When I first came to Washington Square Park to play the chess hustlers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I originally thought that people played street chess for the games, but I soon realized that street chess revolved around stories and community.
One hustler told me about how he grew up in Turkey as a dual hairdresser and chess expert, another that he was a rising rapper with a new album dropping soon, and another that he worked on Wall Street and came to play chess on the weekends simply for the joy of it. Before long, the wildly interesting stories were what kept me coming back to the street chess table.
I learned that the “chess hustlers” were not hustlers at all, but artists. Their profession might not be lucrative, but they chose to immerse themselves in a unique culture centered around a common passion. Interacting with this culture made me curious about how people build and give meaning to creative forms of sociality in urban settings like Washington Square Park. The street chess community transcends age and race; it is inclusive of everyone who loves chess and even those who don’t. I started journaling about my experiences interacting with street chess culture, which eventually turned into an ethnography and film project sharing the story of chess hustlers with others, breaking stereotypes about them and encouraging readers to more carefully consider this unique community. The experience certainly confirmed for me that you cannot properly study a group of people without interacting with them.
Directed by Eugene Yoo (USA)