A winning chess strategy: Move forward, jag to the left, move down further, sweep sideways to the right and surround yourself with other warriors. Congratulations! You’ve maneuvered yourself into the lower level of the New Haven Public Library, around the bend and into the back room. Let the games begin.
“Check… Check… Checkmate,” is pretty much the extent of the dialogue you’ll hear in the library’s AV Meeting Room six afternoons a week. A dozen players are huddled around gameboards, studying the positions of rooks, knights, bishops, pawns and the royalty they’re sworn to protect. This is the new Library Chess Club.
Bennie Morris, an avid chess player who helped organize the group, says it grew out of informal games at library tables elsewhere in the ever-active basement level. “I just set up a board and said, ‘Do you want to play a game?’”
The basement level is as quiet as, well, a library, but usually brimming with all kinds of activity. The library’s lower level is where you can use a computer, browse DVDs, CDs and videotapes, maybe take a yoga class, attend lectures and seminars, peruse the exhibits which change regularly in the art gallery area and get tech assistance with downloading ebooks or doing an information search. It’s also where computer books, nutrition guides, consumer manuals, theater scripts, short story collections, audiobooks and oversized art books are shelved.
It’s always been easy to play chess in the library, and anywhere else in town for that matter. The NHFPL owns several chess boards which can be borrowed as easily as books can. Many players, like Bennie Morris, carry their own boards around with them. In warm months, there’s usually a chess scene happening on New Haven Green or at other city parks. Not that many years ago, on “Communiversity Day,” a human chess match was staged between the President of Yale University and the Mayor of New Haven, using students and citizens as the game pieces. This awkward metaphor for town/gown relationships thankfully bit the dust, but chess games can sprout virtually anywhere in the city between anyone at any time. It’s common to find chess games at local barber shops, set up and ready to play.
The game of chess traces its origins back to the 6th century and is one of the most popular board games of all time. You can easily play it online, or against a computer, but many people still see it as a tactile, fully engaged endeavor best played when sitting across the table from another human being.
“So many things are happening with chess right now,” Morris says. “You can get [college] scholarships in chess now, like sports scholarships. You can play in local tournaments.” Morris himself won first place in a tournament at Heads Up Barber Shop on Whalley Avenue in the fall of 2010. He’s also the director of a regional chess group, the Northeast Chess Titans.
The NHFPL has long sponsored a weekly chess session for players aged 6-16 (beginners welcome) from 4 to 5 p.m. Mondays in the children’s section on the second floor. As the grown-up chess matches became a steady hours-long daily presence downstairs this winter, library staffers Carol Brown (Manager of Programming) and Seth Godfrey (Nonprofit Sevices Librarian) encouraged Morris and other charter members of what is now the Library Chess Club to formalize the gatherings. “They saw that we were playing chess and having fun,” says Morris, who appreciates the move to a regular room within the library, with scheduled playing hours, “every day that the library is open.”
Meeting in the AV Room (the door to the right of the audiobook and DVD stacks) is especially cool because the players can make hot drinks in there. Morris donates the coffee and tea himself, sets up the cups and mugs and helps arrange the table in a manner that’s conducive to serious chess playing—though “everyone’s welcome,” he stresses.
The Library Chess Club hasn’t been approved as a permanent library program just yet, and is just a couple of weeks into a three-month trial period. It seems to have caught on quickly, filling several tables daily with focused yet not-too-intense playing. There isn’t that hear-a-pin-drop tension we know from watching international chess tournaments on TV. But it isn’t overly casual either.
“Some players, if I had to rate ‘em,” Morris says, “are up around 1600-1700” on the internationally recognized chess rating system, “close to a Pre-Master.” The players smile at each other, compliment each other on good moves, aren’t embarrassed to talk a little or move their pieces with grand sweeping gestures. Some are just there to watch. It’s a friendly, open environment that draws people from all walks of life—“veterans, homeless, working people,” as Morris puts it. He describes himself as “semi-retired” and “a disabled veteran.”
“I can suffer from depression. Playing chess, this really helps me.”
Library Chess Club
AV Meeting Room, Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library
133 Elm Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 2-7pm, Fri-Sat 1-4pm
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.