Outdoor Chess: St. Augustine

by Alexey Root
12/9/2020 – St. Augustine, Florida, is America’s oldest continuously inhabited, European-established city. At its center is a pavilion, now called the Plaza de la Constitución but historically known as the slave market. Estelle Thibodeau reintroduced chess to that plaza and to a pizzeria, as told to Woman International Master Alexey Root. | Pictured: Estelle Thibodeau | Photo: Jennifer Jordan

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Plaza de la Constitución

Estelle ThibodeauThis 1939 description of the Plaza de la Constitución mentions chess:

At the east end of the Plaza is the SLAVE MARKET, an open, shedlike structure built in 1824 to replace the original market on this site which dated back to 1598, and was used for public auctioning of provisions and slaves. The present structure, with its low gabled roof, square cupola, and simple square columns, is provided with tables for checkers, chess, and dominoes.

Since Estelle Thibodeau lived within walking distance of the Plaza de la Constitución, she reintroduced chess there. Starting in 2017, on most Saturday mornings she brought tables, a few small chairs, and several sets and boards. She hoped for city support. Instead, she said, “the city put up no trespassing signs to deter the homeless people from sleeping in the Plaza de la Constitución all day. However, I played chess with several of them.”

[Pictured: Estelle Thibodeau in 2007 at the Marion Street Café | Photo: Lake City Advertiser]

Borrillo’s Pizzeria

In November of 2018, Delia McKaine and Gerry O’Hare, owners of Borrillo’s Pizzeria and Beer & Wine Garden, offered to host a weekly chess meet-up. As a friend of the owners, Thibodeau moved her chess efforts from the Plaza de la Constitución to the “Cheesy Chess Club” at Borrillo’s. Thibodeau recalls that the winter of 2018-2019 was exceptionally cold, and that construction at Borrillo’s canceled several meetings. Normally, however, St. Augustine’s high temperatures for December through February are in the upper 60s, perfect for outdoor chess in the winter. The garden has picnic-size tables, which fit two boards per table. The chess games are casual and happen every Wednesday evening. Some players use chess clocks, others do not.

Cheesy Chess Club

The “Cheesy Chess Club” at Borrillo’s Pizzeria | Photo: Jennifer Jordan

The Queen’s Gambit

Thibodeau thinks the attendance each Wednesday will rise because of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. For example, Roberta Jennings, a 75-year-old woman who watched the series, came to the Cheesy Chess Club for the first time on Wednesday, November 18. Jennings also brought her friend, Claire. They both had heard about the Cheesy Chess Club from a social media post on The Queen’s Gambit. Thibodeau believes the appeal of the The Queen’s Gambit series is due to its main character’s qualities of beauty and intelligence. On November 25, eight women (including Thibodeau) attended on a 33-player night.

Chess Beginnings

Almost 20 years ago, Thibodeau owned The Marion Street Café in Lake City, Florida. She bought chess sets because she thought the chessmen were pretty. She learned how to play by watching her customers play. Thibodeau became fascinated by the history of chess, particularly Queen Isabella and her possible influence on the increased power of the chess queen, which she learned about in The Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom.

After learning chess, Thibodeau and her friend Jacqueline carried a chess set everywhere they went. They would play at bars, coffee shops, and music venues, and, more often than not, would play other people too. Thibodeau said, “two attractive women playing chess, someone always wants to play the winner.”

Cheesy Chess Club

Pets are allowed at the outdoor chess club | Photo: Jennifer Jordan

Thibodeau’s Gambit

Nowadays, Thibodeau’s dream is to bring chess back to the Plaza de la Constitución. She envisions a living chess game, a tournament, and casual chess, perhaps inaugurated on National Chess Day, the second Saturday each October. In the meantime, the Cheesy Chess Club continues Thibodeau’s gambit to “reach out to the ordinary and the extraordinary and share this historic and timeless game.”

Co-author

Estelle Thibodeau posted in Facebook’s Members of the USCF (United States Chess Federation) group about the Cheesy Chess Club. As a member of that Facebook group, and being among the 96% of Americans who likes cheese, I wanted to learn about her Cheesy Chess Club. All photos of the November 25, 2020 meeting of the Cheesy Chess Club were taken by Jennifer Jordan, who owns Veggin in St. Augustine.

If you would like to be my next co-author, email editor@chessbase.com or contact me via Facebook.


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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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puzzledpawn puzzledpawn 12/10/2020 12:27
Wow, look at all the people sitting close together, and none of them wearing a mask!
Lou Hill Lou Hill 12/9/2020 09:33
A great read, and a good insight on the Saint Augustine chess scene.
shananorama shananorama 12/9/2020 03:34
So proud of what Estelle has built! She's a wonderful
woman who shares her passion for chess and life with all she meets.
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