Dan Dillon is an extremely strong chess player. Let’s get that straight right from the start.
If you’re a casual player who has never played in a tournament, he’d crush you. Even among serious players — those who compete in tournaments — his chess rating puts him among the top 7 percent in the country.
Yet it wasn’t shocking when Dillon, who has been playing competitively for more than 40 years, was checkmated at a recent Twin Cities Chess League event by an 8-year-old girl.
Chess is a game of infinite complexity and mystery, a gift from sixth-century India that has taxed the calculating skills of the greatest minds of all time and has even held out against supercomputers.
It’s a game that we “patzers” will never truly comprehend.
And yet, as Dan Dillon accepted his fate with laughter, and as the 4-foot-tall Nastassja Matus gathered up the pieces after her victory, the ultimate truth of the game had once again revealed itself.
Chess is the great equalizer.
Age, experience, gender, size, strength, education, SAT scores, income — all the things that define and separate us — count for nothing when two players sit across a board with 64 squares.
Nastassja, a third-grader from Plymouth, is only now learning about fractions, yet she demonstrates an uncommon talent and intuitive understanding of the game of kings. Only a little more than a year since she played in her first rated tournament, she is punishing subtle errors of highly rated players.
In August, she took the silver medal in an international competition in Toronto for girls under 8, and in December, she’ll be traveling to the United Arab Emirates to represent the United States in the World Youth Chess Championship.
The game is rife with these “chess punks,” as the manager of the Chess Castle of Minnesota has dubbed them with jealous respect. Kids who arrive at the board with a chess clock in one hand and a stuffed animal in the other strike fear in the minds of veteran players. The two opponents may have similar ratings, but the chess punks usually are improving so rapidly that even big leaps in their rating fail to catch up with and reflect their true ability. Though the adult would dominate in any other head-to-head competition involving mental or physical agility, it’s often the kid who has the edge in chess.
For more proof, consider Andrew Tang of Plymouth. He won this year’s annual club championship at the Castle, the strongest chess club in the state, despite being only 13. It was no fluke. He’d won it the year before, too.
And earlier this year in neighboring Wisconsin, a 9-year-old from Madison achieved a rating of master — the youngest ever to do so in the United States. It’s a title that fewer than 2 percent of U.S. tournament players ever reach. His name, appropriately, is Awonder Liang.
As Dan Dillon, of Minneapolis, says, and as every chess player knows, “There’s no shame in losing to a prodigy.”
This weekend, as a new World Championship match begins, it’s the prodigy who is the betting favorite to win. Norway’s Magnus Carlsen set a new age record when he became a grandmaster — the highest title in chess — at the tender age of 13. Now 22, he will try to wrest the world championship from 43-year-old Indian GM Viswanathan Anand, a five-time champion.
Age differences among players may be the most glaring disparity at tournaments, but it’s not just age where the distinctions between players become inconsequential.
Though chess remains male-dominated, Hungarian grandmaster Judit Polgar claimed her place among the chess elite with a ranking of eighth-best in the world a few years ago, proving that it may not be long before a woman vies for the world title.
And here in Minnesota, the white Scandinavian heritage is but one ingredient in the true melting pot that’s the chess community in this state. When the pairings were posted for each round of the Minnesota Open in February, the lists contained no shortage of names like Diaz and Sanchez, Xiong and Qu, Ravi and Amarasinghe.
The field included a 40-year-old black doctor from Duluth, a 65-year-old Russian immigrant who settled in Burnsville, a black teen from St. Paul and another from north Minneapolis who recently won his division at a national scholastic tournament.
And every Thursday night at the Castle in northeast Minneapolis, a couple dozen players chat amiably before they get down to the business of trying to destroy each other’s best ideas. It’s a gathering that cuts across socioeconomic lines and one that you would be hard-pressed to find in any other room anywhere in the state. The weekly Thursday Knighter counts among its regulars a taxi driver, a retired CEO who has sat on the boards of U.S. Bank and Target, a merchant Marine sailor (when he’s on shore leave), a retired postal worker, a journalist, a 20-year-old enrolled in a work skills program, a van driver at a park-and-fly lot and the owner of a small window washing business.
The Thursday Knighter, by the way, is a refuge for those of us who have been pushing pieces for years but still can’t memorize more than a handful of moves of the main lines in the Nimzo-Indian opening. The games can run longer than four hours, pushing the endgames close to midnight and thus ridding the competition of many of the strongest players in the state.
They’re fast asleep — having already been read their bedtime stories.
Dennis J. McGrath is a regular at the Thursday Knighter at the Castle. He is the Star Tribune’s deputy digital editor.