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Granite Geek: Who Says Chess Isn't As Dramatic As NASCAR?

Tristan Martin via Flickr CC

Once again New Hampshire is playing host to a competition full of pulse-pounding intensity, where every move can pave the way to victory, or shatter championship dreams.

We're talking not about last weekend’s NASCAR race but the United States Girls Junior Closed Championship, which gets underway this week at UNH Manchester.

And by the way, those who geek out over competitive chess see just as much high drama on the board as stock car fans find on the speedway.

David Brooks wrote about the upcoming tournament for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org. I talked with Brooks on Tuesday about the tournament:

I’m not overstating the drama here am I? A great chess match can get pretty intense, right?

It can get pretty intense. It’s not quite as deafening and smelly as NASCAR and there are no fiery explosions, but nonetheless they get very intense.

How did this particular tournament end up in New Hampshire?

A Bedford couple own a company called Relyea Chess and they organize tournaments around New England. There was a Boy’s Junior Closed Championship, closed meaning you have to be invited and junior meaning under 20, but they realized that there was no championship for girls. So they organized a girl’s championship and brought it to New Hampshire.

From the sound of it, watchers of chess are concerned that the sport has remained overwhelmingly male. Is this tournament aimed at changing this balance?

No. I don’t think it’s aimed at changing that balance. I think it’s more aimed at providing a venue for ten incredibly talented chess players that happen to be female. They wouldn’t mind changing this balance, though. I’ve been playing chess since I was a kid, and I’ve dabbled in some tournaments. It was a concern back then to get more women playing chess, and it still is now. There was a flurry of interest when the Polgar sisters, three sisters from Hungary, entered competitive chess. One of whom beat Garry Kasparov, the number one chess player in the world. Even so, chess remains overwhelmingly male for a variety of reasons.

Most people are not familiar with the chess rating system. Can you explain this system through your own competitive chess career?

It wasn’t terribly competitive. The United States Chess Federation has a rating system that feeds into the global system called FIDE. They give you a score of 1000 to start out. You play in tournaments and play against other people with scores and depending on the result, you get points added to or subtracted from your score. I made it up to about 1200 which is considered Advanced-Beginner. When I stopped playing I was actually below 1000 which is pretty difficult to do. There were very few people that were down there in the basement with me. Once you get up to about 1800 you’re trying to make a living out of it, and if you get to 2000 you’re considered a master. Many of the girls that are coming to this tournament are way up there, including a 9-year-old from Massachusetts who is the youngest person ever to get an expert rating from the USCF. She will be there via a special invitation.

Several of these players are from New England, but there are no Granite Staters. Are we lagging behind in chess?

I don’t know. We don’t have very many people. We don’t have an urban center which tends to be where big chess clubs flourish. We have one International Master that has left the state to make a living playing. For a state with 1.4 million people and no major cities we do pretty well with chess. But, it’s not much on the international scene.

I must say, I think this leaves an opening for a David Brooks comeback.

Absolutely. I’m going to go home and practice my pawn to king 4 until I get my calluses back on my playing hand.

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