Chicago chess players stage protest in Harper Square!!

On the Southside of Chicago in the Hyde Park community,  players recently experienced a major setback. In April, the four chess benches that were a signature to Harper Court, and a place where players assembled, were removed without warning. Storekeepers in the shops surrounding the open court (or the "Square") claim that the players were loud and rude, didn't patronize the businesses and harassed the women who passed through. Storekeepers have also claimed that the players left the court unsightly by leaving trash behind.

If one is a chess player in Chicago, "Harper Court" is a buzzword for a social gathering of  chess players in the Hyde Park area. Located in the
University of Chicago area, Hyde Park is known as a very diverse neighborhood, but caters mostly to middle- and upper-income residents. While the chess players come from a variety of backgrounds, a majority of them are Black males of all age groups. The atmosphere is competitive and of course, trash-talking and kibitzing are part of the experience if you decide to play there.  Players come from around the city to find a pick-up game and engage in kibitzing and even political dialogue.

Harper Court Logo, http://www.harpercourt.com.

In response to the removal of the benches, about 60-70 community residents (including players, mothers and their schoolchildren, University of Chicago students and citywide chess enthusiasts) staged a protest and more than 500 petition signatures have been collected. Many of the players and residents viewed the chess "watering hole" as somewhat of an icon reflecting the cultural richness of the area.  The benches have been there since the court was built. On a given summer afternoon, one could easily find 20 players milling about in the area either playing, observing, or sitting on the inclined lawn leading to the court. There was seldom any violent incidents and players would even play under the lamps when it got dark.  In fact, some patrons would even express a greater sense of security. Hyde Park resident Debbie Lekousis stated in an interview, "The whole area's nothing but a wasteland now that they're gone."

Harper Court Map, http://www.harpercourt.com.

This is "Harper Court," also referred to as "Harper Square" (the court interior). The chess benches were between buildings 5210 and 5211. The court is  paved with attractive red bricks and the white benches were about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long and sat about 2 feet high. Orignally the 8X8 boards were painted on the benches, but later black and white tiles were  built onto the surface. Map taken from http://www.harpercourt.com.

Elaine Elam, owner of the Calla Lily Gift Shop in Harper Court said she is closing her shop soon, in part, because of her dissatisfaction with the board of the non-profit Harper Court Foundation. In an interview, she stated, "They didn't consult with us about the chessboards and afterward they tried to tell us that it was to get rid of the drug dealers. Well, the chess players are gone and the drug dealers are still here." Ironically, residents report that since the boards were removed in the Spring, the drug dealers have become more open with their activities because there is less of a crowd and fewer eyes to witness their illegal dealings.

It is ironic that the Harper Court emblem shown above bears a chess theme, and in the neighborhood guide, there is explicit pride for the chess hub. Following is a quote from an online neighborhood guide for Hyde Park:

"But the university isn't the only influence here. Located right off of 53rd street, Harper's Court offers an array of shops, restaurants and cultural options. Men and women, young and old, come to test their analytical skills in a game of chess in Harper's Square (in the middle of Harper's Court). On any given day, the three chess tables in the square are crowded with players and intrigued onlookers."

It appears as if a compromise must be made, but apparently public sentiment is with the chess players. Let's hope  that this rich legacy is keep alive!!


Read Liz Austin's, "Stalemate over Hyde Park chess," chicagotribune.com, 19 July 2002.

Read Celeste Garrett's, "Hyde Park chess fans stage 'play in' protest," chicagotribune.com, 20 July 2002.

Read Daaim Shabazz's personal reflection of Harper Court.


Read Hadas and Abe Friedman's "The Harper Court Chess Affair," 3 November 2002."


Posted by The Chess Drum: 25 July 2002