Hot Times at the Chess Pavilion 

Where complete strangers meet and mate, exchange queens, and fianchetto in broad daylight

I was just down the shore from the North Avenue beach house, getting my ass thrashed but good and enjoying it perhaps a little too much.

Don't go getting the wrong idea. This was in broad daylight, out in the open, at the chess pavilion. Last Friday was a gorgeous day, the lake the color of jade, the wind blowing in from the northwest. I'd heard about the cutthroat competition on the chess risers there, seen the players from Lake Shore Drive, and wanted to revisit the game I'd played fairly well back in high school. (Yeah, I was on the chess team; wanna make something of it?) Yet over the years whatever skills I possessed had atrophied. I don't know nothin' about the French or the calculus I took, and as I gave up my queen to stave off checkmate it was clear I didn't recall much more about chess. I was trying to complicate the play in this game of speed chess and take advantage of the five-minutes-to-two advantage I'd been spotted on the clock, but it ran quickly to its inevitable conclusion.

Nevertheless it felt good to be sitting in the sun, to be distracted by the occasional big wave splashing over the revetment that runs north from Oak Street Beach, and to be playing chess again, even if I was losing $3 on the game. It helped that the opposition was a nice guy, though he showed no mercy on the board.

Afterward, Ron Washington told me he's been playing at the pavilion whenever weather permits for 20 years, mostly for stakes of $3 a game. A part-time cabbie, he also gives chess lessons for $20 an hour--most teachers charge $40, he insisted--at the pavilion and in the winter months at a nearby Starbucks. I asked if this makes him a living. "I do all right," he said. There are always players at the pavilion, he said--more on the weekends of course--and most play for money, though there are free games as well. Chess is as popular as ever, he said, though the renaissance suggested in recent newspaper stories about inner-city high school teams is probably exaggerated. Aside from the pavilion, he said, "you have to know where to go" to find a good game.

The pavilion has been the place to find a decent game in decent weather for 50 years. It was built in 1957, paid for with a $90,000 donation from Laurens Hammond, of the Hammond Organ Company. It was designed by Maurice Webster, and it's made of limestone and enhanced with matching sculptures of a king and queen by Boris Gilbertson. The statues are a little worse for wear, thanks to their water's-edge exposure to winter, but the pavilion offers shade and shelter and boards set into concrete--though most serious players bring their own plastic roll-up boards.

I said I'd picked up the game during the mania over the 1972 world-championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. "That's when everybody picked it up," Washington said. Him too? "Oh no, I couldn't wait for them," he added, without saying exactly how long he'd been playing. He knows the game. He whomped me with a mildly unconventional English opening, which begins with the advance of the queen's bishop's pawn, while most games begin with a move by the king's or queen's pawn. Five-minute speed chess, played with a two-faced clock that times each player separately, calls on a player's knowledge of set openings, and the English was a good choice to throw at an unknown opponent. I could have been anybody, even a master who needed $3, but when I uncertainly tried to respond with the old Nimzo-Indian defense I used to play against the queen's pawn, Washington knew I was out of my element and made short work of me. He was very nice about it, though, and later said he studies the game constantly. "You have to if you're gonna survive on chess," he explained.

This was actually my second game of the day. The first hadn't been as enjoyable. Washington was playing someone else when I walked up, and only one other player was at the pavilion with a board set up. He had the look of the classic chess nerd--ball cap and spectacles--and he was working his way briskly through a sack lunch. I asked if he was waiting for someone and he said yes, but a couple of minutes later asked if I played. I said I used to. "I play for money," he said in an eastern European accent. How much? Two or three dollars. So I sat down for a $2 game and got throttled. I threw my old, reliable Caro-Kann defense against his king's pawn opening, but quickly forgot the proper sequence, moved my queen out prematurely, and got it trapped on a diagonal. It was brutal, but as I was limping away, Washington, having dealt with his previous opponent, invited me over for a much more pleasant drubbing. I had to admit I was a fish, as chess players like to say, but damn if it didn't feel good to be back in the water.

As Washington and I talked, a guy named Joe came riding his bike no-handed down the path. Washington greeted him and called him over. Joe, it turned out, was one of Washington's regular students, so he invited us to play a free game off the clock on his board. I got white this time, opened with the king's pawn, and Joe responded with a Pirc defense--again somewhat off the beaten path, but not exotic by any means. I gave up a pawn early, but otherwise handled my pieces well, and soon a hedgehog of pawns extended from side to side. It became a positional battle, which was always my strength, and the game began to come back to me. When a file opened, I beat him to it with doubled rooks and my queen and seized the initiative. Still down a pawn, I had some play and thought I could force a draw. The sun felt good, the waves were washing over the concrete, and kids from a camp arrived and began setting pieces down on the open boards as a counselor hectored and instructed them. That's when Washington rushed over, having hooked another opponent. "I need my board back," he said. "Gotta make some money." What a perfect time to stop. I shook hands all around, thanked Joe and Washington for the games, and walked away resolved that I'd be back. Only next time I'll crack my old copy of Modern Chess Openings beforehand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The chess pavillion at North Avenue Beach; Ron Washington, left in the lower photo by Carlos J. Ortiz.

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