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All the right moves: Why is chess so popular in New Zealand?


More New Zealanders are playing chess than ever before. Some attribute this to popular Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, others to an app that became popular during lockdown. LEE KENNY reports on the rise of Kiwi chess.

Even if you’ve never watched a chess match, it’s possible you’ve heard of Garry Kasparov.

The Soviet-born grandmaster is probably the most famous chess player of all time, having set numerous records during his long playing career. However, he is perhaps most well known for a defeat.

In 1997, he played and lost to IBM’s Deep Blue. It was the first time a world champion was beaten by a computer over six matches.

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In actual fact, Kasparov won the opening game, lost the second and drew the next three. It was the decisive sixth game that saw him resign.

In New Zealand chess, Kasparov is remembered for another defeat. In 1985, Wellington-born Murray Chandler beat the Russian in 33 moves.

Nic Croad, New Zealand’s current chess champion, says while Chandler went into the game as the favourite, his victory remains a “high point” for New Zealand chess and the country’s ability to produce top players.

Today, Chandler is New Zealand’s only grandmaster*, the highest title awarded by the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

Grandmaster Murray Chandler chats to Stuff reporter Lucy Swinnen. Chandler became a member of the NZ Order of Merit in the 2017 New Year Honours, for his services to chess.

Monique Ford/Stuff

Grandmaster Murray Chandler chats to Stuff reporter Lucy Swinnen. Chandler became a member of the NZ Order of Merit in the 2017 New Year Honours, for his services to chess.

Six Kiwis are international masters and 24 are masters, including Croad, who was crowned New Zealand champion in January 2021.

It is the second time he’s been the top Kiwi player, having first claimed the title in 2015.

Croad was introduced to the game by his dad when he was 8 or 9, but didn’t take it seriously until he was 15.

A school friend belonged to a club and Croad joined too. He soon began to compete in tournaments.

“I’m a fairly competitive person and I wanted to be able to win at this game. I think it was this that motivated me,” he says.

Current New Zealand Chess Champion Nic Croad says Kiwi chess is “probably in the best state it's ever been”.

Jericho Rock-Archer/Stuff

Current New Zealand Chess Champion Nic Croad says Kiwi chess is “probably in the best state it’s ever been”.

The Wellington-based player went on to compete in the Chess Olympiad in Siberia in 2010.

“That was a new environment for me to be playing in – it was a bit of a higher level than I was used to.”

Croad – who works as a computer programmer at logistic company Orbit Systems – was 36 when he won his first New Zealand title.

In chess terms that’s considered “fairly late”, he says.

“The people who get a lot of titles tend to get their first one when they are about 18.”

Among the country’s rising stars is Baqi Mao, 9, who regularly beats adult opponents.

New Zealand Junior Chess Champion Isabelle Ning competes in Palmerston North in January 2021.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

New Zealand Junior Chess Champion Isabelle Ning competes in Palmerston North in January 2021.

Isabelle Ning, 12,​ is one of the top junior players. As is 13-year-old Auckland Felix Xie who competed in the New Zealand nationals in January. He finished third overall and won the rapid championships.

Many of the country’s top young players are from New Zealand’s Asian communities, says Paul Spiller, vice president of New Zealand Chess Federation, which has 17 affiliated clubs across the country.

“In Auckland, particularly, it’s dominated by Asian kids,” he says.

“It’s part of Asian culture, it’s a meritorious thing to be good at chess.”

Didi Xue began playing when he was 7. Now aged 11, he’s a junior member of Canterbury Chess Club.

He practices every day, either playing or watching different tactics online, and says his favourite move is the London Opening.

Mathew Mears, 12, and Didi Xue, 11, are members of the Canterbury Chess Club.

STACY SQUIRES/Stuff

Mathew Mears, 12, and Didi Xue, 11, are members of the Canterbury Chess Club.

His interest in chess began when he saw an older boy playing at his school, and he hopes to one day represent New Zealand.

“I’ve done well this year,” he says.

“There was an inter-school tournament and I won all of my games.”

Mathew Mears, 12, is also a Canterbury Chess Club junior, having taken up competitive chess about a year ago.

“It’s really easy to learn and there’s pretty much no limit to how much you can play.”

Although he enjoys playing face-to-face, online games allow him to review his moves and learn from his mistakes, he says.

“That’s always helpful.”

Mears says he has played more chess since Covid-19, and he’s not alone.

Spiller says player numbers have shot up in the past 18 months.

Anna Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit, with Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov.

Phil Bray/NETFLIX/The Washington Post

Anna Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit, with Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov.

“Once we got out of lockdown, we found that the numbers of people actively getting involved in tournaments had really picked up,” he says.

“We were getting anything up to 50 per cent more people turning up than had previously.

“The Waitakere tournament in July had a record of over 150 players. For us let’s pretty significant.”

As well as face-to-face games, the number of Kiwis playing chess online has also skyrocketed.

“That’s how people have been playing chess during Covid, especially as we haven’t been able to play over the board.”

The two most popular online platforms in New Zealand are Lichess and Chess.com, Spiller says.

“Two years ago, Chess.com had 28 million subscribers [globally]. It’s now something like 73 million.”

Netflix

The Queen’s Gambit is now streaming on Netflix

“Potentially there are tens of thousands of people who are playing chess in New Zealand on a casual basis using apps,” Spiller says.

Another significant factor was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, which tells the story of fictional chess player Beth Harman.

The seven-part series spent 29 days in New Zealand Netflix’s top 10 – 17 of those at number 1.

With its 1960s setting, stylish clothes and glamorous locations, the show has been credited with making chess cool.

It also contributed to a “massive uptake” in chess playing in New Zealand, Spiller says.

Cory Broad, a committee member at Canterbury Chess Club, agrees.

Canterbury Chess Club committee member Cory Broad says there’s a great social side to chess.

STACY SQUIRES/Stuff

Canterbury Chess Club committee member Cory Broad says there’s a great social side to chess.

“The Queen’s Gambit helped a lot with our player-base and people getting into the emotional side of the game,” he says.

“It struck a chord with people and got them to come and play.”

Broad runs a weekly social night for new and existing players in Christchurch and says “the scene has really grown a lot throughout the year”.

He is responsible for helping bring through new players and says some members have been as young as 7 or 8.

“I personally just love working with youth and helping them succeed.”

Broad, like other club committee members and tournament organisers, is one of the unsung heroes of New Zealand chess.

But few have done more for the game than Bob and Vivian Smith, from Mt Maunganui.

Mt Maunganui chess player Bob Smith, right, playing a Polish international master in Lucerne Switzerland at the 1982 World Chess Olympiad.

Supplied/Stuff

Mt Maunganui chess player Bob Smith, right, playing a Polish international master in Lucerne Switzerland at the 1982 World Chess Olympiad.

Bob, 65, taught himself to play using a book he borrowed from his local library as a boy.

He went on to win the national title twice and represented New Zealand 12 times at the Chess Olympiad.

Vivian, 70, was a school champion but took a break from playing until she began working at Air New Zealand in 1977 and joined the company’s social chess club.

After rediscovering her passion for the game, she went along to the chess club in Waitākere and that’s where she met Bob, who was club president.

“We’ve been organising and playing chess side-by-side ever since,” she says.

Recognising her prowess as a player, a colleague suggested Vivian should compete in New Zealand Women’s Chess Championships, and although she was “terrified” she entered and came fourth.

Mt Maunganui’s Vivian Smith is a former New Zealand Women's Chess Champion.

Stuff

Mt Maunganui’s Vivian Smith is a former New Zealand Women’s Chess Champion.

From there she was selected to represent New Zealand in Argentina in 1978.

“That was so exciting. It was like: play chess and see the world.”

Vivian, who is a FIDE master, received a bronze board medal in the chess Olympics in 1984.

“I was holding my board while the rest were getting bopped,” she says, “That was a big highlight for me.”

With only “a handful” of female players in New Zealand, the Smiths set up the Auckland Girls Chess Championship, which still runs to this day.

“We have done that for the last 21 years. This year it was more popular than ever with 230 entries,” she says.

“The biggest group this year were the under 10s, that was massive.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing, but I get immense joy in seeing kids playing.”

Bob Smith is a former New Zealand champion and now works as an online coach.

Supplied

Bob Smith is a former New Zealand champion and now works as an online coach.

Whether the increased interest in chess will translate to future international success remains to be seen.

Spiller says New Zealand is usually in the top half of FIDE’s international ranking, which is made up of about 190 countries and often finishes between 60 and 80 in the Chess Olympiad, which is held every two years.

“We have had high finishes, especially when Murray (Chandler) was playing for us,” he says.

“We have a lot of promising juniors. A lot of our talented young players have regular coaching sessions with grandmasters.”

Croad says New Zealand chess is “probably in the best state it’s ever been”.

“It is fairly well set up here, so if you want to be a serious club player you can probably find a club nearby.

Broad, the Canterbury committee member, says, although the game is taken very seriously, it’s huge fun, with “a lot of banter”.

WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Eleven-year-old chess champions Isabelle Ning and Kendrick Zhang compete in a game of blitz chess – a type of fast chess in which each player is given less time to consider their moves than normal tournament time controls allow.

What he likes is that “you can play thousands of chess games, and you never have the same outcome”.

“It’s also a very skilful game that has very little luck involved. It’s just you and your opponent.”

Chess is considered a “mind sport”, and as well as openings, middlegame tactics and endgame strategies, players have to develop high levels of concentration.

Croad has played some games that have gone on for 150 moves each. One match lasted seven hours.

“In a tournament competition, it’s like sitting an exam each day,” he says, “As you get more experienced you know when you need to concentrate a bit more.”

Researching an opponent’s playing style is a “big factor” at elite level, Croad says.

“If they tend to focus on one opening you can probably predict to move eight what position you’re going to get on the board.

“You can do a whole research project to work out what you are going to play. Sometimes that comes off, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Bob Smith says while new players can improve by doing puzzles and tutorials, nothing beats getting expert advice.

Chess can be “an unforgiving game”, he says.

“You can play well for three hours and make one mistake and lose the game.”

Smith is a FIDE master but has beaten a grandmaster and says what is most important to him is “creating good games”.

“It’s like a work of art for me – if I can play a really nice game, it’s something that I can keep forever.”

For more information about New Zealand Chess or to find a club visit www.newzealandchess.co.nz

*This does not include International Correspondence Chess (ICCF) grandmasters (GM).



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