Leisure

Face to Face Chess

As the world of competitive chess changes in the computer era, groups like the Western Massachusetts Chess Association keep the game alive.


Thursday, April 05, 2012
Photo By Daniel Platt
In round 2, Michael Zyra, Jr. (left) and Donald Richard (right) squared off.

A small crowd had started to gather. Mostly men in their forties, fifties and sixties, they circled around one end of a long collapsible table and studied the board. Alexander George, cocooned within a gray cardigan, sage-colored scarf and black baseball cap, pondered it as well, seemingly unaware of the eyes upon him, while his opponent, Gaetano Bonpastore, glanced nervously around the room and cupped his hands around his face like blinders.

Their knights had been hooking around the center squares for nearly 30 minutes—positioning, threatening, retreating, repositioning—when suddenly George broke through. He slid his rook off to the side, freeing up a critical spot in Bonpastore's back left corner, and then advanced his knight forward, forking his opponent's rooks and gaining a critical advantage. The game continued for another 15 or 20 moves, but George was in control. When the checkmate finally came, Bonpastore barked, "Spectacle's over," and stormed out of the room.

The Western Massachusetts Connecticut Valley Chess Championship is the main annual event of the Western Massachusetts Chess Association (WMCA). While the organization hosts a handful of other competitions—some smaller, like the St. Nick Amateur, and some larger, like the Western New England Open—this is the Le Mans to their Daytona 500: older, quieter, more prestigious.

There is no cash prize. Instead, the men who met in the Amherst College Alumni House on February 25 and 26 played for the privilege of having their name engraved on a revolving trophy that has traveled through the homes of the area's top chess players for the past 87 years.

When I arrived at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning, the tastefully appointed building was largely empty save for a few WMCA organizers and two middle-aged men from Connecticut, Donald Richard and Michael Cararini. Richard and Cararini had driven up from Bristol and would drive back that evening. Unranked, their hope was to earn one of the smaller trophies for best play at their level. When another competitor later asked if he had much tournament experience, Richard, a shorter man of 62 with a graying beard as wiry as his frame, nodded toward Cararini and said, "Well, I play primarily with this gentleman."

Joining them soon were a dozen or so others, uniquely New England in their mix of white collar and blue collar, academic and unemployed. This, I was told by Michael Zyra, Jr., a retired utility worker from Westfield, is part of what makes the game so special—its universality. "I could go to a café anywhere in the world, and if I saw people playing chess, I could gesture toward the board and start playing," he remarked. "Whatever the language, doesn't matter."

Indeed, as the first round of games began at 9:45, conversations waned to a whisper and a brief symphony of cell phones powering down gave way to total silence, punctuated only by the sliding of pawns and the occasional chirp of the chess clocks. Twelve players faced off across five or six long tables set up in the center of the dignified Alumni House. Leather-bound books lined the walls of two adjoining alcoves, and a set of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the green gave the tournament a bright, bucolic backdrop.

At 9:50, the first pieces were taken—a knight traded for a bishop—and by 10:02 the first king had been captured, as Don Richard fell to an efficient queen-knight attack from Ron Gist, one of the event's organizers. Next to go was Richard Gold, the retired UMass professor of psychology defeated by George, a current professor of philosophy at Amherst College. "I messed up the opening," Gold later explained, adding that players who are rated in the 1700s, like George, typically find a way to beat players rated in the 1500s, like Gold.

The tournament was organized according to the Swiss System, meaning that whoever earned the most points after five rounds—one point for a win, half a point for a draw—would take home the grand trophy. Three rounds would take place on Saturday and two on Sunday, with an accelerated one-day option for those could only make it on Sunday. Each player had 90 minutes per game (45 for those on the one-day schedule)—enough time to be patient, but not quite enough to be leisurely.

In between Saturday's three rounds, the players meandered about the area, some dipping into downtown Amherst for coffee or snacks and others hanging around the Alumni House to study their logbooks and replay their games, searching for the turning point when victory was certain or defeat inevitable.

*

Amidst the intersession chatter, one name surfaced in conversations again and again, slicing through the din like a bishop sniping an orphaned pawn: Magnus Carlsen, the Mozart of chess. It was not surprising. Carlsen is the most exciting thing to happen to the game in 30 years.

Born in Norway in 1990, he became a grand master at the age of 13 and the world's top-ranked player at the age of 19—the youngest person in history to achieve that status. His peak ranking of 2835 is second historically only to his former mentor Garry Kasparov's 2851, and recent profiles on 60 Minutes and in the New Yorker have quickly turned him into an international celebrity.

The source of Carlsen's strength is his unconventional relationship with computers, which makes him unique among his peers and, in a sense, a throwback to a time before organizations like the WMCA and events like the Chess Championship were endangered species. For most of modern history, there were two ways to get better at chess: reading about it and playing it in clubs and at tournaments. These spaces provided an opportunity for individuals to play a lot of chess against different people with distinct styles.

Now anyone who wants to can play a lot of chess at any time of the day against a punishing yet artless opponent—the computer.

Carlsen doesn't train that way, which means that his game is more elegant and positional than his peers are used to, which has allowed him to dominate the chess world in short order. But he is an exception, and the rise of chess programs and live chess websites—which Carlsen does visit—has sapped the old clubs of a generation of players, threatening even the most venerated of institutions.

In 2002, the Manhattan Chess Club, once home to such luminaries as Bobby Fischer and Arnold Denker, was driven to extinction by escalating rent and dwindling membership. Zyra, who finished this year's Saturday rounds in second place, could recall the WMCA Championship drawing 60 or 70 people in decades past. For Sunday's rounds, the Alumni House held 22 competitors.

Among the new arrivals for the one-day schedule was Derek Meredith, a small business owner from New Britain, Conn. Tall, calm and conversational, dressed in blue jeans and a pair of old sneakers, he looked more like a high school football coach than a meticulous and exacting student of the game.

But Meredith, who achieved Master status at the age of 50 last July, was there to win. By the end of the accelerated morning schedule, he had handedly disposed of his opponents, including four-time WMCA champion Robert Campbell, and after a nail-biting loss to Leonid Tkach, who fell to Campbell in the championship game last year, he entered the fifth and final round in a four-way tie for first, along with Campbell, Tkach and Zyra.

Meredith only got into competitive chess eight years ago, and he attributes his rapid development to study sessions with the New Britain Chess Club and his frequent participation in tournaments. "I probably play more than anybody else in Connecticut," he hazarded.

I asked him if anything would really be lost if computers eventually did away with local clubs and competitions—if events like the WMCA Championship, which featured only one player under the age of 30, were just a generational preference, like vinyl records or land line telephones.

After spending the weekend at the Alumni House, watching friends reunite and swap stories about places they'd been and games they'd played in, I expected Meredith to say something about the social experience. He didn't. "Losing a chess game in person is the most difficult thing any of us do. You're putting your ego on the line," he responded, suggesting that the game itself is different—more demanding, more draining—when it's played in front of other people.

Zyra concurred, describing tournament chess as a test of character. "You have to learn humility," he explained, citing a trait not common yet perhaps never more valuable than in our unregulated, boom-and-bust era.

*

In the final round, Meredith defeated Zyra, giving him four points out of a possible five and reaffirming Gold's observation, altered slightly, that players rated in the 2200s typically find a way to beat those rated in the 1600s.

Tkach and Campbell played to a draw, earning them each a half point and thus delivering the great trophy to Meredith, who also won in 2009. No player left the weekend undefeated—excluding Gist, who won three games on Saturday but stayed home sick on Sunday—but some won more than others. Meredith entered the club of multiple champions, joining, among others, Joseph Platz, a doctor from Germany, who took the trophy home every year from 1954 to 1960 and who beat Bobby Fischer in Hartford in 1964. Richard won a smaller trophy for best unranked player after his victory over Cararini in the fourth round.

And Zyra won a long night of contemplation. "When I get home, I won't be able to sleep," he told me as he left the Alumni House, heading back to Westfield. "I'll be thinking about the games."

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