Young chess players descend on Randolph for Sanders’ statewide event

By RAY COUTURE

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-03-2023 5:52 AM

RANDOLPH — 11-year old Alex Belitsos’s brow furrowed as he watched his queen get toppled over and removed from the board.

The chess match with his opponent, fellow 11-year-old Melia Rose, of Dummerston, had been a blur of tactical moves that saw casualties on both sides as pawns, bishops, knights and rooks all left the board in rapid succession. Now Belitsos, who’d earlier remarked to his opponent that this was one of the fastest-moving games of chess he’d ever played, was on the ropes with just a dwindling number of pawns left to defend his king.

Sensing an approaching victory, Melia closed in on Belitsos’s retreating king and playfully goaded her opponent.

“Why did you do that move?” Melia asked in a singsong voice. “You just forfeited your queen to me.”

A few moves later, with just his king left standing, Belitsos, of Eden, Vt., resigned from the game and the two combatants shook hands on amicable terms.

Their game was one of the hundreds of chess battles played during Vermont’s first “Youth Chess Day” on Saturday inside Vermont Technical College’s Judd Hall.

The event, organized and hosted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT., whose arrival was met with a round of applause from the stacks of parents and chess players sitting in the bleachers, was open to all school-aged children in Vermont.

The “learn-to-play” session was run by the University of Vermont Chess Club in the morning. There was a recreational tournament in the afternoon.

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Sanders spoke briefly to the crowd between tournament rounds (he’d arrived later than expected, which his team said was because of a delay on his flight from Chicago the previous night), calling the game of chess a “real, intellectual discipline” that has the power to enrich developing minds in the same way playing sports helps kids build healthy bodies.

“(Chess) forces kids, especially in an era of social media and short attention spans, to start thinking and focusing and concentrating,” Sanders said. “I think that is a great discipline to develop in young people.”

Sanders told the crowd his office will host the event again next year and that he hopes it helps expand chess to “schools all over the state.”

Later, he walked from aisle to aisle between clusters of chess games, watching as players — most of them laser-focused on their boards — raced to make their moves before hitting the switch on the timing clock. (Each tournament game had a 10-minute limit).

Some attendees, such as Alex Belitsos and his younger brother Max, were just as excited to see the senator as they were to be involved in the tournament. Following Sanders’ speech, the two boys approached him to show off Max’s good-luck charm for chess: A crocheted doll in Sanders’ likeness.

Max, who’s two years younger than Alex, loves chess so much that he even helps teach the game to new players at his school’s chess club, his father said.

He has a soft touch with younger kids still learning the complex game that older players could learn something from.

During the tournament, Max got matched up with six-year-old Gunnar Henderson, of Fairhaven, Vt., who’d spent the morning learn-to-play period practicing moves against other players and by beating his father, James, over and over again.

“Sometimes, my son is the student and I’m the teacher,” James Henderson said. “Today he is the master.”

In their matchup, Max bested Gunnar, but he put the focus on his opponent instead of himself after the game was over.

“Gunnar, you played a great and amazing game,” the younger Belitsos said before reaching across the table to shake the younger boy’s hand.

In his last bit to the crowd during his speech, Sanders joked that he was “nervous about playing some 10-year old and getting beaten here.”

He may have been thinking about 14-year old-chess wunderkind Alexander Collins, of Norwich, who became the youngest state champion in Vermont history last November when he won the Vermont Open chess championship by beating multiple master-level adult players.

Collins was on-hand for the tournament on Saturday.

But there was no shortage on Saturday of chess-obsessed kids who seemingly improve with every game. Gunnar, for instance, has only been playing since Thanksgiving, his mother, Kerry Stevens, said. An uncle brought a tiny, magnetized set over to the house and taught him the basic moves.

On Saturday, in a game against his father, James Henderson was down to his king and a trio of pawns he was trying to maneuver to the other side of the board to regain a piece. (If a pawn reaches the opposite end of the game board, it can be swapped out for a more-powerful piece, like a queen). Gunnar, by now a cagey competitor, was having none of it. Over a series of moves, his remaining rook gobbled wiped the pawns of the board.

“You’re not getting any pawns across,” he said gleefully.

Ray Couture can be reached at 1994rbc@gmail.com

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