by Tiffany Cassidy
Anyone walking into the cafeteria of Saskatoon’s Bishop James Mahoney High School on a recent Saturday would have heard nothing but the soft tap of chess pieces moving, followed almost immediately by the click of a time clock, indicating the end of a turn.
Fifteen-year-old Jimmy Bartha was reaching the end of a match against his opponent. His eyes were fixated on the 64 squares in front of him - all regulation sized 2 ¼ inches.
Bartha’s been playing since he was 10, and his brain has long since adapted to the strategy.
“You have to visualize the pieces in advance,” he said.
“Once you get good at it, it’s almost like you forget where the actual pieces are in real life; you just visualize it.”
Bartha and about 50 children and youth in Saskatchewan are part of a school chess league that operates across the country. Throughout the school year they play at weekend tournaments, like the one on January 26. Their minds will soon be shifting to the regional and provincial tournaments. The top finisher in each age group at Provincials will head to Nationals this May in Ottawa.
Bartha is hoping to make it to his fourth consecutive Nationals this year. For about a month and a half leading up to Nationals, he’ll practice for two to three hours every day.
He’ll practice on the computer - or when he has a good game, he’ll go home and recreate, almost identically, how it played out, and see what worked.
But at the national level, the Saskatchewan chess players are up against some serious competition. Other provinces have larger chess clubs, and treat the game much more seriously. In Ontario, for example, chess is used in the math curriculum.
In this province, the chess scene is filled by passionate students and run by dedicated volunteers, like Don MacKinnon who coordinated the tournament at Bishop James Mahoney. He drove in from North Battleford, where he volunteers twice a week teaching chess over the school lunch hour.
MacKinnon first became interested in all the aspects of the game when his son began playing online as a Grade 4 student. Throughout high school, he was one of the most successful Canadian players in his age group.
Not that MacKinnon sees his son as an exception to the rule. He said there’s rarely such thing as a prodigy.
“It’s hard work, hard work, hard work.”
Now that his son is in university, MacKinnon stayed involved in the chess scene because he believes it makes a difference in people’s lives.
His claims are backed by studies. Since the 1970s, several pieces of research have been published showing students who play chess not only have higher scores in math and school work, but have improved social skills as chess builds their confidence.
MacKinnon said he sees chess as a microcosm of life. You learn consequences, how to lose, win, and do both graciously.
“I know you’re sceptical,” MacKinnon told me after I pointed out that many people may say the same about sports. “Most people are.”
The game of chess, he said, offers an equal chance of success for all, whereas sports tend to favour people who are naturally tall, have lots of muscles, or have other physical attributes.
MacKinnon has seen participation in the Saskatchewan chess league fluctuate from year to year, but overall, he said, fewer youth are involved now than a decade ago.
That’s what makes people like eight-year-old Sasha Sasata so promising. Last year was Sasha’s first year at Nationals, and MacKinnon said this year he expects him to reach the podium.
You could pick Sasha out as the only one at the tournament carrying around a notepad and pen. He would write down each move he and his opponent made in the game, and then review it later with his father.
Robert Sasata, holds the title of a Chess Master in Canada for winning enough matches to achieve a rating over 2,200. He started teaching chess to Sasha and Sasha’s two younger sisters as each turned four.
At one point Sasha and Jimmy Bartha played each other in the tournament. The game was close, but Bartha resigned before the end because he could see he was going to lose.
That’s something MacKinnon finds completely remarkable about chess. He noted that it’s rare to see elementary and high school-aged students all in the same room, getting along.
Then he pointed to the game between Sasha and Bartha, an eight-year-old and 15-year-old, and they were both taking each other extremely seriously.
Asked if he has any goals for Nationals this year, Sasha replied, “Only one. To be in first place.”
More photos found here.