Anybody for Chess?


Euan Prentis

Cornbread, a famous Washington Square Park chess player, has been playing chess for 20 years in the park.

Imani Johnson, Contributing Writer

“Anybody for chess?” says a middle-aged black man, with a mouth of 16 teeth and a shaved head — except for the two long braids that run down the back of his white t-shirt. His voice is as vibrant as the beautiful Wednesday afternoon where he sits on the west side of Washington Square Park. You can hear the confidence in his chess game as he invites the individuals walking by to join him for a match.

Cornbread — as he’s known in and out of the park — is an avid chess player who has been playing in the park for 20 years now.

“I’m probably one of the most famous [chess] players in the country,” Cornbread said.

You can usually find him at the chess tables whenever there is nice weather. Cornbread learned how to play chess in Washington Square Park, the very park he now stays in almost every day.

“[Just] like I do now, [I play] anybody and everybody,” Cornbread said.

He first learned how to play chess through pick-up games in the park before fine-tuning his technique by studying books.

“At first I thought I could do it myself, but chess you really can’t do yourself,” Cornbread said. “You have to have instructions, something to instruct you.”

Cornbread has not always been committed to the game of chess — in fact, he fell into the game of chess by accident.

“I wasn’t always a good dude… chess calmed me down. It really calmed me down,” Cornbread said.

As a young man, Cornbread was purely motivated by money. He expressed how as he got older his mindset began to change. He resentfully stated he used to be involved in “bad elements,” but as he got older he realized  he needed to learn a new trade.

“Chess has more options, there’s other options [for money],” Cornbread said.

The way Cornbread plays is based on a betting system.

“They can win five dollars or I can win five dollars. It’s not a bad deal,” he said.

Besides the money, the game of chess has brought Cornbread some new realizations.

“It’s all in my thinking, the way I think. I had some bad behaviors, you know, based on my thought pattern, and [my behavior] changed because of chess,” Cornbread said.

Cornbread continued to explain how chess is therapeutic and even helps him break out of his shell. Cornbread described the bond between the community of chess players that he has been a part of for decades. He is familiar with a majority of the faces you’ll see in the park on a normal basis.

“I’m an introvert, but you can’t tell because of chess,” Cornbread said. “For me, chess releases awkwardness to allow me to communicate with people.”

The chess players win or lose money off of each other. Cornbread continually starts conversation with other chess players and, frequently, even spectators from the community. Interestingly enough, he knows the spectators just as well as the other chess players.

He is never afraid to say, “Cornbread is extraordinary, tell all your friends about me.”  

Cornbread describes himself as very competitive. His sense of rivalry has kept him involved in the game of chess. His favorite part of the game is the win. Between his early days playing pick-up chess and now, he has definitely improved. He continually plays because he doesn’t like to lose. However he’s never kept a track record of his statistics. Many of his games are documented in other ways, such as Youtube videos.

“Youtube, Worldstar and any other video source, you’ll see me with close to one million hits,” Cornbread said.

Sure enough, a Google search of “cornbread chess player” provides you with videos that might not have millions of views, but are still very popular.

Playing in the park has broadened Cornbread’s horizons. He has played three grand masters and won. He says the tournaments were the most interesting and exciting games he’s played.

“They did not want me to know they were grand masters,” Cornbread said. “I seen in the game the strength level.”

This experience opened Cornbread’s eyes to his position to opportunities in Washington Square Park.

“That showed me the fact that there would be people coming here that’s better than the regular people that I’m playing,” Cornbread said.

There is much more to the chess players than what is shown to the community. However, when asked what he wanted to be remembered as besides a chess player, Cornbread proudly replied, “a chess player.”

“Whoever thought that has the right idea,” Cornbread said.

Email Imani Johnson at [email protected]