Chess club revives the joy of the checkmate

As the only female player on Yale’s club chess team, Kathryn Au ’08 has learned to hold her own.

“I’m really comfortably around the guys,” Au said. “My confidence has gone up, so it’s not intimidating anymore. I like to try to intimidate the guys — And it’s a great way for me to meet guys.”

Though Au has not mated, so to speak, with any members of the team, the camaraderie of the members has certainly increased over the course of this year. The chess team, which has been fairly inactive for the past few years, has had new life breathed into it by the efforts of Chris Tam ’06 and Scott Caplan ’06, who have been trying to revive the team since their freshman year. This year’s addition of Dave Wang ’08, the 2003 under-20 chess champion of Canada, has helped to give the group the extra push it needed.

The reincarnated chess team’s biggest success so far has been the fifth place finish it took from the Pan-American Intercollegiate tournament over winter break in Wichita, Kan. During other matches over the course of this past fall semester, the team also defeated Brown and Columbia, and they tied Harvard the morning of the Harvard-Yale Game.

“I knew that I wanted to play chess in college, but I didn’t expect to have to start a team,” Caplan said. “I thought there would be a more active chess scene.”

Caplan and Tam, who were paired as freshman year roommates, decided that Yale’s once successful chess team needed a revival. In 1987, the Yale team came in first place at the Pan American chess tournament, but the group had lagged such that Caplan and Tam nearly had to start from scratch.

But the popularity of chess has been building. Yale is now home to not only a chess team, but a chess club that meets to play over dinner every Saturday night in the Saybrook Fellow’s Lounge. Some members of the official team join in for the Saturday night play, along with anyone else interested in the game.

“It’s very informal,” Wang said. “We often eat together outside of the chess club setting, and we don’t have team meetings or anything. I don’t think we even have an official team roster; if we have a match we pull together as many players as we can and I’ll assign a board order. We chill a lot outside of the club and everything, but there are no official practices, per se, no drills we have to do, nothing really of that sort.”

Occasionally, however, Wang does send the team problem sets to keep their strategy skills in peak condition.

Having garnered the distinction of being one of the top under-20 chess players in the world, Wang is the team’s go-to guy for all questions regarding chess. In addition to the wealth of knowledge that Wang brings to the team, over the years Wang has accumulated a number of books and computer programs to teach chess.

After intense years of competition, Wang is content to ease into the role of coach as well as player.

“The tournaments I used to play back in Canada were very stressful, as is in any competitive sport,” Wang said. “I guess nowadays that’s why I want to do more coaching and helping out and helping other members of the team, because it’s less stressful. I’m making more of an impact that way. But I still play for Yale, so there still is a certain degree of pressure.”

Wang was the principal organizer of the roster for the Pan-Am tournament. Yale entered both an A team and a B team. Wang captained the A team, which also consisted of Caplan, Tam and Matthew Traldi ’06 and placed fifth in the tournament.

The B team placed second in its division and included Antonio Daggett ’05, Vladimir Barash ’06, Yakubu Agbese ’05, Au and Neeraj Singh ’07.

The Yalies stayed at the hotel in Wichita where the tournament was held, but they found they did not have much time to do anything besides eat, sleep and play chess. Match followed long match, but the thrill of competing, and ultimately ranking high in the tournament, was all the amusement the players needed.

“Wichita was really fun,” said Au, who ended up in a sticky situation when she had to explain to her parents that she was rooming with two men. “We all found nicknames for each other on the trip.”

Coming off of the Wichita success, the team plans to continue growing. Recently, they have begun playing chess in various dining halls during dinner time to spark interest in the club. They are also pursuing a program to bring chess into New Haven public schools, since chess can help both reading and math skills, Caplan said. They have already successfully started the program in a few local schools.

But overall, the chess team and chess club members are looking to have fun. Impromptu Saturday night “speed matches” after nights out partying, they said, are some of the highlights of being affiliated with other chess lovers.

“For us, chess is fun,” Caplan said. “We don’t go there and start studying chess and focusing on it completely. When we’re playing chess, it’s recreational.”

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