Appropriately, there was a lot of lobbying, some politicking and a little competing at the first public meeting of the Congressional Chess Caucus last week, held in a committee room at the House Rayburn Office Building.
Assisted by former world champion Garry Kasparov, St. Louis chess patron extraordinaire Rex Sinquefield and a passel of young U.S. chess stars, the caucus got off to a nice bipartisan start as co-chairs Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, a Democrat from St. Louis, and fellow Missouri Rep. Jason T. Smith, a Republican, lauded the role chess instruction can play in the schools as part of the national drive to promote the so-called “STEM” curriculum of science, technology, engineering and math.
The benefits of chess instruction for young minds — on logical thinking, discipline and study habits — have been amply demonstrated, and officials from the champ’s Kasparov Chess Foundation say that more than 3,500 schools in every state have requested the sample chess lesson plans it has devised.
“We hope to see this idea spread across the country,” said Mr. Smith. “The kids learn chess but end up learning so much more than just the knowledge of the game.”
Mr. Clay and Mr. Smith also made a pitch for a pet cause — proclaiming St. Louis the “chess capital of the United States.” The Senate approved that resolution in early May, but the House has yet to act.
Mr. Kasparov, perhaps the greatest player who ever lived, doesn’t compete at the board anymore, but he remains a central figure in the game. Like the lawmakers, he has his own election coming up: an August 11 contest with nemesis and longtime FIDE chief Kirsan Ilyumzhinov for the presidency of the troubled international chess federation. As the lawmakers and young stars mingled, the ever-voluble and dynamic Mr. Kasparov talked about chess education, the upcoming race and a few other topics. Some excerpts:
On chess in the schools: “It is clear that our educational system as a whole is badly in need of reform. The current classroom structure is a 19th century model trying to teach children a 21st century curriculum. So much of the STEM curriculum is about pattern recognition, logical thinking and decision-making. Learning chess can be especially important in the early grades, before the mental hardware has been set. The fact that we now have this caucus and that we’re playing on Capitol Hill is, I think, a recognition of the role of chess in the mainstream of education.”
On the FIDE election: “The game has been hijacked. The organizational structure is antiquated, and the money that could come from the corporate world and private foundations isn’t there because of the reputation of the current leadership. There is an element of politics in everything, but really, my main goal is to take the politics out of the game as much as possible. When you see what a Rex Sinquefield can do for the game with the right leadership, that’s the kind of thing that should be happening everywhere and just isn’t. The next world championship [which will be held in Sochi, Russia, after no cities came forward with bids to host the event] is a symptom of what needs to be fixed.”
Kasparov said that despite bad blood in the past, he could work with the powerful Russian Chess Federation if his slate wins. “It’s up to the Russian Federation to decide whether it wants to be a positive force in the game,” he said, but added he was backing the Ukrainian chess federation in the dispute with its Russian counterpart over canceled tournaments and other issues related to the recent annexation of Crimea.
On the keys to the upcoming title match between Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen and Indian challenger Viswanathan Anand: “There could be many keys, but the result will be the same” — i.e. a Carlsen victory.
The competitive highlight of the event was a serial team match between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, with Mr. Sinquefield and Mr. Kasparov playing the first half-dozen moves. (White’s unconventional 5. Bb5 in this, um, Irregular Closed Sicilian drew an audible intake of breath from Mr. Kasparov.)
The quality of the subsequent play was not exactly world-class, with Mr. Clay, Mr. Smith and their colleagues relying heavily on the “coaching” of the junior stars, including 16-year-old Utah GM Kayden Troff and 13-year-old NM Ashritha Eswaran, fresh from her appearance in the U.S. Women’s National Championship. The best chess player on the Hill may just be House Chaplain Barry Black, who took over White for the Democrats around Move 15 and tried his best to resurrect a pretty ugly position.
But the pollsters said this was shaping up as a Republican year, and the GOP score was perhaps a bellwether win here, with Mr. Kasparov tag-teaming with Mr. Smith and fellow Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer for the victory.
There was even some intriguing chess to dissect. White’s pieces get bollixed up on the back rank, and Black took advantage on 14. Bd1 (not a pretty move, but the computer actually likes it) dxe5 15. Nxe5?! Nxe5 16. Qxe5 Bf6!, inviting 17. Qxc5? Nxb3! 18. cxb3 Bd4+, pinning the queen.