Play to the Beat: When Dance and Chess Collide

img_1486 Arlington, Va. — Of all the sounds that could distract a chess player during a tournament, few things can do the job as effectively as the "boing-boing" noise of  jaw harp that seems to come out of nowhere. But that’s exactly what happened this past weekend during the 3rd annual Washington Chess Congress, when Round 5 of the tournament coincided with a series of impromptu performances by members of the National Dance Education Organization, who were busy holding their annual conference in the same hotel. As one might expect, the cartoonish sounds of the jaw harp that was being played — on a microphone, mind you — put some of the younger players in a playful mood. It also prompted several players of all ages to leave their boards and peer out over the third floor balcony, where they looked down and saw dancers engaged in various kinds of performance art. Among those who got a glimpse of the action was 11-year-old Skyler Tunc, of Virginia, who initially stuck his fingers in his ears while at his board in order to express his displeasure with the noise as he tried to focus on his game. “It was really distracting. It was kind of hard to concentrate,” Tunc told CLO after the commotion. “I wonder why they didn’t keep the level lower. The whole hotel does’t have to hear what they’re doing.” Tunc was by no means the only one who had something to, well, harp about. This writer’s Round 5 opponent, Guy L. Burkett, of Maryland, also said the jaw harp music messed up his ability to get off to a good start. “I couldn’t concentrate on my opening play,” Burkett said, which perhaps explains why he ended up in a bad position by the middle game. “It wouldn’t allow me to concentrate.” (But as a testament to Burkett’s tenacity, once the jaw harp music stopped, Burkett came back and managed a draw in what was clearly a lost game). Some players wondered why hotel officials and tournament organizers could not have done more to prevent the clash of two cultures — one that loves silence and the other that likes to make noise. Steve Immitt, chief tournament director, said he didn’t learn about the dance organization’s plans to be in the hotel during the tournament until several weeks prior. And he didn’t learn about the impromptu dance until a few hours beforehand. Immitt said a sales rep from the hotel asked if the rounds that coincided with the improvisational dance could start later so that the noise didn’t affect the tournament. “I said we couldn’t because the times were advertised,” Immitt said. Immitt said he figured since the dancers were in an underground level and the tournament was behind closed doors on the third floor, that the noise from below wouldn’t effect the tournament. Plus, he said he was told that it would only last from 6 to 6:30 p.m., not start at 5 p.m. at the same time as Round 5 like it did. “I was hoping it didn’t effect the tournament,” Immitt said. “We have no control over what they do. They’re renting the space just like us.” Still, some players still felt like the whole situation could have been avoided. “I would say it’s unacceptable,” said John W. Brockhouse, of Virginia, who noted that the tournament featured several titled players who were playing for a sizable prize: $4,000 for first place. “It’s just not the kind of conditions you want to play under,” Brockhouse said. For what it’s worth, CLO spoke with representatives from the National Dance Education Organization, or NDEO, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only were they very apologetic for disturbing players during the tournament, but the president of the organization and the guy who was playing the jaw harp were actually both chess players themselves. In fact, one evening during the tournament, Thom Cobb, president of NDEO, drew inspiration from the chess tournament when he had dancers do an improvisational dance that paid homage to the royal game. After learning about the chess tournament, Cobb said he figured: “Why not build the whole thing off the concept of a chess game?” So he announced to the 30 or so people who showed up for the improvisational performance that the theme for the improv would be chess. The floor, he said, became a chessboard, and the dancers were supposed to mimic the moves of chess pieces. “We did the lateral movements. The diagonal. The king who moves slowly. The queen who can do whatever she wants. The knight who goes forward and sideways. The rook who is only a straight line,” Cobb said. “I played as a kid,” Cobb said when asked about his knowledge of the game. “I haven’t played for a long time but I understand the game and, as a dancer, I understand how I can use that in my choreography, how I can use that in my improvisation. That’s why dance is universal. Dance relates to everything.” Asked if he had any message for the chess players who were distracted by NDEO’s music, Cobb said: “We’re sorry if we disturbed you but we’re using the impetus from your game to create works of art. So the world of gaming, the world of this highly intellectual, mastermind table game, board game, takes new life when it becomes physicalized.” Apologies also came by way of Andy Teirstein, the guy who was playing the jaw harp, which he said is also known as a Jew’s Harp and many other names in various cultures throughout the world. “The Jew’s Harp is one of those instruments that is international. So many different cultures have different versions of that. Native Americans, Australian aboriginals, different Mongolians,” explained Tierstein, who is an arts professor at NYU. “It’s one of those instruments that’s played in a lot of places. It’s a lot of fun to play.” Coincidentally, Tierstein said he used to play chess with his father at Washington Square and Tompkins Square Park — two of New York City’s chess hot spots near NYU. Asked what he had to say to the chess players that he may have disturbed with his jaw harp, Tierstein said: “Bravo on your concentration. Good work. You gotta learn how to do lots of things in life at once. And that’s really good. Chess is good for you. Keep it up.” The tournament itself, which coincided with National Chess Day, featured a five way tie for first between three GMs, an IM and FM, all with 6.5 out of 9 points. Four of the five 1st place finishers are from Texas. The Texans are: GM Julio C Sadorra; GM Gil Popilski, of the UT Dallas chess team; 15-year-old IM Ruifeng Li; and GM Andrey Stukopin. The only non-Texas to finish in the winner’s circle was 14-year-old FM David Brodsky, of New York. Each won $1,800 except for Sadorra, who pocketed an extra $100 on bonus points.
Ruifeng Li at the US Junior Closed. Photo: Austin Fuller Ruifeng Li at the 2016 US Junior Closed. Photo: Austin Fuller
Li made his final GM norm and Brodsky made his first GM norm, which could also count as his second IM norm, according to Immitt. FM Praveen Balakrishnan received his final IM Norm at this event. In the U1700 section, the first place finisher — Josev Omar Aquino, who entered the 7th round with 6 points — got booted from the tournament after this writer asked Immitt to investigate his tournament background after learning Aquino hadn’t played a rated game in the US since 2009 but had been playing in the Philippines. Turns out, our suspicions were right — Aquino had a rating that surpassed 1700 in the Philippines, according to Immitt. Aquino’s disqualification meant everyone who played him and lost ended up getting a half point as a result. That, coupled with his departure, catapulted several other players into cash money that almost went to Aquino, who had dominated his section so fiercely that he could have walked away from his final game and still won clear first place. Immitt said it did not appear that Aquino was trying to flout the rules but said he had to enforce the rules nonetheless. If anything, the situation shows yet another reason to never give up because, as the old saying goes: It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Find full standings at Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers higher education and chess. You can find him from time to time on the chess tables at DuPont Circle, a famed chess hub in the nation’s capital. You can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.  

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