At the epicenter of international community in the Northwest: a novelty sized chessboard in Bellevue’s Crossroads Mall.
Aavir is deliberating. He stares at his pieces intently while his opponent, Elise, tugs at her pink skirt in apprehension. Finally, clasping a bishop with both hands, he waddles the oversize chess piece to a new square. Behind him a cadre of old, grizzled-looking Eastern European men smile at the maneuver.
Nationally-ranked chess Master and Chess4Life founder Elliott Neff glances at the board to make sure rules are being obeyed and the six-year-olds resume their sparring.
This moment of intergenerational gameplay is standard practice at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, where diversity and chess go hand in hand.
“First of all, we’re comfortable,” explains Roz Liming, Crossroads’ Events and Community Relations director. “We have the nickname of being the living room of the Eastside. We encourage people to meet here.”
With an ethnic food court, an in-house mini city hall and a calendar bursting with concerts and community gatherings, it’s not hard to see Crossroads’ appeal to Bellevue’s large immigrant population.
But nowhere is the cross-cultural collision more visible than the mall’s gaming area. And here chess rules.
For over twenty years, an oversize chess set has drawn players and spectators to the mall’s leftmost corner, where new friendships are as common as checkmates.
Anand Mehta didn’t know many people when he moved to Bellevue from Cleveland, OH. Granted, the contractor was familiar with relocation—he
was born grew up in South India and Tanzania before coming to America.
Luckily, Crossroads was right across the street. Itching to improve his chess game, Mehta started visiting the mall four times a week and racking up friends in the process.
“I was in Cleveland for ten years and for
one year three years here,” he said. “But I met as many people [here] as I meet there in ten years, primarily because of Crossroads.”
His acquaintances were as diverse as they were numerous.
“I’ve met people I would never [have] imagined interacting with otherwise,” he said. “Here I [could meet] somebody who might be worth a million bucks. Or another guy who sells roses on the street. You have this huge range of characters here.”
Hristo Arabadjiev found more than companionship within Crossroads’ chess community. He found employment. After immigrating to the USA from Bulgaria, Arabadjiev was making due as a poker dealer in Ballard, but his true passions had always lain with chess and music.
A friend recommended Crossroads and Arabadjiev began attending religiously. One game led to another and soon the talented 56-year-old was introduced to Master Elliott Neff. Impressed with his skills, Neff offered Arabadjiev a full time job coaching children at Chess4Life.
“When I started working at Chess4Life, I have feeling I’m not working, I’m doing my hobby,” Arabadjiev said with an accent and a smile.
Some of Crossroads’ strongest chess players come from opposite sides of the globe, but the language barrier is never an issue.
“English is not so important in this case,” Arabadjiev explained. “The main language here is chess. We can understand each other…chess is international.”
Want to get involved in the Crossroads chess scene? All you need to do is show up!
The Game Lane is located in the north wing of the mall, right in front of Uncle’s Games and the KCLS Library Connection. Tabletop matches are played at all times of the day, so you can bring your own mat and chess pieces or join in on someone else’s game with a nod and a handshake.
Hours on the oversize chess set are a bit more restricted: 4 p.m. until closing on weekdays and 11 a.m. until closing on weekends.
Crossroads hosts Family Game Night on the second Saturday of every month, complete with a balloon artist and kids’ chess coaches from Chess4Life.
This article has been updated since it’s original publication.