How the country’s second-oldest chess club is surviving in a Center City basement

 In July of 1956, a precocious 13-year-old walked into the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club at 1616 Locust St. He left the youngest United States junior champion in history.  

“Boy, 13, Captures Chess Laurels,” read an Inquirer headline the following day.

The boy in question? Just an upstart from the Big Apple by the name of Bobby Fischer.

Fischer’s early triumph is only one of many Philadelphia chess milestones: There’s the first-ever reported game of chess in America, said to have been played by Ben Franklin himself; the first book of chess published in States; the series of matches played via telegram between Philadelphia and New York in 1858; and of course, the founding of the Franklin Chess Club (later combined with the Mercantile Club in the 1950s) in 1885.

That makes it the second-oldest U.S. chess club still playing.

Fischer is by no means the only superstar to have checkmated on the boards of Franklin-Mercantile. There was World Champion Emanuel Lasker who visited in 1892. And blindfold chess expert Harry Nelson Pillsbury, who came the following year. Back then, the men of the club played in suit and tie, on marble floors and engraved tables.

Today, members reside in a rented basement room of an anonymous brownstone at 2012 Walnut St and pay $75 for a year-long membership. Marble has been swapped for linoleum….

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