If the terms en passant or zwischenzug mean anything to you, not only are we impressed, but also you probably know your chess. (Or at least your chess terminology.) If you didn’t know that, or don’t even know the relative end-game point value difference between a Bishop and a Knight, don’t sweat it. Yakos Spiliotopoulos, general manager of the Annex Chess Club and vice president of the Chess Institute Of Canada, says chess is for everybody.
Yes, gone are the overly exclusive days of the stuffy, the brainy, and the too-hip playing chess and thinking it hadn’t quite caught on yet. For the last year and a half, the Annex Chess Club has been hosting chess events on Monday nights at 918 Bathurst for all ages and levels. Spiliotopoulos took some time to talk to The A.V. Club about why we all love chess, how it proves celebrities really are just like us, and why he considers the game to be a unifying force.
The A.V. Club: What led to the creation of the Annex Chess Club?
Yakos Spiliotopoulos: There hasn’t been a downtown chess club in a generation, in something like 30 years. The reason is that it’s too bloody expensive. And it is! That’s why we put this club together. We were realizing that people want this, and thought, “Well, if we build it, people will come.” So, we set it up at 918 Bathurst, which is an amazing community centre and former Buddhist temple. When we opened our door on our first night, there were eight people. We launched it in a grand fashion, we brought Canada’s No. 1 player in—Mark Bluvshtein—to do a lecture, and it’s just been growing ever since.
AVC: What distinguishes the Annex Chess Club from other associations dedicated to the game?
YS: I think what distinguishes the club from what other people may think about a chess club is that our clientele and members are not chess nerds micro-analyzing a board, like you would imagine them. It’s a younger, hip crowd, and you get a full range of people, from kids all the way to people in their 90s. There are a lot of people that all go down to The Pump after every Monday night, which makes Tuesday mornings really brutal, by the way. These are professionals in their 20s and 30s. It’s not a bunch of cerebral individuals. It’s become a community of people. We all contribute in different ways. It’s totally multicultural too; you get people from all over the world here. Chess is an international language in itself.
AVC: What do you think has made chess so popular among this younger crowd?
YS: There are some people, like me, who play out of a compulsive habit. But it’s good for pattern recognition. It trains a sort of muscle in your mind. I don’t believe playing chess well is a sign of genius, but it’s intense and builds a healthy competitive spirit.
It’s also a particular kind of language. Wherever I’ve travelled in the world, I always drop in to the local chess players, and it’s like you’re joining an international community in that respect. So I would argue for chess: It’s good mentally, and cognitively, and [for] being part of a community.
AVC: Would you say there is a chess culture in Toronto?
YS: It’s more of a cult thing. People who are loyal to it, love it. What this club is doing is it’s getting a lot of people who probably weren’t too into it, out. But, is there a chess culture? Yes! It’s very well established. It’s played all around the world, and Toronto is so multicultural. All immigrant groups are likely to play chess. There is definitely a long-standing and loyal chess culture in Toronto, for sure.
AVC: When you visit chess players in other countries, how do you find those experiences are different from those in Toronto’s scene?
YS: Toronto is a multicultural place. There are people in our club that are refugees that don’t speak any English, but they know they’re playing a common game. I think Toronto has that over a lot of places. You go to places like New York, and chess is a real part of their city. They have longer-established clubs and funding. I would say Toronto’s chess community is underrepresented, and the Annex Chess Club plugged one of the many gaping holes in Toronto. Let’s say Toronto’s scene is underserviced, but well serviced; however, I don’t know how it can compete with other places. For example, I went to Santiago De Cuba in Cuba, and I dropped into the chess club there and played with the club president. He had photos of himself there playing with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Maybe Toronto will get to that status one day.
AVC: Champion chess player Alexei Shirov came for a visit recently. Tell us more about that.
YS: At one time Shirov won the right to compete for the world championship. He’s the kind of player who is getting up there in age, which is funny because he’s not that old. Chess players, at the highest level, retire around the same age as professional athletes. He’s 39, so he’s an aging chess giant. He’s an incredibly talented player, and he came around and he played a round of 28 boards, and he won every single game except for one, which he drew. And these were not weak players he was facing. They were the club’s lead players. It went over well! He came to the bar with us afterwards and shut the place down. He’s a good guy and a great spirit.
AVC: Any other great pop-ins in the Annex Chess Club’s history?
YS: Woody Harrelson was rehearsing a play at 918 Bathurst during the day a while ago, and he came over to our Monday chess night. He was playing and doing really well. We didn’t ask his permission, so we couldn’t publicize it at the time, but it was definitely a highlight.
AVC: Did you take him on?
YS: I did! He beat me once, and I beat him twice.
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– GM Susan Polgar