Pawn in their game

Santa Fe New, new mexico
Aug 29 2004

Pawn in their game

BARBARA FERRY | The New Mexican
August 29, 2004

A queen ate Doritos. A bishop poked a rook with an umbrella. A pawn
sat down and declared, “I’m going to die.” It was, all in all, an
unusual game of chess, Saturday afternoon, when New Mexico state
champion and International master Jesse Kraii took on grand master
Varu Akobian using real, live, squirmy but patient children as chess
pieces on a giant board set up on the street in front of the Hotel
St. Francis.

The game was part of the first Santa Fe Chess Open, an event that
organizers hope will become an annual event. The two-day series of
tournaments, including 10-minute blitz chess, continues today. It is
sponsored by businesses along Don Gaspar Avenue.

On Saturday, star power was provided by 20 year-old Akobian, who was
born in Armenia, lived in Moscow and now resides in Los Angeles.
Akobian is ranked 16th by the United States Chess Federation.
Akobian’s heritage also provided the Russian Summer connection
organizers were seeking. Akobian has played in chess tournaments
around the world. “But I have never participated in anything like
this before,” he said.

Jeff Burch, president of the New Mexico Chess Organization, said
Akobian, a rising star in the chess world, was a big draw for local
players. “Anytime you can get a grand master, it’s great, but a young
grand master is even better,” Burch said.

The local hero was Kraii, who started playing chess while attending
Capshaw Middle School. Kraii teaches local kids to play chess and is
ranked 67th in the country. He is working on beating enough
top-seeded players to gain the coveted grand-master title.

Kraii, who led the white army, strolled around the board consulting
with his pieces, who carried white umbrellas topped with balloons.
“Are you ready to checkmate?” he asked them, getting a cheer out of
his team.

Akobian, commanding the black side of the board, dressed in black
from his shoes to his sunglasses, hung back, visualizing the board in
his head. Chess aficionados crowded around a board set up on an easel
that kept track of the game. “Black is burnt toast,” one observer
mumbled at one point, claiming that Akobian, unclear about the
position of his king, had made a blunder.

Each player had an hour to complete his or her plays, an eternity for
the uninitiated, and possibly for some of the pieces on the board.

Dave Thompson, whose children Emma, 6, and Samuel, 9, were pieces on
the white team, said the pace is one of the things he likes about
chess. “Kids today often don’t have patience. Chess slows them down.
It makes them think.”

In the end, Akobian, facing a checkmate, resigned with about nine
seconds on the clock.

“Chess is cool,” declared Taylor Vigil, 9, who plays for the Kearney
Elementary School team.

John Coventry, one of the event’s organizers, said the idea was to
“build Santa Fe’s scholastic-chess movement.” Another idea was to
raise money to restore Fountainhead Park, a narrow strip of stone
benches and tables on Don Gaspar Avenue that includes a chess table.
The event won’t make any money this year, though organizers were
pleased to see the city turned on the fountain on the corner of Don
Gaspar Avenue and Water Street for the first time in several years.

At noon today, Akobian will take on all comers. Anyone wanting the
privilege of being beaten (probably) by a grand master, can show up
with a board and $20 registration fee.

Akobian will play up to 50 people simultaneously, said Burch.
Tournament organizers have purchased prizes, such as biographies of
Russian chess masters, to give to players who beat Akobian. But Burch
said he doesn’t expect to be giving away many prizes.