In the Hart House Reading Room one blustery January afternoon, Stuart Brammall and Walter Chan are making plans for war. The secretary and treasurer, respectively, of the Hart House Chess Club sit at a worn card table ordering their plastic troops across a dog-eared paper chessboard that reads “Scarborough Chess Club 1960.” Chan moves his chess pieces with a flourish, slapping them on the board without caring whether they’re centred; Brammall’s moves are slower and more deliberate. “This is one of the oldest clubs at Uof T,” says Chan, who’s in his final year of chemistry, “and it’s definitely the highest profile chess club at a Canadian university.”
It is also one of the most successful: one Hart House team (which included Chan) took the top international spot at the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Tournament in Miami in December; the club’s second team (which included Brammall) came in third.
Meeting from 4 to 10 p.m. every Friday, the club attracts around 20 players a week. But on tournament nights, like this one, more show up to compete for prizes and, more importantly, bragging rights. Though chess clubs have a longstanding reputation as being home to the obnoxiously brainy, the socially awkward or the eerily silent (sometimes all three), only braininess is in evidence today. Players talk animatedly, distract each other with trash talk (“chess players love trash-talking!” exclaims Chan) and cluster around other tables, watching. “It’s like mental war for a lot of people,” says Chan.
“Yeah, it’s kind of good to get your aggression out,” says Brammall, who’s in his second year of an English degree.
“It’s war, but in a non-violent manner,” says Chan.
“We’re all passive-aggressive, I guess,” says Brammall.
The chess club’s golden age at U of T was in the 1980s; since then some players have drifted to the Internet, where they can play online against opponents from around the world. And Hart House is less able to vie internationally since a few American universities started offering chess scholarships in the 1990s. “We can’t really compete with them anymore,” says Chan. “They’ll get random grandmasters from Poland or Costa Rica – just recruit them to play and compete for them.”
Still, the club offers more than just the opportunity to play once a week. For a $15 annual fee (available to
U of T students and Hart House senior members, and one of the cheapest places to play in Toronto), members can hear lectures by returning alumni and get the chance to travel to tournaments. But the camaraderie is what keeps people coming back. “You can’t really talk about world-class players and competitions and stuff like that anywhere else,” says Brammall. He laughs. “You’ll be ostracized very quickly if you start talking about top-level chess – anywhere but the chess club.”