With the sudden popularity of the Netflix movie “The Queen’s Gambit,” based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote called “The Reno Chess Club.” It was published in the Delmarva Review Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 32-33 (2007) and describes an experience I had 30 years ago.
The Reno Chess Club
With its world class casinos and proximity to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra, the city of Reno has a well-deserved reputation as an entertainment and recreational destination. Ask anyone about Reno and they’ll tell you that the place is also known for airplane races, hot air balloon ascents, chili cook-offs, bowling tournaments, wedding chapels, classic car shows, and big-time rodeos. Surprisingly, this city of quick money and quick marriages is also home to the slow and cerebral game of chess.
Soon after moving to Nevada [in 1991], I read in the Reno newspaper about an upcoming chess tournament [the Western States Open]. This was no ordinary tournament where a local club sets up rows of boards on the long tables of a school cafeteria. Instead, the venue was the elegant salon of one of Reno’s biggest casinos. What’s more, the ad said that this was a nationally ranked tournament and some of the country’s best players—chess masters and grandmasters—were expected. I hadn’t thought abut this game in years; probably not since the sensational 1972 Fischer-Spassky world championship match, so I decided I’d go just to watch.
The scene was surreal, for a casino that is. Absent were the blinking lights, the tinny staccato of paying slots, the echoed call of “Keno,” and the crowds. The large room was well lit and nearly silent, and with the tournament already underway when I arrived, there was little motion. Spectators like myself looked on from the sidelines as players, many with head in hands, focused their gaze on the opposing armies before them. At each board, minutes would go by until one player made a move, hit the button on a small dual-faced clock that kept track of elapsed time, and then recorded the move in chess notation on a small spiral-bound tablet.
The elite grandmasters played in a special cordoned-off section at one end of the room. These were the stars of the show, and their games were displayed, move by move, on a large vertical board behind each pair of players. I noticed the person next to me had a compact chess set that he used to follow the game of his favorite grandmaster. Everyone stood in silence out of respect because chess is a game of concentration. Those who wanted to discuss games in progress left the room, and, even then, spoke in whispers. Chess is a wonderful spectator sport, but the fans are of a different sort; their enthusiasm is expressed in hushed tones.
That Reno chess tournament rekindled my interest in the game. I was pretty good once. In fact, I held the titled of middle school champion and still have the plaque that Mr. Ginsburg, our gym teacher, made for me. I joined the Reno Chess Club confident that I would soon emerge as its top player, but after a few games I knew the strength of my opposition; I was not the one uttering that potent word “checkmate!” The club president consoled me with one of his favorite sayings: “Win a game, give a lesson: Lose a game, get a lesson.” I got plenty of lessons at the Reno Chess Club!