Medford’s Riverside Plaza attracts chess players from around the world
When Chris Donovan saw the chessboard inserts in the new tables Medford purchased for the renovated Riverside Park, it sparked happy memories of taking his son to Harvard Square where chess players congregated.
Although purchasing the table inserts may have been a happy accident, Donovan, a founding member of the Medford Chess Club, embraced the concept of public chess sets and ran with the idea. The result: ‘Chess on the Plaza’, a regular encounter promoted on the club’s Facebook page and by word of mouth.
Medford Chess Club Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/CheckmateMedford/
An avid historian who describes himself as a proficient chess player, Donovan found players through Facebook. Then he looked for local sponsors. Several local establishments, all members of the Chamber of Commerce, purchased two dozen chess sets and chess clocks for use by players.
When the weather turned cold, those same sponsors, including Carroll’s and Mystic Coffee Roaster, opened their doors and invited players inside.
Now Donovan has persuaded the city council to find the funds, he asked for $5,000, to set up four professional chess tables for outdoor use. The cement tables will be placed under the trees in the shaded area of the park.
The city has also promised to purchase umbrellas to protect players seated at the existing metal tables located in the treeless paved area of the park from the scorching summer sun. And the city will turn on the buried sprinkler heads to make sure the grassy mound stays lush and green.
“I was there and it was great to see the large number of people in the park,” said Councilman Michael Marks, who moved the resolution for the director of parks and recreation to find the funds for the purchases. .
“It’s not just for professional chess players; it’s about family fun,” added Marks. “We try to bring foot traffic into the common. And we want Medford to be a destination for chess.
The club has designated Saturday evenings between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. as the meeting time for guaranteed play. At other times the tables are available, but the possibility of finding an opponent (worthy or not) is not a sure thing.
“At first it was just me and maybe one other person,” said Tufts PhD candidate Jack Elsey, who described himself as the “guy who showed up with the chess pieces on the weekend”. Now the group has a dedicated Meetup page, as well as the Facebook page.
“The first two in-person meetings since the lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, June 12 and 19, we had good turnouts,” Elsey said, speculating the lockdown has boosted interest in the Game.
“It’s great to play in the square; people see us play, they stop, get sucked in for a game,” Elsey said. “People are just going to stop,” and Elsey makes sure to point out that the players in the Plaza aren’t afraid to teach all comers.
“We like to teach beginners,” Elsey said, describing the level of play as ranging from beginner to very advanced.
“People from all over the world came to Harvard Square to play chess; now they will come to Medford,” Donovan said. “Age differences, cultural differences, communication gaps” all disappear on a chessboard, he said.
Donovan remembers being in the square on a Saturday and sitting down with his chess set. The first person to approach him was a player who had just arrived from Morocco.
And when people see other people gathered in the square and see people playing chess, they come, Donovan said.
The park has a musical installation of sound tubes, playable by all. It adjoins the city’s Salem Street Burying Ground, a cemetery that dates back to the birth of the city and was used exclusively for the burial of the city’s wealthy between the late 17th and 19th centuries.
Donovan, media director by trade, speaks poetically of burial sites, detailing famous dead and notable monuments: a former governor (John Brooks), a Revolutionary War hero (Sarah Bradley Fulton) and a tribute to New Hampshire soldiers who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He hopes interest in the game of chess in the square will spark interest in other amenities at Medford, including its role in shaping the nation.
“Paul Revere’s route went through Medford; the city was a center of rum-making, brick-making and shipbuilding,” Donovan said.