From rooks to knights in Battery Park City

By Jane Flanagan

Downtown Express photo by Akiko Miyazaki
Chess play near the esplanade.

Wearing the familiar light blue tee shirts of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, the two men hovering over chess players at the promenade could easily be mistaken for parks employees on a break. But these two are chess men and they are steeped in the strategy, history and love of the game. They pass some of this on weekly to the residents, office workers and tourists in Battery Park City.
Aleksander Rasic and Andy Rubien were hired by the conservancy to oversee lunchtime chess at the Upper room on Albany St., the Egyptian-temple-like platform on the waterfront.
Rasic, 48, a native of the former Yugoslavia, earned the title chess master, the second highest level of the game, when he was 21-years-old. First coming to New York in 1985 to compete in a tournament, Rasic later decided to make his home here. He and Rubien, a native New Yorker, were hired by Abby Ehrlich, director of parks programming.
“If you hire people who are really passionate, who love their subject, and are good communicators, you have it made,” she said.
Passionate they are.
Rubien, 45, a chess expert, the third highest level, grew up on the Upper West Side, spending much of the time with queens and rooks.
“I’ve spent a good part of my life obsessed with chess,” said Rubien, who began competing as a teenager.
Both men were introduced to the game very young, Rasic by his mother when he was 6, Rubien, at age 10, by his grandfather.
For both of them, the fascination with chess stems from a long Eastern European heritage, the region of the world known for its love of the game. (Rubien’s grandfather immigrated from the Ukraine.)
Rasic’s childhood home near Belgrade was typical in that there was always a chessboard around. It was only natural that his mother would play, he said, something his American counterparts found surprising.
He recalled a city tournament some years ago which his mother, who was visiting from Yugoslavia, attended. A former school teacher, she sat down and started playing chess with the children. His colleagues were surprised.
“They said, ‘Your Mom can play chess?’” said Rasic. “I said, ‘who do you think taught me?’”
Meanwhile, in New York, Rubien began accompanying his grandfather, Murray, to the world-renowned Marshall Chess Club on 10th St. in the Village. But what his grandfather, an amateur player, did not anticipate, is how obsessed Rubien would become with the game.
Obsessed, however, is a good way to describe many of the people, most of whom are men, playing at lunchtime on the promenade. They assemble twice a week; on Mondays, when Rubien presides and Thursday’s when Rasic does.
One new recruit is Jules Soto, 20. A Tribecan, he attends college in California, and is home for the summer. One day last month, taking a break from job hunting, Soto was in Rockefeller Park waiting for a free basketball court. He spotted Rasic who was preparing for the afternoon lessons he gives to children. Soto had a mild interest in the game having played it before.
“I saw him carrying the bucket,” said Soto, referring to the plastic container Rasic carries his chess pieces and books around in. Soto approached and Rasic sat him down in front of a board. He’s been returning every Monday and Thursday ever since.
“He’s infected now,” said Rasic, who said he enjoys teaching Soto because of his great interest and willingness to do homework. Both Rasic and Rubien said that studying is essential to advance beyond a modest level.
So is playing. Preferably with someone more advanced, which is why Rasic teamed Soto up with an older Russian gentleman, who is a frequent lunchtime player.
“A young man like him – it’s perfect to match him with the older man. He gets beaten but he learns from his defeats,” said Rasic.
Other regular players include a group of four men who work at a computer software company at the World Financial Center. They play everyday at lunchtime, said Leonid Gorkin, a member of the group. Mondays and Thursdays they spend with Rasic and Rubien other days they play on their own. When it rains they play on computers in the office. The four men vie for a prize — a miniature toy penguin – which the afternoon’s winner places atop his computer.
Chess has a great international appeal, evident in the makeup of this foursome. One member David Rao, a beginner, is a native of China, and Gorkin, a long-time player, is from Russian.
Tourists from around the world also stop by, usually on their way down to the Statue of Liberty. Rasic, who in addition to English, speaks many languages – Russian, Bulgarian, Italian and Spanish, enjoys using his skills to address visitors.
“It helps when you greet people in their language,” he said.
While neither Rubien nor Rasic compete these days, their knowledge of the game is greater than it’s ever been, they said.
“I probably couldn’t win as many games as I used to,” said Rasic, alluding to the stamina necessary to compete at high levels. “But I know more than I ever did,” he said.
With that he stood up from the shaded park bench and climbed the steps to the platform. Although it was about 95 degrees out and the chess tables were in noontime sun, four games were in progress. It was time to get to work.

The hours for chess and backgammon in Battery Park City are as follows:
Lunch hour backgammon and chess – Monday and Thursday – noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Upper Room on Albany Street – Free
The following all meet at Rockefeller Park:
Afternoon Drop-In Chess - Thursday – 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. – Free Chess Lessons (fee and registration required*) - Monday 3:45 – 6 p.m.
* The fee for chess lessons is $64 for 8 sessions. New session begins this week. Call to register – 212-267-9700


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