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…