Searching for Princeton's Bobby Fischer
Chess is said to be one of the most intellectually engaging and challenging games ever invented, so I was not surprised to hear that Princeton has a chess club. But when given the opportunity to sit in on one of its practices, I was not really sure what to expect.
On the one hand, I might be stumbling into a solemn meeting of scornful, quiet masters who would laugh and send me right back the way I came without a second thought. On the other hand, not knowing much about chess, I imagined that I might be stumbling into something resembling the brutal game of “wizard’s chess” in Harry Potter. The reality, of course, was something much different.
I ventured to Campus Club a little before the beginning of their practice at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening with ‘Prince’ multimedia reporter Christina Maida and was welcomed by junior Ashutosh Thakur, one of the group’s co-presidents. He explained the setup of the club’s meetings.
“We have weekly meetings, open to everybody,” Ashutosh said. “We get community members, undergrads, grads and faculty members. They’re very informal meetings, and we just play a lot of chess and chess variants.”
He also filled me in on the latest focus for the group, the 2012 Pan American Intercollegiate Championship, which will be held on campus at the end of December. Several of the club’s members have been preparing for the tournament for some time, though Ashutosh said that Princeton is by no means a favorite for the tournament.
After talking for a bit, I somehow found myself seated in front of a waiting chessboard. Ashutosh set the clocks for five minutes per player, limiting the game time to 10 minutes total. Not really sure what to do, I opened as I had seen in movies, keeping most of my pieces to the center of the board and lining up my pawns so that the knights were supervising them.
After only a few moves, I had already eaten through a couple of minutes of my clock while Ashutosh had used only about 20 seconds.
“Some of the keys are making plans, thinking about your position, thinking long term and making sure that you don’t hang pieces,” Ashutosh said, smiling, as he took away a piece I had “hanged,” or left undefended. “A big concern is tactics, and you have to learn to squeeze your opponent.”
I was certainly feeling squeezed, so I tried to change the subject, asking how he started playing chess.
“My father taught me,” Ashutosh said. “We were driving from Princeton to Arizona, and we had a magnetic chess board, so he taught me the rules and strategy. I started in fifth grade, which was pretty late.”
It was also getting pretty late for my king, who was under constant assault at this point in the game. Ashutosh wore me down slowly and pushed my king into a corner with two rooks, where he ended the game. It had only taken him about a minute of his clock. I humbly thanked him for a good game and searched for senior Jack Hutton, the group’s other co-president. Jack has been involved with the planning of the Pan American Championships for some time, and he filled me in on some of the details of the tournament.
“The Pan American Championships is the longest running chess tournament in the nation,” Jack said. “It’s basically the national championship, but now, the top four teams in the tournament progress to a final four tournament.” University of Texas, Dallas; Texas Tech; Brownsville and University of Maryland, Baltimore County are among the powerhouses of college chess, he said.
I had begun a game against Jack at this point, so I tried my best to distract him.
“What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened during a chess game?” I asked.
“There have been fist fights, or people have taken heated discussions outside,” he replied. “That’s never happened during one of my games. There was one guy I played who showed up drinking beer the whole match, though. He wasn’t doing very well that tournament and was sort of depressed.”
That was when my game came to an abrupt end. I had left my king defenseless and after fewer than 10 moves, Jack had checkmated my king.
I thanked him again and dismissed myself. Christina and I walked around for a few more minutes and talked to some of the other players, but after my most recent humiliating defeat, I was ready to cut my losses.