While skimming updates posted to the social internet by far flung friends earlier this evening, I got sucked into reading a post recalling somebody’s formative years – and how many of their favourite memories were attached to Washington Square Park. I stopped in my tracks, opened a chat window, and asked the author directly:
“Is that THE Washington Square Park, in New York ?”
I then had to admit that my frame of reference doesn’t come from hanging out with adolescent friends, meeting for coffee, or forging life long coming-of-age memories. My Washington Square Park exists in books, movies, and stories about chess players that once sat at the tables in the corner of the park.
For many people who become interested in chess, Washington Square Park is kind of hallowed ground. In recent years the park has become synonymous with the late Bobby Fischer, through the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (about the childhood of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin), and latterly when various Grandmasters have visited to play the various hustlers before posting their exploits to YouTube. There are so many other characters though – mostly lost in history, but some burning brightly among the stories told in old books. Hustlers, tramps, and vagrants who lost everything to their obsession with the game, and vanished into a world of drugs, alcohol, and a whirlpool of mental illnesses.
Thinking of Washington Square Park takes me back to a visit to Paris with my other half, several years before we had children. While wandering around the city we discovered the “Jardin de Luxembourg”, which also has a corner filled with chess players. The memory has never left me of an old man agonising over his next move against an old friend – rocking back and forth, clutching the top of his head with his hand.
I can’t remember the last time I played a half-serious game of chess. I have of course taught all of our children to play, and several friend’s children – but haven’t played competitively for many, many years. There was a time when I read books about the game, it’s history, and it’s historical characters. Truth be told, I always found the history more fascinating than the game itself – which perhaps explains why I never became that good. I guess being able to string a few moves together will forever remain something I can use to scare the life out of people who ever invite me to play them over a drink after dinner.