Chess enters grand Olympic
By Marshall Bellamy
Chess. It’s a game of kings, a game for the nobility — one
of calculating strategists and superfast super computers, but it
will soon be the game of Olympians too. It is also a game for skilled
university students, like Western’s chess team.
Western’s chess masters have returned from the Pan-American
Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships in Miami. “It’s
the largest and most prestigious tournament in the Western Hemisphere,” explains
chess team captain Andrew Pastor.
This is the first time since 1999 that Western has gone to the
Pan-Am tournament, he says, adding the team ended with a first
and second place finish in two of the four competing sections.
The chess team is no stranger to shoe-string budgets for the excursions
to their competitions. “Last time in 1999, they had to sleep
on the floor,” he notes.
According to Pastor, this year the team was able to raise $4,000
for their accommodations, transportation and tournament fees in
sunny Miami. He is quick to point out that the University of Waterloo,
which has one the best teams in the world, could not go to the
vaunted tournament because they did not have the cash.
Chess was originally played in Asia for centuries and has since
become embedded in European culture. Pastor says the game of wits
has been catching more than a little interest in North America.
He explains that chess has been accepted as an exhibition sport
for the 2008 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. “It’s
growing in popularity, it was tried in Sydney — but now we’re
Chess in the Olympics? Have the gods gone crazy?
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Not according to Kevin Walmsley, a kinesiology professor at Western
and director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies.
“There’s been some real interesting ones in the past:
motorboat racing, tug-of-war, ballroom dancing,” he says. “I
think it means the IOC is just trying stuff out.”
He adds the IOC usually selects sports for the Olympics and decides
if they stick around based on fan response, the amount of competitors
and other factors. Walmsley notes that beach volleyball is an example
of a sport that was tried out and caught on, for various reasons.
“I think if it has a following, it won’t be from the
conventional sports fans,” Walmsley says. “The chess
case does raise a lot interest.”
The chess craze doesn’t isolate itself internationally to
the Olympics, it has already gained a considerable world following
with the Chess Olympiad, a sort of Olympics for the world’s
chess-playing powers, Pastor says.
He notes that Canada is in the top 20 chess-playing countries,
and will undoubtedly field an Olympic team. “We have four
grand masters,” Pastor says, referring to the top rank for
a chess competitor.
Colleges in the United States have also shown an interest in creating
viable chess-competing programs. “A lot of them have coaches
and have extensive training,” he says, adding some colleges
offer as much as $15,000 a year in scholarships to potential players.
But despite all of the hype, Pastor admits he too does not understand
the chess player’s love for the game. “I got serious
three or four years ago, but before that I was like: who plays
chess?” he notes, adding he converted after playing the game.