Board-game blitz

For this group of local enthusiasts, competitive chess is a lifestyle, not a game

Douglas Levgold (left) and Fred Parks each keep one eye on the timer—and one on the board.

Douglas Levgold (left) and Fred Parks each keep one eye on the timer—and one on the board.

Photo By Gabor Mereg

It’s usually the same handful of characters that show up. There’s no assigned time, no specific day. Sometimes, there’s no guarantee you’ll even see them at all. Still, this group ritually congregates around Sacramento with one incentive: An old-fashioned game of chess.

What some see as a never-ending, uneventful game complete with checkered board and pieces shaped like horses, others view as a game of logic, of patience. For this particular group that’s gathered for more than 25 years at a Midtown coffeehouse, chess is a 10-minute rush, a three-hour battle, a casual match over a cup of coffee.

Whether they’re meeting at Old Soul at Weatherstone or for the weekly tournaments at Great Escape Games or Upper Crust Pizza, the level of intensity is solely up to the player.

“I almost never play casual games,” says Robert Russo, president of the Sacramento Chess Club over a slice at Upper Crust Pizza on K Street.

“Casual games don’t do for me that which competitive chess does. A casual game doesn’t really matter, nobody’s counting it. It’s not going to get recorded somewhere, it’s not going to affect your ranking; therefore, neither party sitting down is going to take it as seriously as they would here today.”

Today Russo’s in good company, joined at the buffet-style pizzeria with approximately 20 other chess players who occupy a row of square tables, one opponent seated across from another.

On this particular Sunday, blitz games are the focus: three short rounds with 10 minutes allotted per player. Buttons from one timer glow an emerald green as a man adjusts his hat before sliding a piece across the board. The light click of a timer signals his turn is now over.

“James is white against Ziad,” yells an older man with white hair as he stands beside a table pushed into a corner.

After assigning each player to their respected colors, John Barnard, club director of the Capital City Chess Club, sits and begins on a bowl of minestrone soup. At 71, Barnard travels from Modesto every Sunday to direct the tournaments at Upper Crust Pizza. He calls himself an old timer because he still uses index cards to keep track of every participant’s current rank and scores for the day. When one blitz game ends, players report their results straight to Barnard, who pauses from his soup to handwrite each win, loss or draw. Once he shuffles the index cards around, arranging them just right, he returns to his meal.

“I, like many players, have played over 50,000 chess games: slow, casual or fast tournament games,” he says. “[Chess is] just like a movie. It comes to different conclusions every time, and I’m a part of that movie when I play, and it’s very rewarding.”

Barnard is a former master, one level above his current rank of expert, but says age has slowed him down a bit. The United States Chess Federation uses a point rating system to rank players nationally. A rated expert measures from 2,000 to 2,199 points; a master rating is between 2,200 and 2,399 points. The two highest ranks are original life master, a title earned with at least 300 games played above 2,200, and senior master, with scores starting at 2,400 points.

“Jim MacFarland wins a good majority of the tournaments. But that’s because I’m not playing,” says Barnard with a wink and a smile.

Sacramento chess player Jim MacFarland is a nationally ranked master of the game.

Photo By Gabor Mereg

At a table next to Barnard, a solemn man in Birkenstocks and slacks sits concentrating on his game. His long graying hair tied back into a loose-fitted ponytail, he moves his piece, taps the timer and his opponent, Douglas Legvold, a rated expert, immediately follows suit. The pulse of their electronic timer becomes more frequent as the game pieces on the board dwindle. As the game progresses, others take notice, gathering around the table to see who will win this round. The two continue to tap the timer just as fast as they moved until no moves remain and the game is abruptly over.

Here, no one screams “checkmate.” That would almost be considered rude. Instead, hands are shaken, scores recorded and the long-haired man retires outside for a smoke break.

Next to a planter, MacFarland puffs on a cigarette after his win against Legvold, killing time before the 100-minute matches begin. A rated master, MacFarland learned the basics of the game from his father when he was 6. At 14, he entered his first rated tournament and now at 60, remains stiff competition for Sacramento-area chess players.

“[Chess is] played all around the world. The Chinese have become very good at it … [and] the current world champion is from India,” MacFarland says. “It’s universal, and I like that about it.”

“If you go to the club on Tuesday, you’ll see there’s a pretty wide distribution of ages and nationalities,” he adds.

Between the Sunday tournament and Wednesday’s impromptu match at the Weatherstone, players also gather on Tuesdays for another chance at redemption at Great Escape Games on Howe Avenue. Here, two rows of plastic picnic tables host new players along with a few familiar faces inside the store’s warehouse-sized facility.

Through huge aqua doors—where Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering reign supreme—they meet once again. Models of castles and valleys have been crafted and abandoned at several tables littered throughout the multipurpose game room. Someone assigns colors to players, boards are routinely rolled out, pieces set and then, silence.

MacFarland is here, blinking down at the chessboard, both hands resting on either side of his face; Russo’s here, and so is Legvold, forcefully chewing a stick of gum, his eyes fixated on the board in front of him. Sure, the expected regulars are present, but Marianne Kooken is also here, studying her next move against a dark-haired man in a Florida Marlins cap.

When she first moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area, Kooken Googled the words, “Chess, Sacramento” and was directed to the casual chess hub at the Weatherstone coffeehouse. Although she freely admits the chess world is male dominated—“It’s still well over 90 percent guys,” MacFarland says—the men welcomed her, crowning her as the only woman continuing to show up to the cafe to sharpen her skills.

“People show up randomly and play,” Kooken says.

“It’s such a community at the Weatherstone,” she says. “We have our own amazing characters, and people still have a sense of camaraderie and are very kind to one another.”

A game between two strangers or a blitz round among friends, the game of chess speaks to each of these players differently. For some, the game relieves stress, for others, it’s a pure enjoyment.

“Whatever stress you came in with, the board becomes the stress,” says Russo.

“When the game is over, the stress is now irrelevant, and you’ve forgotten the stresses that you showed up with. It’s a remarkably fulfilling venture.”