As Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov battled through the first 12 games of their world championship chess match last fall at the Hudson Theater in midtown Manhattan, the tension was felt some two miles south in the drawing room of a Greenwich Village brownstone. Members and friends of the Marshall Chess Club sat on the edge of leather sofas and chairs, gazing intently at a large demonstration board while grand masters offered analysis of each move.
The Hudson Theater, which had priced tickets up to $100 a seat, was rarely full during the month of the matches, but the Marshall Club was often packed. Upon arriving in New York, many astute chess fans from all over the country often visited the Marshall's ivy-covered town house, its green-trimmed bay windows overlooking the sidewalk of West 10th Street. The anxious aficionados entered through the stately front doors and made their way to the drawing room, where antique chess tables with intricate wood inlays had been pushed aside to make room for the crowd.
It was natural that chess fans should gather there when not at the theater, because to the cognoscenti, the Marshall is among the most hallowed of chess clubs. In the institution's 76-year history, Kasparov and Karpov are the only world champions who haven't set foot in the Marshall. "And that's only because this is the age of the chess entrepreneur," says the club's former vice-president and treasurer, Matthew Gross. "Kasparov wants $8,000 to make an appearance. We simply can't afford that."
What the Marshall could afford during the match was a computer hookup to the Hudson Theater. As each move was made, the information (Q-d6 and the like) was recorded on a computer and then sent through the phone lines to a receiving computer at the club. The move was then indicated on the big board, and analysis and argument would ensue.
When the two champions left New York for Lyons, France, in November with the score tied at six, the Marshall's electronic link was severed. There was no more instant play-by-play of the championship, although there were still sessions over strategy as Kasparov went on to retain his title, 12�-11�.
The Marshall was founded by Frank J. Marshall, the U.S. chess champion from 1909 until he voluntarily resigned his title in 1936. LIFE magazine once said Frank Marshall looked like a Shakespearean actor, and there's evidence of this on the walls of the club's drawing room. Amid scores of signed photographs of champions are a dozen of Marshall, a strikingly handsome, distinguished man. Born in New York City in 1877, Marshall grew up to be a very affable gentleman both at and away from the board, but his playing style was distinctly aggressive. "As a chess player," he wrote in his 1942 book, My Fifty Years of Chess, "I suppose I am a little like Jack Dempsey as a fighter."
Marshall was one of the game's original five grand masters. The title was conferred upon him and four others—world champ Emanuel Lasker and Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch, both of Germany, and future world champions Jos� Raul Capablanca of Cuba and Alexander Alekhine of Russia—by Czar Nicholas II at the St. Petersburg tournament of 1914. Marshall played once for the world title, but was crushed 8-0 by Lasker in 1907.
In 1915, Marshall opened his chess club. It quickly became a principal gathering place for the game's top talent. During the 1920s and '30s, membership was considered a status symbol. The board of governors included George Emlen Roosevelt, Edward Cornell, Gilbert Colgate and Henry Leeds. These leaders of American business and society rubbed elbows with writer Sinclair Lewis, golfer Bobby Jones and a crowd of bohemians that included painter Marcel Duchamp.
World champions Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine were frequent visitors. Capablanca's favorite chess table, an ornate antique, still occupies a place of honor in the rear drawing room. For a chess lover, playing on "Capa's table" inspires the same reverent thrill that shagging fly balls in Yankee Stadium would evoke in a baseball fan.
The House That Marshall Built was home field for a dynasty of formidable players and championship team members in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. New York's Metropolitan Chess League Championship became an annual subway series between the Marshall and its uptown rival, the Manhattan Chess Club. The interclub rivalry nurtured a generation of American grand masters. Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky played for the Marshall squad. In 1935 and again in '37, with Frank Marshall as captain, the United States entry won the International Chess Olympiad. No American team has done so since.