year I met Yael and her teenage son Aaron. She wanted to make sure he had lessons to foster his critical thinking skills. They were in awe of the place. She said “If you have a passion to play you have to see this place. You feel smarter just walking into it.” She likened her impression of the sanctity of the Chess Forum as similar to that of the Muslim Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, where Christians and Jews and Muslims had lived together for centuries. One Yelp reviewer says he always takes his out of town friends and visitors to visit the shop on Thompson Street.
One of the regulars before the pandemic disrupted business as usual was Abderrahim from Morocco, a renowned teacher of young people in the city. He once told me “Chess is gym for children to sharpen their minds.” He showed me a video of him playing Magnus Carlsen in the park. Carlsen is the Norwegian chess grandmaster and current World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion, and World Blitz Chess Champion.
Many a luminary has entered the Chess Forum, as have stars like Julia Roberts and David Lee Roth, who was just “Dave” when at the tables. Kevin Kline was there as he prepped for the French-German film “Queen to Play”. When Imad went downstairs to get a special set for Oliver Stone, he returned to find the energetic director helping customers–Chess Forum is an egalitarian and relaxed atmosphere you do not find in many other places anymore.
Michael, a regular there, rightfully called it “the only place of its kind in all of NYC.” He learned how to play from his stepfather who engaged in correspondence games at the time; before the internet, people would mail their moves by post! He lamented that such small independent stores are going the way of the the dinosaur. But Chess Forum remains, and this is still their 25th anniversary year (the business opened in September, 1994). So order something online today, go check it out when able to visit safely, and visit them on Facebook and Instagram.
We are honored to present Imad with a Village Award and recognizing him and Chess Forum. Please RSVP here to participate in the award ceremony at 6pm on June 17 virtually.