McCheckmate: Chess players square off under the golden arches on Kimberly Avenue Jim Shelton , Register Staff -NEW HAVEN — To the victors go the fries.
At least, that’s how it works at the McDonald’s restaurant on Kimberly Avenue, where fast food meets speed chess.
One Saturday a month, spindly prodigies and gray-haired masters meet up with other chess fanatics in the front lobby of the restaurant, ready for battle. They spend the afternoon matching wits in the restaurant’s sleek booths, while hungry diners look on from their Quarter Pounders and supersized fries.
“It’s a perfect marriage of location and game,” says Jim Celone of Orange, who has organized highly successful chess programs at West Haven High School and other area schools. “This is a more social setting, but also a great opportunity for new players to get a taste of what a tournament is like. It’s the first time we’ve done a tournament in a fast food restaurant.” On this day, nearly 30 players turn out for the competition. They range in age from grade-school kids to octogenarians.
“I can’t think of anything other than a physical sport where you can get a whole cross-section of age, race and cultures doing something together,” says Bennie Morris, 47, of New Haven.
Morris is here with his buddy, 44-year-old John Edwards of Hamden. “This is my first tournament, so I’m the new kid on the block,” Edwards explains. “I came to see what it felt like.”
Mainly, it feels swift. During each game, players have individual timers that tick off seconds as they contemplate their chess moves. Each player has a maximum of 15 minutes to complete their game. Celone and his tournament director, Cameron Bishop of West Haven, determine the match-ups for each of the tournament’s five rounds. There are trophies and free meals for the top players.
“It’s 15 minutes. Win, lose or draw, you’re not going to take it too seriously,” says Richard Chang, 39, of South Windsor. “It’s free entertainment. You can’t beat that.”
Cheetiri Smith, 14, of West Haven, says she’s been a chess player since sixth grade. “It’s fun to get out and meet people and play,” she says. “I usually just play at school or at home.”
But make no mistake. A strong current of competition is in the air, along with the smell of Big Macs and McNuggets. As the first round of match-ups is announced, players shake hands, unroll their game boards and set up their chess pieces.
“Hopefully, you get to play some good talent,” confides James Jalowiec, 30, of Hamden. “You want somebody to really give you a run for your money.”
At the outset, Celone sets some ground rules:
“If you happen to be an adult and a master, and you’re paired up with a non-master, PLEASE remember this is a fun tournament,” he says. “We want our younger players to hang in there as long as possible. OK, is everyone ready? Start your clocks.”
There is quiet at first, other than the sound of hands slapping at time clocks. Spectators amble into the game area, including a teacher here to root for a student, an older married couple who recently took up the game, plus some curious diners.
The restaurant’s owner-operator, Santiago Negre, looks on with pride, as does Gail Grant, the restaurant’s marketer. Grant helped organize this tournament with Celone.
“I taught my three sons chess from a library book,” Grant says, watching the action. “Jim and I had a two-hour meeting about our visions for this. We want to introduce more people in the community to this wonderful game. It encourages learning, communication and concentration.”
As the rounds continue, different styles of play emerge. Morris, for instance, plays his game standing up — a technique he picked up from chess great Bobby Fischer; another player, a teenager, covers his head and part of his face with his hoodie. An even younger player chooses to swivel his chair side to side throughout his matches.
“Strategy. I love the strategy,” says Lisa Bostick, 44, of New Haven. She’s been playing chess for decades, primarily with co-workers at the U.S. Postal Service facility in Wallingford during breaks. Also, Bostick’s grandfather was a chess champion in Trinidad-Tobago in the early 1960s.
“I like the fact there’s old-timers and kids here,” she says. “A tournament, any tournament, gives you bragging rights. I’ll see these people again and I’ll build a network of friends.”
Ultimately, chess master Hanon Russell of Milford wins the event, with high school player William Turpin of West Haven coming in second and octogenarian Leonid Exler coming in third.
“Chess is a discipline that makes you think,” Celone says. “There’s no one to blame if you mess up, and a host of positive benefits to gain. It teaches you to win or lose gracefully and react well under pressure.”