Chess for Success

Young Sam Galler is making the move from rook-ie to master.

"If I win, everybody will say, 'Well, of course he won; he's the top-ranked player.' But if I lose..." "You won't lose, Josh."

"What if I do?"

"You won't."

Check this: Sam Galler works on his moves.
Anna Newell
Check this: Sam Galler works on his moves.

"I'm afraid I might." -- from Searching for Bobby Fischer

On the seventeenth move of his sixth game in the final round of the Colorado State Scholastic Chess Tournament, Sam Galler blundered. "Oh, oh, oh, oh," his coach, Robert Snyder, said. "Oh, oh, oh."

Snyder had staked out a front-row seat in the parents' room to watch the progress of one of his prized pupils. For often embarrassingly obvious reasons, parents and coaches are not allowed to watch the matches in person. Some hover just outside the actual playing room, like new mothers and fathers crowding around a hospital nursery window.

Others stay in the parents' room, a floor above the one where the matches take place. It is arranged like a mini-auditorium, with the moves of important games beamed onto a blank wall in real time by computer. For parents, the effect can be bizarre, like listening to a radio broadcast of the contest happening directly under their feet. A few feet away from Snyder, Sam's father, Bruce, was silent as he watched his unseen son's match play out on the oversized chessboard.

Sam is twelve years old and in the sixth grade. He is tall for his age, with straight dark hair, prominent ears and a deeply interested expression on his face. He is currently the top-ranked chess player in the state for his age and one of the top players in the country in his age group. Last year he tied for third in the National Scholastic Chess Tournament. He is Colorado's fourth-through-sixth-grade defending champion; in 2000 he was a co-winner of the title.

Sam was expected to grab the Colorado title again this year. Surprising no one, he had breezed through his first five matches in the six-match round robin, ending up in the final round of the two-day tournament exactly where he thought he'd be: across the board from the second seed, Tyler Hughes. On this Sunday afternoon in February, at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, both boys were undefeated. The winner of their match would become the state champ.

Tyler is small and slight, with a narrow face made tinier by his large white cowboy hat and thick, round black-rimmed glasses. He has been Sam's primary nemesis for the past year or so. In fact, several days before the state tournament, Sam and his coach deliberately went over several of Tyler's favorite openings in an attempt to prepare Sam for the anticipated match-up. Unfortunately, as the match began to unfold, it became apparent that Tyler was using the Givoco Piano opening, which Sam hadn't practiced.

Still, at this level of chess an unanticipated opening doesn't throw anyone much, and Sam played extremely well for the first 45 minutes or so. Most people watching the match agreed it was his game to lose. But then, on the twentieth move - uncharacteristically -- he moved too quickly, without the deliberate analysis that is part and parcel of his game. Suddenly, the advantage had shifted.

Upstairs in the parents' room, Todd Bardwick, a national master and former Denver champion, was providing commentary and analysis. "Sam might have made a terrible blunder," he said ominously. Snyder moaned quietly in his seat. "He had a dead won game, and he moved too fast," Bardwick added.

The Gallers live on a cul-de-sac in an upscale neighborhood in Boulder. The first thing you notice when you walk inside the house are the chessboards placed throughout the living room. It is an elegant room, free of clutter. Off to one side sit a grand piano and a cello. Most of the chessboards are beautiful and decorative -- more objets d'art than well-used games. "We got these after Sam became interested in chess," says Bruce, a computer executive.

Chess is the dominant theme in Sam's room, as well. Against one wall next to his bed are his trophies -- dozens and dozens of them set up like a gleaming brass army on the floor next to his bed. There are so many that they threaten to spill out into the middle of the room. A poster for Searching for Bobby Fischer, a 1993 movie about a precocious chess kid, decorates another wall.

Last year, the U.S. Chess Federation boasted 31,000 members under the age of fifteen, up nearly tenfold from the 3,200 it had in 1990. Part of the reason is the Internet. While many children have no tolerance for board games, they are online whizzes. As is the case with many kids, Sam's interest in chess evolved from video games, which he'd begun playing at a young age. Yet, while he was a self-described "addict" to computer games, Sam says he found most of them unsatisfying -- easily understood, mastered and won.

That is, until he stumbled on a game called Battle Chess. At first, much of the appeal of the game was simply auditory and visual. Before one chess piece took another, a fierce battle occurred, with much noise and explosions -- which, when you are six years old, is extremely cool. But Sam discovered that he also liked the underlying game. Unlike others, it couldn't be mastered -- there is no perfect game in chess -- and each new game posed endless possibilities.

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