Originally published: May 15, 2005
He enters a few minutes late, to applause, and is introduced to the crowd. His eyes quickly roam the cafeteria – not resting on the faces of the people, but taking in the room itself, its dimensions, the storybook paintings on the walls, the utilitarian linoleum floor. It takes him not more than a few seconds, during which time he seems like a novelist or a detective though he looks more like an associate professor in his khakis and gray wool blazer. And really, he is here to teach. He is here to play chess.
Patrick Wolff is an international grandmaster, a rank he achieved at the age of 22. He must be 37 or so now, but looks younger. He is, for the most part, retired from the world of tournament chess, though he writes about chess, maintains a website, and coached Viswanathan Anand who challenged Gary Kasparov for the World Championship in 1995. In front of this group of parents and kids, he is relaxed and funny – in a disarming, chess-geek sort of way. He is charmingly self-depreciating as he speaks briefly; “Once upon a time, when I used to really play chess…”
Dominating the room are several mismatched tables that have been arranged in an orderly though patchworked bracket. There are 26 regulation National Chess Center green and white chessboards set up on the battered Formica tops. Waiting on chairs pulled up to the outside edges of the tables are 23 kids and 3 adults. Two of the younger ones are mine, and I have set them up on opposite sides of the bracket – so they don’t see each other’s boards. The kids range in age from about 8 to18 and run the gamut from solid club players to nationally ranked. One, Douglas Stanley is a shooting star at 12, beating just about everyone he goes up against despite the fact that he just started playing chess 1½ year ago. Another, Darwin Li, beat a grandmaster back in June. He was 10. My two boys are 10 and fall into the “solid club players” category. I just want them to be able to leave the room with their heads held high. In this case, the old cliché holds true: it is an honor just to play.
Wolff begins. With each player he shakes hands, then waits for them to make their opening move (he has agreed to play black on all boards). His own opening is lightning fast and he barely pauses at each board as he makes his way around the inside of the bracket. The last player on the loop is Ruixin Yang of Thomas Jefferson High School, the top rated player in the room next to Wolff. One of his long legs is twanging under the table, though his face looks calm and impassive.
Wolff makes his second, third, fourth rounds. There has, I’d guess, never been such a concentrated silence in this cafeteria when full of people. A collection of little kids - lower-ranked or siblings of those now playing - move along the tables, mirroring Wolff, watching his face, his hands. These are consistent: the left is in the pocket of his khakis; the right moves the black pieces on the chessboard. Sometimes he pauses for a long time, and not only at the boards of Yang and the other highly ranked players. Sometimes it is at the board of a third or fourth grader. Every opponent is taken seriously. After each move, a pencil goes up as White records the moves on the provided score sheets – both his or her own, and that of Black - the grandmaster. No matter the outcome, this is a game they’ll want to replay later. The top players have their own well-used pads for recording the games, a thick clump of pages already turned back, used up in previous tournaments.
There are only two girls among the 26: Yang Dai of Louise Archer Elementary in Vienna, Virginia, and Madhu Karamsetty of Lake Anne Elementary in Reston. Our own school has no girls among the top rated players – leaving me to ponder this, as I look at these two, poised and intent.
Ruixin Yang, tall and lanky with the requisite teenage slouch, ambles over to his coach between moves and takes the dinner the shorter man wordlessly offers him. Back at his seat, he peels back the foil from the sandwich and chows down in a relaxed way as Wolff approaches. Yang looks into the distance and coolly takes a swig of orange soda as Wolff makes his move – but the young eyes slide sideways and watch. As soon as Wolff walks away across the linoleum to begin the circuit again, the soda can is replaced on the desk and Yang studies the board, head in hand, face hidden, leg twanging again.
More rounds. There is the occasional soft clicking of plastic as one piece captures another, consigning it to sit out the rest of the match sidelined on the tabletop. Wolff frowns, smooth brow drawn downward, wire glasses reflecting the board. He nods slightly after his opponent’s move, bottom lip thrust forward slightly.
An hour into it and no one’s out yet. More pieces are beginning to fall, though – knights and bishops. One queen. Then another. After the kids move their pieces – they must wait until Wolff arrives at their board to do so - many of the younger ones look up into his face, studying it for something; a reaction, a hint. Does he approve of their move, or did they just expose their youth, their weakness, their jugular? They are so used to looking at adults for approval – but Wolff treats them as equals this evening and does not give away his opinions.
Some kids – again the younger ones – have a cocky manner when taking his pieces. I happened to be standing behind my son Julian when Wolff moved in front of his board. I realized that Julian was practically quivering with excitement. He moved his queen in front of Wolff’s king and said in a would-be casual voice, “Checkmate,” and looked up at him. Wolff, just as casually, gently even, said, “It’s not checkmate. ” and took Julian’s queen with the bishop that had been lying in wait across the board. To his credit, Julian did not roll up into a ball and die on the spot. Instead he wrote down the moves and stared at the board, pink-cheeked but upright.
More carnage, emptier boards, some kids out. Wolff’s only physical adaptation was to remove his hands from his pockets and place them on his hips. His eyes see the board as a fluid whole. Sometimes, with the more experienced players, there is a quick, bloody skirmish where instead of the one move per turn, the two engage in 4 or 6 in quick succession, and the dead litter the table. Smoke rises from the board as Wolff moves on to the next.
It’s fast now. My own kids are out, all the adults are out, and some kids remain only because they don’t concede the game when they should. With experience, they’ll know, and won’t make a grandmaster hash it out until the bitter end.
Yang’s battle ends in a draw. At one point, Wolff offers Yang Dai a draw – which she politely declines. But Douglas Stanley, the 12-year-old, who began with the very unconventional opening of a maverick, wins his game against the grandmaster. It is quietly done, and the two shake hands. Most of the room is unaware it has even happened until later.
Finally all that’s left are four – and the two girls are still in it. One of them, Madhu Karamsetty, has lost but fights on until the end, her glossy black braids brushing her squared shoulders. Atul Kannan hangs in a while longer but falls too, as does Darwin Li. Finally, Yang Dai is all that’s left. Wolff lets out a muffled whoop and grabs a chair, sitting opposite her with evident relief – he’s been circling the tables without rest for more than 3 hours by this point.
Within 10 minutes he has won, and then immediately asks her name (the printed name cards only have the first initial and surname). She tells him in not more than a whisper, and he begins to speak to her quietly, just to her, though there are many parents and kids leaning in.
“First of all, I want to say that you played very well. And also that I know you’re kicking yourself right now for not accepting my offer of a draw earlier. But I want to tell you that you were right not to accept it. You had the stronger position. You were right.” She nods and looks at him through her glasses.
“Now, let me show you something.” And he proceeds to set up the board as it was at the moment of the offered draw, and lead her through what she might have done to save the situation. Softly, gently - a teacher in his element.
It was 10:30 PM. The janitors were waiting curiously but patiently to put away the tables and chairs for the following school day when the cafeteria would again be full of noisy chaos befitting an elementary school. Parents moved as one to put away boards and pack up pieces, stack chairs and shift tables. Wolff hurriedly signed a couple of copies of his book for an adult participant, then headed out quickly, calling over his shoulder with a wave to Mark Ryan, the organizer of the exhibition event: “Ok, this was great - see you next year!” and he was gone.
Mark smiled at us. “Did you hear that? ‘See you next year!’ He shook his head. “What a great guy”.