Sammy of NYC blitz fame dead at 55

Samuel “Sammy” Barton, an icon of street chess, passed away after battling serious health challenges. He was 55. Sammy was known as a mainstay in the greater New York scene and is considered to be a legendary figure. Called “Bubba” by his sisters, he attended Lincoln High School in Coney Island and played football as a youth. He learned chess at community center events in Coney Island.

Sammy of NYC at 2009 World Open in Philadelphia
Samuel “Sammy” Barton
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Chess is a world unto itself each country having its own chess character and culture. With each nations there are a number of communities, but one of the most eclectic is the street chess community. Sometimes seen on the streets and in the parks, they make a commanding presence by their charisma, trashtalk and playful banter. One of the most visible players in the New York street chess scene was Sammy.

Watch him in Miro Reverby’s “Men Who Would Be Kings” playing a hapless Tony Springer.

Video by Miro Reverby

New York is the chess hub of the U.S. with so many legendary players that have trolled the parks and streets of the Big Apple. One of the most accessible platforms for chess is the form played on the streets. Unfortunately, chess tournaments are hidden away in posh hotels, community centers or churches. The contribution of street chess is that it shows the game’s true grit up close and personal.

Sammy had many challenges in life, but like so many others he found a refuge in chess. You could find him around the many parks of New York holding court and being at his best. There is something intriguing about players who have spent their entire lives loyal to the pursuit of a personal goal. At one point, it is said that he actually received chess training in Russia.

Some assert that chess is a way to take a daily introspection of one’s well-being. Others say that chess offers a cathartic release of daily stresses. For Sammy and players like him, it appeared to be the spirit of competition… and the thrill of winning with something on the line!

New York blitz legend
Sammy blitzes with GM Amon Simutowe
at 2010 World Open (Valley Forge, PA)

2015 World Open (under-2200)
Photos by Daaim Shabazz

The late James “Black Knight” Taylor told me before he died that street chess should be chronicled. While it would be difficult to focus on their results, it’s not always the rating or the games they played. Who can forget Sammy after seeing the video above?

What becomes important to us is the spirit they conveyed and the memories they have left to inspire us. Even when he was ill, Sammy wanted to be at the chess board. Even when he was not in the best of health, he wanted to do battle. We can all agree that Sammy, also know as “Sandman,” made his own contribution to chess. He will be especially missed in the New York scene.

He is survived by three sisters (Maureen, Regina, Julia), one nephew (Josef), four nieces (Sierra, Chelsey, Elizabeth, Paris), one uncle (Thomas) and a host of other family and friends.

Memorial for “Sammy” will be held at
St. Nicholas Chess Club
Saturday, June 30th @ 3:00 PM

Contact: Al Pertilla (212-234-1114)

Sammy Barton
(March 5, 1963 – June 9th, 2018)


  1. RIP Sammy…. AKA “The Sandman”, AKA “The Chess Demon”, AKA “The Kwisatz Haderach” (Those last two nicknames he gave himself…the final one a reference to the messianic character in the ‘Dune’ movies and books)

    I met Sammy when I was in high school in the mid 1980s and first started playing in Washington Square. At the time he was strong master strength in blitz and his talent was well acknowledged in NY chess circles.

    I played a session with him just a few years ago and he was still strong in his fifties, once again he got the better of me and took some of my $$. I am a Life Master but Sammy always gave me difficulty in blitz, with his quick eye and sharp tactical flair.

    He was also a good guy and a pleasure to be around. Blessings on your journey brother, you will be missed…. I’m glad I was able to capture you at your best in ‘MWWBK’ (filmed July 1988 – exactly thirty summers ago!)

  2. Thank you Daaim, and thanks for posting it online! It was a project for a college documentary class and I never thought to post it. The film was pretty much ignored (in its original VHS!) in boxes and on my book shelf for decades.

    After reading your article I realized that all four of the major characters around that table in ‘MWWBK Part 2’, in the final Sammy vs. Springer blitz session, have now passed on. Vinnie Livermore and Tony Springer passed away in the 1990s. I learned recently that Clayton George (another strong player and park regular, he is sitting next to Sammy and bantering with him, afterwards says to Springer “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart”) passed away within the past year. Now Sandman…. Rest in Power, all of them!

    Poe and Russian Paul can still be seen and played however, in the present day. They, along with most of the stronger players and most of the action, have moved to Union Square Park on 14th Street… for those who are interested 😉

  3. I met Sammie at the NY Open 86/87 in the skittles room he wuz playin 3min chess with his Walkman on listenin to his music and rockin back and forth just crushin heads and takin on all comers I wuz simply amazed. Thank You for being a great inspiration for the many as well as myself. We called him “MAGIC”. BUBBAFISHA.

  4. I have known Sammy since we were in our teens. He was very entertaining to watch because he was so comical and entertaining. He gave a show and was indeed a strong chess master. It is hard to believe he is gone. Rest In Peace Sammy. I will miss you.

  5. These past players are brought to life again.
    Good point about street chess; video excellent way of perpetuating memory.
    Emory, know to me, is especially missed. EXCLAM!

  6. Thank you..from the family..his sisters ..
    This means so much …especially for his nieces and nephews

  7. I miss Sammy …. He was definitely a chessplayer who influenced and made me better over the years (as a young male of african trying to find himself.. and as a chess player) (we first played when I was about 18…and played for decades later )… After I got word he was battling with medical Issues it hurt . But afterwards….by divine intervention …we we were able to play some blitz at union sq park (after not playing against eachother for over a year).. 3 min blitz he won…. And as I left we hugged as men … And I told him…”i love you and I thank you” We both knew it was our farewell … Due to healths limits on time ….. That was my only time in life to say goodbye to a good soul… The next time I came to union sq… I wad told Sammy was gone… We may not all impact the world … But many can impact an individual….. Rest in Peace… Sandman

  8. I met Sammy in 2013 in Union Square. He taught me how to play chess & was a role model & almost father figure to me. I knew him for about 5 years but sadly wasn’t able to be in NYC from 2017-18 & got the news of his passing over the phone. I miss him greatly and will always remember his great sense of humor, the genius of his chess game & how important his presence was in the community around the nyc chess world. Thank you to the author of this article & my best wishes to his family & friends. I hope I can meet some of you in the future.

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