At Oberlin, there are no paid chess coaches or chess scholarships like at some schools where, according to chess club advisor and women’s tennis coach Constantine Ananiadis, “The clubs seem to run like a Division I athletics department.” Instead, chess club members at Oberlin play only for the love of the game, and their skill levels vary greatly. Despite being a program that lacks the benefit of heavy recruitment and scholarships like some powerhouse chess schools, Oberlin’s club has seen significant achievements in recent years.
On December 30, 2016, the Oberlin College Chess Club competed in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship in New Orleans, where they won the best small college division for the fourth consecutive year. This win comes on the heels of being named Chess College of the Year and hosting the 2015 Pan-American tournament in Cleveland. With these recent accolades and recognition in the community, chess at Oberlin is thriving.
However, Oberlin’s chess club has a varied past. While the club flourished in the 1990s, it saw more than a decade of dormancy until two students revived the organization with Ananiadis’ help as the club’s advisor. Around this time, Ananiadis also began teaching a chess course in Oberlin’s Experimental College. “The course essentially became a farm team for the club. Students signed up for the class, and chess club membership picked up. We grew in strength and numbers in just over a year or so.” Since that time, chess has seen a strong revival on the campus. “I’ve had alumni reach out to let me know how glad they are to hear Oberlin has a chess club again,” said Ananiadis.
The Oberlin College Chess Club is an inclusive, welcoming group. “It’s a really friendly community,” emphasized fourth-year Walker Griggs. All those who are interested are encouraged to participate in the weekly meetings, where members range in skill level from beginner to nationally-ranked master. On Thursday evenings, Rathskeller Restaurant is transformed from a place to dine to a place to match wits. It’s there you can find some of the approximately 30 members of the club engaged in battles of the mind.
Third-year Rachel Dan has been playing chess since she was young but only became a serious player during this school year. “I took Constantine's Chess ExCo as a first-year. How could I pass up the chance to play chess for college credit?” She continued playing, and this year Dan traveled to the Pan-American tournament to participate. To prepare, Dan practiced in a variety of ways, including weekly chess club meetings, playing online, and watching videos of different openings and tactics. While she says those methods are useful, nothing actually prepares one for tournament play like attending a tournament. “The best learning experience is to enter a tournament where you're living and breathing nothing but chess for days,” says Dan. “It's like immersion to learn a language—everyone's talking chess.”
For Griggs, chess has been a part of his life since he was 12 years old. While he knew how to play the game prior to that, it was only when he went into a bookstore and discovered a book on chess that he really became involved. “At that point, I realized that there was strategy behind it,” said Griggs. “I read chess books voraciously, one after another.”
Now a ranked national master, Griggs coincidentally met Oberlin College Chess Club advisor Constantine Ananiadis at a tournament in Cincinnati during high school. “He totally beat me then,” laughed Griggs. But by the time Griggs entered college, he had surpassed Ananiadis. As a national master, Griggs is ranked number 296 out of 63,814 registered members of the United States Chess Federation.
But with some of the strongest players in the club slated to graduate, one might wonder - what’s the future of chess at Oberlin? “Certainly we’re taking a big hit,” said Ananiadis. “We’ll need to have others step up, and we will. But chess tournaments aren’t just about one person. It’s a team sport. At this point we have enough strength in our system that the club will not disappear like it did years ago.”
“I have lots of hope for the future of the club,” said Griggs. “I’m upset that I can’t stay on for longer, but I’m optimistic that we’ll continue.”