Houston Chess Players

For this piece, I interviewed Leon Fussleman one on one in a studio then set out for the chess tournament itself. At the tournament, I walked around with a field microphone, collecting ambient audio and interviewing everyone I could when they weren’t in the middle of a chess game.



The game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move

For the person who doesn’t regularly play chess, this may sound like an overstatement. But chess players around the world could not agree more. Avid chess players consider it to be a grand game of strategy and when two players duke it out over the board, it can be quite intense…

…But you wouldn’t know it by the sound.

I’m at the Houston Scholastic Open at the Greenspoint Marriot in Houston.

The silence is deafening. Everywhere you look people are playing chess, hunched over their boards like stone gargoyles, watching the city below.

If they aren’t playing chess, they’re talking about chess or browsing a massive selection of instructional chess dvds, such as Gary Kasparov’s Theories on Chess. There are coffee mugs, pencil erasers, buttons, you name it: all in the shape of chess pieces.

There are kids wearing t-shirts showing off their chess club or school team affiliations. There are more teams than I can count. Leon Fussleman is a professional chess instructor and the head of the Houston Chess Club, one of a handful of chess clubs in Houston.

There’s a number of little clubs in the area but that’s part of our weakness in that we’re all doing the same thing and overlapping. Whereas in places like St. Louis it’s all concentrated and everybody’s coordinated. So, we’re just like too many little city-states there in Greece, you know? We’re Sparta and Athens and Thebes and just always warring with each other until somebody can unite it all.

As you can tell, Fussleman is quite a history buff and, yes, he knows all about the origins of chess.

The first time it was written about was in Persia like in the 5th century of 15th century, no 5th century, by the Persian court and such… It went through… up through North Africa with the Moors and when they encountered the Charlemagne there in Spain they gave him a gift of a chess set.

Fussleman is also quick to point out that changes that the game went through due to European influence.

The queen I think was modeled after Queen Elizabeth, they could actually move diagonally or straightforward or sideways like our current queen. Made a much more dynamic game, it was not so slow and pedestrian in the way it was.

But while there is competition between the many chess clubs, the fighting gets much more intense when chess players go at it over the board.

At the end of the hall, a group of about ten kids are crowded around a man giving a speech about chess strategy.

That’s Thomas Lucker. He’s a chess coach at Aldine Middle School.

I actually started the chess team without really knowing what I was doing and we kind of muddled through it as we went along. But I’ve gotten better, they’ve gotten better… They still come back and help so I’ve got older children from previous years who come back on a regular basis and help me with the younger kids, so, which is one reason I’ve been able to move kids along a little faster because they get a chance to play better and experienced players.

The students that Lucker has coached are likely to receive scholarships based on their chess skills and some of them credit personal success to their knowledge of the game of chess. This is Anthony Valdillez.

Well, the main thing I apply it to is patience. Everyone needs patience and that’s the main thing I apply to everything in school and out of school.

Valdillez is a high school senior and has only been playing chess for four years. But there are kids who start even earlier.

Well, every Thursday, I usually go to my chess after-school club and I have a coach named coach Caveon

That was Demitrius Bernitsas, but you can call him Demi. He’s a 2nd grader at Annunciation Orthodox School.

he helps me with all my other friends and it’s from 4th grade and you can’t join in kindergarten but you can in 1st and you go to his class when you get in  2nd grade. The 1st grade class teacerh is named Coach David and Coach Caveon, he helps me with a lot of stuff and he teaches me a lot of strategy.

During the interview Demi was like any other eight year old: squirming in his seat, looking around the room, making it incredibly difficult to keep a microphone in his face. But when he was sitting in front of the chessboard, he was stoic, still and focused.

Fussleman says this is par for the course

Almost all of these kids that come to our chess club, they have coaches and they’re very competitive.

Despite the competitive nature of these chess players, Fussleman still hold out hope that the Houston chessplaying community can come together under one unified chess club.

For Houston Matters, I’m Conner Clifton.


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