Alexandria, VA – The Queen’s Gambit is, at the moment, Netflix’s most watched show. Many Americans stuck inside have found needed escape in the fictional coming of age story of Beth Harmon, an orphan turned child chess prodigy, who defies the odds to compete with the best in the world. The 7-part miniseries, made for adults, plunges viewers into the world of 1960s competitive chess. But in 2020, adults are not the only ones who need a distraction from the realities of pandemic life.
Recently Zebra got a glimpse into the minds of local children on a similar quest for chess greatness. These serious students of the game, unable to play in the traditional face-to-face setting, found that playing each other in online tournaments presents its own set of challenges and rewards.
For nearly 20 years, Alexandrian Vince Ruble has organized traditional chess competitions at schools around the area, including a citywide tournament in Alexandria. Ruble works for The Campagna Center providing before and after school programs for Alexandria’s Elementary Schools, but his main profession now is teaching chess one on one.
Facing quarantine this year, Ruble provided a safe alternative by initiating online play. Since March over 200 bright young players have relentlessly competed for 54 trophies each month. Each contestant played in four matches per tournament. That’s a lot of chess.
Zebra talked with four of these rising chess stars as they prepare for a showdown on December 5, to win an impressive 28-inch trophy. The players are Clara Witte, Ethan Corazza, Andrew Fabian, and Thomas Votsis, and vary in age from 9 to 14. Each has a unique playing style and approach to the game, which is part of what makes chess great. No two players are the same; no two matches are identical.
A great player must see what is in front of them and adapt accordingly. Success is predicated on the individual’s ability to predict what their opponent will do next. Players at this level are adept at visualizing the next series of moves and trying to stay one step ahead of their adversary.
No one knows this better than Clara Witte, a sixth-grader at Roland Park Elementary in Baltimore. She uses her innate ability to read people to her advantage.
“Sometimes I can see little a disturbance in (opponents) faces, but when it’s just another computer screen you forget about that and just focus on the game,” said Clara. That Clara is the only girl among the four finalists is not lost on the 11-year-old. “If a boy wins against another boy, they’re fine with it,” she said, “but if a girl wins, then they think she is cheating or something.”
Clara is quite humble about her accomplishments. “I kind of regard trophies as showing off, but what’s the point of showing them off? You don’t carry them around with you everywhere you go, they’re just sitting on the wall or a shelf.”
Nine-year-old Thomas Votsis, a fourth-grader from MacArthur Elementary in Alexandria, has a different view on trying to read his opponent. “I usually don’t, because sometimes I read their emotions. Then I think maybe I’m winning or losing and that makes me overconfident,” he said.
Thomas values getting to play chess with a wide variety of players during the few years he has been playing, but, he said, “Probably the biggest (take away) is probably focus because, in chess, that is what you have to do. If you’re daydreaming while you’re playing, you’ll lose. I’ve learned to put my mind to things and accomplish them.”
At 13, Ethan Corazza is a seventh-grader at Hammond Middle School and the highest-ranking player of the group. Ethan is modest about this fact. When asked about his achievement, Ethan said, “I have been more consistent than most of the other people.”
Ethan considers his play to be an opportunistic endeavor and a way to create a more exciting match. “If there’s an opportunity, if I see it, I’ll probably take it. If I can attack or defend, I’ll probably attack,” he said. The thrill of the attack is no small part of what makes Ethan such a dangerous player.
Andrew Fabian is a 9-year-old attending Mount Vernon Elementary School and a highly cerebral player who prefers to lose himself in the game no matter who the opponent is. “ I just get so deep into my games, I don’t care if it’s against a random person. It’s just the chess pieces,” he said.
Not surprisingly, patience is a virtue for Andrew when it comes to chess. “You can’t force a person to move and go through their thought process. You have to go through your own thought process and think to yourself, is this a trap? Can I get forked in some way?” said Andrew. (For those uninitiated in chess jargon a fork is when an opponent forces you to choose between two of your pieces that could be captured in the next move. A fork is something to avoid.)
It will be a fascinating clash of the minds when these exceptional chess standouts collide in the elimination tournament on December 5. When you read this, the tournament will have taken place and we will report the outcome on the Zebra website (thezebra.org) and in the January Zebra. We wish them all luck, as they compete to see who takes home the title. Make sure you check out our next issue when we will reveal the name of the winner.