The Road Taken: Reflecting On Our Allenwood Chess Tournament

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Participants at CHESSanity’s Allenwood Park tournament (Photos by Pranav Nair)

There was once a time when I thought the end of chess was near.

With demand for instant gratification rising, it seemed like there was no place for a three-hour board game requiring the stamina and determination of a marathon runner. Adults who pick up the hobby surrender to its surprising complexity, while students who try are quickly eaten alive by academics, video games, and “actual” sports. Inevitably finding themselves as social outcasts, chess players will quit before they even start.

That is why my brother Warren and I dedicated ourselves to the task of building a community fostering chess among Long Island for the last six years. With the goal of expanding our passion, we decided every penny we earned from teaching chess lessons every Friday would be spent on donating chess books, boards and pieces to schools all across Long Island. The non-profit organization we eventually formed was titled CHESSanity.

Every September for the last six years, CHESSanity has hosted the annual “Chess in the Park” event at Allenwood Park. Although last year’s turnout of 80 people was already quite impressive, the triumph paled in comparison to our success this year. In fact, the count almost doubled; with over a staggering 150 people in total in support of this wonderful game.

Having witnessed the game grow day by day, the sight of strangers smiling and laughing made me so sentimental. All the effort I’ve poured into practicing and playing chess, it only occurred to me now how affecting a passion can truly be. And it was the simple things that affected me the most too: crowds huddled around sixty-four squares, casual Sunday afternoon couples going out for a walk stopping by to take a look and words of gratitude spoken with sincerity I wish I could speak back to the community.

You won’t believe how many times I’ve wanted to quit chess. The missed opportunities, exhausting agony and demanding hard work of being the top in the nation at something seemed too much at countless instances in my 15 years. After a series of painful losses in the winter and spring of 2019, I had convinced myself I hated chess. I convinced myself I shouldn’t have started playing ten years ago. I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough. I convinced myself I wasted so many years playing this stupid game that won’t get me anywhere in life. I just wanted to cut my losses, and forget about all the promises I would break.

But after my dad forced me to confront the truths I never wanted to admit and fight the challenges I never wanted to take, I persisted. It didn’t feel good, but after focusing on chess all summer, I finally took home the silver medal at the U-18 Division of North American Youth Chess Championships in August. So much of this hits so close to home that it feels like a written confession I’m letting out for the world to see.

For these reasons, this year’s Chess in the Park was by far the most memorable thus far. Apart from perfect 70 degrees weather and a large turnout, I finally see all the reasons why I’ve loved this game. I see all the hours I’ve worked paying off, kids jumping up and down after beating their opponent like I used to and parents watching with the same love my mom and dad still have. I see parts of myself in each one of them.

FIDE Master Liran Zhou celebrates following a victory.

You might’ve also seen FIDE Master Liran Zhou winning the top section in the event’s blitz tournament. As he won the U-12 World Cadets Chess Championships just a few weeks prior, he was quite a tourist attraction for chess players and parents alike. The 80-year old Great Neck resident Youhana Sabi, who came from Iran many years ago, saw the festival while walking in the park with his son’s family and wanted to join. Although he fought hard, his tenacity was no match against Liran’s quick calculations, and he eventually lost.

Annual bughouse team Robert Shibata and Charles Hua once again paired up, winning first place and a $100 Amazon gift card. Both took off earlier from their math class and traveled all the way from Manhattan to play chess, something I’ve never heard of before.

Due to a large demand for Liran and me to play a game, the event concluded with an exhibition match between us, with a $50 Amazon card going to the winner. The remaining crowd of around 25 parents and children circled around one set to watch the best-of-two grand finale.

In CHESSanity’s first ever group lesson nearly six years ago, Liran, not yet six years old at the time, was among the first students. Out of twelve students we had, he would be the last one we’d expect to be as good as he is today. Not only was he was one of the worst chess players we’d ever seen, his behavior was unbelievably inappropriate in class. Warren and I were debating whether to kick him out or not, but since we saw hints of potential embedded in his passion, we kept him.

In the following semester, Liran’s strength skyrocketed so much higher than the rest of the class that he had to graduate and move on to another instructor for private lessons. His level rapidly increased from there on out, becoming a National Champion (K-3 Division) in 2016 and winning the World Champion title twice (U-10 World Cadets in 2017 and finally U-12 World Cadets in 2019). In 2017, Liran achieved the National Master title at age 9 years, 3 months and 22 days, making him the youngest in history at the time. His phenomenal rise could only be explained by his burning passion for the sport, and it is one that I am lucky to have witnessed from the very start.

Although I still hold a 2-0 record against Liran in tournament games, our strengths were relatively the same during the exhibition match. I won the first game with white in a time scramble, to which Liran responded dynamically with a brilliant attack to win the second. The match was therefore decided in an armageddon tiebreaker, where I had the black pieces. Obtaining a decisive advantage right from the start, I failed to deliver the winning blow several times; Liran capitalized on my mistakes, and quickly, almost too quickly, I found myself defending for my life. As both our clocks neared zero, Liran took all of my pieces off the board and was left with more than enough material to checkmate. Luckily, he flagged him before he could do that, so I took home $50 and a sweet victory. Critics will say it wasn’t the fairest way to win the game— but hey— a win’s a win.

For helping the event flow as smoothly as possible, Lance Yoon was, as always, a magnificent tournament director, always figuring out the complex intricacies of pairings. Nothing would have been possible without the volunteers either, including: Pranav Nair, Michael Chu, Jason Li, Luca Johnson, Joshua Dong, Xiaotian Wang, Yuxin Lin, Yulei Lin, Ivan Zhang, Christy Zhang and Jiayi Zhang. Much gratitude to my first coach and the one that developed my undying love for chess, Grandmaster Gennady Sagalchik. You are the reason I am where I am in chess today.

Chess is not dying. If anything, the intellectual sport is growing. There’s undeniable statistics supporting that. I’m glad to be a part of that statistic. You should be too.

Wesley Wang, a sophomore at Jericho High School, is one of five members on the 2018 US Youth Olympiad Chess Team, a five-time All-American and a ten-time national champion. He and his brother, Warren Wang, a college sophomore, founded CHESSanity www.chessanity.org in 2014 to promote chess.

 

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