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Chess players exude a quiet intensity

It was whisper quiet Saturday as 50 players competed in the Buffalo Holiday Classic Grand Prix chess tournament.

There were no screams or shouts. No high-fives or ostentatious celebrations.

Yet, a palpable intensity permeated the atmosphere as players hunched over chess boards and monitored the time on clocks, trying to outthink their opponents in one of the oldest and most popular board games on the planet.

"I love the strategy, and every game is different," said Jonathan Boone, a member of the East High Dark Knights chess program.

He had just lost his first of four matches in the kindergarten through 12th-grade section of the tournament at the Main Place Mall but was unfazed. "For me, losing in chess isn't failure. It only makes me want to learn and play more," said the 11th-grader.

Rating points and, often, cash prizes are at stake in chess tournaments connected to the national chess federation. So, the affairs take on a quiet intensity, unlike a casual game. Players' points reflect their strength and are based on their results against other players.

This tournament was presented by The Archangel 8 Chess Academy and Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., and it represented one of the few opportunities Buffalo-area chess-lovers have to get a rating, as well as to gain experience against new and better opponents.

First place in the open division for all comers -- one of four sections in the contest -- earned $150 and bragging rights.

Jennifer Santora watched patiently from a distance as her son, Sam, competed in the Under 1500 section, denoting players with a rating below the 1500 level established by the United States Chess Federation. A grandmaster has a rating of 2600 and higher, while a novice is below 1200.

Age doesn't always make a difference in chess, a game of concentration, determination and the ability to calculate short-range tactics to achieve long-range goals.

So, this tournament offered the sight of Sam, 8, whose toes barely touched the ground, facing an adult deep in thought as the two traded moves. "Sam got a computer chess game at Christmas when he was 5, and he just took to it," said Santora of Kenmore.

He is currently rated among the top 100 players in the U.S. in his age group, she said. "Sam loves to play, but he's not at a point where he analyzes every game," Santora said. "My job is to expose him to better players. If the games get too easy, kids will walk away from it."

Players brought their own chess sets, boards and clocks. Michael A. McDuffie, director of the tournament, provided the pizza and meandered from table to table to monitor the activity. He is a fixture in the local chess scene.

A U.S. Chess Federation-certified coach, McDuffie founded the Urban Knights chess team at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library and the Archangel 8 Chess Academy that promotes the game in the city and suburbs. Last year, the Buffalo NAACP recognized him for his outreach to young people.

"Too many kids are failing to graduate, and I hope chess in some small way can contribute to helping students stay in school," he said. "It gives kids a desire to aspire to something."

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com