Greenwich Village is not where you’d expect a skirmish in the culture war over vaccination. Yet, there it was, at the venerable Marshall Chess Club on West Tenth Street.
The club, trying to reopen safely after a year locked-down, told members that for now they would have to be vaccinated to play in person.
But one member thought this was authoritarian. He protested the restriction so vehemently, including an amplified rally outside while matches were underway inside, that the club revoked his membership for five years.
“Our sincere desire lies in ensuring the safety of the Club for the greatest number of people, and at this time we believe that guaranteeing an environment exclusively for vaccinated people is the most prudent way to begin the transition back to business as usual,” the president of the club, Noah Chasin, wrote to the membership.
“This is bigger than chess,” replied the ousted chess player, Anthony Kozikowski, recorded during his protest outside the club. “When people are beginning to be coerced to take experimental vaccinations, that places a lot of power into the hands of very, very, very, very corrupt pharmaceutical companies and a very corrupt Food and Drug Administration.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as a collision of zealous club leaders with the trust issues of a vaccine-resistant member.
But this episode at Marshall, the second oldest chess club in America, encapsulates one of the biggest challenges facing New York, and the country, in the fight to tamp down the pandemic.
Political leaders have placed their public health bet on vaccinating enough people to reopen safely. But large numbers have been slow to roll up their sleeves. Some are just busy, or cautious and are coming around bit-by-bit.
Then there is a core group like Anthony Kozikowski who are deeply resistant. “I feel more comfortable with Vitamin D and ginger,” he explained.
You can call them anti-vaxxers, or let them call themselves concerned citizens, as they do. But what you can’t do is call them in for a vaccine appointment. Between ten and twenty percent of the city falls into this strongly resistant category, estimated Mark Levine, the chair of the city council health committee, who last week proposed an intensified effort to reach unvaccinated New Yorkers.
Levine called for creation of a local Vax Pass so venues and employers could verify the COVID-19 status of New Yorkers. Levine, however, said that proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test should be acceptable in most situations. Levine said he hoped that the “hassle” of repeated testing would encourage more and more New Yorkers to get vaccinated without having to force the issue.
A few venues, like pop-up clubs, are demanding proof of vaccination and Broadway theater operators are considering whether proof of vaccination will be necessary so they can reopen to full houses in September.
But most venues and employers, including New York City itself, are giving the option of either vaccination or a negative test result, precisely to avoid the conflict the Marshall Club found itself in.
Marshall Chess Club was founded in 1915, although no one seems to have any record of how the club handled its first major pandemic, of influenza in 1918. In any case, the club only settled into its current headquarters, a townhouse at 23 West 10th street, after it was purchased by grandmaster Frank J Marshall and a group of other members in 1931.
The club has become the dominant locale for New York Chess, both teaching and competitions.
The lockdown was a serious blow. “You can’t play a socially distanced game of chess,” said Bryan Quick, the club’s executive director. “It’s not possible.” It was particularly difficult to police cheating in online competitions, he said.
Kozikowski said he had been eager to get back to the club. He makes his living teaching chess and before the pandemic had been on a quest to achieve the US Chess Federation title of life master, which requires him to play 300 sanctioned games in which he achieves a rating of 2200 or above.
He had been at a rating of 2156.
“I didn’t want to get myself kicked out of the club,” he said. “The place was kind of like my fraternity house.”
Kozikowski acknowledges his protest emails might have been “hysterical,” in the sense of funny. Here, for example, is his email to the club in which he proposed a compromise to accommodate those who did not want to be vaccinated:
“Heeeeyyyy, since this isn’t politically motivated or anything why not just have the members with out tails play each other Mon Wednesday Friday, and the guinea pigs play Tuesday Thursday and Saturday!!!! The board didn’t have a two thirds majority to suspend the biologically sovereign and that’s a violation of the bilaws.”
But this is not what lead to the expulsion, the club insists. “I can state, unequivocally, that no member would face disciplinary action by the club for their views on vaccination or for refusing to get vaccinated,” said Quick.
What did it, apparently, was the loud rally outside the club on their first day back inside.
“By attending and organizing a protest that disrupted an event at the Club on April 15, 2021, and inhibiting Marshall members’ ability to play their games without interference and interruption, you are in violation of both Section 8 of Article One and Article Four of the club’s bylaws,” Kozikowski was informed in an email signed, Board of Governors.
“You are hereby informed that (i) your membership to the Marshall Chess Club has been revoked for a period of five years; (ii) you are barred from entering the Club premises during this time; and (iii) you are prohibited from communicating with Board members (via email, phone, text, or other means) during this time. You may appeal for reinstatement after a period of three years.”
This may well have been within the club’s right to set its own rules, although Kazikowski argues the Constitution should supersede club by-laws.
What this standoff clearly did not accomplish, and what no one has figured out yet how to do, is to get the deeply mistrustful, like Kozikowski, to do what the rest of society wants them to do: get vaccinated.
Kozikowski argues that public skepticism of drug manufacturers is far more widespread than is captured by focusing on the 10 to 20 percent who are most resistant.
“I’m heartbroken to be thrown out of the club,” said Kozikowski, complaining that it will be a “pain” to have to play in New Jersey and Connecticut, “but I’m willing to do so. I’d be far more frustrated to get my genetics tinkered with by Pfizer.”
“I don’t think it’s insane to be skeptical of Big Pharma,” he added. “We should not be mandated to take these things to get into clubs.”
“You can’t play a socially distanced game of chess. It’s not possible.” Bryan Quick, executive director of Marshall Chess Club