By Mark Coomes
Louisville chess players probably think the Great Arena Debate is a hoot. It’s not like the University of Louisville basketball teams don’t have a home already.
But for avid chess players, every game is a road game.
Or so it was for decades until, on Feb. 1, the Yussman Chess Club opened in Cliffside Plaza on Lower Brownsboro Road.
Louisville’s first fixed-address chess club is a small, clean and — most importantly — quiet retreat where serious players can trade pawns and rooks in peace.
“This is long overdue,” said Romallis St. Cyr, 67, a mainstay of the local chess community. “We used to have to play anywhere and everywhere — delis, restaurants, bookstores — and though those places were nice, there were an awful lot of distractions.
“This club gives us our own place where we can meet and talk to people with similar interests. You can go there and get a pickup game, just like in basketball.”
Eric Yussman, a regulatory analyst for an energy consulting company, longed since he was a kid to have a place in Louisville devoted solely to chess. Such clubs are rare in America, Yussman said, and generally found only in big cities like New York and Atlanta.
Yussman, 34, decided last year to stop dreaming and open a club himself. The small, storefront space he found in Clifton Heights was perfect.
It has one main room large enough for 20 tables and a library of chess books and videos, donated by St. Cyr.
And there is a storage area that Yussman converted to a “skittles room,” a place where chess players can retreat to chat and consult without interrupting anyone’s game.
There are at least 300 avid chess players in Louisville, according to U.S. Chess Federation membership rolls. At long last, they have a home.
“It used to be a very nomadic thing, always going from one place to the next to find a game,” Yussman said. “It’s a lot nicer to have a facility that is totally devoted to the task at hand. It’s quiet and you’re just surrounded by the game.”
The club signed up 60 members in its first 30 days. Annual dues are $200, but Yussman permits frequent tournament players, who are accustomed to paying $6 per week, to continue doing so until $200 has accrued.
The club is open five hours a day, five days a week. But it is a presence around the clock for the chess community.
“It’s our first phone number and a place to receive mail; it gives new people a way to find us,” said Steve Dillard, who has directed local tournaments since the 1980s. “It’s a tool that will help the game grow here.”
In researching his book, “History of the Louisville Chess Club,” Yussman found that local players have been looking for a home since at least 1865, when a group began meeting regularly at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association building on First Street.
For nearly 150 years, the city’s floating chess game drifted in and out of a variety of hotels, restaurants, community centers and shopping malls.
Yussman credits players such as St. Cyr and Dillard for keeping the game alive in Louisville. He hopes the YCC will encourage the game — and friendships — to grow.
“The other attraction, aside from competition, is that chess is just a great way to meet nice people,” Yussman said. “There’s no socioeconomic barrier at all. You put a board down between two chess players and — boom — you’re talking.”