About 50 people were gathered just after noon Tuesday, right where folks often gather at South Station: near the big electronic board listing departures and arrivals. Only no one was looking at the board. All eyes – and plenty of cell phones – were pointed squarely below it. Why?
There are 4 long tables, set up in a square. 24 chessboards neatly laid out over white tablecloths. 24 players sidled up to the boards on the outside – each in the midst of a game. But what really catches your eye? They’re all playing the same guy.
“In general it’s pretty much routine. When I see the board I pretty much know what’s going on I have a lot of experience, a pretty high aptitude for the game,” says Larry Christiansen, a three time US Chess Champion.
Christiansen is a certified Grandmaster who once beat Anatoly Karpov - the man who succeeded Bobby Fischer as World Champion. It’s Christiansen’s status and skill that brought out players like Robert Branca who’s been playing chess pretty seriously for 60 years.
“I can beat some people some times. I know enough to be dangerous and not enough to be good against a master. You don’t get a chance to play someone like him, unless you rise in a tournament,” says Branca.
But it wasn’t just the serious chess set here. There were relative newcomers, like Alan Sandler.
“It was just last summer that I purchased a chess set and played with a friend,” Sandler says. “And I like the intellectual challenge, cause at my age you can’t do too much physically anymore.”
Not all newbies were of the grey-haired persuasion. Take 7 year-old Michelle Chudnovsky. She says she just started. When asked if she thought she could beat him, she replies “No.”
Now, some did hold out hope that they had a path to victory.
One player who was not faring too well speculates that his “lack of strategy will throw [Christiansen] off a bit.”
But it turns out that is not how it works.
Christiansen says that playing against novices with no strategy is “a little too easy.” He adds that “If I were blindfolded that would be tough. If it’s like this it’s easy.”
To be fair, those with strategies, even complex ones, faired no better.
One player concedes with a laugh: “He just touched the rook to tell me I’m in check lest I think I could do something over here…”
Christiansen says that playing in this type of environment, where he spends about 2 seconds per board, per move, for two straight hours, he’ll maybe lose or draw 1 out of every 100 games or so. And even then, usually because of a mistake. And not all of Christiansen’s victims even came here to play.
James Sanguinetti says he didn’t even come here to play chess.
“I have a bus to catch here in 40 minutes,” he says. Eager to jump in, Sanguinetti recalls that he used to play a lot of chess when he was younger but says “I haven’t played since high school.”
And, that – said Christiansen – is the whole point.
“We wanna bring some people out of retirement, bring ‘em back into the game of chess, maybe kill a half an hour or an hour waiting for a train and popularize chess in the Boston area.”
So, did it work with Sanguinetti?
He was on game number 3 when I checked on him again— admitting that he skipped a bus to keep playing. “I missed my one o clock bus. I’m going for the two o’clock bus now,” he says.
So while Christiansen may have not lost a game, it looks like the real winner at South Station on Tuesday was the “Game of Kings.”
You can try your hand against Christiansen on Tuesday, July 16 between noon and 2pm. The free chess event is held monthly, usually the second Tuesday, at South Station.