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In the last decade, the U.S. has seen a surge in the number of foreign chess players attending American universities and settling in the country after graduation. Today, expat chess players dominate about 90% of the top collegiate playing fields, by my count. An increasing number of universities are starting to treat chess like a varsity sport. The University of Texas in Dallas, for example, recruits top chess talent from across the world by offering full scholarships and an annual stipend. It is also said that the cheerleaders at UTD cheer louder for the chess team than the football team.

Three years ago I crossed the Canadian border to settle in New Haven, Conn., where I began my undergraduate studies at Yale University. Though Yale is not a typical “chess school,” school breaks gave me the opportunity to travel the country and play in many U.S. chess tournaments. Having played chess semi-professionally in Canada for more than 10 years, I was shocked to see the U.S. chess system at work. I interviewed a few other expat chess players currently studying in the U.S. to hear their “chess shock” stories. Ever wondered how chess could be so different globally? Read on to find out:

1.   Chess is NOT Checkers

Chess became much more popular in the U.S. after Bobby Fischer became World Champion in 1972. Yet, chess in the U.S. is nowhere near as popular as it is in many European countries, such as Russia and Georgia. “Every family in Georgia owns a chess set and knows how to play. Everyone in the country knows the names and faces of the top Georgian chess players,” says International Master Nazí Paikidze, a Georgia-born student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus. “When I came to the U.S. and told my classmates at UMBC that I play professional chess, they thought I meant checkers. I was speechless.” To a chess player, the greatest sin you can commit is mistaking chess for checkers.

2.   BYOC – Bring Your Own Chess

We’ve all heard of BYOB but what about BYOC? The idea that chess players have to bring their own equipment to even the largest tournaments in the U.S. is hands down the biggest shock for expat chess players. Every major tournament in the world provides chess sets and clocks except for those in this country. BYOC can be stressful to professional expat players who are used to standard, wooden sets with brown and beige squares. As Grandmaster Niclas Huschenbeth, a German international student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, puts it, “You can be playing on green squares one game, purple the next and then blue the game after!”

3.   Play Chess. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

Another huge shock to expat players is the intensity level of U.S. chess tournaments. An average chess game at the professional level can last four to five hours and here in the U.S., players are expected to play two games a day. In India, Russia, Georgia and the rest of Europe chess tournaments are structured so players only play one game a day, with an occasional “rest day” after several days of hard-fought mental battles. A nine-day tournament in Europe would finish in only five days in the U.S., leaving the players no choice but to play chess, eat, sleep and wake up the next morning to do it all over again. The U.S. is certainly known for its efficiency!

4.   Expertise is Relative

Being a Chess Master is not a prerequisite to teach chess in the U.S. There are chess coaches across the country at all levels, ranging from individuals rated 1600 (intermediate player) to 2600 (Super Grandmaster). International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan, an Indian student at Lindenwood University, notes, “In India you need to be an International Master and rated at least 2400 to teach chess. All young chess players in India want to become the next World Champion like Vishy (Viswanathan) Anand. Their fathers would fire you immediately if you weren’t capable of coaching a World Champion. Here, the 1600s train the 1300s, the 1900s train the 1600s and the Masters train the 1900s.” Coming from an environment of high expectations for coaches, expat Chess Masters are taken aback by the competition in the coaching market from players of much lower strength.

sunday chess TV
power chess Yuanling Yuan playing for Team Canada at the 2014 World Chess Olympiad in Norway.
Georgios Souleidis

5.   Luxurious Venues

At their first U.S. chess tournament, most expats are pleasantly surprised by the choice of venue. The major U.S. tournaments are usually held in either Hilton or Sheraton hotel ballrooms, which can comfortably accommodate 500 or more chess players. The lighting is bright, the walls are beautifully painted, the tables are covered with tablecloths and the overall atmosphere is just perfect for chess. In Canada, chess tournaments are often held in church basements, schools, community centers, etc., resulting in a large group of people crammed into a small, dark and over-heated space.

6.   Second-Chance Chess

The U.S. is the only country in the world where players get the chance to re-enter a tournament after a terrible initial performance. For a nine-game tournament, players can either register for the standard five-day schedule or the shorter four-day schedule. While the five-day schedule has one game on day 1 and two games on day 2, the four-day schedule schedules all three games on day 2. On the third day, the four-day schedule merges into the five-day schedule. If you register for the five-day schedule and lose the first game, don’t fret because the U.S. tournament system gives you a second chance – simply quit the tournament and re-enter in the four-day schedule!

7.   Record Your Own Results

At international chess tournaments, the standard procedure upon finishing a game is to shake hands with your opponent in good faith, sign each other’s score sheets and wait for the arbiter to come by and record the results. Women Grandmaster Tatev Abrahamyan, originally from Armenia and a graduate of California State University, recounts the story of her first chess tournament: “After winning my game, I signed my score sheet and sat quietly in my seat to wait for the arbiter while my opponent got up and left. I had no idea what was going on. It took me a while to realize that there’s a huge bulletin board outside where I’m supposed to record my own result!”

8.   No Special Treatment

It is quite common in Europe for Grandmasters to be given special conditions at every tournament. Whether it is waiving the entry fee, covering full accommodation or even giving a fixed appearance fee, it is common courtesy for tournament organizers to offer the Chess Master something in return for his or her participation. Unfortunately for the expat players in this country, the largest open tournaments in the U.S. offer their top players very little in comparison. Sometimes Grandmasters are given free entry in the U.S. but if they go on to win a prize, the value of the registration fee is then deducted from the prize money.

9. Chess and a Beat

You’d think electronics would be banned during chess tournaments to prevent people from using chess engines to analyze the games. Yet, in the U.S. there is always at least one person in every tournament who sits in front of his chessboard wearing head phones and occasionally bobbing his head to the beat. “There was one time when the Tournament Director caught an electronic-user during a tournament and calmly said, ‘I forgot to tell you that you can’t use cellphones during the tournament!’” recounts Grandmaster Niclas Huschenbeth, “You would never see this in Germany. Never.”

10. Juggling Chess and Career

The U.S. chess system is unique in that it allows players to continue their chess pursuits at the highest level while juggling full-time education or a career. The options for shorter tournament schedules make chess a lot less time-consuming. International Master Nazí Paikidze shares the excitement she has for her future plans: “I love chess and it would be painful to keep it just as a hobby. But now it is also my dream to design my own fashion line. Back in Georgia I could only choose one or the other…and I would have chosen chess.” Like Ms. Paikidze, FIDE Master Alisa Melekhina (a recent University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate who was born in Ukraine) and I are able to run a start-up called SubLite and pursue our academic goals while still finding time to compete in a few major tournaments every year.


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