BRIGHTON — Game or sport?
Chess doesn’t involve running, jumping, throwing or tackling. The only physical exertion, if you want to call it that, comes from lifting one’s arm to advance a piece.
And yet, the wildly popular 1972 world-championship clash between the United States’ Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky received sports-media coverage comparable to Ali vs. Frazier, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird or Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.
Further fueling the debate is the fact that chess is recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee — but is not an Olympic competition.
“Probably most people consider it a game, because a sport has a spectator base and chess doesn’t. But I can tell you from the view of kids who play, they get just as excited as any sport, and the same kind of satisfaction of winning. There are a lot of parallels,” said Keith Snyder, chess-program moderator at All Saints Academy in Corning.
Maybe the students at Brighton’s Seton Catholic School have the right idea. In an informal poll of chess enthusiasts there, most don’t consider it just a game or just a sport, but both — an “exercise of the brain,” as one young man put it.
However it’s classified, lots of people are playing chess — and obviously enjoying it, based on the festive atmosphere during a Friday-afternoon gathering Jan. 5 at Seton. There, 50 or so children in grades kindergarten through 6 filled a few classrooms, laughing and chatting enthusiastically while discussing strategy with adult assistants and engaging in friendly competition with each other.
Well, most of it was friendly. Here and there, evidence existed of the seriousness generally associated with the game as some competitors squared off in stark silence, deliberating at length between moves and apparently not minding the noise level.
Chess clubs exist at several schools in the diocese. Many participants said they were taught by family members, and now enjoy honing their skills among friends.
“We play all the time — we play in study hall, we play at home,” said Kevin Easterly, 16, a junior at Irondequoit’s Bishop Kearney High School.
That practice is apparently paying off. Kearney competes in the Monroe County League and currently occupies second place in its seven-school division with a 7-1 record. The Kings — how’s that for a school nickname that fits? — are hoping to qualify for a season-ending tournament in late March involving all division winners.
“It’s a small team, but they’re all really, really dedicated and really talented. They kind of coach themselves,” said Alicia Hoffman, team moderator. She said the program can accommodate all levels of experience, with the strongest player being assigned the first board and beginners playing on lower boards.
Meanwhile, students at Seton Catholic get lots of help from the nearby Rochester Chess Center. The center’s founder, Ron Lohrman, is a regular presence at Seton, where the program has existed for many years.
“If it weren’t for Ron Lohrman, all of these kids wouldn’t be playing chess,” said Mary Starkweather, Seton’s parent coordinator. She has two sons — Nathaniel Howe, a fifth-grader, and Thomas Howe, a third-grader — who take part in the club.
Whereas Seton Catholic and Bishop Kearney have established programs, the club at All Saints in Corning is in its second year. According to Snyder, students in grades 6 to 8 get together weekly during lunch period.
Then again, these days you don’t even need to be in the same room to get a game going. Millions of people now play online chess — a new option for a game that’s been played competitively for about 500 years.
Each player begins with 16 pieces aligned on a square checkered board. A winner is declared when “checkmate” is achieved, when one’s king has nowhere else to move to escape attack. This might involve the capturing of many pieces over a lengthy period of time, or it can happen in a few short moves.
Jack Sisson, 12, said he enjoys picking up new chess strategies, even when he incurs defeat.
“When you’re challenging strong players, you’re learning more from losing than winning,” explained Jack, a sixth-grader at Seton Catholic.
A fellow sixth-grader at the school, Chase Mahar, said he finds the game relaxing.
“If you’re like, stressed out, it helps you think better,” said Chase, 12.
Hugh O’Connor, a Seton first-grader, offered a slightly younger person’s perspective on the significance of moving pieces known as kings, queens, rooks, knights, bishops and pawns.
“I like it. It makes me feel like I’m in a real castle,” said Hugh, 7.