Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

UCI Go and Chess Club: Your Second to Last Mistake?

By Jeff Lien

It’s 10:20 at Pacific Ballroom rooms A and B at UC Irvine on a Saturday morning. “We’re starting in ten minutes!” Tiffany Valenton announces as she heads to the unofficial snack table at the head of the room, where there are donuts and various snacks for sale. A group of friends occupying the far left table in the back barely acknowledge her announcement as they chat and laugh over something interesting. Behind Tiffany, Adrian Galvan and Nestor Garcia huddled over a laptop, scramble to organize the roster for today’s event as they hear Tiffany’s announcement. The room is lined with fold out tables, and on each of these are two chess boards, each accompanied by a game clock. Each table is marked with a number 1-24 respectively, referring to the board number. Welcome to the First Annual UCI Chess Spring Classic, hosted by the Go and Chess Club! It’s a five-round tournament open to anyone looking to play chess, for a $15 entry fee that goes toward prize money for the top three players of each division. Each round is an hour long, 30 minutes for each player in a game. The tournament is separated into a lower division for beginners, and an upper division for experienced and/or ranked players. Rankings are based off of a simple point system, 1 point rewarded to winners, 0.5 point for ties, 0 for losers.

This is the first major event hosted by the club, organized by soon-to-be president of the Chess division of the club, Nestor Garcia a first-year Math major. A particularly passionate chess player himself, Nestor is excited for the tournament to begin, because he's going to be playing too. There are fourteen players who have shown up to participate in the event, and as the clock winds down, they make their way to the tables as the official roster is taped up.

10:40am- The tournament is officially about to begin, and after a brief speech by Nestor going over the rules, including the “touch-rule” which means that any time a player touches a piece on the board they must make a move with it, he takes his seat at one of the chess tables. Once situated, he shouts amidst the chatter, “Okay, everybody shake hands.” And the tournament begins! Within 20 seconds, a hush spreads like wildfire throughout the room as the atmosphere completely changes. A handful of friends and family members have come to watch and enjoy the games. As the first moves are made at each board, clocks are quickly clicked by the player indicating that the first move has been made, and just like that the room has become seven different battlefields. Smiles have all but disappeared, replaced by thin lines as players begin to strategize for victory. Laughter and chatter is replaced by cold, calculating silence. Friendship, age, gender, all but disappears as eyes become glued to the board, focused on finding the best maneuver to gain an advantage over the enemy pieces. It’s all out war, White versus Black.

Chess and Go are both games of strategy, both with a rich history, and popular worldwide.

In a nutshell, the Game of Go is similar to chess in terms of the strategy involved. Simply put, Go is played on a solid, 19x19 grid board. There are 181 black stones and 180 white stones. The Black player uses that extra stone to go first. Players can choose any of the 361 vacant intersections, that is any open spot that forms a “+” shape on the board to place a stone. The goal is to control a larger portion of the board at the end of the game.

Chess is played on an 8x8 grid, that is, there are 64 squares in a checkered-pattern on a standard board. Each player, Black and White, control sixteen pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. You win by “checkmate” when the opponent’s king is in a position where it can neither move away nor defend from an attack. In timed play, which is commonly used in serious matches, players play within time constraints, usually in 1-hour games or 3-hour games, in which a player can also win if their opponent runs out of clock time.

According to Tiffany and Go and Chess Club members, these games are enemies. “The only reason they’re together is because I took over the club” Tiffany states nonchalantly. It's true, because in the Go and Chess club both games are played under the same roof despite existing rivalries. The rivalry stems from an ongoing argument between which game is more complex, with the argument from chess players focused on the multiple pieces resulting in wide combinations and tactics. Go proponents state that not only is the board larger, but the sheer amount of variations per move outnumber the competition, and according to the Go and Chess Club website, Go players argue that “one can learn the rules in five minutes and spend a lifetime learning new skills.”

11:37am- With less than twenty seconds left on his clock, Scott Slupik is feeling the pressure at board three. Dressed in a white In-N-Out t-shirt and cargo shorts, his eyes dart around the board looking for a move to finish the game. The clock ticks as he scans the board for one last attack. His hand zooms to his queen, using her to pin his opponent’s king to the corner. He slams his clock with fourteen seconds left. His opponent, Erwin Urrutia, stares at the board eyes wide. He extends his hand out to Scott, and they shake hands. “Good game,” Erwin mumbles. Scott has won. With fourteen seconds left on his clock, Scott decided the game with his last move. And with that round one ends with an amazing last minute victory. As players and spectators leave their seats, most of the talk is chess. Exultations from the winners, conversations replaying epic moments, players going over notes with each other, and even those who have sat down again to play unofficial rematches.

The mood is light again, as if somebody lifted a transparent veil from the room, eliminating the tenseness. The mood in the room is similar to that of Humanities Hall Room 108 from 7-10pm every Wednesday, the meeting place of Go and Chess club for the Spring quarter. When they meet, the small classroom welcomes on average around fifteen members each night, some playing chess, others Go. “I’d probably say there’s a core of five or six people for Go, and probably like ten or so for chess on a weekly basis,” says An Do, a post-graduate med student and advisor for the club. He’s an avid Go player himself, busy with work, but making time in his busy schedule to support the club. Sitting in a dress shirt and khaki pants, An talks to me as he types up a medical report. Like the others who show up to the meetings, he loves the game. Whether it’s Go or chess, this forty member club is full of individuals who simply enjoy playing amongst like-minded individuals, whether their freshman physics majors or fourth year chemistry majors. It’s hard to believe a place like this didn’t exist a year ago.

On a sunny afternoon in front of Java City on campus, Tiffany Valenton, a bubbly and talkative fourth year chemistry major at UCI and the founder of the current Go and Chess Club sits down to talk about the club. The current GO and Chess Club? Tiffany explains that “back then people were bringing like, um, Chinese chess boards but it wasn’t officially a Chess club.” Before Tiffany, there was only Go Club. She recalls the first time she walked through the door into the Go Club meeting room, “I went to a meeting with my chessboard with three other friends and there were two people there, the president and the vice president. Yeah and I just started playing, it was Spring quarter of ’09.” And with her own chessboard, Tiffany and her friends integrated chess into the Go club on the same day she visited the Go Club. She was disappointed and shocked that there wasn’t a chess club on campus. She loved the game, and wanted to be responsible for creating a community where people could come together to play the game. Tiffany tells me with bright eyes and active hand gestures, that the Go and Chess club has a good distribution of members playing both Go and Chess every week.

In the beginning, merging chess into the former Go club was a challenge. “[The members] put the separation there jokingly” says Tiffany, as she recalls the initial stages of the clubs formation. The separation of chess versus Go refers to the rivalry between the games. At the meetings themselves, the room is split in half, with little movement between members there to play Go and members there to play chess. Adrian Galvan, a friendly and soft-spoken individual is the Go division president playfully states that “my VP would always be playing chess.” Adrian, a second year, along with his chess club counterpart Nestor, is taking over for Tiffany when she graduates this year. And he has noticed the separation. He recalls a person coming into a meeting one night who said “I really respect people who play Go because it’s a really hard game, as opposed to chess.” But he is optimistic, because “we are one club” he puts out bluntly. And that’s the truth. Through Tiffany’s self-driven efforts, she has created a social atmosphere where both Go and Chess players can play together under the same roof. During meetings, Tiffany is constantly bringing people together, striking conversation, introducing members to others, setting up social gatherings at Yogurtland, Boiling Crab, and the like. For Tiffany, the club has become a place where people can enjoy themselves, forcefully shoving any existing rivalry between the games behind her talkative and energetic demeanor. Members who were once divided by an invisible wall dividing Go from chess have found a special harmony in which laughter, strategy, good times, and the like are shared.

4:10pm- It’s finally time for the final round. After four competitive rounds, the tournament heads into the final stretch. In round two, Nestor corners his opponent Alfred Ong’s king with his rooks, with over double the clock time, forcing Alfred to surrender with twenty-five seconds left on his clock. In round three, we see intense defensive formations across the boards. Players are playing to win, fighting for rank, as the tournament heads into the second half. By the end of round four, stats are in. Those with a shot at 1st-3rd place have a shot at the prize money.

As the final round is about to begin, the room is cleaned up, snacks are put away, extra chess boards and clocks are gathered. Preparation for the end, the last stand for some of these players. Center stage becomes the seven chessboards, set up and ready for the final battle.

4:30- In a surprising upset, Ton Nguyen who was fourth place coming into the final round, beats Nestor, first place coming into the final round, with a “fork.” Not the utensil. A “fork” refers to a tactic used in chess, which is a 2-pronged attack on two of the opponent’s pieces at the same time, usually used with a knight. Ton used the “fork” to successfully eliminate Nestor’s queen, a critical piece in any game of chess. With that, Nestor had made a dire mistake which would cost him the game. As the game progressed toward the end, it was obvious that Ton had the advantage.Finally, when Nestor's king was trapped, Ton moved in for the kill, checkmate. "The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake," a quote said by famous 20th century chess player, Savielly Tartakower. Nestor made the last mistake, costing him the game and the tournament. From that loss, Ton moves up to 2nd place, while Nestor falls into 5th place.

“What?! He forked my queen!” Nestor exclaims as Adrian teases him for his loss. They have become fast friends since the club started. From Wayzgoose to bowling, Tiffany has brought these two together, hand-picking them from amongst the club members. What they both have in common is an intense passion for their respective games. Throughout the tournament, Adrian was playing games of Go on his laptop as he recorded the wins and losses of players, while Nestor participated in his own tournament.

For Tiffany, this is a good sign. Throughout the year, Tiffany has worked hard to make sure Go and Chess club was a fun social gathering place for everyone to have enjoy the games. “I realized why I do make [the club] social is because I have a social personality, does that make sense?” Yes it does. Members of the club and participants in the chess tournament can attest to the fact that the chess clubs they have been a part of in the past have always been focused on the game. Through Tiffany, the Go and Chess club became something more than a room to play chess or Go, it became a haven for chess-and-Go lovers alike.

So where is the club headed when Tiffany hands it over to Nestor and Adrian? “Tournaments are going to keep us together” says Adrian. Both presidents have plans to take their games into competitive play. Adrian believes it will attract serious players to the club. But will the clubs be able to maintain their fragile balance between the two games. When asked if he would ever play Go, Nestor responds “It’s an interesting game, but I wouldn’t play it.” In the span of one school year, the Go and Chess club have gone from one member to over thirty. It’s become a place where people from all around can come in and have fun. Guys and girls(!) attend club meetings regularly, many with backgrounds in math and science. For both presidents, there is a definite move toward entering the realms of competition.

5:15- As the final round comes to an end, board two is the only table still in active battle. Evenly matched on both sides, the players are taking their time. By 4:50, those who had no chance to fall in the top 3 have all but left for home.

Above, the final minutes of the final round focus on the final few moves of the tournament! Alfred Ong beats Maarten Loffle in the final seconds, moving him up to first place, while Maarten goes down to third. With that, a grueling day of battle and the competition itself comes to an end! The winners are crowned, the atmosphere of competition has completely vanished, and finally the whole room lets out a sigh of relief. It is over.

(Pictured from Left to Right: Alfred Ong, Nestor Garcia, Tiffany Valenton, Ton Nguyen)

After prizes are distributed, pictures of the winners are taken, the Go and Chess Club members shake hands and smile. Above, Alfred Ong (left) and Ton Nguyen (right) tie with 4 points and each take half of the 1st place cash winnings. It’s been a long day, but the First Annual UCI Chess Spring Classic has come to a close! Look out for the First Annual Go Tournament next year. It'll be your second to last...what's the opposite of mistake?

Reporting Log:

  • Lengthy Interview with Tiffany Valenton, Nestor Garcia
  • Short interviews with other members, including An Do, Alfred Ong, Scott Slupik, Anthony Pereyda
  • 3-hour observation of UCI Go and Chess Club Meeting
  • Go Club at UC Irvine website
  • Attended the First Annual UCI Spring Chess Classic
  • Information on Go from http://www.usgo.org/resources/gohistory.html

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