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A Volunteer's Perspective on Columbus: A Blue Apron & Female Fire Print E-mail
By Melinda Matthews   
April 22, 2010
I have to admit, when I gave my 8th grade son, Nicky, a choice between the Junior High Nationals in Minneapolis and the High School Nationals in Columbus, I was secretly hoping he'd choose Minneapolis.  Frankly, Columbus, the city, didn't sound nearly so appealing. 

Nicky didn't care about location.  He chose the high school event because he wanted the challenge of playing in the most difficult spring national scholastic tournament.  So, at his behest, I reluctantly booked our flights to Columbus, resigning myself to yet another tournament experienced within the inner sanctum of the hotel and convention center. 

Columbus, I owe you an apology. 

Downtown Columbus turned out to be lively, vital, pristine, slightly funky, hospitable and eminently walkable.  Because of room overflow in the conference center hotel, we stayed four blocks away at the Renaissance,  a pleasant distance from the tournament hall, since the weather chose to cooperate.  Spring was definitely in the air, the landscape awash in flowers, a riot of sunshiny hues unlike anything we see in South Florida.  Just check out this color-confused tulip whose strange genetic heritage seemed appropriate for our visit.
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The line is drawn....a fitting chess metaphor?
 
 

On day one, between bughouse and blitz tournaments, we discovered a food gem in the North Market, located a short walk from the convention center.  Within its confines were vendors hawking everything from vegan-friendly delights to certified extra-meaty goats to fine wines, all purveyed casually and slightly tongue-in-cheek.

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Throughout the tournament, Nicky lived on the market's handmade pastas and miso soups; I slurped down thick, frosty mango lassis and spicy palek paneer.  And we both fell head-over-heels in love with Artisan Breads' ridiculously decadent Omega cakes, slathered in Bavarian chocolate, filled with rich, authentic, extremely caloric, made-from-scratch buttercream.  Nicky and I shared a cake every night, in celebration of victories won or in consolation for battles lost.  Our diets, both fiscal and edible, start tomorrow, I swear.

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Tasty little bites of heaven

And let's not forget the Blue Jackets, Columbus' professional hockey team.  Nicky loves hockey almost as much as he loves chess.  When he learned their home, the National Arena, was right down the street from the Convention Center, his eyes lit up.  So of course, a trip to the arena - and the Blue Jackets' store - was mandated. 

Of course, we didn't travel all the way to Columbus just for the scenery, tempting and fattening though it was.   

So jumping immediately from the flight into the fire: Nicky and his friend, Nathan Barnavon, dove into the tournament with a bang, competing energetically in the Thursday's bughouse tournament. Although their first round loss left them a bit discouraged, they rallied and fought their way back into trophy contention, finishing 7/10 to capture ninth on tiebreaks. Later, they discovered they'd fallen in the first round to the undefeated bughouse winners NM Scott Low and FM Shinsaku Uesugi. 

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Nicky and Nathan, bughouse team



For Nicky, blitz was a different story; he was feeling distracted and far less focused.  Although he was playing well, the long downtime between pairings made him antsy, especially since the Stanley Cup playoffs were being televised while he was waiting.  After Round 2, he called asking if he could pull out of the tournament because "his head wasn't there."  I convinced him to stay for one more round.  Fortunately, the lag between rounds tightened up and his competitive fire finally unleashed with his Round 3 victories.  He remained to finish the tournament with 9.5/12 points, tying for 8th place and receiving the 16th place trophy on tiebreaks. 

My latest adventure with the blue apron began Friday with the start of the main tournament, located in the impressive and comfortable convention center.  Simply viewing the creatively-designed, undulating wave of blue-lit ceiling was worth the price of admission. 

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As a strong proponent of equal rights, I thought it providential that the Seventh Annual All-Girls National Chess Championships was occurring in conjunction with the High School Nationals.  Mindful of the coincidental timing, I requested a slot in the girls' tournament whenever possible. My old friend, USCF volunteer coordinator Tom Nelson, was happy to oblige, although it turned out that I was usually needed in the main tournament.  I did, however, have the opportunity to volunteer for Round 2 of the girls' event.  I also dropped by to watch the boisterously loud, raucously happy awards ceremony. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from the All-Girls tournament or even how I felt about a segregated event.  After all, women are constantly fighting against the stereotype that girls can't do certain things as well as boys can, playing chess among them.  Female-belittling quotes abound in historical chess literature and lore, most of which are too ill-advised to even bear repeating.  As both a female and a minority, I've always struggled hard against using either my sex or my race to move myself forward.  So part of me wondered if holding a separate event somehow promoted that stereotype or maybe even took women a few steps backwards. 

That's why I especially loved Abby Marshall's equality-based (dare I say...feminist?), issue-aware CLO blog about winning the 2009 Denker, in which she wrote, "There shouldn't have to be all-girl's events and titles and what not, except that the ratio of guys to girls is still hugely skewed and there are hardly any top women players compared to guys. The question is when will women be considered equal to men at chess? What barriers have to be broken before we can say that girls have proven we are equal to guys? I don't know."

As luck would have it, Nicky was on the receiving end of Abby Marshall's mission to prove she's equal to guys.  He met her over the board, and subsequently fell to her, in Round 3.  Obviously, she chose to play in the High School tournament in lieu of the All-Girls event.  I'd hoped to ask her about her choice, and maybe even snap a photo of her with Nicky, but she arrived late, after the spectators had been asked to clear the floor.  After the round, I asked Nicky what he thought of playing against the Denker champion and blogger extraordinaire.  He replied," She's really good...but she left for, like, 10 minutes on move 2.  Move 2!!"  What strange actions make lasting impressions!

Nicky played, and won, against another worthy female opponent, Emily Tallo, in Round 2. After that round ended, I asked Emily why she chose the High School Nationals instead of the All-Girls tournament.  It seems I touched a nerve. She made it clear how unhappy she was about the scheduling.  She would have liked to play in both, but she chose the high school tournament because, she said, "All of the strong players are playing in the High School Nationals."

"Plus," she added, "someone who's on a high school team, like me, shouldn't be forced to choose between their team and their personal goals.  It's not really fair that they held the High School Nationals and the All-Girls Nationals at the same time."

Food for thought when scheduling future events, perhaps? (Editor's note- The All-Girls-Nationals did a see a record turnout this year, so it may be that the girls who had to choose between the two events were outnumbered by the girls who came because the events were held in conjunction.)

The atmosphere in the girls' tournament itself was the same as in any other high-stakes tournament: the air was imbued with that false quiet under which simmers fierce concentration and a slight nervous tension.  The only differences, it seems (absent testosterone), were superficial: the smaller room in the lower level, the complete lack of spectators and the hovering presence of press and a video camera, following the story of IS 318 and its star player, Rochelle Ballantyne (who co-won Under-18).

As more of a floating volunteer this time, I experienced a little sampling of all the assignments, from score-keeping to running. I learned I'm not a particularly apt runner in a high school tournament, since I'm shorter than 95% of the participants, most of whom mill about while playing, thereby making it impossible for me to see the raised hands of the seated players.  The TDs usually found the players before I did.  And I almost took out more than a few players while swinging around and pointing.  Note for next time: Relieving me of running duties will help keep the chess-playing world (and me) safe from harm. 

And, in a turnabout-is-fair-play moment, Kwa Shabu, a photographer from Michigan chess, snapped this candid of me stretching out my weary legs after three hours of standing.  After finishing this tournament, I have much more respect for the TDs: I honestly don't know how they do it!  Kwa and I decided that a yoga break should be mandated for anyone still playing halfway through the round.  Take five minutes for spinal twists, cat-cow, or downward dog and the energy will be renewed and flowing strongly, we guarantee it!
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The observer being observed.   Photo by Kwa Shabu


I also noticed an interesting fashion trend in the hall: boys in pajama bottoms.  Yes, it seems the ubiquitous sweatpants have given way to the more colorful, equally comfortable pajama bottom, usually adorned with Super Mario or some other video game character.  I'm not sure if is this unique to chess, or if it's a nationwide trend, as it never gets cold enough in South Florida to mandate flannel, fleece or sweatpants. 

Nicky ended the tournament with three wins, three draws and his loss to Abby Marshall.  He was neither happy nor unhappy about his results, having chosen the tournament precisely for its stronger players, thereby entering with lowered expectations.  He happily concluded his tournament experience in his favorite way: playing exuberantly madcap bughouse with a group of close friends.  As he played, I slipped in quietly to watch the girls' closing ceremonies.  Afterwards, as I exited the hall, I heard an excited young, feminine voice chanting loudly:

"Rah!  Rah!  Ree!  Kick ‘em in the knee!"

I turned to see a young girl clutching a trophy almost as large as she was.  She continued animatedly:

"Rah!  Rah! Rass!  Kick ‘em in the a**!"

"No, no!" her mother chastised, mortified.  "It's ‘Kick ‘em in the other knee.' Nice girls don't say it that way."

Personally, I don't think it's appropriate for any young child to use the word "a**," unless they're referring to a donkey. But I found the mother's word choice an interesting counterpoint to the weekend's intent.  Ironic, isn't it, how stereotypes are inadvertently perpetuated, even in the midst of a tournament designed to break down barriers and remove stereotypes. 

But that's another rant for another day. 

For Nicky and me, the weekend was successful from start to finish: an almost-perfect combination of work and play, chess and sightseeing, good friends and (too much) delicious food.  We loved Columbus for its warm and friendly hospitality and its many charming, walkable districts that offered us a welcome respite from the seriousness of the tournament.  I therefore humbly request a "take back" from any preconceived or negative notions I originally harbored toward this fair city.

And with that, I say (cheesy though it may be)...Goodbye, Columbus, and thank you.
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See Shaun Smith's High School and All-Girls wrap-ups and a Girls Nationals slideshow on the Kasparov Chess Foundation homepage.

The Spring Scholastic season wraps up with the Burt Lerner National Elementary Championships, scheduled for May 7-9 in Atlanta. For more by Melinda Matthews, see her report from the K-12 Championships.  

 
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April - Chess Life Online 2010

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