The tension in the room is high, and not a move is being made. Players sit across from each other, their brows furrowed as they ponder their next step. Digital clocks count down the remaining time in the game. A few curious onlookers and players roam from game to game, analyzing strategies.
Welcome to the world of competitive chess.
Last weekend saw Bay Area Chess, an organization that provides weekly chess tournaments and camps, host the People's Tournament. The three-day event in Santa Clara drew 150 adult competitors and nearly 100 youths -- among them Palo Altans Saleem Karamali, 18; Andrew Peng, 7; Kelvin Jiang, 9; and Mihir Mirchandani, 10.
The tournament afforded the younger players both practice and a view of the adult and advanced competitors.
The chess scene in the Bay Area has grown tremendously in the past decade from a small group of organizations to a nationally recognized region. Bay Area Chess, based in San Jose, has been a major part of this expansion. The group was begun nine years ago by Salman Azhar to offer parents a high-quality alternative to other chess programs as well as regular tournaments for chess players throughout the Bay Area.
Today's local chess community is "extremely active, thriving and growing," Azhar said, and now the San Francisco Bay Area has become, through numbers, tournaments and growth, one of the three top chess scenes in the country.
Azhar started the organization on his own when his son moved to a new school that was not providing the quality of coaching that he expected. After-school programs with Bay Area Chess cost between $107 and $267 for the four-month programs, while week-long summer courses at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto average $177 for a three-hour session, or $417 for the whole day.
Most of the people who work for Bay Area Chess are volunteers passionate to help kids learn chess, he said. Bay Area Chess runs summer camps in three Palo Alto elementary schools -- at Fairmeadow, Duveneck and Palo Verde -- in addition to regular after-school programs at seven schools. Fairmeadow hosts the largest camp, with more than 300 children attending during the summer, said Judit Sztaray, a parent volunteer.
Palo Alto's chess scene is small compared with other areas such as Cupertino and Fremont, according to Azhar. Despite its size and youthful makeup, Palo Alto's chess players and their parents are enthusiastic and active. Kelvin, who has been playing for four years, has favored chess over sports. He also participates in one to two tournaments per month.
"When I am playing chess I think it's pretty fun," Kelvin said. "It's calculating and thinking and involves a lot of strategy."
Compared to physical sports, where youths are grouped by age, chess is organized by ability. Because of this, Kelvin sometimes plays against those older than he is. But he does not let the age difference faze him.
"I don't really concentrate about how old they are; I just play chess," Kelvin said.
Bay Area Chess has attracted volunteers by word of mouth, Azhar said, and that base of volunteers helps keep tournament costs low for participants. Azhar said the focus of the camps and coaching is less on winning the game than on instilling principles that are inherent in chess.
"We generally do not emphasize the result of the game," Azhar said. "We emphasize analyzing the game and learning from the good moves you made and the bad moves you made. And we don't call it bad moves but, 'Could you do something different?'."
It is this attitude that has gained Azhar attention, as he now has programs for youths in more than 50 schools. The growth of the chess community, enhanced by Bay Area Chess and other chess programs, has meant that the Bay Area's chess scene now ranks at the top with New York City and Dallas, Texas, said American International Master Emory Tate. These two cities have traditionally been the hub of American chess.
While Azhar's focus has been on bringing programs to schools, another chess organization has tried to bring chess to youth who are locked up in San Jose's juvenile hall. Daniel Dupre launched ChessKing in 2006 to provide after-school chess education to kids, and now runs programs at Ohlone, El Carmelo, Hoover and Barron Park elementary schools in Palo Alto. But Dupre also provides the game at least twice a month at juvenile hall to youth who are facing 25 years to life in prison. Begun in late 2008, the program aims to help kids overcome ignorance while teaching them useful skills from chess, Dupre said.
"I believe chess has a lot to teach everyone," he said. "It's more than just a mental exercise; there's a lot of universal principles, laws of physics and laws of the universe that are modeled on the chess board."
Dupre also hopes that the kids who play chess in juvenile hall will become better at questioning the situations and influences that surround them.
"With the juvenile-hall group I really stress critical thinking," he said. "You want to think what you think ... but you also want to know why you think what you think. ... Is there a sound reasoning behind it? And peer pressure too -- I think critical thinking helps us overcome peer pressure."
While his program in juvenile hall is popular with the administrators and some inmates, Dupre's after-school programs have rapidly expanded in size and scope. Starting with programs at three schools with 40 students, ChessKing has grown to a dozen schools with more than 300 students during the school year. Dupre hopes to continue to bring chess to more kids as the local chess community gets larger.
"What's exciting about it for me is the opportunity to get kids excited about chess," Dupre said. "The program is designed to be really inclusive. You don't need to be a chess genius, or you don't even have to have a lot of chess aptitude."
As chess appears poised to continue its expansion in the Bay Area, Tate hopes that its growth will come with positive consequences.
"I personally believe that chess is the only thing that competes with video games," Tate said. "Once kids really get into chess you can kinda drop the video games because it's not the same level. Pushing a button and clicking on a few monsters, it doesn't engage the brain like chess does."
People's Tournament results
The People's Tournament event took place in Santa Clara from July 19 to 21.
Saleem Karamali, who has a United States Chess Federation (USCF) rating of 1,697, finished third in the Class B group, while Andrew Peng, rated 1,468, finished 14th. Kelvin Jiang, rated at 1,518, finished ninth in the Class C group, which he played as an advanced youth. Mihir Mirchandani, rated 1,204 (Class D), placed fourth in the Young People's Swiss for grades 4-5.
For perspective, an expert is rated above 2,000, while a senior master (the highest rating) is rated 2,400 and above. Players compete with their classes: Class A, 1,800 to 1,999 points; Class B, 1,600 to 1,799 points; Class C, 1,400 to 1,599 points; and Class D, 1,200 to 1,399 points.
Ratings estimate the relative strength of chess players based on their history of play. Players begin with a baseline 1,200 score, judged to be average, and the rating increases or decreases depending on the player's performance. Both the USCF and the World Chess Federation (FIDE) use the Elo rating system, which uses a complex algorithm to calculate players' scores.