A Source of Inspiration, On And Off The Board

by Richard Fireman

A fountain is the emergence of the essence of life from within the earth; Fountain House is a place where the inner spirit of people is nurtured so that it too can come forth in life. It is a social and recreational rehabilitative center for discharged psychiatric patients which facilitates their individual growth and re-integration into the community, and it has become a model for its kind of organization. It is a proud example of humanitarian effort, a success for the human spirit. And one of its most successful chapters is its chess club.

Opening the door of the attractive red brick building on Manhattan's West 47th Street, one of the first signs one notices is an invitation by the center's chessplayers to attend their Thursday meetings, held in the library, to players and non-players alike. The surroundings are pleasant and the members friendly and welcoming, as warm and supportive as the philosophy of Fountain House: encouraging, positive, extending. The "Fountain House Model" extends, indeed to 172 clubhouses in this country alone, and internationally to brothers in Poland, Pakistan, Sweden, and Australia. On my first visit some observers from Norway dropped by, taking notes to include the chess club in their plans for their proposed center.

I suggested to one of the staff, co-founder Mike Richardson (he modestly insists the real credit should go to the members themselves; his role is more that of a supervisor) that they have a trans-oceanic correspondence game, and his eyes lit up with enthusiasm. Already on the board were plans for a match with another foundation in the city, and the club has initiated its own internal tournaments, as well as, of course, friendly skittles chess. The limited amount of equipment -- e.g., only one chess clock and only a couple of books, though one of the strongest members, an A-player, boasts a home collection of 500! -- does nothing to limit the inspiration of the players, keenly absorbed in the intricacies of the Royal Game. Indeed, all of the players -- young and old, man and woman, Black and White -- radiated an aura of directed interest as strong as the latest theoretical novelty. The great range of ability and over-the-board experience was another of the facts of life to be accepted and enjoyed, another challenge to be met, another means to growth. Liveliness prevailed, as in the following game from a 5-board simul:

Fireman - N.N.:
1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4 d6 4. Nf3 Bg4 5. Bc4 Nd4 6. 0-0 (I wasn't worried yet; e.g., Fireman-Chall, NY Commercial Chess League Individual Championship 1983, went 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. f4 d6 4. Bc4 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bg4 6. d3 Qd7 7. 0-0 Nd4 8. Be3 Nxf3+ 9. gxf3 Bh3 10. Rf2 exf4 11. Bxf4 0-0-0 12. a4 h6 13. a5 g5 14. Be3 a6 15. b4 c6 16. Na4 Qe7 17. Bb6 Re8 18. Rb1 Be6 19. Bxe6 fxe6 20. c4 Nd7 21. b5 Nb8 22. Ba7 Kc7 23. bxa6 Nxa6 24. Rfb2 b5 25. cxb5 cxb5 26. Rxb5, resigns to the inevitable. However, there I was playing sensibly...), Nxf3+ 7. gxf3 Bh3 8. Rf2 d5?! 9. exd5? (Dumb. Had I actually spent some thought on the position, I would have played 9. Nxd5 so that if 9...Bc5; 10. Ne3. As it was, however...) Bc5 10. d4!? Bxd4 11. Bb5+ Bd7 12. Qe2 Bxf2+ 13. Kxf2 Qh4+ 14. Kg2 (hoping for...) Qh3+ (now it's harder for the Q to get back for defense later) 15. Kg1 0-0-0 16. fxe5 Ne7 (Will this guy stop developing, already, and give me a chance? Sheesh...) 17. Bf4 a6 18. Bc4 (maybe Bxa6?! or a4?!) Rhe8 19. Ne4 Bf5? (...Ng6 immediately would've gotten me upset) 20. Nc5 Ng6 21. Bg3 Nh4 22. Nxb7?! (Bxa6! Nxf3+! Kh1!) Kxb7 (Black could go for a draw here with ...Nxf3+; Kh1 Nd4; Qe3 Nxc2, as White's Q must beware ...Be4+) 23. Bxa6+ Ka7? (Ka8) 24. Bf2+ Kb8?? 25. Qb5+ Ka8 26. Qc6+ [yes, I actually missed the immediate Qb7 mate! However, I am fairly confident that I would've found it next move. Apparently, so was my opponent, since ...) resigns.

Whew! Now I know how Sugar Ray Leonard felt against Tommy Hearns. Well, maybe not quite...

Talking with my opponent after the game, I was impressed with his attitude. He was not sulking or complaining, as might have been expected in an ordinary chess club where the player "cheated" of his victory often evinces a sour-grapes expression; instead, he calmly shook hands and asked if he might learn where he went wrong. This positive approach could be seen elsewhere in the club as well: members analyze their games together, share equipment, teach those less knowledgeable and listen to those more so. As in prison chess clubs, where studies have shown that members have a significantly less degree of recidivism, it was evident here that chess had had a very constructive contribution to the personality of the individuals involved; such qualities as patience, foresight, objectivity, logic, planning, adaptability, intuition, caution, and seeing-things-from-the- other's-point-of-view [i.e., empathy] could be learned from chess, after all, and applied to the larger game of life. We only start out as duffers, Dr. Lasker; there is room for improvement in all of us. The capacity for transformation was perhaps best exemplified by another staff member and chessplayer, Mark. Helpful and personable, he proudly conducted me on a tour of the facilities, pointing out how the members interacted in many ways, always helping each other when the opportunity presented itself; cooperation was the key here, not competition. There was no one-upsmanship, no Fischeresque crushing of the opponent's ego here, nor anywhere in the center that I could see.

When Mark told me that he was a former patient, I was amazed; but I should not have been. I should have realized that here was simply a prime example of the philosophy-turned-practice of the foundation, an uplifting and humanistic expression in accord with the atomosphere of this voluntary, non-profit organization. It was, perhaps, best expressed by its Executive Director for 27 years, John H. Beard:
" The mentally ill have the same needs as every other human being: if a world could be built to meet those needs, in a special way, such men and women could make genuine contributions to their own well being, and to the well being of others."
Fountain House: a re-freshing source. Let us listen, and learn.

Richard Fireman
Morganville, New Jersey

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