The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind -
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
- Bob Dylan
...Then I'll build me a house. I don't know where but it won't be in Greenwich Village. They're all dirty, filthy animals down there. Maybe I'll build it in Hong Kong.
- Bobby Fischer - talking about what he would do after becoming world champion.
I like chess. I like the history of chess and all things pertinent to it.
Studying or reading about the chess culture is like walking through a thrift store or an old plank-floored mercantile surrounded by junk and treasures, not always, if ever, sure which is which.
That's my reason for this journal/blog... just to share whatever I find, figuring that what interests me, must also interest someone else.
But I recently experienced a somewhat different delight.
I had written an entry on Lisa Lane, a former US Women's Chess Champion.
I was pursuing an idea of mine about looking into the development of women's chess by looking into the evolution of the Women's Chess Championships.
My short article attracted the attention of a man named Ed Heffernan.
Is Mr.Heffernan someone special?
Objectively, other than in the way everyone is special, I have no way of knowing, but in the peripheral of the soft glow of the American chess lamp, he sparkles like a precious gem.
Initially, Mr. Heffernan had written to me to question my interpretation of the Bobby Fischer/Lisa Lane connection. His view - from personal observation - is that Fischer and Lane were friends or at least on good terms and that there was no apparent hostility between them. He also commented wryly on my use of pictures showing a young Lisa Lane and an older Neil Hickey, perhaps giving the impression of a great disparity in their ages, and certainly an assault on the mind's eye. Actually they were just the pictures I could find.
According to Frank Brady's Profile of a Prodigy: Bobby Fischer had planned a 400 board simul on Wednesday, November 27, 1963 - the day before Thanksgiving.
It was to be a publicity coup: Life magazine wanted to do a pictorial; Jeremy Bernstein of The New Yorker was to play in it and write a story from an insider's perspective; ABC's Wide World of Sports was considering devoting an entire Sunday afternoon to the event.
It was to be a lush affair: Fischer planned on wearing a tuxedo; the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Astor was reserved; President Kennedy, who would be in NY that day, was sent an invitation.
But Kennedy wouldn't be in New York that day - or any other day. He was shot on November 22.
The simul was postponed. Then, a month later, the grand Ballroom was gutted by a fire. No other suitable, yet affordable, site could be found and the project was eventually cancelled.
From my single source I had noted that "she [Lane] had opened a a chess club in New York City in 1964 called the Queen Pawn."
Mr. Heffernan corrected this, recalling, "I did get to meet Fisher, and was one of the enlisted victims for his simultaneous effort. I believe he had planned for 400, with some set of rules concerning time and number of games to be won." Since he was in the Queen's Pawn when he had elected to play in the simul, it safe to say that Lisa Lane's establishment was in existance before November 22, 1963. It's also worthwhile to note the name confusion. My original source called it "Queen Pawn" - Mr. Heffernan recalls with 98% certainty that it was named "Queen's Pawn". That's good enough for me.
So, with my amendments out of the way, let me explain something of the following story:
Realizing that Mr. Heffernan had some personal contact with Lisa Lane, I asked him if he could enlighten me in any way about her or the Queen's Pawn - her chess establishment. Rather than simply replying with some dry facts or opinions, he wrote the following vignette which captures the sense of the times and gives some flesh to the imagination...sort of prosaic picture postcard.
Ed Heffernan's journey into the past is a personal search, maybe to recapture a better time or maybe to better understand who he is, who we all are, today. He hopes that maybe someone else might type "Lisa Lane" and/or "Queen's Pawn" into Google and end up reading this entry and maybe that person will want to talk about similar times, shared experiences, mutual aquaintances. If you are that person, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or, if you prefer you can email me at email@example.com.
A few more things:
Mr. Heffernan asked me to cite the photographs on this entry so no one would mistakenly assume they were his. To be honest, I didn't remember where I stole them. I had just wanted to set the stage and give a feeling for the times. So, I went back and hunted for the sites:
The Cafe Wha? came from a page on this page on NY in the 60's.
The 1963 Bob Dylan/Joan Baez picture came from The Bob Dylan's Who's Who
The Gaslight came from a site on the Mudcat Cafe by Jerry Rasmussen
Secondly, Mr. Heffernan's suggestion that Lisa Lane's relationship with Fischer was a friendly one stems his observations of them during the times he saw them working together cooperatively on the ill-fated simul.
You must realize this isn't about chess, just about a good time and place. I never became a real player, and can't discuss the game intelligently. Remembering the Queen's Pawn, it seems my actual experience of it was a visit each week or so, over about five months. Thus there were only a few hours of contact with Lisa, most of it the sort of thing you say to the guy in the deli. No great revelations there.
In the summer of '63 I was 19, new in the city, living in mid-town boarding houses and rented rooms. (Think of 9x18 feet in a brownstone a half-block from the Museum of Natural history. Rent was 10 dollars a week, about a third of my take-home.) None of my places were in Greenwich Village, but I lived and worked in walking distance. I'd dropped out of the smallest accredited school in the US, and came by way of Greyhound and a cousin's place in Westchester. I knew a bit about the Middle Ages, and little about chess, people, or anything else. I worked in a garment district warehouse, and spent my time and money on Serious Photography. In Christmas week of '63, I lost my first job, found my first girlfriend and stopped depending on the QP for human context. Visits tailed off, and I lost track.
The Times: They were about to change.
The QP didn't last a long time. Everything was about to rearrange itself then. The club certainly existed before the fall of '63, and it's possible I first heard of it on a visit to the city a year earlier. I'm pretty sure it had closed before I was drafted in July '65; I didn't do a good-bye visit. It was not there when I got out in '67. This suggests a QP terminus a quo and terminus ad quem. There might be date documentation in an old New York entertainment listing called Cue. It was published weekly, and the Queen's Pawn was probably listed as a Greenwich Village attraction. Places like the QP were quickly plowed under, since the Village was always churning.
This is about the "tourist/coffee house/kid" Village. There was always some inaccessible Dorothy Day/Eugene O'Neil world at stories above the street. The QP was part of the street-level Village, actually about four stone steps below it. In the very early '60s, the Village was in a paused state. The Beats had gone West, and the hippies hadn't arrived yet. In fact, "hippie" was used to dismiss weekend Villagers from Queens and The Bronx. When I learned that, I moved from University Avenue to a single-structure slum on E. 39th near Park.
Our music was the Folk Revival, good or bad. Stations played Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Leadbelly full-time. Dylan was physically and spiritually a villager, and he wasn't trailing wires. Rock and roll was for high school. There was silence, or sometimes quiet classical at the Queen's Pawn--WQXR or such.
A lot of things started in the '50s, but hadn't surfaced. America was National League, not NFL, civil rights was black and white, Timothy Leary worked for the Army, Dr. Spock was into colic, Mr. Spock didn't exist. The sexual revolution hadn't been declared, though the Village had taken casualties for fifty years. Drugs were there, but they weren't mandatory. Gays were quiet felons, but they lived longer.
Parts seem familiar. We got an unelected Texan in the White House, the Empire State was the tallest building around, and a badly-played war was starting to eat our kids. I digress.
The QP was located in the West Village, 7th or 8th Avenue, not far north of Houston. The neighborhood was less touristy than MacDougal and Bleeker, making the tourists look harder. Near it was the Kenneret, for Israeli food, and El Rincon Argentino, a triangular gaucho place with 4 seats at tables, and 3 stools at a counter. Later, "Ossa and Janos" had a silver workshop where my wife and I bought 10-dollar wedding rings. They held up.
Lisa's space was below ground, but had big front and side-street windows. In the winter they were steamed-over, meaning heat and people inside. She had a large, poorly-done black and white sign over the avenue door. It was a cut-out pawn, and I'm sure the "Queen" had an "'s". Make that 98 percent sure. The outside was mostly pavement and window-the inside had wood and bare brick. The shop was in style, and it did look right. I could swear she had a working fireplace, which would have been rare and probably risky. Most of the inside was one room, about 20 feet by 50, for a guess. The front three-fourths of the room was the playing area, with boards on a dozen or so tables. On the right of the door she had a small glass counter-the business end. It held a few boards, clocks, sets for sale, and the cashbox. Deeper in, was a side counter with honor-system coffee and doughnuts. The open space changed into a more comfortable waiting area, with sofa and easy chairs, near the fireplace. Lighting was kept up-suited for play rather than atmospherics. Even when the tables were filled, it was quiet. When few players were there, it was monastic.
Calling it a "club" requires definition. It was not a social organization with membership, identity, and structure. It was a club as in "nightclub"--walls, furniture, space and activity. Certainly, there were regulars who formed social nets. I would have been a fringe regular, recognized and tolerated for harmlessness. At heart, the QP was to have been an enterprise. I doubt any venture capitalists would have bought its business plan.
Lisa charged 50 cents an hour to sit and play chess, with your own partner or a stranger. If every table were filled, the QP might gross 30.00 per hour. (For perspective, a union-organized warehouse worker made 1.00 per hour.) Charges applied only to playing time, not waiting. Players kept their own time. Even if Lisa was the only employee, no one was getting rich.
There were rules. Quiet was the first, and "no gambling" was the other. I knew of other clubs, especially one on 42nd street, that were nests for chess (and Scrabble) hustlers. Lisa was determined to maintain great distance from them.
Since the place was basically renting chessboards to passers-by, there was no pressure to further the art or maintain a level of play. What made it work was the lack of chess snobbery. Consciously or not, Lisa was bridging the world of great chess and the well-disposed public.
Bringing me to:
This is where I fail you. Lisa Lane was the only person whose name I remember. I'm sure she doesn't remember mine. The others were central-casting New York. There were old regulars doing their chess, in-and-out Village kids like me, and one-shot tourists. Regulars set up their own matches. Marginals waited around for opponents, and Lisa would often be matchmaker. She knew who could stand a given level of disparate skills. The tourists usually came as couples, and wouldn't stay after the curiosity wore off. Lisa sometimes matched me with lost beginner tourists, to amuse them and teach them how to set up a board. A few times, mutual desperation set me up against serious players, and those were my only grim times at the QP. Some of the regulars could have been Masters or GMs. I couldn't tell, because chess players were "world-famous in Warsaw". Fischer came by at least once, but of course he didn't play. The way Lisa introduced him made me think she had played him, even many times, despite the famous quotes.
The People: Lisa
A few dead days, when I was hanging around an empty shop, Lisa would offer to play with me, or test out problems. It didn't work-I wasn't skilled enough to be a tackling dummy. Our sole real-world conversation was the morning after Dallas. I was the only visitor, and hold an image of her working on the fireplace. It could've been a heater. We talked about JFK, and she came up with an unexpected violent opinion of Oswald. It was completely contrary to her bearing-she was always gentle, considerate, calm and a little out-of-focus. This was almost the only time I'd seen any sharpness in her. The other was when she booted a proto-hippie in a shaman suit looking for a chess hustle. She put him directly out of her place and up to 42nd street. That was kindness,in a way. She could have let him hustle her little self until she had his last cowrie shell.
I might recall a clipping to two in the QP about Lisa's play as Woman's Champion. Mostly, we knew from the press or each other. She certainly wasn't merchandizing it. About her chess, her skills, style, and influences: nothing. Only a peer could critique or even describe her play.
Lisa's eventual move from the public chess scene is not strange. She might have grown tired of the brutality. Maybe she previsioned Fischer's endgame. Maybe she was in love. Lots of pieces, lots of moves.
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