The Harper Court Chess Controversy, and current alternatives

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Chess in Harper Court restoration group site. Email Victor Erbring of Hyde Park Chess Guild.
Harper Court and Harper Court Foundation sites


Latest, other chess in Hyde Park
Overview story January 2005
New trouble over chess- community stakeholders seek a solution. Herald editorial,
coverage on Alderman's solutions committee and new tables in Harold Washington park as addition to indoor sites and sub for lost outdoor sites

Overview of Summer '03
Coverage of the earlier compromise, September 26, 2003

Visit The Harper Court Story
Tracking Community Trends, Community News and Announcements

Enjoying a game in one of the 2 chess bench-tables installed in the southeast corner of Harold Washington Park (53rd and South Hyde Park Blvd.) in spring, 2005.

Above enjoying a game in one of the 2 chess bench-tables installed in the southeast corner of Harold Washington Park (53rd and South Hyde Park Blvd.) in spring, 2005.




June 26-June 29, 2006, Monday-Thursday. First Annual Chess Camp at Quadrangle Club, with 3 grandmasters. Ages k-12, all skill level, evaluations, tournaments. 1155 E. 57th St. 773 493-8601 x 336 Joan Knoll. This occurred again in 2007. And there was a similar at Hyde Park Neighborhood Club.

June 26-August 4 Hyde Park Academy of Scholastic Chess held its 4th annual Nuts for Chess summer Camp at Kennicott Park. (Registration already closed.) Wayne Smith, 312 217-9062.

Schools have been very active in promoting chess, especially Murray and Ray. Also, Ancona School (private, Montesorri). Five students and a guest from Galileo Math and Science academy finished 8th in the U.S. Open chess Championships in May 2007. and did well in the Chicago championships. Hired coach is Wayne Smith of the Hyde Park Academy of Scholastic Chess. The kids started playing at very early ages, with parents for the most part.

In June 2005 the Nichols Park advisory council learned that 2 chess seat-benches will be included in the new furniture for the plaza west of the gym. They are already in Harold Washington Park. Two tracks therefore seem to be open, but not equally likely to be productive: continue to expand and diversify the number of indoor and outdoor venues/facilities for chess and related games, continue to look at some restitution in Harper Court.

In May-June 2005 two writers in the Herald proposed a chess use for the 'Iowa' building in Jackson Park at 56th south of Montgomery Place.

February 2006: Ray 2nd grader Philip Parker-Turner achieved national ranking (65th in the 7 and younger class) in chess, having taken first at the Naperville Scholastic Chess Tournament. Ray was the only Chicago public school to win a trophy there. In Feb. 2005, at the ripe age of 6, he was featured as Chess Kid of the Month by Chess in Chicago. He is currently 4th in Illinois. The Ray team posted two first place finishes at the Feb. 18 tournament at Bogan High, repeating in K-2 and adding K-4 division. Members include Phillip Parker-Turner, Allen Dai, Karen Dai, Nimkolaj Reiser, James Liu, Andy Margulis, Michael Averil-Panelas, Kenyon Edmond.

Chess tournaments for kids continue to expand here and citywide. Hyde Park Academy of Scholastic Chess has sponsored several. The "Diamond in the Rough" tournament in Spring 2006 at Cellular Field saw over 250 students participating.


The Human Relations Commission of the City of Chicago visited in late 2004 many organizations, including park councils, that might contribute a solution, and hosted a congress of such on October 19. Not much of an outcome was achieved. The problem is getting chess players to form an interacting informal organization, especially to arrange for space in such venues as Nichols fieldhouse. Nichols has offered many options, inside and out. Harold Washington Park has two new chess benches in the sw corner. Several coffee and sandwich houses welcome chess players throughout the neighborhood. Note, Nichols Park fieldhouse offered chess and checkers lessons winter 2005 but almost no one signed up. Murray academy has a busy chess club and hosts an annual invitational tournament.

Here is an overview and January 2005 state-of-the-matter from the Chicago Weekly News, January 27, 2005. By David King

Chess suppressed

Chess in Hyde Park has something of a checkered past.

For a long time before 2002, the neighborhood had a reputation as a place for playing the game in public. the spot that made that reputation--the "epicenter of chess playing" in the neighborhood, as the Hyde Park Herald newspaper called it--was Harper Court. The small, red-brick esplanade nestled between 52nd and 53rd streets and surrounded by some twenty shops and restaurants was for over thirty-five years a gathering place for chess enthusiasts to enjoy a game and the company of others. Harper Court's reputation for chess extended throughout the city.

All that suddenly changed in April of 2002. In a move reminiscent of the covert destruction of Meig's Field, the four concrete benches that players used were removed from the plaza in the middle of the night. Without warning, the Harper Court foundation, a not-for-profit organization that manages the Harper Court shopping center, had ordered the table taken away. Complaints had arisen that he chess players harassed women who passed by, left litter, disrupted local business, attracted crime to the area, and otherwise spoke loudly and acted rudely. A couple of red "private property" signs were put up in place of the benches.

The chess community was outraged. Three months later, an estimated sixty or more people took to the plaza to protest the benches' removal. Demonstrators brought a petition with more than 500 signatures calling for t he benches to be replaced. It was, however, to no avail. By the following summer, players could use portable card tables on the plaza--and then, only on weekends. But the players didn't take to that, says Tom fineberg, a retired math teacher and long-time chess coach. By the summer of 2004, when hardly anyone came to Harper Court to play any more, "We figured we really lost the battle," says Friedman.

And so, chess players in the Hyde Park neighborhood today seem to fall into two camps: those affiliated with the University of Chicago and those who have found games--and the camaraderie that goes with them--elsewhere in the community. [Ed. note- many who came from outside the neighborhood for chess have gone elsewhere.]

Will Gallagher, a fourth-year undergraduate at the U of C, holds forth one of the University's two regular gatherings for chess-playing. The president of the University of Chicago Chess Club, Galagher presides over weekly meetings where students come to practice and socialize with other players. About sixty first-year students signed up ...only five regularly attend the evening sessions.... Nowadays..there aren't any girls. (That's sort of a plague with the sport of chess in general," notes Gallagher.) ...about half the students have rankings...

Alton Byrd is a second-year student in the U of C Graduate School of Business and heads the other chess club at the University...which last year didn't have any GSB students in it and attracted players who already knew how to play well. This year, Byrd has brought together four "tutors"... In a first for intercollegiate chess play at the U of C, last Saturday the GSB club hosted an eight-on-eight round-robin tournament with Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management...

[The UC club went in December 2004 to the Wichita Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess's Championship tournament and won the under-1800 division under Gallagher's leadership.] ...

At a quarter to five on a cold Wednesday afternoon, a group of men gathers around a table on the second floor of the Borders bookstore on East 53rd Street. As others around them in the cafe area talk or sip their drinks, these eight men concentrate on a game of speed chess. It's a scene that's played out many times a day, five days a week.

After losing their benches, the Harper Court chess payers went into a sort of diaspora. Since the spring of last year, some have taken to the Borders' cafe. Initially, people played there every day of the wee, but when Borders determined that chess-playing conflicted with its greater customer traffic on weekends, it limited play to weekdays only. In response to complaints that players monopolized tables, the store now allows them to use only two tables at a time.

Victor Erbring is an attorney in Chicago and an unofficial leader of this group of chess players in Borders. A resident of Hyde Park since 1979, Erbring speaks bitterly about the removal of the Harper Court benches and laments the neighborhood's diminished reputation for public chess-playing. "The Harper court signage still shows the famous checkerboard and chess pieces on it," he says, alluding to the shopping center's insignia. "A bit of irony, I think."

Though the men gathered on this recent Wednesday are almost all black and roughly of middle age, Erbring says he interacts with people of "the most diverse backgrounds." He reports that players range from 8 years old to retirees in their 80s, and from Americans to Europeans to Indians--though again, there are hardly any women. The Borders' cafe has proven a popular site for playing, with people congregating there from about 10 am, when the store opens. Erbring says that police officers will swing by to play before beginning their overnight shifts, and he estimates that on Thursday and Friday nights, when things get busy, up to twenty-two people will show up.

To lend credibility to organized chess-plying in Hyde Park, Erbring is trying to launch the Hyde Park Chess Players' Guild. He wants to ask players to pay a one-time fee of $5 to belong to the group. In creating the guild, he hopes to give players an image of accountability and assuage community members who fear chess players will cause problems. Erbring is looking to attract twenty to twenty-five members--enough, he hopes, to raise money for a chess clock, a couple of boards, and game pieces. He emphasizes, however, that non-members will be welcome to join the games.

As for the effect the presence of the chess players has had on Borders, Lori Hile, a spokeswoman for the retailer, says there have been no problems and that letting people play chess in the cafe area "has no direct impact on our store sales."

When the weather gets warmer, the players in Borders may migrate outside. The Starbucks on 53rd Street has been popular in the past; it puts out tables and welcomes chess players. Erbring doesn't know whether the two tables that were installed in the southwest corner of Harold Washington Park last year in response to the loss of the Harper Court ones will be popular, but he has hopes of seeing play return to Harper Court some day.

And then, lastly there's Hayden Marketplace. As the sky slowly darkened on recent weekday afternoon, the sparsely stocked convenience store on East 53rd Street off of Ellis Avenue is buzzing with concentration--or rather, half of it is. Next to shelves of food and household items, eight men, all of whom look to be middle-aged or older, play speed chess in a small open space that's reserved for them seven days a week. Since last March, players have collectively paid $10 a month for the use of the eastern half of the shop, which initially was to be put towards and Internet cafe, according to Samori Hayden, whose family owns the store.

After finishing a game, Ira Rogers gets up and points our a master pipe fitter, a firefighter, a real estate investor, and a teacher who is also a choreographer. Rogers says a given night might see some twenty people and mentions that this afternoon is uncharacteristically quiet.

Ira Rogers should know a thing or two about chess in Hyde Park. He was the one who brought the game to Harper Court back in the 1970s, starting the phenomenon by placing a chess table on top of a garbage can. "We like the chess game," says Rogers, "but we like to play against each other," He hopes to someday see Hayden Marketplace become a permanent home for the game. "We're addicts."

Nearby, a guy laughs. "Speak for yourself," he says. Then the man adds jokingly, "I'm in recovery."

Ray 2nd grader Philip Parker-Turner achieved national ranking (65th in the 7 and younger class) in chess, having taken first at the Naperville Scholastic Chess Tournament in Feb. 2006. Ray was the only Chicago public school to win a trophy there. In Feb. 2005, at the ripe age of 6, he was featured as Chess Kid of the Month by Chess in Chicago. He is currently 4th in Illinois.




In the spring of 2004, a contingent of chess players took to Borders, occupying tables and chairs allegedly continuously every day, which the players deny. A meeting was called by Alderman Preckwinkle of various community groups to seek an honest solution and venue for the chess players, as Borders indicated it could not provide a site for chess all days of the week, just a couple tables M-Th. Both Harold Washington and Nichols fieldhouse offered to make provision for chess, tables actually being installed in HW. Some chess players are playing outside of Starbucks on 53rd and at Hayden's Marketplace at Ellis and 53rd. And some are occasionally holding forth in Harper Court weekends under the same lock-and-key arrangement as last year (see below) . Starbucks is more popular weekdays and the Court on weekends, for those who would like to play or kibitz.The park district has provided 2 chess benches for southwest Harold Washington Park.

Although Borders manager Laura Stein believes a mutually agreeable compromise was reached, at least some of the chess players disagree. Robert Wood says they gave up seats to customers and bought from the cafe. Others said Borders treated them with respect but is being unfair, especially vis a vis the many students and others sitting and working at their laptops (which this writer, GMO has repeatedly witnessed).

Herald says in June 2004, "Chess group would do well to organize"

June 16, 2004

The fate of Hyde Parker Ira Rogers and his "unofficial fraternity" of chess players is like an unfinished chess match. Only this game has dragged on for years.

After being booted off Harper Court, which had been Hyde Pak's epicenter of chess playing for 30 years, the group migrated from place to place until finding a few tables at the coffee lounge inside the 53rd Street Borders Bookstore last September. The store was built on the site of a park the chess group had used during the interim period.

When the store was built, the group just moved one level up to the coffee lounge on the second floor. And that was home for eight months, until store officials allege the group became rowdy and out of hand.

A decision was made. Rogers and his group could not play chess on the weekends, when the the store attracts its greatest number of customers. As a compromise, store officials told the group they could play during the week. Out of frustration, the group picked up and moved their chess tables down the street to Hayden Marketplace.

Similar circumstances surrounded the group's departure from Harper Court in spring 2002. The group in question was a lot larger then, attracting University of Chicago students, local residents and visitors from outside who learned of the local chess tradition from Chicago guidebooks.

Complaints of littering, intimidating female shoppers and attracting crime to the area prodded the Harper Court Foundation to not only ask the group to leave but also to rip up the old chess tables t hat had been used for years. The complaints were argued over in numerous letters to Herald after the group and the tables were gone.

The chess-playing tradition was also erased from the guidebooks. What once was a noteworthy activity in Hyde Park had been reduced to a nomadic journey for a few remaining chess players in search of a permanent home.

They walked away from the Harper Curt episode unhappy, as they did with Borders. The only difference is that Harper Court is an open-air shopping plaza build around a courtyard. The coffee lounge of Borders is a private indoor property open to the public.

Some Borders locations, including the 95th Street store, have an open door policy to chess. The Hyde Pak Borders was willing to compromise with Rogers and allow his group to pay during the week. Soliciting playtime during the weekend may require more organization on Rogers' part. He called his group of che's enthusiasts an "unofficial fraternity." Maybe it's time they made it official.

The 95th Street Borders had an chess club that played at least once a week. Rogers would do his group a service if he organized it into a chess club. He has the members. He just doesn't have the organization. And that is probably why his group is being asked to move around so much.

Borders may have been a little more accommodating on the weekends if Roger would have promoted his group as a chess club and no an unofficial fraternity. In the meantime, Hayden Marketplace has become the new playground, at least for a while.

The Herald has learned that Ald. Toni Preckwinkle's office is trying to find a permanent home for the group in a tiny corner of Washington [Harold Washington 53rd and Hyde Park]. While it's a start, moving to an isolated section of the neighborhood may not sit well with Rogers' group. Rogers told the Herald last week that he was not even aware of the possibility...The group tends to migrate to busy public venues.

Chess is a very intimate game of strategy, but it often attracts a crowd of spectators. Just as many people who watched the chess marathons at Borders played in them. The 53rd Street Borders could consider capitalizing on this in the future. In the meantime, Rogers has taken his entourage elsewhere.

The chess players may prefer their casual fraternizing. But if they seek a permanent home, they should be as committed to organization as they are in each game of chess. A unified group speaks louder that a single voice.


H. Washington Park to get chess tables

Hyde Park Herald, June 30, 2004. By Brian Wellner

Two or three concrete chess tables will soon be added to a grassy area in Harold Washington Park, city officials said recently.

A decision by the 53rd Street Borders Bookstore to not allow chess playing in its upstairs coffee lounge on the weekends prompted the Harold Washington Park Advisory Council, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle's office and the city's Commission on Human Relations to find an alternate spot. It is unknown at this time whether more chess tables will be [placed in] the proposed spot.

Irene Sherr, acting president of the Harold Washington Advisory Council, said she expects the tables will be added to the vicinity of 53rd Street and Hyde Park boulevard within the next few weeks.

"This creates an outdoor public space for chess," she said. Each table, she added, contains a granite chessboard engrained in the concrete surface. The Chicago Park District will supply the tables. The park, Sherr said, is a popular location for family reunions and picnics and chess playing will be an added amenity.

Arnold Romeo of the Commission on Human Relations has been in meetings with the Harold Washington Advisory Council and the Harper Court Foundation to find a permanent chess playing location in Hyde Park. Despite accusations by some area chess players who were ejected from Borders that they were treated unfairly, Romeo said the issue is not controversial. He refused to comment on how the city has assisted the Hyde Park groups in finding a location.

Chess playing was a popular daily activity in Harper Court until two years ago when several concrete tables were removed on an order by Harper Court Foundation officials. Enthusiasts like Tom Fineberg have been limited to playing chess on portable card tables on weekends in Harper Court. The card tables are stored in a locked room during the week and let out only with the Foundation's permission.

Fineberg may try out the new tables in Harold Washington Park but said parking, which is limited to Hyde park Boulevard or 53rd Street, could be a problem. He would prefer that the Harper Court Foundation allow him and fellow chess players to have permanent tables that can stay outside.


In 2004 there was only a shadow of even the strictly controlled weekend chess in Harper Court with players providing tables that Harper Court will store between times) Contact Tom Fineberg, 773 721-3979. Chess playing has largely dispersed to other venues, including Borders, outside Starbucks, Haydon's and soon Harold Washington Park if the players come. The most recent controversy has been over what Borders considers too much chess occupancy--Borders insisted no chess on weekends. Alderman Preckwinkle convened a team to consider alternatives.


Background and controversy

Chess came to the "court" before there was the modern Harper Court (opened 1965) ; then chess was a feature at the famous, lamented former bistro Chances R. When the full Harper Court opened in 1965, , Ira Rogers set up his Ecuadorian chess set over a trash can and the cult started. There were even Tribune features. And on August 16, 1967 two ranking Chicago chess players used children to play life-sized chess in Harper Court. At least 9 annual tournaments were held.

Almost since the twenty-store Harper Court was built around courtyards in the middle of Harper Avenue, largely with community subscription and as a refuge for artisans and tradespeople, the chess boards and chess playing and Harper Court were intertwined. Chess playing was interracial and intergenerational. Problems intruded from time to time--indeed, at some point some of the tables were moved to Nichols Park. Some (definitely not all) of the business leaders and the HC board began to associate the chess playing, at least sometimes, with loitering, harassment and gang or criminal activity and felt the chess activity kept some business away and was disconnected from the mission of the Court.

June 15, 1994, Harper Court relocated 4 of its 6 chess tables to Nichols Park, where they were quickly covered with graffiti. At least two later "made their way back" to Harper Court. By the start of the new millennium, serious trouble occurred in the Court, which was a concourse for often out of control Kenwood students, drug dealers, and homeless. The problems did not end when the Meridian Theater closed.

Stalemate and negotiations

In 2002, in the middle of the night, the chess board benches were removed from the sunken courtyard and spirited out of town after a vote of the Harper Court board in April. A no trespassing sign was put up in the court. Despite numerous demonstrations, petitions, and letters, formation of e-groups,and sporadic boycotts from citizens and organizations, Harper Court leadership would not budge. Nichols Park Advisory Council offered a refuge but the chess players did not think the park particularly conducive to its needs or want to have to stop at 11 pm. The small plaza at Lake Park and 53rd was removed for the new Borders store. The Hyde Park Shopping Center, owned by the University, was not interested in having the chess. The Chicago Commission on Human Relations investigated the matter and, while rejecting claims that Harper Court acted in a racial or discriminatory manner, has continued to negotiate behind the scenes, asking that each side give some, certainly that the chess group police itself and address the concerns of the merchants.

New hope for resolution

As of June, 2003, there were meetings between representatives of the two groups, comprising a committee, provided the chess groups shows it is interested in addressing the Harper Court concerns. The Harper Court Foundation gave the following statement to the Hyde Park Herald: "The city officials offered to mediate and clarify the issue of the removal of the benches and the concerns of the chess players. Harper Court Foundation laid out certain conditions that, if met, would lead to a meeting between the Foundation and representatives of the chess players." The four problems cited at a meeting with the city were: not moving off steps to businesses, not supporting the businesses, crowds enabling drug dealings, and rudeness to women.

From the Chicago Tribune, September 26, 2003. By Shia Kapos

Move to Compromise

Chess players' return to a Hyde Park plaza stirs debate about acceptance in a community heralded for its diversity

For long stretches, only the sound of Dexter Gordon's saxophone playing on the radio breaks through the red-brick courtyard just beyond 53rd Street in Hyde Park. A dozen men—black and white, baby faces and beards, working and homeless—quietly stand watch over three tables, each occupied by a plastic chess board and two hunched players.

Then there is as whoop and laughter. A game is over and the seats are swapped for a new match.

A year after Harper Court Foundation removed four chess concrete chess benches from the courtyard, saying players were crude slobs who scared away business, the organization has agreed to allow games to resume in the shopping plaza.

The chess players' return to Harper Court brings back a tradition started more than 30 years ago and has ignited new debate about race and acceptance in a community heralded for its diversity.

For decades, players have gathered at the tree-lined plaza to discuss politics and the world. "All these different people came together every day, and chess was the glue," said Alon Friedman, a A Hyde Park resident who doesn't play chess but has become an advocate for the players, even serving as head of the Knight Court Chess Club, which was created to represent them.

"I'm glad to see them back. I like the atmosphere they bring to the court," said Lori Mathews, manager of Toys Et Cetera, one of about a dozen shops that surround the courtyard. "That changed when they left."

A compromise between the foundation, which runs the property owned by the University of Chicago [check this], and the chess players allows games temporarily only on weekends during the daytime and only on tables that can be removed from the courtyard.

In the past few weeks, dozens of ment—with children peering over their shoulders—have gathered at the outdoor shopping plaza for five-minute or traditional chess played on the fold-up tables that the foundation has agreed to store.

"It's a start," says Tom Fineberg, a retired high school math teacher and longtime chess coach who helped lead the yearlong petition drive to return chess to Harper Court. He and others hope the games will become a permanent fixture—right now they are allowed to run through September—and have games seven days a week.

But there are some who say that's not likely to happen."We'll see how long it lasts," Richard Padnos, owner of Wheels & Things bicycle shop, said about the games going on just a few feet from his shop.

While some businesses in the plaza said the chess playing over the years helped attract customers, a few, like Padnos, said the chess players' presence only hurt his business.

Trash and insults

"They were loud, insulting, crude and dirty. You can quote me," he said, explaining that the men hurled garbage around the square and made crude comments to his female customers as they walked by the chess benches to get to his store.

Players acknowledge there was garbage—from food and beer containers to cigarette butts—left on the courtyard. Much of it was left by onlookers, they said. "Once we realized there was a problem we started cleaning it up," said Marvin Dandridge, a 46-year-old Rogers Park resident and a legendary master chess player. "Yeah, there were some chess bums. But mostly they are working folks. I'm a social worker. There are lawyers, stock brokers and architects who come here, too." As for the comments to women, "We were unable to identify a single individual who experienced any crude remarks," Friedman said.

Some players worry that the problem stemmed from stereotyping. "You have a lot of black men, intellectual people, here standing firm on discussions about politics," says Malaah Shaheeq, a 31-year-old South Shore resident who learned to play chess a few years ago. "They are heated debates but they are never violent. I think the debating scared people because they assumed it would become violent."

Business owners say the problems in Harper Court are not about race. "The neighborhood has just changed," says Rai Rogers, owner of Sunflower seed Health Foods. "Hyde Park in general isn't what it used to be. There was a time when Hyde Park prided itself on not bringing in big retail. Now, look at 53rd street and it looks like you're in the suburbs, with big companies on every corner."

City officials who worked as intermediaries between the chess players and the foundation say the main cause of the problems at Harper Court have been a lack of communication, something they say has always been at the heart of Hyde Park's successes in diversity.

"There was insensitivity on both sides," says Francoise Johnson of the city's Commission on Human Relations, the city entity that helped work out the compromise to bring back chess play.

The foundation's executive director, Leslie Morgan, who did not want to be interviewed for this story, was new to the organization last year, Johnson said. "She didn't understand the group of how to manage the crowd. Sometimes it was quite a large gathering."

Representing chess

In Hyde Park fashion, where discussion is the norm, the chess players established the chess club as a way to bring representation to and work with the foundation. The chess group's goal, says Fineberg, is to get permanent playing time on the plaza. Until them, many players have found a friend in the Starbucks coffee shop about a block away, where the manager allows chess games because he likes the business it attracts.

But it's not the first choice of most players, who stop first at Harper Court to see if there is a table set up for play. "Look, most guys who come here come just to play," said Curtis Gilmore, a 73-year-old retired Chicago police officer who has been pushing pawns at Harper Court since the mid-1970s. "They don't get rowdy or obnoxious. They're fanatics but fanatics about chess. They just like to play."