Behind the flurry of chess club ‘grand master’ posters: competition, learning and play

February 12, 2023 — by Beverly Xu
Chess club members gather around the projector to analyze game strategy.
Run by senior grand master Andrew Hong, the chess club trains students of any level competitions or recreation and looks to host their own competition.

In the past year, bizarre posters touting “come see the grand master” and “come to Chess Club” have covered student lockers, corridor corners and even the sides of the cafeteria beverage refrigerators. 

In that time, the Chess Club has grown in size, consistently attracting over 20 members per meeting. Rather than being specifically geared at bringing in more members, members say the posters were mainly for fun, representative of the club’s overall goal — to simply encourage playing chess.

“I have a pretty great group of friends who are also affiliated with the club, and I don’t remember exactly when we started putting up posters, but we just thought it would be fun to grow it,” said senior Andrew Hong, the club’s president who happens to have attained the rare feat of becoming a grand master.  

Since Hong joined the club in his freshman year, the club has grown significantly, from five members to full room capacity in just three years. Despite his elite status in the game, Hong continues to hone his skills through puzzles and playing training games against both human opponents and robots, analyzing the computer’s performance to improve. 

“Chess has always been like a very big part of my life, and once I go to college, I want to play professionally,” said Hong, who began playing at age seven. 

He and vice president Kunal Singh, secretary Tony Fernandez and treasurer Dan Garniek pass on their skills by giving level-friendly lectures, holding practice games, organizing funding and transportation for competitions and providing additional coaching outside of the club for more expert players. 

In addition, the club plans to send members in teams of four to the U.S. Amateur Team West Championship in mid-February, free of charge. Additionally, because all the club’s officers are seniors, they are already training candidate juniors to lead the club next year.

We don’t have a barrier to entry,” Hong said. “If you like the game, you can come and we’ll teach you.”

After joining the club last year, junior Shayda Oliaei has seen her own skills improve. During the pandemic, she learned to play the game by reading a few books such as “Modern Chess Opening” by Nick de Firmian and watching YouTube videos on chess. She mostly played matches online, but missed the face-to-face connection formed with over-the-board chess games, which she now finds in the chess club. 

“Playing with someone else really has helped my tactical sharpness, and my ability to react to different situations,” Oliaei said.

As a grand master, Hong has extensive experience in the game and, according to Oliaei, can deal with every situation. She describes how he advises amateur members on how to improve: In meetings, he puts a video on, analyzes games online or exhibits a chess puzzle — a snapshot of a chess game where players have to decide the ideal step to take. 

Now a skilled chess player with more than three years of experience, Oliaei hopes to become an officer herself and help balance out the male-to-female ratio in the chess club. In her first year in the club, out of around 20 members, only three were female and even at the beginning of this year, Oliaei was the only female member at chess club meetings. The problem stretches further than just the club however: only 1% of chess grand masters are female.

“When you’re like a boy, you have it easier, because people believe you can be good at chess — they’re not skeptical about how you play, because typically, chess is played by men,” Oliaei said.

Oliaei said she wants to continue bringing female members into the club and start female players off with the same credibility as their male counterparts to help them fit in more, and although she is nervous for the fate of the club after Hong’s graduation, she is adamant on moving forward.

“I think it’ll be interesting without him because everyone will have the memory of ‘the greatest chess player at Saratoga High,’ and it’s gonna be hard to fill those shoes, but I think we can learn to move forward,” Oliaei said.