Kyiv's Shevchenko Park remains top battleground for aging chess masters
mer sits poised and ready on a wooden table. It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday in Kyiv's Taras Shevchenko Park, and Vadim is ready to play chess.
The 60-year-old pensioner, a former engineer, sits at one of about two dozen wooden tables in a chestnut-shaded enclave of the park, waiting for an opponent.
Shevchenko Park has been the primary battleground of Kyiv's amateur chess-playing elite for more than 50 years. But the tradition, Vadim says, could be in jeopardy.
During Soviet times, state funds and slogans such as “Chess is powerful, a weapon of intellectual culture!” made chess immensely popular. Names like Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov dominated the professional chess world, and the Soviet Union was synonymous with excellence in the game.
Vadim, like many of his generation, began playing in his youth. He started because his friends were playing.
If Vadim were a teen-ager today, chances are he would not be playing. And neither would his friends. According to Vadim and his chess buddies, the number of chess clubs and the popularity of the game in general has been on the decline in Ukraine ever since the Soviet Union went the way of the dinosaurs in 1991.
“Youth interest in the game has dropped considerably,” Vadim said.
Part of the reason for that could be that the Ukrainian state no longer supports chess financially or ideologically. But Vadim thinks the main reason is simply that the priorities of today's youth have changed: Whereas Vadim's generation was brought up to prioritize mental development, today young people put more stress on physical development.
Indeed, young players are few and far between in Shevchenko Park.
Yury, 39, would be considered over the hill in many sports. But to Shevchenko Park's cane-and-denture crowd, the denim-clad regular is considered young. Yury picked up chess at his parent's insistence when he was 13. In the beginning he couldn't grasp what was fun about the game. He says he would have quit if it weren't for his parents, who felt chess was good for his intellectual development. The game eventually grew on him.
Even more out of place than Yury is 20-year-old Stanislav, who says he also started playing because of his parents.
The older players worry that the lack of youth may cause the tradition of chess in the park to eventually die out. But they insist it will go on strong as long as they are still breathing.
Another pensioner, 62-year-old Volodymyr, has been playing in Shevchenko Park since the 1950s. He is among several players who show up every day, no matter what season it is, “as if to work.”
With his neat gray suit, loafers and shiny watch, Volodymyr even dresses as if he's at work. His dress is a reflection that chess, for these Shevchenko Park regulars, is anything but casual.
By all accounts, the combatants in Shevchenko Park are some of the city's best chess players. The park is where the pros come when they can't play professionally anymore. It is where elite players know they will find strong competition.
Outsiders are not welcome in the group. A beginner, or even an average player, is sure to be shunned by the group and forever remain outside the circle.
“No one wants a quick victory,” Vadim explains. “They appreciate the process of playing, the strategy.”
Women are also unwelcome because, according to Vadim, they are less likely to take risks and sacrifice a chessman.
“Women are people of another nation,” Vadim said.
Even among themselves the men maintain a strict division. On sunny days 50 players may gather, but they separate into their usual groups of a half a dozen or so. Rarely does one play outside his set group. Because of that, no one knows who the best player in the park is.
In one corner, Vadim plays a quick-paced game. Most of his opponents wear the same blue California, USA baseball cap he does. Volodymyr's slightly more vocal group plays a slower game minus the clock.
Most of the noise comes from the spectators, as the players are too absorbed in calculating their next move to hold a conversation. A dozen or so spectators are on hand at any given time on nice days, in addition to several drunks and a few young card players.
Money figures into only a few of the games and when it does the amount, 50 kopeks, is minimal. They play for the love of the game.
“People come here for their soul, for the beauty of sacrificing a piece,” Vadim said.
To the uninitiated, it's hard to explain the passion these men have for chess.
Vadim summed it up best: “It's like when you fall in love with a girl, and you can't explain it.”
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