A Sport of the Mind

November 27, 2015

Chloe Vassot

Photo credit: Dale Preston

On Thursdays at 9 p.m. in the Rathskeller, playing the game of chess is a paradox: both light-hearted and intense. At these weekly meetings, the members of the Oberlin College Chess Club (OCCC) cultivate a small but inviting community of chess-playing enthusiasts and hone their skills at a game of sport-level intensity.

For Walker Griggs, a third-year biology and Russian double major, winning a chess match is extremely validating. “You get to destroy someone utterly—there’s no chance or risk, I’ve outsmarted you.”

Chess club members have had ample opportunities for such success in recent years. Active in the world of competitive chess, for the last three years the club has competed in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, a tournament that brings in high-ranking players from all over the Americas. The club’s advisor Constantine Ananiadis, who is also Oberlin’s women’s tennis coach, is proud of how far the club has come—at the Pan-Ams in 2013 the club won in the National Small School Division, and in 2014 it tied with Carleton College for the top prize once again.

This year the club is hosting the 2015 Pan-Ams in Cleveland, taking place December 27-30.

“We felt it was the next step for our club. We’ve been doing better and better and it’s great exposure for chess at Oberlin,” Ananiadis says.

Some of the club’s members have been playing for many years. Griggs, who is also the chess club’s chair and treasurer, is a nationally ranked chess master and at 18 was ranked ninth in his age group. Many other members have experience in the national chess tournament scene, too, but the club’s community accepts players of many skill levels. “I like how much of a community we have here, it’s pretty strong, and it’s low-stress to come to our meetings, even if you play only casually,” Griggs says.

Linda Diaz, a third-year comparative American studies major with minors in Africana studies and gender, sexuality and feminist studies, has attended the Pan-Ams with the chess club for its past two winning years and agrees that the size and style of Oberlin’s club has many advantages. “We’re more underground here at Oberlin. We’re less funded than bigger chess clubs like the Ivies who even give chess scholarships, and it’s less pressure from Constantine—he wants us to do our best, but he’s not going to get mad at us if we make a mistake.”

The atmosphere at Oberlin is especially nice for women players, Diaz notes. “A lot of people have prejudices against women, and there’s a lot of hypersexualization of female chess players. But our chess team doesn’t make assumptions or downplay accomplishments—and we’re all Obies, we’re a lot more aware of the gender dynamics of chess.”

In Ananiadis’ view, the chessboard is an equalizer. “Once you’re at the board, any sort of background is irrelevant,” he says. “You and your opponent have the same army, there are no hidden cards.”

In addition to the chess club, Ananiadis runs the Chess ExCo class with assistance from Griggs. Though it is a serious class with assigned readings and even a midterm, Ananiadis stresses that it is enjoyable as well and open anyone outside the club.

Terrence Pierre, a second-year physics major, is an experienced player and won the Top Individual Upset Award at the 2014 Pan-Ams, but still found the ExCo class extremely informative. He says he sees value in all chess club members dedicating time to continue learning.

“You’re able to learn something new every time, and the goal is for all of us to grow as chess players,” Pierre says. He adds that during club meetings, “it’s not really about winning, but the experience.”

An integral part of that experience in the OCCC is the camaraderie between club members. “It’s a spirit thing,” Diaz says. At tournaments like the Pan-Ams, “the team aspect is very sporty, and it’s really competitive. I see it as a sport of the mind.”

First-year Samuel Waranch, who has played chess since he was seven and only recently become involved with the OCCC, says that chess “is more than a game. After a long tournament, you’ve spent a lot of mental effort and you might dream about chess afterwards.”

Across the varying levels of experience Oberlin’s chess club players have, the love of the game is consistent. Second-year Rachel Dan sums it up well: “The goal is to improve, but I play the game because I like it, not so much because I want to be a grandmaster,” she says. “And I also consider it a sport.”

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