“We are en route to vanishing,” Imad Khachan said at his Chess Forum store in Greenwich Village this past Wednesday night.
He was surrounded by hundreds of new and antique chess sets with themes like Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons as well as the Civil War and endangered species, all displayed in mahogany cases. Classical music played in the background, and a worn jewel-toned oriental carpet lay on the floor. A few men were gathered in a small room off the back watching a duo play a match.
“We are negotiating our existence with the Internet everyday. … Immediacy is our last advantage," Mr. Khachan said. “I was expecting them to finish us off by 2000, but that hasn’t happened yet. Now it’s a struggle for the very existence of our soul. We’ll see how the future plays out.”
Mr. Khachan had just finished selling a portable chess set to a mother for her 6-year-old son’s tournament the following day.
During their 20-minute conversation, he explained the pros and cons of the various Internet chess programs to her—one is like reading a medical text book, another teaches you how to apply what you’ve read—and spoke philosophically about how chess teaches young men how to “lose and shake hands with their opponent.”
“If we all started at a young age, the world would be a better place,” he told the mother.
Mr. Khachan has yet to shake hands with his former boss, the owner of the Chess Shop, across Thompson Street.
The battle of the Thompson Street chess clubs began in the early 1990’s, when Mr. Khachan, a Lebanese-born N.Y.U. graduate student, left his job managing George Frohlinde’s Chess Shop and opened his own store on the same block.
Mr. Frohlinde claims Mr. Khachan violated an agreement he had to buy part of the shop.
“I sold him one-third of the shop, he didn’t pay me and left,” Mr. Frohlinde said Thursday afternoon at the Chess Shop, sitting at a granite chess table uprooted from Washington Square Park that someone had managed to grab before the park’s renovation. “He learned the business from me, my suppliers, and opened his own store across the street. It was a bad business decision for both of us.”
Well into his 70′s, Mr. Frohlinde walks with a cane and speaks slowly with a thick German accent.
He wore a brown leather jacket and the kind of bulky nerdy glasses sported by hip 30-somethings in the neighborhood; his thick, shoulder-length white hair hung messily under a wool hat. The outfit is one you’d see all the time in the East Village, but you get the sense Mr. Frohlinde was wearing the same thing well before it was cool. He was friends with Yoko Ono; casually references a conversation with Bertold Brecht; and had no idea who Russell Crowe was when the actor bought a $500 board a few years ago.
Both he and Mr. Khachan are quick to dismiss the feud as unimportant, but it doesn’t take much to get either one riled up.
The conflict raged throughout the 1990’s. Lawsuits were filed, fights have broken out, business has taken a hit on both sides, and New York’s tight-knit community of chess players was forced to pledge their loyalty to one or the other.
Though a de facto cease-fire has emerged recently, the conflict is far from water under the bridge.
“I was a partner down there, then they told me to get lost," Mr. Khachan said. "I wanted to make up.” He mimed a handshake. “But they said let’s compete and fight it out. They thought it was more fun.
“Now either you come here or go there,” he said as one of his regular customers, Paul Garcia, came in. “The intellectual elite tends to come here, though,” Mr. Khachan joked, before launching into a discussion about theater with Mr. Garcia that starts with Patrick Stewart’s performance in Macbeth and moves to Clare Danes’ run in Anthony and Cleopatra. Mr. Khachan quoted each play from memory.
Mr. Garcia has been part of the downtown chess scene for nearly 30 years. He started playing at Rossolimo’s Chess Shop on Sullivan Street and in Washington Square Park, before it “degenerated.”
When Mr. Khachan abdicated and started the Chess Forum in 1995, Mr. Garcia followed because he and Mr. Khachan, who has a master’s in literature from N.Y.U., had become friends through their discussions about Shakespeare.
Sketches of Mr. Khachan’s regulars with names like "Ivan the French" cover a wall in the back players’ room. They are a motley crew of Americans, Russians, Hispanics and Arabs, he said fondly.
“That’s why I decided to call it the forum," Mr. Khachan said. "You can have a beautiful conversation on the chess board even if you don’t speak the same language.”
The store next door to the Chess Forum looks like an Internet cafe in a developing country on first inspection, but it’s where most of the players now congregate for their nightly chess games. Decade-old computers line the perimeter of the room with two long folding tables in the center. After eight on Wednesday evening, a man whom Mr. Khachan introduced as “the Moroccan Prince” carried in take-away containers of Caribbean food. A tall woman with short hair and a man in a wheelchair typed on computers. A burly Russian grand master was in the middle of a match with a man nicknamed “Big Daddy.”
Though both owners cite a different source for the rift, patrons at the Chess Shop and Chess Forum said Mr. Khachan had a problem with the betting that was going on when he worked for Mr. Frohlinde.
“I wanted to have a few people come in every night, maybe on the way home from work before dinner, to have some civilized conversation and play some chess," Mr. Khachan said. "People come in here and say, ‘Why are you not as crowded?’ Because I’d rather have a select few people than the dregs of society. For them, the park is a more natural environment; you can smoke and drink and shout.”
Mr. Frohlinde admitted that a few violent incidents have occurred over the years, but he is proud that sometimes “a millionaire plays with a bum” in his Chess Shop. Once, a man pulled a knife on his longtime opponent, a dancer, but Mr. Frohlinde intervened before anyone was hurt.
“I thought to myself, ‘The dancer is going to win because he can dodge the knife,’” Mr. Frohlinde said.
The Chess Shop is certainly livelier on a weeknight than its competitor. About 20 men sat at the two long tables inside the shabby room wallpapered with press clippings, photos, and remnants of the shop’s past, as an Ella Fitzgerald album played in the background. Most of the men were old, but a few young people were scattered among them—apparently the state champion of Connecticut, known as "Sketch," spends every Saturday playing at the shop. A talkative Frenchman slammed his hand on the table twice, shouting, “Motherfucker!” but otherwise the atmosphere was friendly.
Mr. Frohlinde said it is “miraculous” the shop has been able to survive when countless of the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop stores teeter on the brink of extinction.
He has enough loyal patrons that the business still pays for itself, he said, but the store is making plans for the future. Since Mr. Frohlinde’s wife, Ruth, passed away in 2000, her nephew has been running the Chess Shop. He and 23-year-old Chess Shop employee Tyler Schwartz are starting a summer chess program in Bryant Park four days a week to recruit people who would not normally play.
Mr. Khachan also hosts children’s clinics that don’t generate much revenue but are “an investment in the future generation of chess players.
“But we’ll see if one will even be here."