September 27, 2007

Mysteries of an Ancient Game

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Chess is a game with a serious public relations problem. Too often mystified, the game’s image has been blurred by historic wunderkinds, peculiar Russian Grandmasters, hustlers in Washington Square Park and, well, how can I put this … math majors. But I for one am intrigued by the elusive art, and decided to play a few games with the Cornell Chess Club this past Monday.
“He’s pretty, umm,” started Chris Beyers ’10, chess club president.
“Bad,” I finished, as I completed what Beyers meant to say about me. Beyers chuckled as he described my abilities to club member Sierra Hooshiari ’11.
Beyers had just beaten me in about 10 minutes. I was a little anxious and sacrificed my queen too early; and then went my rook, both bishops, a knight and sooner than I expected it was Checkmate.
Realizing I was not quite up to speed with the president of the club, I decided to challenge Hooshiari. She gladly accepted; “I haven’t played in a while,” she said.
Again, I was aggressive with my queen. I sent her out to the front line and after about 15 minuets it became evident to everybody in the room — except me! — that I could win the game in under three moves.
Hooshiari broke down in laughter at my ignorance. She realized, of course, my obvious path to victory that I remained too dense to see. But, I decided that enough was enough, and so, I killed her bishop, advanced my rook and I won. I won!
But only with a lot of luck.
Hooshiari learned to play chess when she was six years old and for the next two years competed in regional tournaments around Manhattan. But, to be fair and completely honest, I am not a total novice. Like Hooshiari, I learned to play when I was just a kid. My dad was the New Jersey state champion who won the 1968 Cornell chess tournament and he taught me to play when I was seven years old.
With one victory under my belt, I felt confident enough to continue; I decided to challenge club member Joel Wald ’11. Ten moves. Game over.
After our game, however, Wald took the time to run me through a number of strategies: “When your rook dies on the side you castle, you’re pretty much done,” Wald said, explaining how the dead rook was supposed to protect my king, which had moved laterally two spaces in a technique known as “castling.”
Beyers also chimed in with other advice for playing chess — “you should use the fianchetto, which is a bishop channeling strategy,” he said.
Finally, Mathew Stukus ’09 added that I should concentrate on forking my opponent by forcing the capture of at least one piece by attacking two simultaneously.
Next to me at a chess board, concentrating on their own hour-long game, sat Igors Gorbovickis grad, and Alisa Blinova ’07, who are from Latvia and Russia, respectively.
The Russian whispers zoomed back and forth between the two of them. Gorbovickis moved bishops and knights frantically; Blinova watched as he explained the mythologized Russian chess secrets that I had been seeking, like those scenes immortalized in films such as Searching For Bobby Fischer.
Gorbovickis was brought to a specialized chess school in Latvia when he was six years old to develop his skill.
“When I was about 10 years old, some teachers from the chess school wanted to make me become a professional chess player, so they asked me to go to the pool [and swim],” he said. He explained that this was in order to build endurance.
Gorbovickis continued playing chess throughout his childhood, “but by the time I was about 12 years old, it was already obvious I would not become professional,” he said. Still, he has competed in tournaments in St. Petersburg, Russia and in Slovakia and continues to play for pleasure today.
After my game — better yet, slaughter — with Wald, he decided to contest Gorbovickis.
With a furrowed brow, Wald advanced his first pawn. Gorbovickis replied with the resilient French Defense, and after a slow, meticulous beginning, Blinova remarked, “[Wald] is a very careful player.”
Despite these two players’ concentration, the mood in the room was relaxed — nothing like the pressure cooker I expected.
“We’re more concerned about just having fun. It’s just a social gathering,” Beyers said. “We don’t really want to know what, you know, pawn strategy is best.”
In fact, Stukus was even reading a book between moves during one of his games. But, Blinova warned about being too casual while playing. She said with a wide, toothy grin and a devious chuckle, “You have got to play mind games. That is even more important than the game [of chess] itself.”

The Cornell Chess Club meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 – 7 p.m. in Uris Hall G88 — all are welcome to join or just to stop by and play.