Ordinarily, Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania is as deserted during the Christmas vacation as any other school—or more deserted, for the half-dozen buildings along Sixth Street west of Peach are closed, and cold winds from Lake Erie discourage strolling under the elms of Perry Square. But between Christmas and New Year's a light gleamed in the entrance of the basement of the college library; the U.S. Intercollegiate Chess Championship was under way, and Gannon, seizing an opportunity all other educational institutions have neglected, has made itself the college chess center of the country.
In the big, brightly lit basement, which serves as the student commons when college is in session, the 22 contenders assembled the day after Christmas, held a brief business meeting and settled down at the boards. There they remained, generally speaking, for five days. The players with the white men made their first move—pawn to king four in eight of the 11 games—and hastily pressed the levers that stopped the clocks on their side and started the clocks of their opponents. Silence. The ticking of the chess clocks, newly purchased by the Gannon Chess Club, was distinctly audible. Heads bowed, throats parched, hearts pounding and hands trembling, the players sat immobile, as if they were hypnotized by the chessmen they were moving. A round-faced beginner from Gannon named Roland Gindlesperger suddenly looked stricken; he was defeated in 17 moves by a University of Oklahoma player who, driving fast for 22 hours, had reached Erie just in time for the tournament. A few minutes later the representative of Case Institute in Cleveland resigned to Saul Yarmak, an economics major from Los Angeles City College who financed his trip east by pre-Christmas-vacation work for a brokerage house.
But most of the games ran the full three or four hours. Anthony Saidy of Fordham, one of the strongest college players, a veteran of the international college matches at Upsala and in Iceland, underestimated Tim Kent of Pitt, wasted time on his early moves—each player was required to make a minimum of 50 moves in two hours—and barely won by a dozen brilliant moves in the final minutes, the last with only seconds to spare. The round over, the players straggled to the handsome quarters that Gannon College provided for them in its new, modern, red-and-white dormitory standing incongruously among Erie's mellow red-brick General Grant residences.
They ate lightly, drank milk, played a little poker and talked chess in the silence of a dormitory that was empty except for them. Nine o'clock the next morning they were back at their boards. At 10 o'clock that night the third round was over. By that time it was plain that the new champion was going to be one of the three college chess masters—either Saidy, Yarmak or Charles Kalme, an 18-year-old freshman from the University of Pennsylvania—but it was also plain that Gannon's policy of welcoming chess had created one of the most pleasant, intellectually stimulating and exciting events in American chess history.
The college became a chess center eight months ago. Almost all Gannon's 1,300 students work in Erie industries, including General Electric and Hammermill Paper and, while the college adjusted its schedule to working hours, student activities naturally languished. When Mordecai Rubin, a former photographer now on the faculty, suggested a chess club, the response was astounding: 50 members signed up, few with any knowledge of chess but all interested in a sport that is sedentary, relaxing, and, at its best, enthralling. The Gannon Chess Club holds dances, conducts tours to metropolitan chess events, and welcomes high school recruits to its competitions. As the chess club became a center of college social life, Dr. Tihomil Drezga, who teaches political science, disclosed that he had won in the 1928 chess Olympics and also become champion of Paris; he was drafted to play a simultaneous match against 70 students, and beat them all. For last week's tournament the college put up most of the prizes—$500 in scholarship funds to be used in the winners' schools, the first such award in the history of American college chess.
None of this automatically produces great chess players, or players who have any chance of beating the Russian masters. But it has created an atmosphere in which the game has a chance to grow. The biggest news of the Gannon tournament was that the experienced chess masters present consistently underestimated their new, untried and inexperienced opponents. Ordinarily the few masters breeze through their games with the beginners and face their only real competition in the last rounds when they come up against players of their own rank. At Gannon their games were all tough—another way of saying the average level of competition had taken a big jump upward. The beginners lost through nervousness, the psychological terror induced by playing against a chess master—another way of saying a new crop of masters is coming into being if the atmosphere created at Gannon can be sustained. In his game with Yarmak, for example, Dale Ruth of Oklahoma was winning, but he was also trembling so violently he knocked the chessmen over when he tried to move them. He started to move his bishop, saw that he was lost if he did, tried to draw back, dropped the piece, buried his face in his hands and resigned. Then in the fifth round Ruth trapped Saidy's queen—certain victory in anybody's chess game. But Saidy merely smiled imperturbably, as if it were a part of his plan, while Ruth was so astonished at his triumph he lost a rook and two bishops in three moves, and Saidy made another spectacular comeback to win.
The one master present who did not underestimate the beginners was Charles Kalme. A prodigy who began playing four years ago and won the national junior championship at 15, Kalme looks like the sort of character who bounds onstage in a Noel Coward comedy carrying a tennis racquet. He is, however, a straight A math major, intensely serious, and plays a cool and graceful chess of elemental simplicity, profoundly respectful of the game and his opponent. When he met Saidy on the third day of the tournament, one or the other was going to be knocked out of the running for the championship. At 4:25 in the afternoon, with the board nearly even, Saidy offered a draw, and Kalme shook his head wonderingly. By that time most of the games were over, and the players gathered in a circle around the table. Half a dozen students in work clothes joined the gallery. Outside, the pre-New Year celebrations had started. In the cloudless sky, thick with stars, Sputnik II passed directly overhead, plainly visible, while the game was still going on.
Saidy again ran into time trouble. He had to make 20 moves in 15 minutes to meet the minimum of 50 moves in two hours. He made his 50th move just as the flag dropped on his clock. Both players stood up. They looked like people who have been sandbagged. Saidy rolled down his sleeves, put on his coat, and walked to his room in Wehrle Hall for the recess rest. Kalme, his hands trembling, wrote out his 50th move on a card, leaning over the board to conceal what it was, sealed it in an envelope and left it with the tournament director. He left the room in a dead silence. Saul Yarmak picked up Saidy's cuff links. "Tony's so rattled he left his cuff links behind," he said, a faraway look in his eyes.
In his room in Wehrle Hall, young Kalme took out his chess board and played over every conceivable variation from the position in which the men had been left. In his nearby room, Saidy was playing over every conceivable line from his position. Kalme walked back to the library first, but the basement was still dark. He walked through Perry Square, and down State Street to the hidden bay where the fleet was built that won the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. At 8 o'clock he reached the library to resume the game at almost the same moment Saidy arrived. "I can tell you I'm not going to win," Saidy said—he thought he still had a chance to draw. An hour later Saidy looked up, extended his hand, and said, "Your game." Kalme had cinched the championship; his remaining games were against far weaker opponents than those he had already beaten.
"It is very good chess," said Dr. Drezga. "I am surprised. They play the openings with great care, and their games have a quality—a kind of pleasant seriousness. Very good boys. Very promising young masters. Of course, no world genius...." He paused and glanced at Kalme. "Well, maybe in a few years."