The Clocks Keep Ticking

Photo by the Marshall Chess Club.

An inside look at the pandemic’s chess boom

By Gabriel Rivera

Most nights, the bottom floors of a quaint Greenwich Village brownstone transform into a busy crossroads for chess experts and enthusiasts all looking for their next tournament opponent.

The tournament’s competitors — students from grade school to graduate school, folks fresh from work still dressed in business attire and older patrons who need no introduction even among the club’s newest members — navigate hallways packed like a train car at rush hour.

The chorus of chatter and creaking floorboards subsides into silence once a round commences. Brows furrowed, glances dart across dozens of chess sets aligned in two jagged rows. Parents and spectators jostle each other for a better view from the entrance of the warmly lit playing hall. Older participants are glued to their chairs, while the youngest players teeter on the edge of their red vinyl seats, their feet hovering an inch-or-so off the ground, requiring them to stand to reach the opposite end of their boards.

Next to every board is a chess clock, which grants each player an identical time limit to complete his round. Once a game begins, the clock starts ticking.

Prior to reopening last April, the Marshall Chess Club was an arcane bit of New York City history, home to only the game’s most talented and devoted players. But a deluge of pent-up demand built during the pandemic’s “chess boom” — among the largest in the game’s history — revitalized the once sparsely populated halls of the club into a bustling hub of fresh aficionados and veteran masters united by their enthusiasm for the game.

“Generally, if you talk about a boom, it’s followed by a bust,” Gregory Keener, an assistant manager at the club, said. “That has yet to happen.”

Since its inception in 1915, the club has organized hundreds of tournaments every year for beginners, amateurs and experts of all ages and served as the epicenter of one of the country’s most historic and competitive chess scenes. Over its 107-year history, the Marshall Chess Club — the second oldest in the nation — has drawn generations of the game’s strongest grandmasters, including current World Champion Magnus Carlsen and legends such as Bobby Fischer and José Raúl Capablanca. 

Now, the club’s number of active members is at an all-time high, totaling over 1,100, more than double its pre-pandemic levels.

This year to date, the club is averaging $19,000 in membership revenues per month, compared to the $11,000 it averaged monthly in 2019. Membership rates vary according to age, residency and duration, with price options ranging from $30 to $325.

Overall, the club’s average monthly revenue for the first nine months of 2022 is outpacing its total from 2019 by about $5,000.

Daily tournaments that once drew mere handfuls of players now hit capacity as early as a day before they start, as dozens of patrons register well ahead of time.

The club’s sustained renaissance seemed improbable when it closed immediately after the pandemic’s onset in March 2020. Marshall Chess Club President Sarathi Ray said the club applied quickly for Payment Protection Program loans, which eased its financial burdens. Its biggest challenge, however, was shifting its community and tournament infrastructure online.

But chess found its new audience on the internet. In October 2020, Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” shattered the streaming service’s viewership records within a month of its release, inspiring millions worldwide to play chess online for the first time.

Only three weeks after the show’s release, nationwide sales of chess sets and books soared 87% and 603%, respectively. Tens of thousands watched grandmasters, stuck at home, as well as popular internet personalities play chess on the live-streaming platform Twitch daily throughout 2021 and into 2022.

The club is among the few chess institutions to have outrun time. New York City once hosted several active chess clubs — most famously the Manhattan Chess Club — but most succumbed over the years to mounting financial troubles and stubborn landlords.

Since 1931, the Marshall Chess Club has been rooted firmly in lower Manhattan, building a reputation as the “Wimbledon of chess” due to its high caliber of talent and scenic location. Now a nonprofit, the club owns the brownstone it’s based in, which was once home to the club’s eponymous founder Frank James Marshall, one of the strongest chess players of the early 20th century.

World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Photo by the Marshall Chess Club.

Sketches, portraits and newspaper clippings of Marshall and other names and faces of the club’s past bedeck the walls. Rooms frequented by the cigar-smoking masters of yesteryear now serve as a learning space for inspired beginners and a proving ground for the game’s elite, in the process fostering the next generation of prodigies and experts.

“It’s situated in such a way that its already lasted more than 100 years,” Keener said. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t last another 100, 200, 300, 400 years into the future. In many ways, it’s the beating heart of chess in the Northeast.”

The club’s history and reputation, once again, made it a natural landing spot for New Yorkers looking to play and find a community in chess during and after the pandemic.

Talulah Marolt became a member on a whim in September, 2021 with no prior tournament experience. She learned the game young, but began playing online during the pandemic to stay connected with her father, who lives in Colorado.

Soon after joining, Marolt was competing in any club tournament she could attend, immersing herself in the club’s hospitable community of regulars who were always willing to analyze games and offer feedback.

“The feeling of the Marshall being like a second home is a common sentiment,” said Marolt, who is now an assistant manager at the club, responsible for organizing tournaments.

As a night at the club dwindles to a close, few games remain. Some patrons have exited, but many others stay in what has become their home away from home, blitzing out a few last games before calling it a night.

Through the final round, and well past dark, the last die-hard players gather around the boards comprised of 64 squares and plastic chessmen, maneuvering for an advantage. The players are united by silence, history and an inexplicable fascination for the game.

The clocks keep ticking.