The time clocks are ticking, one at every board.
Yet faster than the moments tick away, eating up the allotment of two hours for 40 moves, the hearts beat and pound, two at every board, with hope, excitement and fear, intensified accordingly as remaining time is depleted.
Even faster yet, the brains turn over hundreds of possible continuations, in a game where the move of a ragged pawn can in a second seismically destroy a fabulous infrastructure of imaginative rook-queen-knight combinations.
All of that might apply to any chess tournament but this is the big one, the biggest in the country, the Canadian Open Chess Championship … and it’s right here in Hamilton, for the first time in decades.
So it is all that, PLUS a national title at stake, not to mention $8,000 first prize, $26,000 total purse.
It’s going on now at Hillfield Strathallan College, in an enormous gym with special plastic flooring, and there are almost 250 people in the place. They are virtually all ages, all levels, from all over the world — there’s a grand master here from Cuba — sitting across from each other, locked in combat, row after row of tables, several games to a table.
So many people and yet the air is hushed — library quiet; quieter. You can hear the proverbial pin drop or fork clang; not as a sound on the floor but perhaps as a gasp when a player realizes a rook is caught in a pin, or the queen and the bishop in a knight fork.
Oh chess, you miserable, wonderful dominatrix.
“I am not doing very well so far,” says Bernard Buscar, somewhat philosophically, as philosophically as you can when your guts have been torn out.
“I played to two draws and one loss so far, the loss to a higher ranked player.” He is a terrific player, once winning the Globe and Mail newspaper’s chess championship. He doesn’t take it as seriously as he once did, but he wanted to find out what it would be like competing for a national championship.
“I think I’m the oldest player here,” he tells me. Seventy-one. He had a stroke two years ago. You’d never know. “Chess is my therapy.” He played a Queen’s Gambit game as white and a Sicilian defense as black.
Probably harder for Bernard, who lives in Oakville, than his own performance is that his son Michael Buscar, 35, was also not doing as well as he’d hoped. Michael, whom The Spectator has written about before, in his youth won several junior championships in the area and nationally.
Kyrylo Demchenko, a chess coach and popular chess blogger originally from Ukraine but now living in Brantford, fared better when I talked to him on Tuesday. “I just won my guy,” he told me in the parking lot afterwards. He put it in perspective. “It was a 1700 player.” Demchenko is rated at over 2100.
Outside the gym itself there are usually many people milling about, many of them families of young competitors. You can hear several languages being spoken, and there are promotions for side events, like a blitz chess and a hostage chess competition; areas where the organizers take care of business and a large table over which is spread a buffet of chess books and magazines. One cover shows the distinctive face of Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit” fame.
In a lounge area just off from there, Steve Tukonic and Lewis Ford play a friendly game.
“We’re total spectators” at the tournament, Steve assures. “We do play chess a lot but we’re here to watch our friend (Mitch Schneider, a very highly ranked player). We’re all from Niagara Falls. In today’s society, chess is a good antidote. It’s not all about instant gratification (there’s very little of that in chess; it’s rarely ‘instant.’). It’s good for young people and good to see so many taking to the game and so many here.”
“It’s better than video games,” Lewis says, agreeing.
“It’s also great seeing people here (at the open) you’ve only read about, like some of the grand masters.”
This week’s Canadian Open here features a strong field, with no fewer than 10 grand masters, from as far afield as Iran and Israel.
“We are delighted to be in Hamilton this year,” says Patrick McDonald, of Kitchener, one of three co-chairs of the event, along with Bob Gillander and Hal Bond.
“The city really stepped up … Everyone’s really appreciating the facility here (at Hillfield Strathallan). It’s the perfect room.”
Helping organizers at the event is Yelizaveta Orlova, Patrick’s daughter-in-law, originally from Odessa, Ukraine, now living in BC with husband Justin McDonald, a highly ranked player and Patrick’s son. Yelizavita was a competitor for Canada in the Women’s Chess Olympics in 2010 and 2012.
She has written a popular book, “Chess For Beginners,” a 2018 Amazon bestseller in the chess book category.
It is still a struggle getting more women to take up the game, she says, but things are improving, helped along by the popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit” series. There are several women in the open but the field is predominantly male.
Aris Marghetis of Ottawa is chief arbiter at the open. He oversees a team of invigilators who pace the aisles between the tables.
“I oversee the games to ensure sportsmanship.” Well, he laughs, fighting isn’t a big problem but with the advanced chess engines available on people’s cellphones, cheating is a risk.
This tournament so far has gone off without a hitch, he says.
No cheating. And no fights. It’s not a violent sport but if our naked senses could pick up what really happens, inside the players’ hearts and heads, between black and white over the vast and bloody terrain of those tiny checkered squares, chess would be the most riveting spectator sport in the world.
Either that or onlookers would flee in horror at the intensity of it all. They’d certainly never be bored.
The tournament continues until (and including) Sunday.