In July 1956, a precocious 13-year-old walked into the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club at 1616 Locust St. He left as the youngest U.S. junior champion in history.
“Boy, 13, Captures Chess Laurels,” read an Inquirer headline the following day.
The boy in question? 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 reported game of chess in America, said to have been played by Benjamin Franklin himself; the first book of chess published in the United 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 (combined in the 1950s with the Mercantile Club) 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 have 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 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?” asked one member, a bearded man wearing blue coveralls.
“Center City pizza, that’s what,” replied another.
During the games, Jerome Works, 62, Franklin-Mercantile’s volunteer manager, sat in his office streaming the Sixers on his laptop. He 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 21 members, one of whom is a grandmaster, wishes to stop by 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 1970s 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 Adelphia House. “Sometimes I’m sitting here and looking at my computer, especially 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 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 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 among 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 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 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 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.”