A new place on the chess continuum
Our state chess association recently asked my husband to write an article for the scholastic area of its website on something he refers to as the “chess continuum”---the various points where chess-playing kids might find themselves playing the game, and the time, commitment and expense their families might expect at the various points along the line.
Since our son started out as an 8-year-old player taking a casual park district class and has progressed along the ranks to national master, we thought we’d traveled every road, and if you’re reading this, chances are you have too. From playing at the kitchen table after dinner to all-day scholastic events to planning every major holiday weekend and bit of vacation time to revolve around chess tournaments, and developing Vitamin D deficiencies as the result of having spent countless weekends in hotel basements, we thought we’d traveled every path.
But the other day, because Eric won last year’s U.S. Junior Open tournament, we arrived at a new and altogether unexpected place on the continuum: one that involved a suit and tie on the packing list, the players sitting for a make-up session and professional photoshoot before the tournament, a performance by some of the host city’s finest musicians to mark the tournament’s opening, a complimentary one-bedroom suite in a luxury hotel, a live webcast of the games complete with commentary and analysis, and, oh yeah, chess games with many of the country’s top junior players under the age of 20.
We are at the U.S. Junior Closed Championship taking place at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. The center just celebrated its two-year anniversary on July 16, and there is no place like it in the country. In partnering with many of the city’s art and cultural institutions, it is carving out a place for chess as an art and sport to be respected, appreciated and admired. And as a chess parent, I am so relieved.
I’m not a chess player, and back when this started consuming more time in our family’s lives than I was feeling comfortable with, I tried to make sense of what it was that was so captivating for Eric about this game. In his own, simple, 8-year-old way, he expressed it eloquently: “I love the way it makes me think.” And since he was academically feeling bored and frustrated at school at that time, it was clearly something to be encouraged. But unlike parenting a child who becomes devoted to a musical instrument, or painting, or a sport, it was hard to connect to what clearly for him was filling such a deep creative and intellectual need and providing such pleasure.
Around this time, I was fortunate to come across an article in Smithsonian Magazine featuring an interview with then recently crowned and very articulate U.S. women’s champion Jennifer Shahade, who said something to the effect that chess at a top level can be as beautiful as hearing the most exquisite piece of music, but it’s unfortunately inaudible to people who don’t know the game. During the moments that I’ve questioned the amount of family sacrifice that’s been involved to support Eric in getting to his current level of National Master, in an activity that won’t ever become mainstream because of the depth of understanding required to appreciate its beauty, I remind myself that he’s hearing that music and take comfort. And over the years, without developing an understanding of the game myself, I’ve become devoted enough to the idea of the benefits of chess for talented students that I offered to volunteer to run a program through the Illinois Chess Association to support Illinois’ most talented players.
So it’s somehow fitting that I find myself this week spending every afternoon in the chess club’s broadcast studio listening to Jennifer, along with the Saint Louis chess club’s Grandmaster in Residence Ben Finegold and the uber-talented young GM Hikaru Nakamura, offer up their commentary and explanation of the games being played by the country’s top juniors.
But more exciting is the efforts the club is making to elevate chess to the cultural status on par with great music, art, science and academic institutions. Among the organizations they have relationships with are the Saint Louis Science Museum, the Saint Louis Arts Museum, the Saint Louis Symphony, and the city’s professional tennis team the Aces. They are also partnering with both the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital, and a unique public school, the Innovative Concept Academy, and working to get chess integrated into St. Louis’s school curriculum. It’s a terrific example for other cities, and a great new place on the chess continuum.