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Virtual Chess Tournament Checkmates Pandemic

Searching for Our Inner Bobby Fischer

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Above image credit: Players in a previous LINC chess gathering (inset) wouldn’t have seen each other in the summer virtual chess tournament July 27-31 that capped a successful season of keeping the games — and the learning — going through the pandemic. (Contributed | Local Investment Commison)

Zooming in: BikiniDuck has Mattaton on the run.

BikiniDuck’s white queen, bishop and rook are sweeping deep into Mattaton’s lair. One after the other they press on. Each time the fleeing black king’s square lights up red.

Check, reads the alert on the virtual game board . . . Check . . . Check.

Zooming out: The full array of LINC’s summer virtual chess tournament fills the computer screen. Icons representing chess pieces, black and white, splay across multiple two-dimensional chess boards.

At first glance they’re static graphics. But then — zip — a piece moves like a streaking star on one of the boards. Then another moves across a different board. Another zips here. Another there.

It’s Day Two of the five-day tournament. Nearly two dozen games are under way across four age divisions — with some 50 unseen players safely tucked away in scattered homes with their laptops and desktop computers.

So goes this virtual expression of LINC’s long-running chess program — a welcome balm for children and adults during the season of COVID-19.

Even without a pandemic looming over the table, chess is “infinitely challenging,” said Zeb Fortman, LINC instructor and member of the Missouri Chess Hall of Fame. And when LINC chess director Ken Lingelbach looked for ways to keep playing through the pandemic, Fortman was ready with a countermove against COVID.

Fortman was already familiar with the online program lichess.org. It could be readily adapted as an interactive training tool and a game center.

A new door opened for LINC’s universe of players, and here they came.

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Zooming in: The game doesn’t reveal it, but Mattaton happens to be Megan Champoux, an incoming senior at William Chrisman High School in Independence.

This is her first experience with virtual chess and she loves “the above view.” Though BikiniDuck has chased her into a corner, “it’s so easy to see everything, to visualize the movements,” Champoux said. “I feel more in control.”

Then, as she would describe it, “boom, boom, boom,” major pieces fall from both sides in a flurry of chess game carnage. BikiniDuck is left holding the advantage, having a queen still among the pieces on the board over Mattaton’s lonely rook.

Mattaton’s prospects are grim in this match, which is a little more personal than you might expect.

Because in randomly pairing Mattaton against BikiniDuck, the game matched her with a William Chrisman junior — her little sister, Jade.

Zooming out: For most of two decades, LINC has deployed chess as a powerful learning tools into the after-school programs that LINC provides to 52 schools in Missouri school districts in the Kansas City area.

The players have ranged from kindergartners to high school seniors, and there’s even a parent university to bring adults into the game.

LINC’s fleet of instructors are all disciples of the game, of course. Fortman was a disillusioned football star at the powerhouse Central High School in the 1960s, bored with academics, when someone suggested the chess team to him.

He saw then what he impresses on teachers and parents today: “When taught properly, it teaches a person how to think. Teachers will see kids become focused on task and working.”

That skill to be “calm, cool, collected” when focused on problems carried Fortman through college, he said, and spurred him into a 30-year career as a trouble-shooter for IBM.

LINC’s been at chess long enough that former students have become instructors, like Brandon Rainey.

Chess is welcoming to first-time players as young as kindergartners, while remaining ever-challenging to masters with decades of experience.

“Chess is a hard climb,” Rainey said he warns parents of new players, “where you learn by losing.”

LINC teaches its kids one piece at a time during instructional sessions, building a portfolio of strategies that they can take and shape into their own.

Yet it’s still a game to them, Lingelbach said: “They’re getting all that critical thinking, seeing patterns… they don’t realize what they’re learning.”

chess pic adult 2.PNG

Zooming in: Just as Mattaton is reconciling herself to play for stalemate, an opening presents itself. BikiniDuck’s queen has pinned herself directly in front of her king — in line with Mattaton’s rook.

And this is just a portion of the chess drama building at this moment in the Champoux household. Not only is a third sister — Chelsea — also involved in a virtual match, their dad is competing in the tourney’s adult division.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Jacob Champoux said, adding that the virtual tournament seemed to be an engaging activity “for kids who have a lot of free time” during the pandemic.

He had not played chess in years, he said. But when he saw the promotions inviting parents to join the tournament, “it gave me an excuse to play again.”

Mattaton’s rook strikes quickly to eliminate BikiniDuck’s queen, a final sacrifice as the rook is immediately taken by BikiniDuck’s king. But among the surviving pawns on the board, Mattaton’s are closest to the far end of the board. Two quickly march to the edge and become queens. Checkmate comes soon after.

Now, more than half an hour since the games’ daily 4 p.m. launch, the last of the matches are playing out.

The day ends in the adult division. DorCuarthol’s arsenal of a white queen, rook and knight trap razzld’s rook, leaving the black army with only a queen and bishop among pawns.

For a few turns, razzld’s depleted ranks try to buy time by forcing DorCuarthol’s king into check, but the white army gets enough space to advance a pawn to the end and make a second queen. And razzld resigns.

Zooming out, and on: Chess players as far away as Chicago and Texas tapped into LINC’s summer virtual lessons. And LINC’s players and instructors have encountered new strategies and openings.

Even when the pandemic ebbs and the players return to face-to-face play, the possibilities of virtual programming will offer new ways to get more players involved and cross barriers of distance and transportation.

While COVID-19 has turned so much of life inside-out, the summer of virtual chess has shown how the game, with its infinite possibilities, adapts and grows on its players.

And to all the new players who passed through the tournament, Fortman promises, even if they go on to play “thousands and thousands of games” as he has, they’ll “never play the same game twice.”

About This Story
This story first appeared on the website of the Local Investment Commission (LINC), a nonprofit organization that works with state and local government, businesses, community and civic leaders to improve the lives of children and families in the Kansas City region. Joe Robertson is a LINC writer.

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