Friday, March 23, 2012

A Review of the Washington Square Park Chess Site Renovations by Adia Onyango

There's good news for NYC Chess players! After being closed for several years of renovations, the  world-famous chess area of Washington Square Park is back open. Below, see a mixed review Adia Onyango wrote about the renovations and a few photos she took:

Review of Renovations at the Historic Washington Square Park Chess Site
April 22, 2012

     This evening I decided to stroll over to the new chess area at Washington Square Park (located at the corner of West 4th and McDougal).  Over the last few years the city has been giving the park a new look.  To accommodate the high level of traffic at this park they undertook this project in sections and last summer (or two summers ago) they started on the south west corner of the park, where the chess area is located.  The first thing to be removed from the chess area was the tables.  If you are someone who is somewhat sentimental over artifacts you will be happy to know that a few of the tables were taken by the Chess Shop on Thompson Street and preserved.  Thus if you feel for some reason that you just cannot win on the shiny new tables at Washington Square Park you can always go over to the Chess Shop and sit down for a comfortable game on the old style stone tables and try your luck.  

     The first two things you notice when you enter the park are the beautiful shiny new tables and visually appealing flowers in the center.  In general it does not look like they changed too much in the chess area however what they changed really stands out.  I do not know what material the tables are made from but my non-expert opinion is that it has the look of granite.  However, given the cost of granite this is highly unlikely.  The old green benches were replaced by nice new brown benches that could sit two people on each side of the table.  I do not remember how many tables were present in the park before but I was told by one of the regulars that the number of tables has not changed, 18. 
The vibe in the park has not changed nor have the players.  People were still there playing for money, with the range of people playing for donations (you pay win or lose) vs. a wager for the winner.  Additionally there were actually a number of empty tables available where any player who brought their own set could play.  There was even a table being used by someone who was working on his laptop. 

     One thing I will add is that you can change the park on the outside (visual) but more needs to be done to change the park on the inside.  Despite the fact that it is known that there is a big eye in the sky watching over the park and right above the chess area, I still witnessed a small drug deal go down right in front of me.  I guess the sellers knew their customer because the gentleman immediately asked the drifter if she wanted weed as soon as she got close.  Within a matter of seconds, money and product exchanged hands so fast that even though I was sitting there looking right at them I did not actually see the product or money, just some quick handshakes. 
     Overall I would give the new park makeover only 6 out of 10 due to the fact that the upgrade of the tables and the new flower area were the only real changes made.  The park does not get a perfect score because it is obvious that drugs still plague this area of the park and in general it is still a difficult place to get a game if you are not interested in playing for a wager.  Lastly, and most importantly, I think for the park makeover to have gotten a higher score they would have had to put something more unique in the area.  There are so many things that they could have done to highlight, celebrate, or recognize chess and the fact that this park is a tourist attraction.  In my opinion it did not seem to me that too much time was spent on thinking about what new things could be done.  For example, given the historic nature of the park and the recent passing of the number one US chess player Bobby Fischer, it might have been nice to see a tribute to him in the park.  Another creative idea would have been to have something inscribed with a little history on this area of the park and maybe naming some of the great players who have played here.  Yet another idea would have been to bring technology to the chess area.  For example we could have a computer in one of the tables where people can play chess, watch videos, solve puzzles, etc....  You can even make it interactive and put one in all of the parks with security and allow people to play each other from different parks and tourist areas (e.g., Time Square, Bryant Park, Columbus Park, and Washington Square Park).  We are in the age of technology so I am sure there is some way that the area could have reflected this.  I have already seen technological updates in other parks (e.g., outdoor TVs at Columbus Park).  Basically nothing really creative was done, so in this regard the city missed a premium opportunity to present us with something cutting edge and new for one of America’s biggest known chess areas.

Ratings: 1 (worst) - 10 (best)
Visual Appeal of Tables: 10
Creativity: 1
Safety: 5 (drugs still present, police are present)
Appropriateness for Children without Adults: 0
Level of Chess Competition: 9 (weak and strong players)
Players:  6 (Mainly gamblers but if you have your own pieces and there is an empty table you might find a game.)

New Tables at the Renovated Washington Square Park

The Flower Area
A meeting of the Minds
View from the entrance
Adia's first game on the new tables....See her hand!

I'd like to publicly thank Adia for writing the review! I'll definitely check out the park when I am in New York for Spring Break and will share my own input. 


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