Wednesday, Mar. 09, 2011
Waging battle over the board
Gary Newsom campaigns for real ‘sweet science’: Chess

Lisa Thornton

Gary Newsom has never taken or given a blow to the head from a boxing match, but he has during a chess match.

Not the physical kind; but to Newsom, founder of Charlotte’s Queen City Chess Association, the blow stings just the same.

“In boxing, you’re putting your physical being on the line,” said the 51-year-old Cornelius resident. In chess, “you’re putting your ego on the line. It’s your brain against the other guy’s brain.”

Newsom, a tireless promoter many consider the patriarch of chess in this region, wants more people to get in the mental ring of the game.

The late Bobby Fischer, one of the most well-known chess players in history, had a similar view of chess years before Newsom.

“Chess is a war over the board,” Fischer once said. “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”

Like many kids growing up in the 1970s, Newsom has Fischer to thank for introducing him to the game. Newsom recalls the interruption of his Saturday morning cartoons when he was 12 by a news clip of the 29-year-old American Fischer winning the 1972 World Chess Championship against the USSR’s Boris Spassky during the Cold War.

After that, Newsom was hooked, he said – and he was not alone.

“If you ask people my age that are playing chess, that’s probably where they had their first contact with it,” he said. “It was far and away the most popular chess event, as far as getting publicity into the United States, that there has been before or since.”

After the clip, Newsom turned off the TV, walked to the library and checked out a book on chess. At his school in Tennessee, he watched the popularity of the game explode around him. Kids began setting up chessboards to play during lunch, and soon after, a teacher formed the school’s first chess club.

Since those days, Newsom has earned the rank of Candidate Master, a merit only bested by Master or Grandmaster. He is the current president of the North Carolina Chess Association and has as many championship titles as a winning heavyweight boxer has belts.

True chess players, said Newsom, don’t care where they play, only that they have the chance.

“I’ve played a tournament game in a Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor, I’ve played in fancy hotels in New York, and I’ve played in basements in North Carolina. I’ve played everywhere,” he said.

That includes New York City’s Washington Square Park, where concrete chess tables and benches always are ready for a match between friends or strangers. The 1993 movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” made the park even more popular with chess enthusiasts.

“It’s a part of the chess culture, that particular place, and the feeling you get there,” said Newsom, who has seen Grand Masters play there on the tattered chessboards of the equally tattered regulars, many of whom, Newsom suspects, are homeless.

“Some of them look like they haven’t bathed in a few days,” he said. “A couple guys will have a brown bag with some questionable liquid in it.”

The regulars are masters at trash talk and speed chess, a fast version of the game with less time to ponder a move. “The guys banter while they play,” Newsom said. “They try to get inside your head.”

And when they do, the beating bruises just like a punch.


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