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

By Daniel PlattA 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.

Full article here.

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar