On a recent afternoon at the Chess Forum on Thompson Street, owner Imad Khachan is irked. “It is ridiculous,” he grumbles, “this throwing together of celebrity and chess.” Khachan has just returned from a 45-minute exhibition chess match played in a Times Square television studio between Garry Kasparov, the current World Chess Champion, and Sting. “Why must a rock star play a match on television for people to believe chess is important?”
Shafts of dusty sunlight filter between the hundreds of chess pieces lining the club’s storefront windows. Of the dozen or so tables set up around the room, only two near the back are occupied: one by a young brother and sister, both sucking on Blowpops and gazing at their pieces with contemplative intensity; the other by a natty black man in a suit who keeps trouncing his unhappy Latino opponent with gleeful cries of “Now you learn!”
For the past five years, since he first opened shop, Khachan has made it his personal business to proselytize for his favorite game. It is a seven-day-a-week business, and often a 24-hour-a-day one. In the evening, regular after-dinner players and those tired of losing to the Washington Square hustlers appear, and many remain at their tables long after midnight. Besides charging a dollar an hour for game time, Khachan and his handful of employees also give group and private lessons, and sell boards, sets, and chess books from all over the world while keeping coffee cups filled and ashtrays within easy reach. “If you walk in off the street,” Khachan says, “and tell me about an Indian chess set your great-grandfather used to play with that was special to you, I will find it for you! Or I will have another one made for you – or I will die trying!” Heating up, he continues, “That is the sort of thing that makes people feel an affection for this game. Celebrity has nothing to do with it!”
John Zachary, a Chess Forum employee accustomed to Khachan’s bluster, rolls his eyes. “Oh, please,” he says. “You weren’t complaining about celebrity when Liv Tyler stopped by the other day.” It may be that Khachan only objects to celebrities getting attention for playing chess when they’re not doing it at his shop. There was the time last summer when Heidi Klum came in to pose for a German photo shoot (“Oh my God,” remembers Zachary), and the Christmas Eve when Oliver Stone stopped in to pick up a good-versus-evil chess set. Harvey Keitel, Julia Roberts, Macaulay Culkin, and Woody Harrelson have also dropped by.
“What about David Lee Roth?” asks Daniel Kaufman, a Chess Forum co-founder, remembering that the former Van Halen front man came in for lessons a few months ago. “We wanted to take a picture of him outside in front of the shop, but he said he’d rather do it inside. ‘In here,’ he said, ‘I’m just another chess player. But out there, I’m Diamond Dave.’ ” If they’d wanted a photo-op, they should’ve called Sting.