Imad Khachan is not what he seems. At first glance, he’s a graying, soft-spoken man, with a round face and wide eyes, an easy smile and a polite word. As you converse with him, the layers appear: the student of English literature, the theologist, the purveyor of fine white teas, the cinephile, the man with a wicked New York sense of humor and penchant for quotable quotes, the Palestinian refugee.
Khachan is the owner and founder of The Chess Forum, a one-stop shop for everything chess related, where you can spend $20 or $20,000 on a chess board. The heart of the Forum is its “cafe,” a series of tables set up for the sole purpose of playing chess.
“I always thought of three things for success – good prices, good quality, and good treatment,” said Khachan, “This is your home away from home. You have money, it’s fine. You don’t have money, it’s not going to be an issue. There’s always next time.” The Chess Forum charges a nominal fee of $5 an hour for anyone looking to play. Children under 18 play for free and adults over 65 get a discount. It stays open until midnight on most nights and even later when a particularly engrossing game is afoot.
“This is an experience, not a transaction,” shared Khachan, revealing his ideology. Yet this has sometimes curbed his financial success. He spoke of days when he would survive on two eggs and a cup of yogurt a day, use soap instead of shaving foam and tea bags instead of his beloved white tea, all to keep the store afloat.
Khachan is no stranger to struggle. His formative years were spent in refugee camps in Lebanon, escaping multiple conflict zones that maimed his family. A degree in literature in Syria opened up a door for him to pursue an education in America. He arrived in New York City in 1987 and opened The Chess Forum in 1995.
“I had no money,” said Khachan, “I borrowed my father’s retirement money to open a place in ‘95. And I needed every dollar. The place is not known. You think the minute you open, people will be lining up. Big fallacy. That’s why I think they say nine out of 10 businesses fail.”
He went on to describe how hard it was at first, with an upswing in the late 90s and early 2000s. Then came the advent of the smartphone and the internet, when a majority of amateur players went online in search of chess games. “It was the end of the 20th century and all that mindset of brick-and-mortar was going out slowly,” he said.
The Chess Forum was a printing press when Khachan took it over. But before that, in the 60s and 70s, it was called the Chess Studio. Bobby Fisher and Stanley Kubrick were frequent visitors. The owner back then was Nicholas Rossolimo, a grandmaster with an artistic style of play who tragically fell to his death from a building.
For Khachan, this was a resurrection of an important public space in New York City, located just a couple of blocks south of Washington Square Park. Even in its current avatar, the Forum attracts all kinds of people, from NYU professors to cabbies, and army vets to children, all looking for a satisfying game. Celebrities also find their way here, seeking to test their chops against the best. Among them, David Lee Roth, Robert Plant, Josh Brolin, Pete Davidson, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts, who is a serious player. Chris Rock would come in for weekly classes.
“This is a thinking city that is one of the capitals of the chess world,” said Khachan, “New York is basically a factory for talent and the Chess Forum is a microcosm for the city. The next world champion is gonna be either Indian or Chinese.”
“I wanted to create a space from scratch, where young people would come. They might become world champions or grandmasters but that’s the icing on the cake.The real cake is creating a decent human being,” added Khachan.
The next big challenge for the Chess Forum was the pandemic, when they had to shut down like so many other New York small businesses. They were on the brink of bankruptcy when the series “The Queen’s Gambit” was released in late 2020. “Queens Gambit saved us during the pandemic,” said Khachan. He went from no business to sleepless nights filing out orders and shipping them out across the country. It was a cultural moment that saved an entire industry.
At its heart, the Chess Forum remains a chess nucleus, where people can gather to play, drink, eat and most importantly, converse, unlike in more serious chess spaces.For Khachan, chess is a metaphor for life.
“Don’t go unprepared,” he shared, “Play your best game. Think before you move. If you see a good move, don’t make it, look for a better move. If you win, don’t brag. If you lose, don’t sulk.
Therefore, winning and losing is life.”
Beyond the realm of the abstract, he has a more sensory approach to running his small business.
“You’re here to have a good time over a game. Bring your food, wine, drink, coffee, tea, just come and just enjoy.”
In addition to customers, the Chess Forum is actively seeking funding to keep its doors open for newer generations of players. Reach out to Imad Khachan here at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-475-2369.