Checkmate! Chess squad rocks rivals

The lights come on as four players stand facing their playing field, ready for the match against their bitter rivals. They’ve prepared for weeks, gone over their vast repertoire of moves and now it is finally their moment to shine. It’s a story 150 years in the making, and the Ephs are ready to triumph where their predecessors failed years ago. However, the setting is neither pitch, nor court, nor rink. Instead it is a perfectly smooth playing field covered with 64 perfectly alternating black and white squares – a chessboard.

Sunday May 2 was a momentous day in the history of the rivalry between Williams and Amherst. But it did not merely mark the commencement of intercollegiate baseball; the day also celebrated the first chess match between two college teams. And just as the baseball team emerged victorious, the members of the Williams Chess Team, Kevin He ’09, Andrew Kelly ’12, Gordon Atkins ’11 and T.Y. Zhou ’12, too, succeeded in defeating their archrivals with a score of 3-1.

“Williams lost the original chess match, along with the baseball game, so it was nice that both teams were able to win this time,” said Trevor Murphy, chess team advisor and instructional technology specialist at the OIT.

However, going into the landmark celebration, victory was definitely not assured. A participating chess player, Atkins, was even unsure whether or not Williams could win the match. “I was a little nervous because I knew that [the organizers] had put a lot of trouble into recreating the game from 150 years ago and I knew that Amherst had won that [chess game], so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to let them win or not. In the beginning I started off pretty badly, but then I saw that the baseball team had won, so I knew we weren’t supposed to replicate the game and we ended up winning,” he said.

Right off the bat, the chess team knew it would have a hard time concentrating on the games ahead. Unlike most tournament conditions, their surroundings were hardly conducive to intensive focus and meticulous calculation. “Even though it was a very formal match, there were constant interruptions from the media – there were cameras, ESPN was filming, NPR was there along with Sports Illustrated and local media from Williams and Amherst too,” Murphy said.

Although the chess match was under a high-pressure environment with various distractions, Zhou nonetheless felt at ease during his game.

“I feel like they were really friendly, and my opponent was really talkative,” he said. “I didn’t really feel too stressed playing against him. He was talking to me the entire time, so it helped distract me from the pressure of the match. Although a sudden gust of wind came by and blew my opponents’ bag of peanuts all over the board. It was very interesting playing with the shells on the board.”

For Atkins, the competition was not so lighthearted and friendly, meaning that there was a lot more on the line during his match – including the College’s reputation. “I was actually pretty nervous, which is weird because it’s a chess game, but there were a lot of people around. I was excited to represent Williams, and I don’t really like Amherst, so I really wanted to win. They were talking a lot of trash but their trash-talking wasn’t really about chess, it was more like, ‘You guys suck,’ and ‘We’re a better school.’”

As a result, the team’s ultimate victory reassured Atkins of not only his own chess playing abilities, but also the superiority of his school. “We were pretty excited [to win]. Because it was a chess match, everyone was pretending that it didn’t matter and that they didn’t care about winning. But at the same time, I think everyone – or at least I did – really wanted to win and just be like, ‘We’re better than you at everything,’” he said.

Although only four competitors played at the historic chess match, the College chess team includes numerous other players who meet each week to play practice games.

“The team generally meets once a week for about two hours on Tuesday nights,” said He, a three-year chess team member. “We usually just play a lot of games in order to get down all the techniques and learn different moves. Sometimes we’ll also sit down and have strategy sessions about tactics, but mostly we just play games against each other.”

While He is content just playing chess weekly practices, Zhou also spends a couple of hours each week playing chess online. “Chess is not just a form of leisure,” he said. “Like all other sports, it trains you to become stronger and better at the game.”

And like most athletes, the members of the chess team also compete against foes in tournaments, squaring off against opponents from North Adams to UConn.

“I went to two or three tournaments each year for my first three years,” He said. “They have not been major tournaments because there is not a big chess presence in the area. Usually they are just 30 people participating, and we all play very informal games against each other. However, each player gets about 60 minutes to play all of their moves, so a game can take up to two hours. Sometimes we’d start playing games at nine in the morning and not finish until eight at night. It can be intense, but it’s also very enjoyable.”

While chess may just take the cake as the most quiet spectator sport, it does not mean the game is any less thrilling. For some members of the chess team, watching a player take an opponent’s rook can be just as breathtaking as watching a touchdown at Homecoming. And since chess is accessible regardless of students’ physique, perhaps you too can take on the fastest growing sport on campus.