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The Endgame: When two of the city’s best chess players finally square off

 

Chess

Matt Jensen (bottom) prepares to play his knight to e7 against Jovana Milosevic.

Inside a quiet RCTC cafeteria.

In a club almost no one knows about.

Inside Rochester’s chess scene.

The chess club is abuzz.

It’s week four of a four-week tournament, and every one of tonight’s 10 matches looks like it could go 60 moves deep into an endgame. George plays Rob. Kevin has the white pieces against Roy. Newcomer Isaac faces off against longtimer Bob R.

Someone even mentions my game against Bob F.

But then there’s this, at the top of the ticket: Jovana versus Matt.

Matt Jensen—33, a top-fifteen player in the state who’s closing in on 500 sanctioned career wins, a National Master in a competitive arena in which titles are hard to come by—took over the unofficial title of Rochester’s best chess player a few years ago (when Scott Riester moved away).

Jovana Milosevic—23, Woman World Chess Federation Master, Balkan Chess Champ, fresh off winning the Minnesota Women’s Championship—moved here on a work and travel program from Serbia in 2017. On her first night at the chess club, she beat three of the top players, one after another, in speed games. She wasn’t even halfway through game three before someone whispered “I’d pay to watch a matchup between her and Matt.”

That was six months ago. Tonight, finally, is the night.

So, yeah, the chess club is abuzz.

Chess

The handshake

Tonight’s 20 players take their seats at the 10 chess boards set up in RCTC’s cafeteria. And, in a ritual of respect, shake hands. (It’s more than just a ritual, in fact. In the World Chess Federation, where sportsmanship reigns, it’s a rule.) Everyone says something like “good luck” or “good chess.” Matt and Jovana shake hands, start their clocks.

The chess clock

Tonight’s games are G90, which means each player has 90 minutes to make all of their moves. You move, hit your clock, and the other person’s time counts down until they move and hit their clock. If you run out of time, you lose (or draw, depending on the pieces left on the board). Games lasting the full three hours aren’t uncommon.

The opening

There are 20 possible first moves in chess. Each of the eight pawns can move one or two squares forward. Each knight can move to two different spots. Here’s the theory behind the opening moves: You want to control the center of the board. Develop your knights and bishops. Keep your king safe.

e4, the notation for moving the pawn in front of your king two squares forward, has been the first move played in roughly 65 percent of all tournament chess games since 1850. Jovana—who’s playing the white pieces—opens with a rare knight move (Nf3). That move opens roughly 3 percent of all games.

But Matt and Jovana have known they’re playing each other for two weeks now, and a quick search of one online chess database turns up roughly 300 of Jovana’s games. She has opened with that knight move in two-thirds of them. So Matt—in his spare time between his job as a statistical programmer at Mayo Clinic and writing articles for Chess.com and spending time outdoors with his wife Kelly—has been studying and memorizing move sequences to counter knight f3. He spends another hour prepping for it before tonight’s game. He’s already faced that knight f3 move probably 50 times in competitive matches, which he’s been playing since he joined the Rochester Chess Club.

And Matt Jensen joined the Rochester Chess Club when he was still in preschool.

He was beating his mom at Stratego by the time he was three. Studying chess “for hours at a time” when he was five.

Jovana has been playing the knight f3 opening since she was 14, when she moved across Serbia—moved 100 miles away from her family’s home—in order to live in a high school dormitory and get top-level chess coaching. That was just six years after her first tournament, at age 8.

“There was a school tournament, and I wanted to go with my friend and have fun,” she says. “I knew how to move the pieces and I knew how to give a checkmate. My parents thought I would embarrass myself, but my grandmother felt sorry for me and took me to the school.”

Jovana won that tournament. Then placed near the top of her city’s chess championship. Then won the Serbia Youth Chess Championship.

“Since that first tournament, I have never wanted to do anything else in my life except chess,” she says. “Chess has so many possibilities. And you can always learn more, and you will never know everything. I think I’m attracted to learning.”

Today, she’s studying website design at RCTC. She just got married to her husband, Christian, a few months ago. She’s working on the Rochester Chess Club website, teaching chess in schools and in private lessons.

Matt counters knight to f3 with a pawn move, d5. Then it’s two more pawn moves from each player: c4, d4, b4, g5.

Matt’s pawn to g5 move is an unusual—and rare—one. It’s the kind of move that, if you ever watch ChessTV, would have the announcers audibly gasping.

The Oxford Companion to Chess lists names for 1,327 chess openings. Names like The Hyper Accelerated Dragon. Santasiere’s Folly. The Drunken King’s Gambit. The Sicilian Poisoned Pawn. The Hippopotamus Defense.

This opening, the Advanced Reti, is named for Richard Reti, a Czech Grandmaster known for his hypermodern style in the 1920s.

The math

Chess is a game in which you have 197,742 possible combinations of positions after just two moves from each player. And 121 million combinations after three moves. It is estimated that there are more possible iterations in a single game than there are atoms in the known universe.

The club

It’s an eclectic group, the Rochester Chess Club. We meet on most Tuesday nights at RCTC—anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people. While other groups tout the 9 to 90 thing, we do regularly have 9-year-olds. And a 90-year-old. Chess doesn’t care about age.

The weekly meetings consist of quick tournaments or discussions of the best opening moves or endgame tactics. Everyone is welcome, from novices to national masters (and we have some of each).

The Rochester Chess Club’s history dates back to at least the 1950s. Current member Roy Knuth’s been coming since the late ‘50s. In 1958, Rochester hosted the prestigious U.S. Chess Open Championships at the relatively new IBM site. (It’s considered a breakthrough moment in modern chess history, in that computers—maybe for the first time ever—were programmed to set the pairings and calculate the tournament’s complicated tiebreaking system.)

Like a lot of chess clubs, RCC saw attendance boom in the early 1970s, when Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972’s “Match of the Century.” The broadcast of those games is still the most popular televised chess match of all time. Today, that boom—and most stats say chess popularity is on the upswing, with an estimated 300 million regular players worldwide—has come from online play. The website Chess.com boasts 30 million members. A million people play on the site every day.

But people like to play in person. We get players coming to the club from Mayo Clinic—patients and their family or friends—who just want to make some small talk and play a few games. We don’t get too deep. We’re here to play chess and talk about chess. I’ve known my opponent, Bob F., since I joined the club in 2015. I know he likes to mix up his openings. I know he likes to play e5 against e4 and d6 if you play knight f3. But I couldn’t tell you where he’s from. I couldn’t tell you if he has a wife or kids.

Dennis Mays—who has been the club president since 2014, and a member since he moved here from Ohio in 1993—has been called “the godfather of Rochester chess.” That’s how he was described in a Post Bulletin story, anyways, and we bring it up to him whenever we can. Dennis lists a half dozen others more deserving of the title. Mays, though, founded and has helped coach both the Lourdes and Mayo high school chess clubs for 20 years. When some new-to-chess player shows up the club, Dennis is the one who sits down to give them the basics. “Chess helps kids develop critical thinking skills,” he says. “Just look at the Newcomers program.”

The Newcomers

In the last 20 years, Rochester schools have made their mark on the state’s scholastic chess scene. Matt Jensen won three Minnesota High School Chess Championships in four years (2001, ’03, ’04) while playing for John Marshall. Outgoing Lourdes senior Justin Ricker has been one of the state’s top players in the top division over the past four years. Mayo High School will be defending back-to-back state championships in the second-tier, U1200 Division. (And, full braggy disclosure: My son Henry, a Mayo senior-to-be, won the individual state championship in the U1200 division last year.) Last year, thanks to Chuck Handlon and others, chess was recognized as an official activity by Rochester Public Schools.

Maybe most importantly, we have the Newcomers. These students are part of Rochester Public Schools’ Newcomer Program, “an intensive English language-learning environment designed to help K-8 students transition from diverse backgrounds into standard classroom settings.” The chess addition was spearheaded by former paraprofessional and current chess coach Jim Huerter in 2008.

These are kids—recent immigrants from places like Syria and Mexico and Cambodia and Vietnam—who spend a half-hour each school day learning chess. And sportsmanship. And patience, responsibility, focus, grace under pressure.

And communication.

If you’ve ever been in one of the practice rooms during one of the local scholastic tournaments—or the state high school chess meet—you will hear the kids and coaches reviewing just-finished games and getting in some last-minute prepping for upcoming matches.

“I was hoping for Ruy Lopez, but she played the Sicilian Dragon, and her fianchettoed bishop was staring right down my diagonal!”

And: “e4, e5, I play queen h5 and he plays g6! Then it’s [and here other kids join in unison] queen take e5 check, queen e7, queen take h8!”

It is, at times, like listening to a foreign language.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Because, for many of the Newcomers, chess is their universal language.

The Middlegame

Matt Jensen has sacrificed a pawn—intentionally given up the piece—in order to get better position on the board.

Here it is, in chess speak: “I was looking at different ideas after Jovana plays knight f3 and I saw this [pawn to] g5 idea,” Matt says later. “The computer is not in love with it; it’s a pawn sacrifice. One thing about my playing style is I like to play for the initiative. And when you’re playing with the black pieces, you’re moving second, you tend to have a slight disadvantage, right? So sacrificing a pawn is sometimes one way that you can turn the tables a bit. Okay. I’m down a pawn. You’re taking extra moves to get that pawn. I’m going to develop quickly and start to put some pressure on your position.”

The rest of the chess club players, in between their own moves, often wander the room to check on other players’ games. Sometimes, your opponent may take 20 or so minutes on a crucial move. There’s only so much sitting and staring at a chess board you can handle. And it’s quiet, save for the sound of players coughing or hitting chess clocks. Three hours of quiet.

Tonight, we’re wandering more than usual. Mostly we’re wandering over to watch Matt and Jovana’s game. But, to me at least, they’re playing at another level. I can look at the board. Count the pieces. Maybe see some sort of attack plan. Here is that other level, in stat form: If I plug my United States Chess Federation rating—the numerical value you earn from winning or drawing or losing games in rated tournaments—into the “chess probability calculator,” it tells me that, were I to play Matt, I would win one game for every 17,000 that we would play.

When I tell Matt that, he laughs it off, calls it “ridiculous.” When I tell my son, Henry—already a better player than me after less than three years of playing—he says “that sounds about right.”

My U.S. Chess Federation rating is just under 1200. That puts me in roughly the top 30 percent of the group’s 65,000 active players. Matt is rated just over 2220. That puts him in the top 1 percent.

So, yeah, I see that Matt is down a pawn. And that’s probably about all I see.

The endgame

Jovana studies the board for 25 minutes before making move number eight. Then another 26 minutes before move nine. By move 21, according to the post-game computer analysis, Matt has a slight advantage. But Jovana has just three minutes left to make her remaining moves. Matt has more than a half hour to contemplate his. “I think my biggest problem is time management,” Jovana says later. “In chess and in life.”

Three moves later, at move 24, Jovana resigns.

She does not, she says, take defeat well. “I’m not an aggressive loser,” she says. “I’m more like a sad loser. I’m sad, but for myself. Maybe people cannot even notice it, but I feel really down when I lose a game. It’s because I have trained so long, 13 years now. Everything that I’ve done in my life was in order to improve at chess. I moved to another town when I was very young just so to improve in chess. And when you put so much time and effort into something, and then you lose, it kind of hurts.”

Jovana will study the game—Facetime with her coach in Serbia—a few nights later.

Matt runs the game through the computer that night, after his wife is asleep.

Two weeks later, when I interview Jovana for the story, she still has the moves memorized. “I think that I should have just played h3 after he played g5,” she says, and I nod as if I understand. “I entered a line that I could have assumed that he’s better prepared for. I could have taken into consideration the psychological aspect. It’s obvious that if you play g5, you are prepared. And probably, h3 was a better choice for me.”

But, in a true sign of sportsmanship, Matt and Jovana don’t get up from the table when their game ends. Instead, they immediately start going over the game, recreating it. Discussing alternate moves that, eventually, will help each other get better.

The whole chess club is like that. We want to win, sure. But we also realize that, when we leave here and head back home, no one else knows or more likely cares what the hell we’re talking about. If you want to see someone’s eyes glaze over with disinterest, you just need to watch my wife when I get home from the club on Tuesday nights and give her my in-depth play-by-play about my most recent game.

It can be a lonely world, chess.

At least until next Tuesday night.

The Rochester Chess Club plays most Tuesday nights at 6:30 p.m. at RCTC. Thanks to Paul Kinion and the RCTC math department for providing the space and equipment. Everyone—regardless of skill level—is welcome. Check out rochesterchess.com for info.

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Steve, the editor of Rochester Magazine, has been professionally writing for 25+ years. He has, for story's sake, raced cars, driven a tank, mushed a dogsled team, and was repeatedly thrown down during pro wrestling lessons.

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