Competitive Musical Chairs Is New York's Friendliest Contact Sport
While holding up the remains of a wooden chair that had just been smashed to pieces, a woman yelled, “I got a splinter in my butt!” A referee wearing black and white stripes hustled over with a new chair and placed it on the grass, reconstituting the circle of chairs that was just broken. An impatient young man sitting on a chair in a separate circle yelled above the crowd to the emcee, asking that three chairs be removed from all the circles instead of the customary one or two, in order to speed things along. Everyone within earshot laughed and groaned. In another circle across the field, a mediator handled what’s called a “ref situation,” involving two people who each planted one cheek on a chair when the music stopped. The referee flipped a coin to decide who would stay, and when he uncovered it on back of his hand, one woman dropped her head while another raised her fists in triumph. They shook hands and everyone cheered. Over at my circle, a woman behind me said, matter-of-factly to no one in particular, “I took shots of tequila before this.”
This was the scene at the delightful and shockingly organized madness of the eighth annual musical chairs competition in Bryant Park. On Monday night, there were, by my estimate, more than a thousand people packed into a patch of green space nestled in the heart of midtown Manhattan, and 720 of them participated. They came from all over New York City—Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx (a lone, proud, and very loud yell went up when the emcee, NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg, asked who was from Staten Island)—and from all over the world (a few shy cheers when Eisenberg asked about visitors from abroad). Some were first-time competitors and others, like this year’s eventual winner, have been participating for years. The event doesn’t impose any age or gender categories, which made for a strange but exceedingly charming mix of competitors, but it was easy to spot those who took the proceedings more seriously: their workout attire was a dead giveaway. I pegged those who looked like they just came from work as easier targets for a hip check and elimination.
The competition unfolded like any game of musical chairs, but on a much larger scale. I counted 24 circles of chairs arrayed on the grass, each with enough seats at the start to accommodate 30 people. Each circle had a ref, who handled “ref situations,” and a supervisor, responsible for removing the chairs at the direction of the emcee. The emcee set the parameters for each round: clockwise, counter clockwise, hopping on one foot, hands in the air, dancing, walking backwards, etc. The only rules were that you must keep moving, you cannot cut through the circle to get to an open chair (though you can run backwards), and there is absolutely no hovering by chairs (this one proved especially hard to enforce). DJ Flip Bundlez, who had been at the event for the past few years, played and stopped the music. For the final round, he wore a blindfold, but for the first round, as in years past, he kept an eye on it all.
“I’ve seen people almost getting in fights—not like real fights, just arguing,” he said. “I’ve seen people eating the grass.”
Because they were pushed or because they tripped?
I was at the event because my editors thought it would be a fun assignment for me, Deadspin’s evangelical Game Lover, but I was also there to compete. To prepare, I spent the week before the contest eating tape. Unfortunately, musical chairs is not a hugely popular past-time, and so the game footage available to me on YouTube was sparse: a video of the final round from last year’s Byrant Park contest, a video of the 2012 musical chairs world championship, and an adorable video of some little kids figuring out how the game works.
As I walked the few blocks from my office to the park, I was feeling pretty good about my chances. Upon arrival, though, I was directed to the end of a long line of people stretching down one entire side of the park. I started to sweat a little. I wasn’t ready to face off against this many people, especially not since so many of them were wearing athletic clothes. (I wore leggings and sneakers and jacket with big pockets for my notebook, pens, and phone. I briefly considered eye black.) As the line inched forward, I grew more nervous. There are infinite ways to spend an evening in New York City. Why were there so many people here, lined up to play a game they probably last played at a birthday party when they were seven?
After I checked in, I saw two young women chatting at a table by the stage, looking relaxed, and headed straight for them. They were Kendra Simpson and Jessica Williams, and it turned out that they were returning participants.
“I’ve done it a couple times in the past,” said Simpson, who just graduated from law school and was using the event as a break from studying for the bar exam. “But I’ve never gotten to the final circle.”
As a first-timer, I asked for any tips to help me out.
“What circle are you?” she asked and laughed, and it took me a second to realize she was being shrewd about doling out tips to potential rivals. But once we confirmed we were not in the same circle, she nodded: “It’s generally easier to try to get a chair going forward than going backwards.”
Williams added, “Since you’re shorter, you should try to get next to someone who’s taller. It’s harder for them to get down.”
Heidi and Alan Fuchs are empty-nesters in their late 50s from New Jersey who have been coming to the musical chairs event for three years.
“We started doing these things once our kids finally left the house. All four of our kids are out of college, married, kids … and we decided to start doing fun things in the city,” she said during a phone conversation after the event. “We celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary next week so we try to remember why are we married what do we do for fun and what makes us happy together.”
I saw a young couple with a baby sitting at a table near the edge of the lawn. Kimberly, who was wearing workout clothes, and Brett, who was not competing, were waiting for the competition to begin, their daughter bouncing on Brett’s lap.
“Last year I won my circle but I gave up my spot to the second place-person because I was six months pregnant,” Kimberly said, as the remarkably calm nine-month-old chewed her hand. “So this year I came back.”
At 7:20, all participants were sent to their assigned circles. Kimberly and I realized we were both in circle No. 2 and stared at each other, slightly mortified at the prospect of one of us knocking the other out. We immediately agreed to be on opposite sides. Following Williams’s advice, I tried to scan the crowd for someone taller than me, but I was one of the first to the circle so I just picked a chair and waited. On my right, a 57-year-old woman with dreadlocks named Sandy Clare—who was not wearing athletic clothes—sat down. When Eisenberg reminded everyone that no alcohol was allowed on the grass, we joked that it would be more fun to have a few drinks. She pulled out her phone to show me a bracelet that doubles as a flask. “$12.99,” she said knowingly, and I jotted down the product name and hoped I wouldn’t knock her out, either.
After a few practice rounds, it was time for the real deal. The woman to my left told me she moved her shifts at work around to participate. The bearded guy to her left was not talking to anyone and seemed zeroed in. The first few rounds were uneventful but the circle supervisor had to remind people not to shift the chairs too much after each round so as to maintain the integrity of the circle. “I’ll arrange the chairs. Don’t move them please,” she said, authoritative but patient. Gradually the circle thinned.
The music started, the music stopped, my stomach leapt, and my butt dropped to the creaky green wooden slats of the chair closest to me. In that same instant, another butt slammed down onto my right thigh. A split second later, that butt was up and sprinting to the last remaining open chair in the circle, only to see it filled just before arrival by a slightly faster butt. Grimacing, the butt’s owner threw her hands up and trudged off the field. I smiled and rubbed my leg. One more down.
At the seven previous iterations of this event, there had never been a male winner. Perhaps that’s just a statistical fluke, but I heard two compelling theories that attempted to explain female dominance of the New York City musical chairs scene: 1) Women’s powerful hips are suited for knocking the frail butts of men out of the way and 2) Chivalry hinders male competitors.
Based on my observations, both were true. In my circle, a man and a woman went for the same chair and both ended up on the grass. When they got to their feet, I thought it was surely a “ref situation” to be decided by a coin flip, but the man conceded the chair to the woman and bowed out. I also saw, though, several instances of women getting extremely physical. Early in the final round, the music stopped and a man and a woman sprinted from opposite directions for the same chair, and arrived at precisely the same time. The woman was shorter than the man, but he began the sitting motion first. Neither slowed up and they crashed head-on at full-speed, their momentum sending them to the ground. The crowd whooped and craned their necks as the woman got to her feet. There was a moment of collective concern for the man, who remained on the ground for a few seconds longer, a hand on his head, before he stood up and continued playing. Musical chairs is a contact sport.
Near the middle of the first round, after three chairs were removed in one go, my shot at becoming musical chairs champion ended. It all happened quickly (with the fog of competition and all, I didn’t even write down what song was playing when I was eliminated), but I do know that I didn’t even get close enough to an empty chair to force a ref situation. I made my way off to the side to watch the rest of the competition unfold. Kimberly, baby cuddled up to her chest, spotted me and came over to chat. She didn’t make it to the winner’s circle, either (though she lasted longer than me) and said she and her husband couldn’t stay to see the winner because they had to get their daughter home. We quickly debriefed.
“It was more intense this year,” she said. “There were more collisions.”
I asked her if she’ll be back next year and she said she will. Not only that, she laid out a very sensible strategy for next time.
“But that’s off the record.”
Eventually, the field was reduced to one final circle of chairs. Eisenberg did some crowd work, calling out a few finalists and pointing out again that there has never been a male winner. She looked at a guy in a Kylian Mbappé PSG jersey, and he soaked up the attention. “I’m excited to be the first guy to win it!” he yelled. The crowd howled. Another finalist, a young woman said, “It’s a girl’s world!” and the crowd cheered louder.
The final was intense. A few more chairs were splintered, another ref situation unfolded without drama, and a few people ended up splayed across the grass. About 15 minutes later, there were two people left, both men. One was the guy in the Mbappé jersey (also wearing athletic shorts) whose early confidence looked like it might pay off. The other was a gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair (wearing jeans) who looked like he wasn’t there to come in second.
The music started and the two men circled a lone chair and a small table. (The table was used to create space enough for the competitors to actually make something resembling a circle—it was more of a small wiggly oval than a circle, but it served the purpose.) Their circling became tighter and tighter, and there was definitely some hovering happening. Then the music stopped, and chaos reigned: Mbappé Jersey, perhaps in a panic, lunged at the chair and sort of tackled it, at which point Salt And Pepper tackled him. They were both on the ground, Mbappé Jersey on his back, clutching the chair to his chest, and Salt And Pepper sitting on top of the pile.
Everyone seemed at a loss for what should happen next. Could they really call for a “ref situation” in the final round? It was decided that they couldn’t, and that there would be a do-over. After reminding the two competitors of the rules (“You cannot touch the chair with your hands,” Eisenberg intoned on the mic), the music started up again. This time, there was less hovering. Both men made tight circles. The music stopped. Mbappé Jersey was a step closer. Salt And Pepper slipped. Mbappé Jersey in the chair. Mbappé Jersey wins.
They shook hands. Salt And Pepper smiled and applauded while Mbappé Jersey celebrated. Eisenberg called out their names and I learned Mbappé Jersey is named Richard Schmitz. He was mobbed by a dozen or so spectators who wanted to congratulate him. Several asked for pictures and he obliged happily. Eventually, his fans receded.
“[The last round] was nerve wracking,” he told me, still slightly out of breath. “I can’t believe I won.”
This was Schmitz’s fourth time competing. He’s a 29-year-old who works in software sales, and he’s serious about his musical chairs.
“If someone is hovering, call them out or crowd their space a little,” he said when asked what his advice would be for people competing in the future. “And wear athletic clothing.”
Schmitz, who said he’s competitive by nature, also volunteered that he was the New York State mile champion in high school with a personal best of 4:07.
“I don’t know what’s bigger: state champ or musical chairs champ.”
Earlier in the evening, Susie Sigel, the special projects coordinator for the Bryant Park Corporation (many New York City parks are not actually managed by the city), told me that the biggest issue this event faces every year isn’t broken chairs or injuries or squabbles, but weather. Monday’s event, which had nearly double the number of participants of the inaugural 2011 competition, was the first in five years that wasn’t derailed by a rain delay. This was one of those rare New York nights where all the chill has left the air, but the summer’s oppressive humidity hasn’t yet arrived to give the city its seasonal scent of fermenting garbage. The low sun streaming down 41st street between the skyscrapers created a perfect block of light on the wall of the New York Public Library, and turned the fountain on the West side of the park to gold. A circle of onlookers gathered around that, too.
The perfect weather, combined with the pure spectacle of a 720-person game of musical chairs, lured crowds of curious viewers to the park throughout the event. Some took a peek and left, others stuck around so that by the time the final round was underway, a huge circle, some 10-people deep, had gathered to watch. A good chunk of the crowd was made up of competitors who had been eliminated, but still chose to hang around, invested in how this supercharged child’s game would all play out. Even after it was all over, people lingered on the dark lawn talking to friends and strangers, reluctant to leave just yet.
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