A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Chess Forum in Green­wich Vil­lage is, like Gramer­cy Type­writer and the Upper East Side’s Ten­der But­tons, the sort of shop New York­ers feel pro­tec­tive of, even if they’ve nev­er actu­al­ly crossed the thresh­old.

“How can it still exist?” is a ques­tion left unan­swered by “King of the Night,” Lone­ly Leap’s love­ly short pro­file of Chess Forum’s own­er, Imad Khachan, above, but no mat­ter. We’re just glad it does.

The store, locat­ed a block and a half south of Wash­ing­ton Square, looks old­er than it is. Khachan, hung out his shin­gle in 1995, after five years as an employ­ee of the now-defunct Vil­lage Chess Shop, a rift that riled the New York chess com­mu­ni­ty.

Now, things are much more placid, though the film incor­rect­ly sug­gests that Chess Forum is the only refuge where chess lov­ing New York­ers can avail them­selves of an impromp­tu game, take lessons, and buy sets. (There are also shops in Brook­lyn, Harlem, and the Upper East Side.) That said, Chess Forum might not be wrong to call itself “New York’s last great chess store.” It may well be the best of the last.

The nar­row shop’s inte­ri­or trig­gers nos­tal­gia with­out seem­ing cal­cu­la­tion, an organ­ic reminder of the Village’s Bohemi­an past, when beret-clad folkies, artists, and stu­dents wiled away hours at bat­tered wood­en tables in its many cheap cafes and bars. (Two blocks away, sole sur­vivor Caf­fé Reggio’s ambi­ence is intact, but the prices have kept pace with the neigh­bor­hood, and the major­i­ty of its clien­tele are clutch­ing guide­books or the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent there­of.)

Khachan, born in Lebanon to Pales­tin­ian refugees, gives a warm wel­come to tourists and locals alike, espe­cial­ly those who might make for an uneasy fit at tonier neigh­bor­hood estab­lish­ments.

In an inter­view with the Green­wich Vil­lage Soci­ety for His­toric Preser­va­tion, he recalled a “well-dressed and high­ly edu­cat­ed doc­tor who would come in wear­ing his Har­vard logo sweater, and lose repeat­ed­ly to a home­less man who was a reg­u­lar at Chess Forum and a chess mas­ter.”

The game also pro­vides com­mon ground for strangers who share no com­mon tongue. In Jonathan Lord’s rougher New York City chess-themed doc, Pass­port Play, Khachan points out how dia­grams in chess books speak vol­umes to expe­ri­enced play­ers, regard­less of the lan­guage in which the book is writ­ten.

The store’s mot­tos also bear wit­ness to the val­ue its own­er places on face-to-face human inter­ac­tion:

Cool in the sum­mer, warm in the win­ter and fuzzy all year long.

Chess Forum: An expe­ri­ence not a trans­ac­tion

Smart peo­ple not smart phones.  (You can play a game of chess on your phone, Khachan admits, but don’t fool your­self into think­ing that it’s giv­ing you a full chess expe­ri­ence.)

An hour of play costs about the same as a small lat­te in a cof­fee­house chain (whose preva­lence Khachan refers to as the Bostoniza­tion of NYC.) Senior cit­i­zens and chil­dren, both revered groups at Chess Forum, get an even bet­ter deal—from $1/hour to free.

Although the store’s offi­cial clos­ing time is mid­night, Khachan, sin­gle and child­less, is always will­ing to oblige play­ers who would stay lat­er. His soli­tary mus­ings on the neighborhood’s wee hours trans­for­ma­tion sup­ply the film’s title and med­i­ta­tive vibe, while remind­ing us that this gen­tle New York char­ac­ter was orig­i­nal­ly drawn to the city by the specter of a PhD in lit­er­a­ture at near­by NYU.

Read­ers who would like to con­tribute to the health of this inde­pen­dent­ly owned New York City estab­lish­ment from afar can do so by pur­chas­ing a chess or backgam­mon set online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When John Cage & Mar­cel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chess­board That Turned Chess Moves Into Elec­tron­ic Music (1968)

Chess Grand­mas­ter Gar­ry Kas­parov Relives His Four Most Mem­o­rable Games

Man Ray Designs a Supreme­ly Ele­gant, Geo­met­ric Chess Set in 1920–and It Now Gets Re-Issued

A Human Chess Match Gets Played in Leningrad, 1924

A Free 700-Page Chess Man­u­al Explains 1,000 Chess Tac­tics in Plain Eng­lish

Clay­ma­tion Film Recre­ates His­toric Chess Match Immor­tal­ized in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Mar­cel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Chess Grand­mas­ter Mau­rice Ash­ley Plays Unsus­pect­ing Trash Talk­er in Wash­ing­ton Square Park

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through Decem­ber 20th in the 10th anniver­sary pro­duc­tion of Greg Kotis’ apoc­a­lyp­tic hol­i­day tale, The Truth About San­ta. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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