Chess buff moves to capture more players

Aficionado hopes expo will boost Triangle interest in the game

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 11, 2012 

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Chess master Rosalyn Katz concentrates on her next move in the "Chess room" of her home on Wednesday October 10, 2012 in Durham, N.C. Katz has written three books on the game, and will be offering free chess lessons.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • If you go What: Chess Expo When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday Where: Barnes & Noble, Brier Creek Commons, 8431 Brier Creek Parkway, Raleigh

— In a lifetime of chess devotion, Roz Katz has played tournaments in Iceland, Israel and Italy – trading queens with grandmasters of the game.

She wrote four books on chess instruction, aimed at teaching 5-year-old cartoon junkies to castle, check and skewer. She invented a chess-themed comic strip – “Zaria” – which appears bimonthly in Chess Life for Kids magazine.

She built an upstairs chess room in her Durham home, showing off her autographed picture of Bobby Fischer, framed portraits of every world champion from Wilhelm Steinitz to Garry Kasparov, and a few of her favorite trophies.

And on Sunday, she holds a free expo at the Barnes & Noble in Brier Creek, hoping the Triangle will join her brain-building obsession. As a side attraction, her husband Charles Pole will take on 10 opponents at once.

“It’s good for you,” said Katz, 68. “I know a lot of chess players, and I don’t know any of them that have Alzheimer’s.”

Her rally cry comes as chess luminaries bemoan its dwindling popularity, even with a computerized opponent ready to play with just the click of a few Smartphone buttons. Google Trends notes that chess searches have fallen off by more than half since 2004.

“In four years, chess will be dead,” former world champion Anatoly Karpov said in 2010. “So there’s no point in talking about four years from now. In 20 years, we’ve already lost so much it’s hard to imagine. At one time, chess was competing with soccer as the most popular sport. Now, you can’t see chess anywhere. Even poker has surpassed chess in popularity. It’s a disgrace.”

To Katz, chess ought to be taught in every classroom. She helped pass a bill in New Jersey – the state she left last year – allowing every second-grader the option to play.

In the Triangle, though, Raleigh saw more than 500 competitors for a scholastic chess championship in 2011, most of them ages 7 to 11. The Raleigh nonprofit Chess Achieves lists eight schools in Wake County with chess programs: seven elementary schools and one middle.

“There’s a club here,” said Conrad Conero of the North Durham group. “There’s one in Morrisville. There’s one in Cary. Raleigh has two or three clubs. The center for chess was always in New York, but to get that many clubs here is quite a feat. They said computers were going to destroy chess, but they haven’t. They’ve made it more popular.”

Still, the Triangle needs more players – if the empty stone tables in downtown Raleigh are any evidence.

Katz’ life on the 8×8 board started with her son David, who first slid a bishop at age 3, then attracted attention as a chess wunderkind by the time he hit kindergarten. For his 5th birthday, he received a custom-made chess clock.

“My kids were raised with no TV,” Katz said. “None. They still don’t watch TV.”

As her interest grew, and her skills developed, Katz earned so many trophies that she had to sell 57 of them to reduce clutter. And while her chess room still contains 19 sets, she sold “a gazillion” to a collector. On business trips, she found the local chess club. Overseas on vacation, she found tournaments.

“I’m really famous in Iceland,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me play in Egypt because I’m a woman. We played in the hotel, just informally, (and) in a ferry boat on the Nile.”

Her book “Start Playing Chess Today!” opens with this hint: “Brain power is the key to winning a game of chess. THINK + PLAN = WIN.” Read a few pages, and you’ll know to keep your knights close to the center, and that losing a bishop to take a rook is a good trade.

“I’m a really good teacher because I was a bad student,” she said. “It just scares me so that the kids are so plugged-in now. They can’t make decisions. They have no experience in thinking things through.”

She’ll show you how Sunday – a champion in a war game with no blood.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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