How the country’s second-oldest chess club is surviving in a Center City basement

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 In July of 1956, a precocious 13-year-old walked into the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club at 1616 Locust St. He left the youngest United States junior champion in history.  

“Boy, 13, Captures Chess Laurels,” read an Inquirer headline the following day.

The boy in question? Just an upstart from the Big Apple by the name of Bobby Fischer.

Fischer’s early triumph is only one of many Philadelphia chess milestones: There’s the first-ever reported game of chess in America, said to have been played by Ben Franklin himself; the first book of chess published in States; the series of matches played via telegram between Philadelphia and New York in 1858; and of course, the founding of the Franklin Chess Club (later combined with the Mercantile Club in the 1950s) in 1885.

That makes it the second-oldest U.S. chess club still playing.

Fischer is by no means the only superstar to have checkmated on the boards of Franklin-Mercantile. There was World Champion Emanuel Lasker who visited in 1892. And blindfold chess expert Harry Nelson Pillsbury, who came the following year. Back then, the men of the club played in suit and tie, on marble floors and engraved tables.

Today, members reside in a rented basement room of an anonymous brownstone at 2012 Walnut St and pay $75 for a year-long membership. Marble has been swapped for linoleum. Chess, however, remains a constant. Nine boards, some wooden, others green-and-white folding PVC, occupy the main room. Plaques from the 1950s hang from the walls, their once-shining metal engravings slowly fading.

On a recent Saturday night, fewer than 10 members were present at the club. Two men played in a corner of the room, hunched in silence. Opposite them another duo played using a timer. Each moved without speaking, the only sound the steady tick of a wall clock.

The sparse attendance could partly be blamed on the absence of one member who usually brings free burgers on Saturdays. There was talk of buying a pizza instead, until it was revealed that last time, a pizza cost $18.

“Man, what kind of pizza costs 18 dollars?” asked one member, a bearded man wearing blue coveralls.

“Center City pizza, that’s what,” replied another.

During the games, Jerome Works, Franklin-Mercantile’s volunteer manager, sat in his office streaming the Sixers on his laptop. The 62-year-old finds himself at the club every day of the week, save Sundays, from around noon until 9 p.m. It is an often-solitary job, keeping the club open in the event one of the club’s 21 members, one of whom is a Grandmaster, wishes to stop by during the day for a quick game.

“I really don’t know,” said Works, when asked why he volunteered for the position. “I guess I was just interested in chess. To be honest, I just wanted to keep the club going.”

During the 70s and 80s, Franklin-Mercantile was over 300 members strong. “Matter of fact,” Works recalled, “you had to wait to get on a table to play.”

Joel Barringer, 63, shares fond memories of the days when Franklin-Mercantile occupied the penthouse of the Adelphia House. “Sometimes I’m sitting here and looking at my computer, especially to when the club’s quiet, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Man I miss the good old days.’” he said.

A member of the club since June of 1972, Barringer never quite managed to leave, even as membership dwindled and he found himself spending more time alone in the back room, analyzing games on his computer and muttering suggestions—“You don’t have to take that!”—that go unheard.

“It’s going on 50 years, you know?” he said of his time spent at the club. “It’s almost like I’m stuck here.”

As for the culprit behind the decline in club membership, there is total consensus amongst the club’s players: the internet.

“I would think the youth is more tech savvy, so I would think they’re probably less interested to come to a club to play,” Works said.

But paradoxically, the internet has also done wonders to increase the accessibility of chess. Now players can start a game wherever is most convenient for them, and for free, explained Martin Collette, Director of Chess Programs for the After School Activities Partnerships, which provides chess lessons for nearly 2,500 Philadelphia-area schoolchildren.

Collette sees no evidence that the internet has diminished the desire for kids to play chess in-person. In his kids, he said, “You can see the excitement of getting to play over the board.”

Barringer maintains hope that Franklin-Mercantile club will thrive well into the future, but hasn’t been blind to the change during his 40 years frequenting the club. “Philadelphia has a reputation for being monkey-on-the-back against things that are 100 years old,” he said. “They get rid of things.”

That long history is among the club’s most marketable attributes, said William Shannon, a member since 1982. “We’re trying to get people the recognition that if they’re coming to Philadelphia, this should be a site that they come see because it’s an institution,” he said.

For the time being, though, the club remains in relative obscurity.

“Hopefully we can survive,” Barringer said. “We’ve survived this long.”
Twitter: @davidmurrellv

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1 Philadelphia

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