Chess in the Wild
By Tom Braunlich   
March 16, 2010
chesswild3.jpgOne of the pleasures of chess can be where you play it.

Have you ever played in a chess tournament held in a truly exotic place? I don’t mean a nice hotel with interesting tourist facilities nearby. And I don’t mean a special exhibition at a museum or in Central Park. I mean an actual tournament where the playing venue itself is extraordinary or extreme.

One classic example of a remarkable tournament location is the nearly forgotten series of big tournaments held at the Paul Masson Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California in the late 1970s. For several years they played a master-level tournament out in the vineyards on top of a hill, sitting at picnic tables battling the sun and sipping wine between rounds. Guests included Boris Spassky and Dr. Max Euwe, who gave exhibitions under tents. What other sport can be played in a vineyard?

Perhaps readers can comment with other examples, but a new one I’d like to add to the short list of amazing chess venues is last weekend’s Phillips 66 Chess Classic — held at Woolaroc, a sprawling 3,700 acre wildlife preserve established in the early 1920s by Frank Phillips (founder of Phillips Petroleum in 1917) in the rugged Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma.

chesswild5.jpgThe playing hall was adjacent to his original rustic eight-bedroom ‘hunting lodge,’ and surrounded by herds of dusty buffalo, stately elk, gangly ostriches, longhorn sheep, proud llamas, Watusi bulls, and many other exotic animals in the preserve. In the playing room itself, dozens of stuffed owls and game birds watched like silent kibitzers over the tournament games from their perches in the rafters. A giant elk spectated from the fireplace mantle.

Organizer Steve Wharry decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this annual event, and arranged it at this marvelous setting for his own enjoyment, as something he hoped would be unique and memorable. Each meal was catered. The playing hall had an expansive picture window view of the large pond and rocky countryside where the players could go hiking on sandstone trails between rounds with their families. Or they could wander through the massive museum at Woolaroc and see Phillips’ extensive collection of western art, authentic cowboy memorabilia, American Indian artifacts, and petroleum paraphernalia from this area that was once the site of one of the richest oilfields in the world.
chesswild1.jpgBest of all was the adjacent lodge that, in its heyday (1925-1950), was visited by many celebrities, politicians, entertainers, and businessmen, from General MacArthur to Will Rogers. It and the ranch are now on the national register of historic places. Its walls are almost literally covered with 204 stuffed heads of remarkable animals Phillips brought to the animal park from all over the world, including zebras, rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?), and a long necked giraffe. (There was no actual hunting of these imported animals; they all died of natural causes in the preserve.) High stakes poker games were a common evening entertainment, and once Blackstone the Magician asked Frank to throw the deck against the wall and magically made the Queen of Spades adhere there. Supposedly the card remains there even today.

The bombastic businessman also used his lodge to impress eastern bankers and to strengthen his relationship with the local Osage Indian chiefs on whose reservation many of his oil wells were sited. The lodge was also the site in 1926 of a rowdy and historic reunion of all the remaining old sheriffs, bandits, outlaws, and oil wildcatters — perhaps the last hurrah of the Old West.

chesswild2.jpgThe tournament itself was as rugged as the rustic setting. Tied for first were Devin Hughes and me, scoring 3½ / 4, winning $525 each. Devin is a talented young expert-ranked high school player. Class prizes were: Bran Whitcomb (A, $600), Ryan West (B, $450), Jeff Williams (C, $300), Jacob Smith and Frank Smentkowski (D, $150 each).

chesswild4.jpgSteve Wharry, a veteran tournament director and player in Oklahoma, generously returned all the entry fees in prizes for the event, and paid for the location and catering costs out of his own pocket. “I did it as a labor of love, to hold one chess event that will be truly remembered around here,” he said. The remote location, 15 miles from the nearest hotel, made logistics difficult for some players, and the turnout was lighter than Steve had hoped for. So it is unclear if he will continue the event next year. But those of us who were lucky enough to be there will never forget it, and will try hard to cajole him into repeating chess again at wild and wooly Woolaroc.