Wall Street Journal: chess culture shock

4/29/2015 – The Wall Street Journal carries a number of interesting sections on their website that share articles on a variety of slightly offbeat topics. One of these is called “Expat”, and is self-captioned as ‘for global nomads everywhere’. Yuanling Yuan, a top Canadian chess player who recently moved to the US to study at Yale described her astonishment at chess in the USA.

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Top 10 Chess Culture shocks

By Yuanling Yuan

In the last decade, the U.S. has seen a surge in the number of foreign chess players attending American universities and settling in the country after graduation. Today, expat chess players dominate about 90% of the top collegiate playing fields, by my count. An increasing number of universities are starting to treat chess like a varsity sport. The University of Texas in Dallas, for example, recruits top chess talent from across the world by offering full scholarships and an annual stipend. It is also said that the cheerleaders at UTD cheer louder for the chess team than the football team.

A thoughtful and interesting article on how chess is perceived and played around the world

Three years ago I crossed the Canadian border to settle in New Haven, Conn., where I began my undergraduate studies at Yale University. Though Yale is not a typical “chess school,” school breaks gave me the opportunity to travel the country and play in many U.S. chess tournaments. Having played chess semi-professionally in Canada for more than 10 years, I was shocked to see the U.S. chess system at work. I interviewed a few other expat chess players currently studying in the U.S. to hear their “chess shock” stories. Ever wondered how chess could be so different globally? Read on to find out:

1.   Chess is NOT Checkers

Chess became much more popular in the U.S. after Bobby Fischer became World Champion in 1972. Yet, chess in the U.S. is nowhere near as popular as it is in many European countries, such as Russia and Georgia. “Every family in Georgia owns a chess set and knows how to play. Everyone in the country knows the names and faces of the top Georgian chess players,” says International Master Nazí Paikidze, a Georgia-born student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus. “When I came to the U.S. and told my classmates at UMBC that I play professional chess, they thought I meant checkers. I was speechless.” To a chess player, the greatest sin you can commit is mistaking chess for checkers.

2.   BYOC – Bring Your Own Chess

We’ve all heard of BYOB but what about BYOC? The idea that chess players have to bring their own equipment to even the largest tournaments in the U.S. is hands down the biggest shock for expat chess players. Every major tournament in the world provides chess sets and clocks except for those in this country. BYOC can be stressful to professional expat players who are used to standard, wooden sets with brown and beige squares. As Grandmaster Niclas Huschenbeth, a German international student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, puts it, “You can be playing on green squares one game, purple the next and then blue the game after!”

Yuanling Yuan on Canada's first board at the 2014 Tromso Olympiad

3.   Play Chess. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

Another huge shock to expat players is the intensity level of U.S. chess tournaments. An average chess game at the professional level can last four to five hours and here in the U.S., players are expected to play two games a day. In India, Russia, Georgia and the rest of Europe chess tournaments are structured so players only play one game a day, with an occasional “rest day” after several days of hard-fought mental battles. A nine-day tournament in Europe would finish in only five days in the U.S., leaving the players no choice but to play chess, eat, sleep and wake up the next morning to do it all over again. The U.S. is certainly known for its efficiency!

4.   Expertise is Relative

Being a Chess Master is not a prerequisite to teach chess in the U.S. There are chess coaches across the country at all levels, ranging from individuals rated 1600 (intermediate player) to 2600 (Super Grandmaster). International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan, an Indian student at Lindenwood University, notes, “In India you need to be an International Master and rated at least 2400 to teach chess. All young chess players in India want to become the next World Champion like Vishy (Viswanathan) Anand. Their fathers would fire you immediately if you weren’t capable of coaching a World Champion. Here, the 1600s train the 1300s, the 1900s train the 1600s and the Masters train the 1900s.” Coming from an environment of high expectations for coaches, expat Chess Masters are taken aback by the competition in the coaching market from players of much lower strength.

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