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It's Hub-NYC chess match with trash talk, fans, logos

By Ryan Kost
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2008
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You could be forgiven if you haven't heard much about what one man called "by far the biggest rivalry going on in the chess world right now." But in the burgeoning United States Chess League, a special community where speech is reduced to board coordinates, a two-year spat between the Boston Blitz and the New York Knights is garnering a lot of attention.

As the Red Sox and the Yankees faced off one evening this week in their age-old war, these two chess teams met via the Internet for their season opener, the Blitz based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge as the Knights tuned in from New York.

In the insular world of chess, the US Chess League is a growing movement, an organization that is shifting chess's focus from the individual to the team, from a board game to a sport.

The teams are your typical franchises: bright logos, flashy names (Miami Sharks, Arizona Scorpions, Seattle Sluggers), and private sponsors.

Then, of course, there are the big personalities.

Take Alexander Shabalov, a chess grandmaster who plays for the Knights. In a pregame interview, he psyched out his opponents, as would any good celebrity athlete.

"I expect total Knights domination on boards 1-4," Shabalov told a blogger who follows league news. "We have so much depth. Our bench is uncomparable [sic] to the other teams in the league."

Of course, he said, the interview was in jest. "The whole idea was to do the totally nonsensical interview with some trash talking."

But the point is clear. This isn't Bobby Fischer's chess. Nor is it, necessarily, the chess world's answer to the failed Xtreme Football League. Teams nationwide have recruited - and, thanks to sponsors, can afford to pay - several grandmasters.

Though Shabalov lives in Pittsburgh, he plays for New York, rather than the Philadelphia Inventors.

The team's offer, he said, was sweeter. "I'm a chess professional, so basically I'm going with whoever gives me better conditions."

Top players can fetch around $250 per game. It won't exactly get you a condo on Beacon Hill, but for a few hours work, it's something.

"Obviously, it's still relatively new, but from what I've seen I think there is quite a bit of buzz about this," said Bill Hall, executive director of the United States Chess Federation, a not-for-profit organization that works to extend the role of chess in America. "Talk about the league is growing . . . I think they're making good strides in the industry."

Talk about the Blitz-Knights rivalry is also growing.

It was born of two things: There was the fact that one team was from Boston, the other from New York. As if that were not enough, history had recorded a split for the teams; New York beat Boston in the 2006 division finals. In 2007, the win went to Boston.

Wednesday night the rivalry was waged in silence, a tense, library silence, the sort that's loaded with breathy sighs, stuffy noses, sneakers against carpet and the tick-tock of a clock's second hand.

Four men sat staring at their chess boards, minutes of consideration packed into each delicate flick of the wrist. They used the boards to visualize the digital games.

In front of them, the four matches were projected onto a screen. The boards could have been an abstract painting as much as a chess match, for all the sense they made to outsiders.

"I don't understand most of the time what's going on," said Alla Shved, a chess groupie. "You can be a genius and still not see it."

Shved started coming to the Blitz's games last season. She knows some of the players. As she watches the games, she trains on her own computer.

"Chess players are so cool," she said. "They're definitely weird, but in a good way."

As the games went on, Internet observers started to sign on in droves. Board one, where grandmaster Shabalov was playing Jorge Sammour-Hasbun, had 172 viewers at one point.

After more than three hours of play, one of the four games was over. It was a win for Boston, and there were some quick and quiet congratulations, a high-five, a slap on the back.

Soon after, another game ended in a draw.

In those final few hushed minutes, the half dozen people watching in the room stood up, as if they could not bare to miss that final homerun.

The third game ended, another draw. It was down to Shabalov and Sammour-Hasbun. It did not take long for Shabalov to cede the game. Applause broke the silence. Boston won the match.

The Boston players gathered for an after-game interview that they would post on their site in a few hours.

"I don't know why they trash talk," Sammour-Hasburn gloated to the video camera. Then a few minutes later: "I think we would welcome the New York team to come here. I mean, it's going to be a long way back home after they get their butts whipped. Again."

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