THE GAME | Rivalry on the chess board

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

For Elis and Cantabs alike, this weekend will be a defining moment in the battle for glory. But quarterbacks and wide receivers will not be the only ones defending their school’s honor. Before The Game there must come The Match, where pawns, rooks and rousing calls of “checkmate” will determine the reigning champion of the Ivy League.

“For me, it’s a big deal,” said Kathryn Au ’08, a past member of the Yale College Chess Club. “I’m definitely more excited about it than Harvard-Yale.”

In keeping with an annual tradition, chess-savvy Elis and Cantabs will meet tonight to play out the Harvard-Yale rivalry on another playing field — the chessboard. But instead of fighting for a chance at the Ivy League title, the five top-ranked students from each chess team will compete for bragging rights and the prized Joel Benjamin cup, a new addition to the tradition dating back more than a century.

“It’s a ludicrously heavy marbled-based thing,” Lawrence Moy ’11, the secretary of Yale College Chess Club, said of the cup. The trophy was added as a prize this year, chess club alumnus David Lyons ’08 said, to further “institutionalize” the match. Named after United States Grandmaster Joel Benjamin ’85, the highest ranked active chess player in the United States, the cup will go home with either Harvard or Yale this weekend.

As for past winnings, Yale defeated Harvard in 2005 but the Cantabs reclaimed bragging rights in 2006. Last year was a tie.

Yalies playing tonight said they hope to win the cup and prove that in addition to football and life, Harvard generally fails at chess, too.

The students will face off in a one-round tournament that will take place at Adams House, one of the twelve undergraduate residential houses at Harvard. And for those involved, Lyons said, the tournament is more important than The Game on Saturday.

“For the people involved, it’s always pretty dramatic,” he said. “There’s time pressure. People make mistakes. You think it’s going to end one way and then it turns around at the last moment and the other side wins.”

And the pressure is on: Yale Chess Club only has three nationally ranked players, while Harvard has four.

“This year we’re the underdogs,” Moy acknowledged. “But we’re going to see if we can even the tables with our best playing and bring the cup back home.”

Sebastian Predescu, the president of the Harvard Chess Club, called this year’s match is no forgone conclusion. But according to individual rankings based on career playing statistics, the Cantabs expect victory, he said in a telephone interview.

“On paper, we’re set to win,” he said of Harvard’s chess team. “But this year Yale has been preparing.”

The first college chess club in the nation was founded at Yale in 1857. Formal chess organizations existed sporadically ever since but interest in the game of chess has always been present, said Scott Caplan ’06, the founder of Yale’s current chess club. Caplan said the annual chess match has occurred steadily for the past 80 years, though he acknowledged there may have been gaps in the tradition.

But one thing is for certain, he said. “There have always been players; it’s just to what extent they’ve been organized,” Caplan explained.

The players representing Yale this year are Bogdan Vioreanu GRD ’13, Kurt Schneider ’10, Pasha Kamyshev ’09, Gordon Moseley ’12 and Rahil Esmail ’11, in order of rank. Vioreanu is an International Master of chess in Romania, which is one step down the most prestigious title in chess, Grandmaster.

“We find them once in a while,” Moy said in reference to high-ranked players. “We got really lucky.”

But Elis will have to wait until 9 p.m. this evening to find out if luck and hard work can beat statistics.


  • Richard

    Joel Benjamin '85 has had a distinguished chess career, but he is currently ranked tenth in the United States, not first. See the U.S. Chess Federations's rating lists at, and click on the one that says "Overall." And most of the players ranked higher are indeed active; in fact, nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7 are representing the United States in the Olympiad (or world team championship) right now in Dresden, Germany.

  • Recent Alum

    Richard: According to Wikipedia, "Joel Benjamin (born March 11, 1964) is a chess Grandmaster and is currently the highest rated active chess player who was born in the United States."

  • Wait…

    I'm not entirely sure I would trust Wikipedia as the most reliable of sources. Though generally accurate, there are still mistakes from time to time. Unless you meant to highlight the "born in the United States" bit? In which case, did you also research the origins of the other players representing the US?

  • Anonymous

    Larry Christiansen is a west-coast native.