March 5, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 81  

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Chess enters grand Olympic stage

By Marshall Bellamy
Gazette Staff

Chess. It’s a game of kings, a game for the nobility — one of calculating strategists and superfast super computers, but it will soon be the game of Olympians too. It is also a game for skilled university students, like Western’s chess team.

Western’s chess masters have returned from the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships in Miami. “It’s the largest and most prestigious tournament in the Western Hemisphere,” explains chess team captain Andrew Pastor.

This is the first time since 1999 that Western has gone to the Pan-Am tournament, he says, adding the team ended with a first and second place finish in two of the four competing sections.

The chess team is no stranger to shoe-string budgets for the excursions to their competitions. “Last time in 1999, they had to sleep on the floor,” he notes.

According to Pastor, this year the team was able to raise $4,000 for their accommodations, transportation and tournament fees in sunny Miami. He is quick to point out that the University of Waterloo, which has one the best teams in the world, could not go to the vaunted tournament because they did not have the cash.

Chess was originally played in Asia for centuries and has since become embedded in European culture. Pastor says the game of wits has been catching more than a little interest in North America.

He explains that chess has been accepted as an exhibition sport for the 2008 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. “It’s growing in popularity, it was tried in Sydney — but now we’re full-fledged.”

Chess in the Olympics? Have the gods gone crazy?

Gazette File Photo
FORGET DEEP BLUE - I WANT MORE BABY BLUE. Internationally-known chess champion Garry Kasparov managed to beat IBM's best efforts, but can he outdo City TV's?

Not according to Kevin Walmsley, a kinesiology professor at Western and director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies.

“There’s been some real interesting ones in the past: motorboat racing, tug-of-war, ballroom dancing,” he says. “I think it means the IOC is just trying stuff out.”

He adds the IOC usually selects sports for the Olympics and decides if they stick around based on fan response, the amount of competitors and other factors. Walmsley notes that beach volleyball is an example of a sport that was tried out and caught on, for various reasons.

“I think if it has a following, it won’t be from the conventional sports fans,” Walmsley says. “The chess case does raise a lot interest.”

The chess craze doesn’t isolate itself internationally to the Olympics, it has already gained a considerable world following with the Chess Olympiad, a sort of Olympics for the world’s chess-playing powers, Pastor says.

He notes that Canada is in the top 20 chess-playing countries, and will undoubtedly field an Olympic team. “We have four grand masters,” Pastor says, referring to the top rank for a chess competitor.

Colleges in the United States have also shown an interest in creating viable chess-competing programs. “A lot of them have coaches and have extensive training,” he says, adding some colleges offer as much as $15,000 a year in scholarships to potential players.

But despite all of the hype, Pastor admits he too does not understand the chess player’s love for the game. “I got serious three or four years ago, but before that I was like: who plays chess?” he notes, adding he converted after playing the game.



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