Check (It Out), Mate: Take Your Tot to Play Chess in the Park

Read next

Raising your kiddo to be a proper New Yorker means teaching him/her to move fast and think even faster in order to always stay three steps ahead of the other guy (lest he/she be eyeing your dream apartment/subway seat/Kindergarten spot/last roll of herbed goat cheese at Fairway). In other words, to survive on this island (and its surrounding boroughs) you and your child need to become expert chess players (with a little bit of Frogger thrown in at the street corners).

Fortunately, as far back as 1952, NYC’s citizens recognized the need for such nimble skill acquisition, and promptly raised private funds for the creation of a Chess & Checkers House mid-Central Park at 64th Street. (This is not true. It was actually erected in order to replace the crumbling Kinderberg that had been there since the 1860s.)

Today, the Chess & Checkers House, south of The Dairy, North of Heckscher Playground and Ballfield, is one of five visitor centers run by the Central Park Conservancy. (There is also a gift shop for all of your subway map umbrellas, mugs, notepad, and post-card needs.)

Where & When?
The Chess & Checkers House is open to the public, at no cost, from November to March, Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00am to 5:00pm, and from April to October, Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00am to 5:00pm. Situated on a hill overlooking the Central Park Carousel and with a view of the horse-drawn carriages making their loops through the park, it features a dozen stone, checkered tables beneath an awning to shade you from both the sun in the Summer and the snow in the winter. It is exposed, however, so wind and rain can still find their way through despite your best efforts.

What & How?
Free chess pieces, checker pieces, dominos and backgammon sets are available to borrow from the cheerful, friendly Park Conservancy staff. You need only to sign in for them – no security deposit required.

The Chess & Checkers House attracts some serious players – many come daily and spend hours perfecting their games. Though more causal sportsmen, families, and even rank beginners are all welcome. Chess seminars by grandmasters and simultaneous tournaments are frequently held there, and there’s a regular Summer Program for both ranked and unranked players.

Free Chess Clinics run the first Saturday of every month from 11:00am to 1:00pm. No advance registration is necessary. Attendance is recommended for ages 6 and up, making it the perfect family activity for both parent and offspring (you’ll be surprised by how quickly your own skills gets overtaken by theirs).  October 6 and November 3 are upcoming dates. Clinics traditionally feature an in-depth analysis of a classic chess match, followed by open play for all.

If, as a result of visiting the Chess & Checkers House, you and your child happen to fall in love with this Sport of Kings, but Central Park isn’t always the most convenient locale to get to, try one of the other spots below:

Washington Square Park
Newly renovated as of this year, Washington Square Park’s designated chess area has been immortalized in a variety of NYC set films, most memorably in Searching for Bobby Fisher, as the place where our young prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, learned to play “street” chess in order to go up against his stuffy, bow-tie wearing, formally trained opponents. (Like the earlier anecdote about why the Chess & Checkers House was initially built, this isn’t true, either.) Eighteen freshly cleaned up tables are now surrounded by brand new benches on either side. The level of play here is high, and if you intend to join in, be prepared to pay.  $3 a game seems to be the latest going rate.

Bryant Park
Come in next to the Fountain Terrace any Monday through Friday, 11:00am to 7:00pm, or Saturday through Sunday, 12:00pm to 9:00pm, for a pick-up game of chess or backgammon. Chess boards rent for $3.00 per half hour, $4.00 per half hour for backgammon. Volunteers from The Marshall Chess Club are on-hand to offer tips and settle all disputes before a chess riot risks breaking out.

Outside of Manhattan, try MacDonald Park in Forest Hills, Queens or Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO to see if you’ve found a “mate” for life.

“Like” this story if you frequent any of these chess hot spot. Got any more suggestions on where to teach kids the game of kings? Let us know in a comment below.

— Alina Adams (thanks to Alina for the sweet photos too!)