Chess Tournament Brings Out Players of All Ages and Skill Levels for Largest Outdoor Tournament in U.S.

BY SOMMER SAADI

Five-year-old Jason Jiang races through Central Park toward the Bethesda Fountain. It’s 11:35 a.m. and he and his parents are 35 minutes late for his first Chess-in-the-Parks Rapid tournament.

Wearing black slacks, a white button-down shirt, dress shoes and socks that slide down his calves, Jason has got the look of a miniature champion. And after a few months of daily practice he is confident.

“I’m going to get a trophy,” he declares. “I play with my dad and sometimes I beat him. My mom, too.”

The park is swarming this late September morning with more than 650 participants who registered for the ninth annual tournament sponsored by the Parks Department and Chess-in-the-Schools, a program that teaches chess to kindergarten through eighth grade public school students. The six-hour, six-round tournament is free, open to players of all skills and ages and has grown into the largest outdoor chess tournament in the U.S.

Competitors play six rounds through the day, each lasting 20 minutes, racking up points for victories or draws. The higher-skills category pits undefeated players against each other in 5-minute blitz rounds.

Jason’s father, Michael Jiang, registers him in the under-age 10, unrated skills category. Meanwhile, his mom teaches Jason how to use the chess timer.

“First you move the piece,” she instructs, “then press the button.”

“Ok!” Jason exclaims. “Move!” he yells while pretending to slide a pawn across an imaginary board. Then his hand slams down on the timer.

Move. Slam. Move. Slam.

The Jiangs get their assignment, then scurry off to find table 247, where Jason’s first opponent, two years older, is waiting. The boys shake hands and begin.

Jason sits on his knees so he can reach across the table to move his pieces. He shifts his pawn one square forward. The boys are told not to talk during the match.

Instead they make “boing” noises during each move.

Chess-in-the-Park Rapid tournament in Central Park.

Chess-in-the-Park Rapid tournament in Central Park.

Jason’s parents keep an eye on him from a few tables away. They signed him up for the Chess-in-the-Schools weekly after school program a few weeks ago, and through that they found out about the tournament.

“The good thing about chess is it stimulates thinking,” says Michael Jiang, who teaches Chinese and Technology at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn. “You learn to understand that different moves lead to different consequences.”

Playing chess improves reading skills and standardized test scores as well as emotional intelligence, according to studies by educational psychologists.

A few tables over from Jason, international master Yury Lapshun and grandmaster Lev Albert sit, drawing a crowd of spectators. Throughout the day Lapshun plays five-minute rounds of speed chess against challengers from all skill levels.

“It’s like going to the neighborhood basketball court and seeing a schoolyard player taking on LeBron James,” says Adrian Benepe, Parks Commissioner.

Still working on their first round game, Jason’s opponent, who has been distracted by the sun, moves his king directly next to Jason’s rook. Jason knocks the king out. Game over. He runs to tell his parents.

“He put himself in danger and then I beat him!” Jason says while jumping up and down. He’s one round closer to his trophy.

Jason ends the tournament with a three-point score after winning two rounds, losing two and drawing on two. That places him in the top half of the 21 players in the kindergarten through fifth grade group. His parents are thrilled and so is Jason.

They’re already looking forward to the next tournament.

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