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MIT Chess Club Faces Caltech In Virtual Battle of the Brains

By Eun J. Lee

features editor

The MIT Chess Club is nobody’s pawn, and their success in competition the past two years proves it.

This past Sunday night, the Chess Club competed against Caltech in the first ever online chess match between the two institutions. The eight students who represented MIT made special preparations prior to the match, studying their opponents’ previous games and devising opening strategies.

“The MIT and Caltech teams were evenly matched. Caltech had the pre-match advantage on the top boards, while MIT’s strength was the depth of its team,” said MIT Chess Club president and former U.S. Women’s Chess co-champion Elina Groberman ’04.

The competition matched each of the eight players against a player from the opposing team of equivalent rank. Caltech placed former National High School Champion Patrick Hummel on first board (reserved for the strongest player on a team) against MIT’s Tamer Karatekin ’04, the former Turkish National Chess Champion. On second board, Caltech placed Wei Ji Ma, a chess champion from Holland, against Yelena Gorlina ’06.

Caltech a formidable opponent

“Caltech was stronger on the top boards [which included] the strongest players of each team, but we were stronger on the lower boards,” said MIT team member Sanne V. de Boer G, who played the online match only hours after returning from a trip to Holland. “Unfortunately, this is where we didn’t do well. In fact, our best result was on board one, where Tamer Karatekin beat a much higher rated player of international master level in a pretty spectacular end game.”

The sum of the results of each individual match gave the resulting score for each team. MIT and Caltech were neck and neck until the last couple of minutes of the two-hour match. The final game between Karatekin and Hummel kept curious spectators and excited team members on their toes. After 43 moves, only queens and pawns remained on the board. However, the game lasted for another 67 moves, until both players had less than 30 seconds remaining on their clocks, and it ended with a victory in Karatekin’s favor.

“Two stronger players usually make for a better game,” Karatekin said. “My partner played well, so I played better.”

Groberman won her game in a sharp, tactical battle, while Dandekar scored the third victory for MIT, outplaying his opponent in a quiet, consistent manner. In a close battle, MIT lost the match to Caltech with a final team score of 3-5.

Also playing for MIT were Grady Cantrell ’06, Sheel N. Dandekar ’06, David Gratton G, and Alex Skorokhod ’04. Both teams thought the online match was a success and are planning a rematch some time in the near future.

Chess well suited for Internet

Chess is well suited for the Internet, and online chess matches open the door to matches with opponents who are not within travel distance. Although virtual competitions are convenient and effective, the issue of cheating is often the biggest concern when it comes to internet matches. In the match with Caltech, there was a mutual agreement that players would not cheat by using a computer program to help with the next move or looking up games played by strong players in similar positions, Groberman said.

Cheating was not an issue during the Caltech online match, but when it comes to chess, nothing beats looking one’s opponent in the eye.

“I prefer over the board games to these on-line matches,” de Boer said. During the match, he played on a computer in his lab while his teammates were spread out over campus. “Next time we plan to have everyone together in one computer cluster, which should be more interesting and motivating for the players and would allow other people to follow the match closely as well.”

Chess club among top in colleges

Despite their recent loss to Caltech, the Chess Club has been very successful in national competitions. Over President’s Day weekend, they earned the “Top College” award out of the over 1,000 teams that attended the U.S. Amateur Team East Championship in Parsippanny, N.J.

Representing MIT in this event were Groberman, de Boer, Dandekar, Murali S. Vajapeyam ’03, and Bryant C. Vernon ’99. In last year’s Pan American Championship, the team tied for third place in the entire competition, which is a college chess championship for schools in the U.S., Canada, and South America. The MIT chess club was recently named “Best College” in the U.S. Amateur Team East Tournament.

At prestigious competitions, team members typically play two games a day, each of which can last up to six hours. “On a good day we can beat [almost] any other college team in the U.S.,” de Boer said.


A lot of preparation goes into being a world class college chess team, but for many, the endeavor is well worth the effort.

“I love the game because it’s very exciting. There’s constant pressure on the board. You might make a mistake but recover two moves later -- it’s a stressful sport,” Karatekin said.

The MIT chess club meets every Thursday night to go over strategies, learn from their fellow team members, and, of course, play chess. Anyone interested in learning more about the game or flexing her strategic muscles is invited to swing by and check it out.

“We have people from all different levels attending, so you can always find somebody of about the same strength,” Groberman said.

For more information about the MIT Chess Club, visit their Web site at