Although he was a member of the game's elite, Marshall was no elitist. "He made every type of player feel at home in his club," noted The New York Times in its obituary in November 1944. "[Marshall] sat down with a duffer as willingly as with a Class A champion."
According to the tribute in Chess Life & Review magazine, he was "the most beloved of all chess masters."
After Marshall's death, his widow, Caroline, continued to run the club until she died in 1967. Caroline was particularly fond of the younger players, sometimes overlooking the membership dues of those who couldn't afford to pay.
One irascible teenager who played at the Marshall, as well as at the Manhattan and other clubs, during Caroline's reign was Bobby Fischer of Brooklyn. In the late 1950s, he competed regularly in the Marshall's Tuesday night speed-chess tournaments. In '65, when the U.S. State Department refused to issue him a visa to play in Cuba in the Capablanca Memorial tournament, Fischer secluded himself in the Marshall's rear drawing room and set up a board. In something of a precursor of the Kasparov-Karpov computer hookup, Fischer proceeded to compete via teletype. Sitting, appropriately, at Capa's table, he carved out his chess masterpieces under the purview of a single official, and his moves were wired to Havana. He was runner-up in the tournament.
In 1972, when Fischer beat Boris Spassky for the world championship, there was a boom in interest in the game among Americans. The membership roll at the Marshall grew longer. A few years later, however, the eccentric Fischer relinquished his title and vanished, not only from the game but from society at large (SI, July 29, 1985). Interest in U.S. chess diminished, and Marshall Club membership also began to decline. By the early '80s, the club was only an echo of its illustrious past. In his 1984 book Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fred Waitzkin said it had "become badly run-down."
Gross joined the club in 1985, got himself elected an officer and dedicated himself to "the spiritual belief that the club was founded for the perpetuation of chess in New York City." Spirituality is nice, but sometimes elbow grease is needed, too. Gross, along with former club president Marianna Riordan Bellizzi and board member James Glass, put in countless hours restoring the club's once luxurious interior. They began running tournaments every night of the week, for all levels of players. From time to time they even used a typical '80s tactic, direct mail campaigns, to attract new players. The result was that membership tripled to 320, making Marshall the largest chess club in New York. "I think what we've done at the Marshall," says Gross, "is to market the club well."
It's fitting that the venerable Marshall Club is back on its feet. Furthermore, it's good for chess. The newly energized membership is busily documenting priceless chess artifacts long buried in the club's archives. There are new programs for youngsters, and whether or not another Fischer is found is beside the point. "Despite the big events," says Gross, "the future of chess in America will be won or lost on the club level." And the Marshall is once again helping to set the standard for that level. "Wherever I play around the country, everyone knows the Marshall," says Gross. "People want their chess clubs to be like the Marshall."
Kasparov and Karpov don't know what they've missed.