NYC's last chess parlor holds out amid pandemic

Magnets fixed to the bottom of plastic pieces first drew Imad Khachan to the game of chess as a 4-year-old in Lebanon.

"It was two lessons," Khachan said, "chess and physics."

Later, a student at NYU in need of money, Khachan took a part-time job at a nearby chess parlor — a gig he later lost, leading him to borrow from his father's retirement to open Chess Forum on the same site of the Thompson Street studio in the West Village where Bobby Fischer and others, grandmaster and amateur alike, used to play for hours.

"Genius is nothing you can produce every day," Khachan said. "It comes maybe every century, half a century."

Khachan speaks in this grand philosophical way, of artistry, romance and sacrifice, of humanity in this city in this country he loves ("When I die," Khachan said, "the one thing I will miss is New York and the New Yorkers."), quoting T.S. Elliot and The Arabian Nights between moves, reminding his opponent chess is a war game and offering endless parallels between that game and life.

"Don't dwell on losses or a sense of being defeated or cheated," he said.

The pandemic cheated Chess Forum of in-person competition at a time when the most popular show on Netflix features this 1,400-year-old board game.

"Online playing went through the roof," Khachan said.

Khachan calls the internet its own kind of virus, one that left his the only surviving chess parlor in this city that once allowed him to stay open 24 hours with lines out the door and gave this nation its only world champion.

But in recent years, Chess Forum's seen an increase in younger players from the generation that grew up online, for whom the analog and tangible represent something different.

"They want to go to a place where it's real," Khachan said.

Chess Forum offers that in-person realism, brought to this city for the last 25 years by a man who still plays nine hours a day and calls himself an addict not totally unlike so many of the other amateurs who spent so many hours and sleepless nights in his parlor — players he refers to as the people who make chess.

"The guy who is willing to sacrifice his marriage and his job," Khachan said. "You are devoured by that thing, consumed by that thing. You become chess."

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