Robert Hess on Charity Chess: $56,000 Raised

Over a month has passed since the second annual Charity Chess Championship and I still have not been fully able to process what a tremendous day it was.

Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School opened its doors on May 20, 2018 to hundreds of participants and spectators (and parents!) who fought the urge to spend a beautiful Manhattan Sunday outdoors, instead opting to take part in a day-long chess festival. The event was organized to raise money for Mount Sinai Hospital’s Ovarian Cancer Translational Research Laboratory, a genomic research program dedicated to uncovering the genetic basis for the early detection and prevention of ovarian cancer.

The morning began with quads – a whopping 25 of them – as some of the top scholastic talent in the Tri-State Area battled both for precious rating points and a seat in the Grandmaster Blitz Tournament. The competition was fierce: the top section, won by Hans Niemann, boasted an average rating above 2335. Brandon Jacobson, who finished last in that quad, went on to score back-to-back-to-back IM norms in June and defeated this author along the way.

Held alongside the quads was a tandem simul with GM Marc Arnold and your humble reporter. 40 challengers eagerly accepted the opportunity to defeat not one, but two grandmasters in one sitting. Marc and I walked what felt like a half marathon over the course of three hours of grueling chess. Simuls never are easy, but with at least a dozen boards rated above 1800, we had our hands full.

 In the first iteration of the Charity Chess Championship, Marc and I only gave up two draws. While recent K-6 National Champion Nathaniel Shuman again was able to split the point, he was not the star of the simul. That honor would go to Cooper Ho and Aiden Teitelman.

Cooper is one of the best 8-year-olds in the country and played a model King’s Indian Defense:

Across the gymnasium, Marc and I were punished by Aiden for my questionable sacrifice.

The losses were my fault, but the following swindle from an equal endgame is entirely Marc’s doing. What a way to take down our friend Sean Finn.

As the simul and quads came to their conclusions, refreshments including Domino’s pizza were enjoyed. Lunch time is always noisy when children are around, but this occasion was markedly different. Adults deliberated over silent auction items such as chess collectibles and lessons, sports memorabilia and tickets, and gift certificates to hair salons, hotels, restaurants, and more. With baseballs signed by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. and David Cone, the former Yankee who won a Cy Young award and pitched a perfect game, and a basketball signed by NBA legend and personality Charles Barkley, the youngsters begged their parents to win them something. A number of young soccer players eyed a soccer ball and custom cleats signed by David Villa, the current striker for NYCFC and the only player in Spanish national team history to score over 50 goals (59) in international play. Mr. Villa generously donated signed memorabilia to the auction for a second straight year.

Several speeches were made and shoutouts were given, notable among them for Vivek Chaudhuri. Vivek, whose age has yet to reach double digits, helped secure over $1,000 through individual fundraising efforts. His mother, Sarbani, was instrumental in bringing in sponsors and pro bono help, creating promotional materials, and looking beyond the immediate chess community for donations.

 But the biggest buzz of all was about the day’s special guest.

Fabiano, Marc, and I go way back. We are separated in age by under a year and we all grew up in New York City. In 2017 Fabiano was unable to attend the Charity Chess Championship, though he provided autographed boards. What a difference a year makes. In 2018, a year in which he scored the biggest triumph of his chess career by winning the Candidates, Fabiano made an afternoon appearance. He was in the middle of a brief stay in New York before heading to Norway Chess (which he won!). In fact, his flight was that very evening, yet here he was in front of a starstruck audience. For any teachers reading this, you want to know the best way to get students to line up silently in a single file? Bring in the idol of every kid in attendance.

Fabiano had only agreed to take part in a special match for charity, but the world’s second-highest-rated player is as kind-hearted as they come. He signed dozens of autographs and took photos with anyone and everyone who asked. A highlight was a reunion shot with IM Jay Bonin, who jokingly took credit for some of Fabiano’s success since he was an early sparring partner at the Marshall Chess Club. Fabiano even played a series of blitz games against Daniel Mero. 

As Fabiano finally took some respite, the day’s biggest bidding war began: two spots were auctioned off for a chance to play in a tandem blitz match both with and against Fabiano. The downside? The winners also had to play with me!

K-5 National Champion Nico Chasin and Bowe Siegelson were the duo about to go toe-to-toe with the man who might become the next world champion. Nico, sporting his signature glasses and hat combo, looked cool as ever as he joined Fabiano behind the black pieces. Bowe, excited by the opportunity but completely unfazed by the challenge ahead, sat across from Nico. After a discussion about preferred opening, I had a moment of rare brilliance: I swapped seats with Bowe. He glanced at me with that “what in the world are you doing?” look, and I made my intentions clear: if Fabiano wanted to beat a 3rd grader, he’d have to do it while staring directly at him!

With the crowd surrounding the board and taking out their cameras and phones, Colonel David Hater, who flew in from Atlanta for the second consecutive year to direct the day’s events, made his announcements. Teammates were to alternate moves in this blitz game with increment. He recited official regulations and the action began.

Team Fabiano essayed a Sicilian Defense. Things were looking up for us as Bowe opted for a fairly aggressive line, pushing the pawn in front of our king to g4 and then g5.

Bowe and I are on the attack, but Fabi and Nico feared not. Photo courtesy of Mero family.

Black’s minor pieces retreated to stifle our budding kingside initiative. We burned clock early, though our position didn’t start to crumble until our attack was thwarted. In a position when Black played h7-h5, we didn’t take en passant. Nico’s relief was evident: he didn’t have to rely on Fabiano’s questionable defensive technique (kidding, Fabi!) before barrelling down the semi-open c-file. We went down a pawn, then two, before eventually getting mated.

Fabiano doesn’t get to deliver checkmate very often these days, but when he does he’s ecstatic. Photo: Vanessa Sun

The tamed satisfaction on Nico’s face from the photo above made the loss, painful as they always are, quite enjoyable.

Fabiano seems very pleased with Bowe Siegelson’s play. Photo: Neot Doron-Repa

Game two saw Nico and I pair up against Fabiano and Bowe. I was confident that Nico was going to hand Fabiano a defeat. Our Sicilian Defense, likely misplayed by me, turned out pretty well. Our king was never in any danger, though Bowe was holding his own against the higher-rated Nico. We were better, but the advantage was in danger of becoming little more than symbolic. I trash talked. Our queenside pawn structure was advanced and we had the opportunity to create an outside passed pawn, if not win one in the process. Nico made luft for our king, Bowe retreated his knight to save a pawn, and then….

I admit it: I’m the worst. I was crushed. Not for me, but for Nico, who had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to beat Fabiano Caruana!

Fabiano seems very pleased with Bowe Siegelson’s play. Photo: Neot Doron-Repa

To his credit, Nico took the loss in stride. He proudly sauntered over to his father – Marshall Chess Club president Noah Chasin – and, smile still glued to his face, forgave me for my oversight. Bowe was ecstatic and celebrated with his parents. I was the only winless one and, cold slice of pizza in hand, moped in the corner alone.

With such a packed day, there was hardly time to lick my wounds. Following an introduction and round of photographs of the 16 grandmasters that had come to compete in the Grandmaster Blitz, the final event was underway

19 titled chess players – some hiding – and the Mero family pose for a picture before the blitz. Photo Courtesy of Mero family

The field of 26 included legendary IM Jay Bonin, who made his presence felt by sweeping GM Alex Stripunsky and defeating GM Anatoly Bykhovsky 1.5-0.5. The ironman of chess still has plenty of strong play left in the tank!

Grandmasters traded blows throughout the event, but when the dust settled GM Max Dlugy defended his title by finishing a point and a half ahead of the field.

Thank Yous

So many people deserve special praise for pitching in to make the Charity Chess Championship a success. Daniel Mero and his parents Norma and Scott are the founders and organizers, and there is not enough gratitude in the world to give them for their steadfast dedication. The Meros do a bit of everything; Norma’s indefatigable effort and commitment spearheads the silent auction, while Scott focuses on the chess logistics, including contacting GMs, securing the location, tables, and equipment, and spreading the word.

The Mero family with Dr. Dottino, the guest of honor. Photo courtesy of Mero family.

There are so many hours and obstacles that go into organizing an event of this magnitude, and they did an unbelievable job. As Scott told me, “It takes an army, everyone pitches in and does something…it clearly is not just us.”

The first edition took place at Park Avenue Synagogue, though it was clear the location would not be repeated. Dr. William Donohue, the head of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, was heroic in allowing hundreds of players to use the school’s facilities, particularly on the same weekend as the school street fair. It was doubly difficult that weekend but he’s a huge supporter of the CGPS chess program, which Daniel Mero is a part of.

Event manager Danny Rohde (left) with Charity Chess Championship founder Scott Mero, who is holding the donated DVDs. Photo: Neot Doron-Repa

The Rohdes – Danny, Michael, and Sophia – put in a lot of work to ensure the day was a success. Danny in particular did it all: he oversaw the chess tournament logistics, emceed the simul, served as auctioneer, and even assisted as a director. Sophia runs the chess program at CGPS and was instrumental in securing the location and supplying chess equipment.

Kimberly Doo spent countless hours securing silent auction donations and hosted out-of-town guests including renowned Norwegian chess journalist Tarjei Svensen and 2017 U.S. Women’s Champion Sabina Foisor and GM Elshan Moradiabadi (who had trekked from North Carolina for the day!)

Caryn Teitelman helped spread the word, got people to donate and volunteer, and coordinated logistics. You never know how many people are going to show or what you’ll need, but with Kim and Caryn taking charge, very little can go wrong.

Some sponsors must be mentioned by name: parent company WPP Group, the world’s largest communications services group. Specifically Y&R, ghg|greyhealth group, and WG provided monetary sponsorship and services. These companies helped with social outreach, the Facebook page, posters, etc. – all pro bono. These resources were singlehandedly obtained by Sarbani Chaudhuri. She has been a tireless and invaluable volunteer and has made a huge difference for the Charity Chess Championship

Norma and Scott Mero, along with Sarbani Chaudhuri present a token of appreciation to Sarah-Jane Barker, SVP Market Access Strategy at WG Group. Photo: Neot Doron-Repa

Macy’s, Shake Shack and Domino’s were among the great corporate sponsors. Chess House donated sets, while many chess companies and players auctioned off camps, lessons, and memberships. The Internet Chess Club (ICC) donated 20 six-month memberships and 10 1-year memberships, while provided DVD sets. Havas Health & You and Gail Baird Foundation donated money. Here is the extensive list of silent auction items.

Last, but certainly not least, is Dr. Peter Dottino. Dr. Dottino is a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and is Director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology of The Ovarian Cancer Translational Research Group at Mount Sinai. He has saved the lives of so many, including individuals near and dear to the Mero family.

The Mero family with Dr. Dottino, the guest of honor. Photo courtesy of Mero family.

It’s our sincere hope that with the aid of over $56,000 dollars raised at the Charity Chess Championship that Dr. Dottino and his colleagues will continue making strides to detect and prevent ovarian cancer.

The third annual event will take place in May of 2019. We hope to see you there!

Two childhood friends enjoy the calm before the storm… Photo: Neot Doron-Repa
…and the storm was very real.

For more on charity chess, see the official website, and read an interview with Kimberly Doo on why ovarian cancer research is so important.

Grandmaster Robert Hess is a frequent contributor to Chess Life Magazine and CLO. Follow him on twitter, and don’t miss his upcoming commentary of the US Junior and US Junior Girls Championships, starting today in Saint Louis.


  1. Thank you Robert for everything that you did to make Charity Chess a success! We all do our part and now we have created a wonderful day for all of chess in NYC!

  2. Thanks Robert for being a part of the Charity Chess Championship from the beginning. Your help and commitment to our charity is invaluable and we are lucky and proud to have you as a friend. And thank you for spending the time to write this amazing article.

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