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Sherri Richards, Published October 24 2010

Rooks rock at tourney: Novices, masters compete in five rounds of chess

Leo Segal has beat chess players before who are better than he is, but he also doesn’t mind losing. The 12-year-old Excelsior, Minn., boy just likes playing in competition tournaments with advanced players.

“You learn a lot more from those people,” he said. “You really learn a lot from people better than you, even if you lose.”

Segal was one of about 50 players from across the region competing in this weekend’s ChessNuts Challenge Open Tournament at Concordia College.

Three games were played Saturday, as well as a scholastic tournament for students in kindergarten through high school. The final two games will be played this afternoon.

Now in its fourth year, the five-round ChessNuts Challenge Open has grown in size, sponsorship and talent, this year drawing five master players, including Alex Yermolinsky, a grand master, two-time U.S. champion and winner of the Philadelphia World Open three times.

On Friday night, Yermolinsky played 18 chess boards simultaneously and won all 18.

“For local players, this is a huge opportunity to interface with a completely different level of chess than is currently played in our region,” said Brian Thompson, organizer of the tournament and founder of the ChessNuts Club, which meets Friday nights at the downtown Fargo Subway restaurant.

Even Mike Sailer, a 16-time North Dakota chess champion, said it is a treat to play a grand master. He’s previously played grand masters, including Yermolinsky, but never beaten one.

He said having master players competing locally may inspire young players to reach that level as well.

“Like in many sports, you only advance to the level of your competition,” Sailer said.

This is one reason why Segal competed in the rated tournament instead of the scholastic field.

In the first round of Saturday’s tournament, the sixth-grader was matched with John Leitel, a Moorhead man who started competing in chess tournaments in 1965.

At that time, as a high school freshman, he was the youngest player in any tournament.

“There were very few junior high kids who played chess,” Leitel said.

On Saturday, there was a junior-high student, Andrew Tang, in the premiere room with Yermolinsky.

Also in the elite group was Joseph French, a North Dakota State University senior from St. Louis, Mo. He helped establish a chess club at NDSU.

French often places wagers on his own games, making side bets to make things more interesting.

“On top of crushing someone’s ego, you take their money,” he said.

He also plays a lot online. Chess is no longer a game limited by physical location, he said.

“Chess is definitely under-respected in the world,” French said. “It’s bigger than it seems.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556