At 11:15 PM, in the grand ballroom of the downtown Philadelphia Sheraton hotel, a small crowd surrounds board 20 at the far end of the table. The rapid clanking sounds echo across the room and attract
more people to the circle of spectators. Five minutes later the clanking stops and is replaced by the steady ticking of a clock. Sitting at the table a portly middle-aged man digs his knuckles into his forehead as he stares at the landscape of wooden figures, ruminating on what could have been. Sitting across from him a boy one-fifth his age and one half his size calmly looks at the board contemplating what type of ice cream he will have his mom buy him as a midnight snack. The boy, knowing he has won, has earned his right to relax. The man, recognizing all is lost, begrudgingly knocks over his white king in resignation. They shake hands and the crowd quietly disperses.
This was the first round of seven at the Philadelphia Open Chess Tournament held over Easter weekend. With a grand prize of 10,000 dollars, this inaugural event attracted 515 players from all over the northeast. But it was just one of the many regional chess tournaments held across the nation in an underground subculture unknown to most.
The US chess world is overseen by United States Chess Federation (USCF), an organization that conducts the rating of tournaments and general promotion of chess. The rating system is a complex algorithm that ranks players according to their abilities. Basically, the higher your rating, the more badass you are.
Although few players fully understand the complexities of the rating system, ratings nevertheless take on great importance. Much a like a GPA is to a student, a rating is often perceived as a sense of identity for the chess player. Typically, a player strives to become a member of the Master Class, a rating of 2200 or higher. For a sense of perspective, a good club player will have a rating of 1600, and the highest rating ever obtained was 2855 by Grand Master Garry Kasparov.
The USCF president Bill Goichberg is also the head of the Continental chess Association, an organization that runs the largest tournaments in the country such as the Philly Open. Although there are small tournaments held at local clubs on a regular basis, these large-scale annual tournaments are considered the real competitions, drawing forth the best and brightest of the chess world as well as the strangest.
The stereotypical image of a chess player, the scrawny nerd with bifocal glasses and the social skills of a TRS-80 computer, is sometimes accurate; there are indeed chess players who fit that description perfectly. But in truth a chess tournament is more like a session of the UN general assembly: long, a little boring, and as racially diverse as you can get.
The upper echelons of the chess community are dominated by first and second-generation immigrants from the former Soviet block. Many of the highest ranked players in the U.S. are either Russian or Ukrainian. The intimidation factor of simply having a Russian sounding name cannot be overstated. But other top-notch players also come from India, China, and South America. Chess has also developed a large base in urban communities, attracting both the street hustlers of Washington square and kids from public city schools with budding chess programs.
Leveling out the diversity are the middle-aged white men who used to play a lot when they were younger and know like to play occasionally on the weekends as a hobby. Many of these men tend to be overweight, do not know what deodorant is, and sport sweet seventies porn-star staches. They also have been proudly rocking flannel and plaid long before hipsters invaded the fashion scene.
As for the middle-aged white women there is not much to say, since essentially (and unfortunately) girls don’t play chess. To see one at a tournament is a statistical anomaly. Chess does not generally attract female players; like math and the sciences, it is a male-dominated field. A fair amount of girls play at younger ages but tend to quit by the time they reach middle school or high school. Those who remain are usually
A demographic not lacking, however, are child players. While experience can prove to be a valuable asset in chess, age is not entirely a handicap, as the younger players
tend to have sharp analytical minds that can make rapid calculations. Once thought of as humiliation, defeat at the hands of one of these prodigies has become an accepted part of a chess player’s life.
But regardless of age or race, all chess players at these tournaments equally share a great deal of concentration and focus since the average game tends to last anywhere from three to six hours. Rather than using elimination or round-robin systems, chess tournaments typically adopt the Swiss-system of competition in which players play a set number of games and the player with the most wins in the end wins the tournament. These tournaments typically last between three to five days, many over holiday weekends,
and most are held in large hotel chains that offer discounted rates affordable to the average player. A few are held at casinos and two-and-a-half star resorts. Two are held every year at the Bradley International Airport.
Due to the lengths of the games it is common for players never to step outside the hotel during the course of the tournament. This does not seem to be a problem for the chess player immersed in his games, but for the non-chess playing parent this proves to be hell. Eating quickly becomes restricted to the hotel restaurant and elevators have a tendency to break down from overcapacity. High-powered dads will pace back and forth through the lobby with blackberries in hand and blue-tooths in ear. Low-key moms will sit in scattered chairs, patiently reading for hours on end as they wait for their kid to finish playing. But the environment is not very conducive to either activity as stress-filled energy permeates the room with the coming and going of anxious chess players. To escape the chaos, my father would remain in our hotel room during my games and watch Law and Order Marathons on cable TV. This kept him entertained until he realized they were playing the same episodes from the previous marathon, and that by Law and Order they mean Criminal Intent.
However, in the ballroom these toils go unnoticed as the players remain fixated on their games, strategizing every possible way to win. Yet despite the intense competitive nature of the game, the portly man from before quickly shakes off his solemn expression and opens up a smile. Outside the playing hall he and the boy set up a board and review their game, discussing all the various variations they should’ve or almost played. The man is happy that he’s had the opportunity to play a strong opponent and the boy is happy that his mom is bringing him cookie-dough ice cream. While both players may have tried desperately to beat one another, they also realize that chess is just a game.