Section: Features

History of chess at Kenyon: Grandmasters visit en passant

The game of chess has been one of the most popular activities in the world for centuries, with hundreds of millions of players across the globe. Even on a tiny hill in Gambier, Ohio, this iconic game has carved out a substantial and storied role in Kenyon’s history.

Jackson W. Showalter, class of 1879, is the most accomplished chess player to graduate from Kenyon. Showalter rose to prominence in the chess world in the 1890s, winning his first United States Chess Championships in 1891. He was the fourth person ever to hold the title of U.S. Chess Champion.

The College has also had a number of elite chess players visit the campus over the years. Newell Banks, who visited the campus in 1925, possessed a rare skill set: According to the Collegian, by the time he visited Kenyon, he was a top-10 chess player in the United States and the best checkers player in the nation. Newell’s first task was to play 12 games of chess and checkers simultaneously. He won all but one: He was checkmated by a Kenyon first year.

Newell then played two games of checkers and one game of chess at the same time, all while blindfolded.

“Puffing calmly on a big, black cigar, Mr. Banks made considerable impression on the spectators in announcing his plays such as, ‘Checkerboard number 1, 29-25- ,’ or ‘Checkerboard number 2, jump back,’ or on the chess board ‘Queen’s bishop back to king’s second,’” the Collegian reported in 1925. 

However, the most exceptional chess player to ever play at Kenyon was José Raúl Capablanca, who is widely considered one of the greatest chess players of all time. Dubbed the “Human Chess Machine,” Capablanca was known for being so quick and accurate with his moves that playing him was almost akin to playing a robot. Capablanca was the World Chess Champion from 1921-1927, and author of Chess Fundamentals, widely considered one of the best chess teaching manuals of all time.

Before he achieved fame and glory, Capablanca visited Gambier as a 21-year-old in 1909. According to the Collegian, the College invited Capablanca to play against the six best members of the Kenyon Chess Club at the same time on March 1, 1909. He ended up playing 10 students, and beat all of them with ease.

“Never once did he stop to consider, for more than a few seconds, a move of his opponent, but went round and round the table, seeing at a glance what move to make,” the Collegian reported at the time.

His performance was so dominant that even the Collegian reporter who witnessed the chess matches predicted Casablanca as a future world champion, 11 years before he won the title. “Mr. Capablanca does not expect to follow chess playing as a business so that he may never be a world champion, as he undoubtedly might become should he follow it as a vocation in life,” the reporter wrote.

After an almost 70-year hiatus, chess at Kenyon had a renaissance in the late 1990s, most notably featuring a visit from Fred Waitzkin ’65 and his son, International Master Josh Waitzkin, in 1998. The elder Waitzkin is known for his novel Searching for Bobby Fischer, which he based on his son’s experience. It was adapted into a major motion picture in 1993. While the two visited primarily to discuss chess, Josh Waitzkin also participated in a series of matches against some of Kenyon’s strongest players, who were selected through a tournament held a week prior.

The Waitzkins’ visit to campus reportedly inspired Kenyon’s Office of Admissions to begin recruiting chess players in the spring of 1999. Chess recruitment on the collegiate level was not unheard of at that time, though Kenyon’s mobilizing efforts were rather modest in comparison to other schools such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, a small institution whose recruiting campaign is recognized nationally. According to a 1999 Collegian article, the Office obtained the names of 1,000 high school chess players who were recognized by the U.S. Chess Federation and sent them recruiting materials in the hopes that they would remember Kenyon’s early contact efforts when beginning the college application process. Then-Vice President of Finance and Chess Club advisor Joe Nelson hoped that one day, the club could represent Kenyon at the International Pan-American Championship, a tournament that features some of the strongest collegiate chess players. 

Indeed, three years later, Kenyon’s chess club qualified to compete in the Pan-American Championship, which took place in Miami and featured college students from all over the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Latin America, including six grandmasters. Among the grandmasters was Alex Onishcuk, who was ranked second in the United States at that time. According to a 2003 Collegian article, Kenyon’s competing members were so dedicated to participating that they even paid for their plane and bus tickets out of pocket. 

The competing club members included Johnny Sadoff ’06, David Rogoff ’06, Andrew Shelby ’03 and Andrew Kilpatrick ’03, whose collective wins, losses and draws placed Kenyon at 27th in the tournament. 

Not every member secured a win, but Kenyon’s chess club walked away from the championship with a fair amount of impressive highlights. Though Sadoff was defeated by grandmaster Boris Kreiman, the Kenyon first year won four out of six matches in the tournament and placed 26th individually. Sadoff, who boasted a rating of 1793 ELO, maintained that he could beat anyone at Kenyon at chess. “Teachers and students alike, all will fall before my crushing offense,” he told the Collegian after the tournament.

After graduation, Sadoff moved on to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he was a part of the chess team. In 2013, he founded ChessMate Tutors, an organization that teaches chess to a wide range of students. 

From producing nationally recognized players to inviting grandmasters to campus, the College has taken initiative to give this iconic game a home on the Hill.

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