Blind players battle for chess championship
Joe Wassermann, an 80-year-old chess player from Pittsburgh, still uses the same chessboard he's been playing on since he was 10. This weekend, he'll be using it as he participates in the U.S. Blind Chess Championship in Robinson.
The official tournament is sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation and co-sponsored by the U.S. Braille Chess Association.
Al Pietrolungo, 66, of Pittsburgh, is president of the U.S. Braille Chess Association. He was Wasserman's first opponent in the tournament when it kicked off Oct. 24 at the Holiday Inn Express in Robinson. Pietrolungo and Wasserman sat at one of four tables in the hotel conference room, where six other legally blind chess players from across the country prepared to compete for the championship title.
“We have players who traveled here from California, Massachusetts, New York and Kentucky,” Pietrolungo says. Of the roughly 60 members in the U.S. Braille Chess Association, Wasserman is the oldest over-the-board player in the group, but Pietrolungo says there are a couple of correspondence players who are in their mid-90s.
The first blind chess championship was held in 1977, and it has been held consecutively every year since 1982, although only in Pittsburgh for the past few of those. In prior years, the tournament has attracted nearly 25 players, but, for a variety of reasons, including that tournament competitors pay their own airfare and hotel costs, numbers have dwindled in recent years.
“It's expensive to travel, but some still like the interaction you get when you play in person,” Pietrolungo says.
Plus, there's a certain amount of prestige in being named the national blind chess champion. Alex Barrasso, a former winner of the blind chess championship, represented the United States at the world blind tournament, held in Greece this past May, Pietrolungo says.
This weekend's tournament in Pittsburgh was coordinated by Rick Varchetto of West Virginia. An avid chess player, Varchetto has helped organize the tournament for the past 10 years, ever since he read about it in Chess Life magazine.
Mike Holsinger, vice president of the Pittsburgh Chess Club, serves as the official tournament director. He constantly walks around the room, checking in on each game to monitor the play and ensure a fair tournament.
Each competitor plays with his own specially designed board. Players differentiate color by the raised dots on the tops of the white pieces, while the black ones are smooth. Unlike sighted players, blind players are allowed to touch the pieces, but a move must be made when a piece is picked up. The rows and columns on the chessboard are represented by a combination of letters (A to H) and numbers (1 to 8).
“It's really amazing, because they don't let the fact that they're visually challenged keep them from playing the game,” says Kimberly Myers of McKeesport, who has volunteered with her family at the tournament for the past six years.
Myers cooks the food so that the players don't have to worry about going for meals during the tournament. Her son, Sterling Myers, learned to play the game through the Pittsburgh Chess Club. Now, at 15, he is able to assist the blind players if they need it by keeping notations during the game.
“My kids learn so much from watching the players. It's rewarding and a real blessing to be there,” Kimberly Myers says.
Joan DuBois, affiliate relations associate with the U.S. Chess Federation, has helped to coordinate tournaments across the country for 46 years. She says the goal of the federation, which just recently became a nonprofit, is to extend sponsorships and provide even more financial support to the blind championship so that additional players can travel and compete.
Although blind players may be up against a variety of financial and physical challenges, they do not let that keep them from enjoying the game they love.
“Many of us look forward to accepting those challenges,” Pietrolungo says.
The tournament continues Oct. 25 with matches at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express, 5311 Campbells Run Road, Robinson. The public is welcome to attend. Details: 412-788-8400
Mandy Fields Yokim is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.