Young Knights

A rivalry is growing between several Massachusetts chess stars, each of whom could become a top-rated, even professional-level player. That is, if they don’t lose interest once they get out of middle school.

By Michael Fitzgerald June 24, 2007

After a full day of competition, the state championship is hanging in the balance of one battle. Andrew Wang and James Lung are squared off, mano a mano – as mano as 10-year-old boys can be, anyway – renewing a budding rivalry between two of the best young players in Massachusetts. Andrew has beaten James before, and this day, each player has led his team into the final round (team chess features four players per side). But Andrew’s grip looks tenuous as their struggle stretches well into its second hour. People are clustered around this game, since the rest of the day’s matches are done. If Wang bests his rival, the Sage School in Foxborough will win the 2006 state K-6 championship, avenging a loss the year before. If James wins, his school, Lexington’s Harrington Elementary School, will again be the winner. If they draw, the title will go to a third school.

The arena, which happens to be the Natick High School cafeteria, is boisterous – for chess. Which is to say that people can be heard whispering, and at one point, Andrew distinctly hears someone say: “It’s a draw.” Indeed, it looks as if neither player can win. Both boys are down to two pawns and a king, though Andrew also has a bishop. And he is sure he can find a way to win. Still, he is running out of time – tournament chess gives each player a two-hour limit, and Andrew has only five minutes remaining. But five minutes of clock time, which stops after each move, can be an eternity in chess, and so he keeps plugging away. Then he sees his edge: He can use his bishop to protect one of his pawns from James’s king and use that pawn to get his queen back. Once Andrew gets his pawn in position, James concede defeat.

There is, of course, no exultation. Chess is a blood sport, but all the bloodshed happens in the brain – which may explain why chess players always seem to be holding their heads in their hands. Think of it as the intellectual version of hockey: You bash each other’s brains out, and when you’re done, you shake hands and go home.

Chess, a sport of kings, in some ways is really a sport of kids. Close to half of the members of the MetroWest Chess Club, the biggest in New England, are not yet 18. Outside of gymnastics, chess is probably the only sport where a 4-foot-6, 60-pounder like Andrew Wang can routinely compete with – and defeat – adults.

There was a huge surge in interest in the game in the United States after Bobby Fischer won the world championship in 1972. But today, the game seems almost quaint. There are only about 80,000 members in the US Chess Federation, roughly the same number as in the mid-’90s, but four times the pre-Fischer level – and about 1,000 members in the Massachusetts state association. The numbers have also been propped up over the years by two waves of newcomers – Eastern Europeans, primarily Russians, who came to the United States after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and more recently, Asian immigrants and their kids.

Here is the full story.

Posted by Picasa
Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar