Ella Papanek ’21 (left) and Alex Yu compete in the qualifier tournament.

Photography by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Art of chess

Players bring their best moves to Smith Center tournament

4 min read

“No two games of chess are alike,” Jason Yoo ’21 muses. “It’s always different. I like to see it as drawing or painting with a stranger that you just met.”

Yoo was one of dozens of chess lovers who bonded and competed over the 14 new tables lining the plaza of the redesigned Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center in a recent weekend tournament.

Community Chess Weekend, organized by Harvard University’s Common Spaces Program in partnership with the Harvard Chess Club, featured open play, exhibition matches against a grandmaster, and a qualifier tournament, all building up to the Collins Cup Invitational Blitz Championship from which Harvard Chess Club’s own Varun Krishnan ’19 emerged victorious.

“It brings together people of all ages,” says Holger Droessler, Ph.D. ’15, from Germany. “If you play football, you can’t do that when you’re 80. Chess you can still play when you’re older, and you can start when you’re very young. … It’s ageless.”

Nicholas Mastromarion (center) from Chelsea, shares his most memorable moment playing in Harvard Square. “My first win against a master. I remember that moment vividly. It was a very empowering feeling. Yeah, that was a good day.”

Andrew Huang (left) and Jason Yoo, both ’21, study the board. “When you look around it seems like there are always people waiting to play, which is really exciting to see because there is no idle chitchat or whatnot,” Yoo says. “It’s just getting down to business. … Making beautiful pieces of art on this board is very exciting. It’s really interesting. It’s always fun to see what different things you can make with different people.”

“Fierce” is how Matthew Casso ’19 describes the Harvard Square chess community. “You get into games where it’s very precarious. Just one wrong move and the entire house of cards crumbles on either side. It’s exciting to see a game go down to only a few pieces left, and it still being very close.” Martin van Dommelen and his 18-month-old daughter, Maud, of the Netherlands, watch a match. “Chess is universal,” van Dommelen says. “Go to parks and squares, the rules are the same everywhere. It’s a part of home. It’s familiar.”

Three-time U.S. Champion Larry Christiansen (pictured upper right table), the grandmaster, moves from table to table defeating all but two of the approximately 30 challengers.

Holger Droessler, Ph.D. ’15, makes his best move against grandmaster Larry Christiansen. “I should have studied his moves before playing. He’s an attacking player. That’s what one of the organizers told me before, and he showed that. It’s the grandmasters. They’re relentless.” Francisco Vetcher, 7, tries a wall of defense against the grandmaster.

“As Rodney Dangerfield would say, ‘We have a tough crowd here,’” Larry Christiansen says after two hours of play. “They did not make it easy.” Daniel Sutton responds to a move by the grandmaster.

One of these players “can neither confirm nor deny” a victory against grandmaster Larry Christiansen.
Players compete to advance to the championship match.
Michael Isakov ’22 and Carissa Yip vie for the Collins Cup.

Deliberations are intense during the championship. Gaven, 8, and his mother, Dabney Hailey, watch the Collins Cup contest. Varun Krishnan ’19, in the foreground, goes on to win.

After vanquishing his opponent, MIT student Alexander Katz (center) observes other games. Visitors line up to record the final matches of the championship.

Billy Collins (center) celebrates after drawing with Harvard Chess Club team member Bryan Hu ’19. The championship tournament was named after Collins, a fixture in the Harvard Square chess scene, according to Massachusetts Chess Association President Nathan Smolensky, in honor of Collins’ 64th birthday. Why 64? There are 64 squares on a chess board.