This weekend, many of the strongest and most devoted chess players in the region will battle one another in Superior, Wis., in a tournament that has grown into one of the most popular chess events in the region.
The Twin Ports Open will be held Friday through Sunday, marking the eighth consecutive year the tournament has been held. It features a large prize fund, a chance to get paired against grandmasters and the opportunity to spend a three-day weekend immersed in chess.
It’s also a sense of camaraderie that brings people back year after year.
“I like to go to this tournament because you get to see your friends,” said Bill Murray, a Brooklyn Park resident who has played in six of the seven Twin Port Opens. “And I like to support the Duluth guys because they come down here and play in our tournaments.”
True to its name, the Twin Ports Open has been held in both Duluth — - where it started in Canal Park in 2012 — - and Superior, where it will be held this year at the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Yellowjacket Union. Rising hotel prices in Canal Park and space considerations forced the migration from Duluth to Superior two years ago, said Dane Mattson, who holds the title of chess master, and is one of the local players instrumental in launching the event.
Duluth-Superior has a small but active chess club, and several of its members frequently drive to the Twin Cities for competitions. The idea behind starting the Twin Ports Open was simple: “We said we’d love to have a tournament and invite some of our friends from the Twin Cities,” Mattson said.
Hoping for about 30 players, they were delighted when nearly three times that many — 87 players — showed up.
Over the years it has continued to grow, drawing more than 100 players in recent years. Chess aficionados from more than a dozen states and four countries have competed.
A projected prize fund of $5,800 — - larger than prize funds of most regional events — is one of the attractions. So is the chance to play against a grandmaster — - two of whom have confirmed their participation this year.
This year the chess frenzy starts on Friday evening with a side event, the “John Bartholomew Blitz Challenge.” Bartholomew is an international master — - the second highest title in chess behind grandmaster — - and he’ll be taking on all comers in blitz games, where each player has only 5 minutes to make all their moves.
Bartholomew, of Eagan, hosts one of the most popular chess instruction channels on YouTube, and he’ll be capturing the blitz action in a video for his channel.
The official tournament begins Friday night with contestants able to choose between a two-day schedule (three games Saturday and two on Sunday) or a three-day schedule (one game Friday night, two on Saturday and two on Sunday).
Most games, especially among the better players, are likely to last two to three hours, or longer.
In addition to the section the grandmasters and other strong players will compete in, there are lower sections for intermediate players and beginners — - and all of them have cash prizes for the top three finishers in each section.
The tournament typically attracts the Twin Cities’ most active players, and as a result the metro area’s major chess club — - the Chess Castle of Minnesota in northeast Minneapolis — - cancels its regular weekend events on the dates the Twin Ports Open is held.
For Duluth-Superior area players, it’s a treat to have a major competition on their home turf.
“Many of the stronger players who come to our tournament are folks I consider friends, and there is more of a community and camaraderie feel to this tournament,” said Okechukwu Iwu, a doctor of internal medicine with Essentia Health in Duluth, a chess master and one of the original organizers of the tournament. “Not having to worry about hotel checkout times is also nice.”
But Iwu has found, ironically, that while it’s nice to have the competition come to him, he hasn’t gotten any home-field advantage. He said he typically underperforms in the Twin Ports Opens and over-performs in the St. Paul Winter Open (in Roseville), for example.
“On the balance, though, I’ll take the camaraderie over the competitive results,” he said.